The NFL salary cap keeps going up. The salary cap projection was $126.3 million initially, and it was later adjusted to $130 million. The most recent report by John Clayton of ESPN pegs the 2014 salary cap at $132 million.
With the cap increasing by 7.3 percent (so far), cap-strapped teams are getting significant relief, and the teams already in a good position now have even more flexibility.
According to Spotrac, there is about $650 million for NFL teams to spend this offseason. OverTheCap.com indicates that about $75 million will be set aside for rookies, leaving roughly $575 million for NFL teams to spend in 2014, but that number will likely increase as teams make cost-cutting moves prior to the start of the new league year on March 11.
The Oakland Raiders have by far the most salary-cap space of any team, with an estimated $66.5 million to spend on rebuilding a talent-depleted roster. The Jacksonville Jaguars ($55.1 million) and Cleveland Browns ($51.2 million) are a distant second and third in cap space, respectively.
With a combined record of 12-36 last season, there is no doubt these teams need a lot of help.
Having more than $50 million in salary-cap space can actually presents a challenge for talent-needy teams. Each team has to plan carefully to avoid wasting a huge opportunity. If these teams spend money unwisely, they could be set back for years.
Not only do the Raiders have the most cap space, but they’ve also been planning for this offseason for over two years. When general manager Reggie McKenzie got the job in 2012, he immediately started to purge the roster of undesirable contracts and poor performers.
The Raiders’ cap situation was such that it would take two years before McKenzie would have flexibility. McKenzie could have spread out the elimination of these contracts over more seasons, but the Raiders would have been looking at nearly five years of salary-cap purgatory, so he opted for two years of hell.
When it comes to spending $66.5 million, the Raiders have no shortage of options. Point to any position and the Raiders could use a starter or an upgrade.
The local media asked McKenzie what the strength of the team was, and he started at fullback. That’s bad.
Arguably the Raiders’ best player on offense and defense are also pending free agents. Left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston are both set to hit the open market if the Raiders don’t lock them up soon.
The Raiders would like to re-sign both players, but they also know that they could simply be bidding against themselves until their markets fully develop.
Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net reported Friday that the Raiders would give Houston the franchise or transition tag if a long-term deal wasn’t in place before he hit the market.
According to Joel Corry of the National Football Post, the estimated franchise tag for defensive ends is $12.82 million, but that was based upon a salary cap of $130 million.
The Raiders will have to reserve about $13 million of the $66.5 million just for Houston, a little less if they give him the rarely used transition tag that grants them the right of first refusal on any contract Houston might sign with another team, but no draft pick compensation.
Tagging Houston also means that the Raiders believe they will be able to come to an agreement with Veldheer.
With so much salary-cap space, the Raiders could decide to front-load the contract, giving the team salary-cap flexibility in the future. The Denver Broncos did this with Ryan Clady last year by giving him a $10.5 million roster bonus in the first year of his new deal.
Clady’s cap number was $12.6 million in 2013. Veldheer’s cap number should be a lot closer to the average cap hit a few other tackles signed last season—roughly $9 million per year on average based on the life of their deals.
That’s $13 million for Houston and $9 million for Veldheer, leaving about $40 million to spend after setting aside money for rookies. That’s more cap space than the team with the fourth-most total cap space (Indianapolis Colts, $39.9 million), so the Raiders should be very active this offseason.
The Raiders can roll any unused cap space into next season, but with McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen potentially on the hot seat, they can be expected to spend a good chunk of what they have available.
With so many needs, the Raiders should mostly avoid the top end of the free-agent market and focus on adding multiple quality players.
“The philosophy is not to dump every dollar and cent into one or possibly two players,” McKenzie said at his season-ending sit-down with the local media. “We’re not at that point with our team that we’re able to do that, because we have more than one or two needs.”
|Raiders Needs and Potential Targets|
|Target||Matt Schaub||Rashad Jennings||Jared Veldheer||Jon Asamoah|
|2014 Cap Estimate||$7 million||$4 million||$9 million||$4 million|
|Target||Linval Joseph||Lamarr Houston||Alterraun Verner||Jairus Bryd|
|2014 Cap Estimate||$5 million||$13 million||$8 million||$8 million|
McKenzie is likely going to avoid the start of free agency, when the top players get expensive contracts, but he still left open the door for one big signing.
The Raiders have a lot of needs, but there is no doubt they also need an impact player or two on each side of the ball.
“We’re going to figure out how we can best get as many good players as we can,” McKenzie said. “If that, by chance, leaves enough money or cap space to get that one player, then we’ll do that, too.”
The Raiders should briefly get involved early in free agency with a few top free agents before taking a step back and waiting for the second wave of free agency to sign multiple starters. A top defensive player makes sense, so expect the Raiders to go in that direction early in free agency.
Players like cornerback Alterraun Verner, safety Jairus Bryd or defensive ends Brian Orakpo, Greg Hardy and Michael Johnson all make sense for the Raiders.
The only place the Raiders seem to have a full set of starters is at linebacker, so even though an upgrade would be nice, they will likely focus on other areas.
The Raiders may also set aside cash to sign a free-agent quarterback, even if they plan to use the No. 5 overall pick on one. The team also needs a running back, which can come cheaply in the draft or free agency.
Expect the Raiders to sign one big free agent followed by five or six starters in free agency. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph is one player that could be a part of that group, as the Raiders need someone to replace Vance Walker and Pat Sims if they aren’t re-signed.
The Jaguars were able to clean up their cap in the first year under general manager Davis Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley. With $55.1 million in space and no top free agents to re-sign, the Jaguars theoretically have even more money to spend than the Raiders—and just about as many needs.
The Jaguars can also create $5 million more in space by releasing suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon. According to Marc Sessler of NFL.com, the Jaguars can void his deal without owing him another cent.
Of course, Blackmon is still a very talented player. For now, the Jaguars are considering Blackmon’s return a bonus and making a contingency plan if he doesn’t return in 2014.
Assuming that Blackmon returns, the Jags still need to do a lot of work on their offense. Jacksonville’s offensive line was one of the worst in football last season. Rookie tackle Luke Joeckel got hurt in his first start at left tackle after the team traded Eugene Monroe, and the rest of the offensive line was suspect.
Longtime center Brad Meester is retiring, leaving a hole at center to go along with both guard spots and right tackle. Realistically, the Jaguars will have to stick with at least a few below-average players.
Right guard Uche Nwaneri is a deficient pass-blocker, but he might get another chance in 2014. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Nwaneri a run-blocking grade of minus-10.4 in 2013, but he’s been better in the past.
A lot like the Raiders, the Jaguars will be aggressive with one or two free agents early in free agency before taking a step back to wait for the second and third waves. The idea is to add one or two high-need or high-impact players and then more affordable starters thereafter.
|Jaguars Needs and Potential Targets|
|Targets||Johnny Manziel||Ben Tate||Geoff Schwartz|
|2014 Estimate Cap Cost||Rookie Pool||$7 million||$4 million|
|Targets||Greg Hardy||Walter Thurmond / Brandon Browner||Shayne Skov|
|2014 Estimate Cap Cost||$13 million||$4 million||Rookie Pool|
“We need to target the guys that we want and be aggressive with that,’’ Caldwell told Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union. That means there are a few targets the Jaguars feel like they must have, but after that they are willing to wait until prices drop.
“We need to let the market settle and see where an opportunity presents itself to get some guys a week or two later,” he added.
Like the Raiders, the Jaguars could also set aside cap space to sign a veteran quarterback and a running back. The two teams have strikingly similar needs and blueprints for how to spend their abundant cap space, so don’t be surprised if they are interested in similar players this offseason.
Both teams will spend a little early, but take a step back and wait for other teams to deplete their resources before diving back into the market. With such a deep draft, the market for free agents could be slow, driving prices down and enabling the Jaguars to sign multiple starters for an affordable price.
This is the second year in a row that the Browns have had a lot of cap space, but this year is more interesting for many reasons.
For starters, the Browns have a new general manager and head coach again, so the philosophy is changing.
The Browns have two high-profile pending free agents, center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward. The former regime would have retained Ward with the franchise tag if needed and allowed Mack to walk in free agency. The new regime may have a different plan.
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, Mack will still test free agency, but there is a much better chance that he will return to the Browns. Retaining him will likely require making him one of the highest-paid centers in the league.
Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil is currently the top-paid center with an average yearly salary of $8.2 million. The Browns would have to set aside roughly $10 million to sign Mack, plus another $8.2 million or so to franchise Ward, per Joel Corry.
That brings the available cap space down to about $27.6 million after allocating $5.4 million to rookies. The Browns have to set aside more because they have two first-round draft picks after acquiring one last season in a trade that sent running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts.
With two first-round choices in a quality draft, the Browns could use the remaining cap space to make a few big signings. They seem interested in making a big splash or after their recent flirtation with Jim Harbaugh and quick trigger on the previous regime.
The mandate seems to be that general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine win now.
It’s a weird situation because Farmer wasn’t involved in Pettine’s hiring, so the two men will have to get on the same page quickly. Pettine is likely to want to make more big moves to win now whereas Farmer has been known to take a more patient approach.
Prior to joining the Browns, Farmer was the director of pro personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs under Scott Pioli and for three seasons prior under Carl Peterson. The Chiefs rarely dipped into the first wave of free agency when Farmer was in the front office and even avoided overpaying their own talent.
|Browns Needs and Potential Targets|
|Target||Teddy Bridgewater||Darren McFadden||Odell Beckham Jr|
|2014 Estimates Salary Cap Cost||Rookie Pool||$3 million||Rookie Pool|
|Target||Donald Butler||Geoff Schwartz||Rounds 2-4|
|2014 Estimates Salary Cap Cost||$7 million||$5 million||Rookie Pool|
The Browns went on a mini spending spree last offseason by signing defensive lineman Desmond Bryant and linebacker Paul Kruger. Bryant and Kruger weren’t bad players, but neither one justified the contract he received in 2013.
Unlike the Jaguars and Raiders, the Browns are just a few pieces away. The defense has talent, but the offense needs a quarterback, running back and No. 2 wide receiver.
Essentially, the Browns are in the final stages of their rebuild and can quickly turn things around simply by drafting well.
The blueprint for the Browns' spending may be to save a good portion of their cap space instead of spending it all. Stay away from the first wave of free agency and add depth with cheaper starters in the second and third wave.
A running back and inside linebacker are among the Browns’ biggest needs, but they are usually among the most affordable resources to acquire in the draft or free agency.
The Browns have had a tumultuous offseason, but their roster has talent and their front office has all the resources it could want to make it even better. There just isn’t a lot of confidence in the group to make the right moves.
The top of the market has the most risk, so the Browns should focus on filling holes at cheaper positions. Signing a running back, inside linebacker and offensive guard in free agency can be affordable—even for the top options.
With the right draft picks and smart spending in free agency in 2014, the Browns may be able to turn things around quickly.