2015 NFL Free Agency: The Toughest Question Each Team Must Answer
Only four teams still have their 2014 season dreams alive. The rest of them are well into their 2015 organizational meetings and planning.
Free agency tends to raise the biggest and toughest questions, even if you think it might provide great answers to filling a team's holes. Physically, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh would help anyone, but how many teams will be willing to pay the premium and assume the drama that comes with him?
Also, think about this: Two of last winter's biggest free-agent spenders in the front office, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants, were huge disappointments on the field.
See, fixing things in the winter is easier said than done. With that in mind, Bleacher Report examines each team's toughest 2015 free-agent question in this 32-team slideshow.
Do the Cardinals re-sign Larry Fitzgerald?
It is clear the Cardinals cannot allow Fitzgerald to earn his $8 million roster bonus in March and play under his $23.5 million salary-cap number in 2015, as Darren Urban of the Cardinals' official website reported, but do they even want to afford him on a contract extension? Production-wise, no way.
But, as Fitzgerald said during a Tuesday appearance on ESPN's NFL Live:
This is the only place I have ever played. I have enjoyed my time in Arizona. Working for the Bidwill family has been great, playing for the Cardinals. Hopefully we can get something done. The business part of football is not something I always enjoy, but it's something we need to address.
The two sides need to decide how much a declining 31-year-old receiver coming off the worst season of his career is worth.
How can the Falcons improve defensively?
The Falcons had the worst defense in football. They need the most expensive things too: pass-rushers and back-end cover guys. The good news is they have nearly $20 million in cap space. There are some potential answers out there, sure, but some also come with question marks...like Greg Hardy.
The Falcons need to fix the defense, but they need to spend wisely. Hardy could provide as many answers on the field as he would raise eyebrows off it, considering his domestic violence trial this February, as Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com reported.
Do they pay Justin Forsett?
Forsett was quite a find for the Ravens, rushing for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns. He was the answer once the team released Ray Rice amid his suspension for domestic violence allegations. Forsett was a great answer—almost too great.
Now, he can be an expensive luxury at the advanced age of 29. Forsett will be a big loss, but giving a big contract to a running back position of his age is just not fiscally sound policy...especially for a franchise that has been notoriously responsible in that regard.
Do the Bills consider signing a veteran quarterback?
The old regime mortgaged the future to pick Sammy Watkins, when it could have had Odell Beckham Jr. without giving up a 2015 first-rounder. The Bills also drafted EJ Manuel and put him on the bench for veteran Kyle Orton, who then decided to retire.
Now, the Bills are stuck not knowing if Manuel is the answer. They might have to sign a veteran quarterback to challenge him. But do they sign one to start or to back up Manuel, who is still a work-in-progress?
Do they stay stubborn, avoiding weapons for Cam Newton again?
The Panthers didn't sign a marquee free-agent wide receiver, and it made things tough on Cam Newton. Sure, they scored a big get on Kelvin Benjamin in Round 1 of the draft, but a quarterback like Newton needs more than one target.
There are a lot of potential free-agent options among wideouts, but the Panthers are a defensive team with a defensive-minded head coach Ron Rivera. They have to make some tough decisions on where to spend their limited resources in free agency.
How do the Bears help out Jay Cutler?
It is hard to give Cutler more weapons than he already has. The Bears even gave him an offensive-minded head coach—this from a franchise that is famous for its defensive teams.
Marc Trestman didn't work out. Cutler is still around.
Chicago needs to find ways to make Cutler better. The team likely cannot afford more targets, but perhaps it will consider adding more pass-protectors—something that is not of great abundance on the market and therefore will require a princely sum.
Do the Bengals stop their frugal ways?
They keep making the playoffs, so it is tough to argue with them, but the Bengals might be one of the stingiest teams in free agency. They had ample cap room last year, allowed their premium guys to leave and didn't add a game-changer.
We are not suggesting they are making the wrong decisions on their guys leaving, but there has to be some affordable answers out there, too.
Entering the offseason with the seventh-most cap space, can they afford to be so greedy with their funds again? Their struggles against the run and getting the ball downfield in the passing game suggest otherwise.
What do they do with Josh Gordon or in finding a replacement?
Gordon is no doubt a talented wide receiver. The question is whether the Browns are sick of his act. Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com suggests they are.
It won't be a popular decision to let such a talent go, particularly because he won't fetch his true worth on the trade market. Also, the Browns have issues to solve at quarterback: Johnny Manziel is a freak show, and Brian Hoyer is a free agent.
There is a lot to sort out here, starting with the Cleveland's best player, Gordon. It won't be easy to keep him or deal him because of the drama.
Keep it together or blow it up?
The Cowboys easily have the toughest free-agent decisions on the board because of the salary cap. They are right at the number now and have to somehow figure out how to retain both DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant.
One can be franchise tagged, but both of them could cost as much as $20 million to keep together...that's per year, mind you. And this is still a team that needs to solve some issues on defense.
You have to figure Jerry Jones will find out how to keep both megastars who are coming off huge years, perhaps by restructuring with Tony Romo. It won't be pretty with how the Cowboys address the rest of the team, though. The team will have to release some other guys or continue to put itself in salary-cap hell by deferring the pain down the road.
How can they convince Peyton Manning to return?
The Broncos are changing their head coach and have both Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas to try to retain among their myriad marquee free agents. None of it will keep them from falling from grace if John Elway cannot convince Peyton Manning to come back for another year.
Elway told The Denver Post's Troy E. Renck on Tuesday:
Bottom line is that we want him back. It's going to come down to what he wants. I did have a great conversation with Peyton (on Monday). We talked about the game. I said, 'The last thing we're going to do at this point in time, having been through what you've been through, is talk about your future.' I told him, 'Just know how much we want you back, but you need time to get away from this.'
Elway is a pro at this, having gone through his end game at the close of the '00s. If Manning decides to hang it up, it will be a complete rebuild in Denver. There are no quick fixes at the quarterback spot, and no one can truly be convinced Brock Osweiler is championship-ready.
Do the Lions back up the truck for Ndamukong Suh?
Admit it: Suh's behavior is tough to swallow. His contract will be even more difficult. Suh might have to become the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history this winter.
He clearly is a game-changer on a defense, as he helped make the Lions the No. 1 run defense in football. That is the easy part. The tough part is deciding where to draw the line financially, especially for a player who can be a nightmare to handle.
Suh's nasty demeanor is what makes him great...and a great pain in the behind. He will also be a pain in the proverbial wallet too.
Green Bay Packers
Do the Packers pay the premium to keep Randall Cobb?
This is a chicken-or-the-egg question. Does Aaron Rodgers make the receiver? Probably. Or do great receivers make the quarterback? They can.
The Packers have already paid Jordy Nelson five years and $43 million this summer. They didn't give the same package to Cobb...yet. If they let a weapon like Cobb get on the open market this winter, it might cost more than that hometown discount.
Because Nelson is signed and Cobb is not, it suggests the Packers are willing to let Cobb walk and replace him with Davante Adams and other new blood. This organization is one of the NFL's best at cultivating talent from within. Green Bay also has been willing to let Rodgers' leading targets walk before (Greg Jennings and James Jones in past years).
Is Cobb a more special piece because of his youth (24 years old)? You would think so.
Who the heck is the quarterback?
Here we go again. The Texans had the No. 1 overall pick a year ago, and the incoming head coach, Bill O'Brien, was a quarterback guru. Yet they didn't solve the quarterback issue that has plagued the franchise since its inception.
The clock starts all over again. There are no quick fix answers among the free-agent quarterbacks or even in the draft, because the Texans are not picking atop it this go-around.
Is it Ryan Mallett, a free agent? Tom Savage, last year's late-round pick? Could the Texans possibly pull off a trade? That would mortgage the franchise's resources, and there are too many other holes to fill.
We will be watching intently. Texas is a tough football state to have such big question marks. Ask the Dallas Cowboys.
When do they back up the truck for Andrew Luck?
Luck is destined to become the highest-paid player in NFL history. Bank on it.
The question the Colts face is: Do they do it sooner than later? They have Luck under contract at a relative $3.4 million bargain, but he could command 10 years and $150 million...or perhaps even $200 million?
Do the Colts use their ample cap space—and one last year of having an affording starting quarterback—to make a huge run at a title in 2015, or do they sign Luck long term now and make things more reasonable over the long haul, perhaps?
Either way, it is only a matter of time before the Colts and Luck decide the new ceiling for an NFL contract.
How can the Jags convince talent to come aboard?
Forget Cecil Shorts, who is a free agent. He won't make a true difference here. The question is: How can the Jaguars convince game-changing talent to come to Jacksonville?
This isn't the sexiest of markets, unless you're moving from a cold-weather climate and like the idea of nesting in Florida. Jacksonville is also a woebegone franchise.
The Jags have the third-most cap space right now, behind the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. It is no wonder those three sad-sack franchise top the leaderboard. They cannot spend their money without overpaying and potentially wasting it.
It will interesting to see what the Jags do, especially because they might finally have a long-term answer at quarterback with the developing Blake Bortles.
Kansas City Chiefs
Houston, Kansas City has a problem.
This is not tough question. It is a tough problem.
Justin Houston is the best defensive player in the market. He is an elite pass-rusher, which makes him more valuable than Ndamukong Suh. The issue comes in the salary-cap numbers, which currently have Kansas City more than $9 million over.
Houston can be franchise tagged. That is the easy part. The difficulty comes in the fact the Chiefs still have to trim just to be able to afford that move—a la the New Orleans Saints a year ago with Jimmy Graham and Jairus Byrd (that didn't go so well for the underperforming Saints).
Every other team in the NFL would love to have Houston. Everyone could use another pass-rusher. The Chiefs need to find a way to keep him from being an option for anyone but themselves.
Sure, he came through with 10 touchdowns for the Dolphins, but is the juice worth the squeeze? Armando Selguero of the Miami Herald reported doesn't think so.
It seems to be a fairly foregone conclusion Wallace is on the outs with the Dolphins. The question is: How do they replace his production? They might have to wait to see which receivers wind up as free agents.
Randall Cobb could interest former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator-turned-Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin.
Is Adrian Peterson worth it anymore?
You can clearly be on the side of believing Peterson still has plenty in the tank at age 29—although he turns the dreaded 30 in March. You cannot be convinced he is worth $12.75 million in 2015, $14.75 million in '16 and $16.75 million in '17.
Heck no, not in this modern-day NFL, where backs are just not getting paid anymore...and especially not after the age of 27.
Then, you consider Peterson was suspended for most of last season because of his child-abuse charges, and you have a public relations nightmare to go with it. He is on the outs in Minnesota for far more significant reasons than his unwieldy contract.
New England Patriots
Just how much is Darrelle Revis worth?
The Pats usually make the right decisions on veterans. They bring them in at the right times and let them go before they go bust. It is a big reason Tom Brady is playing in his ninth AFC Championship Game in 13 seasons.
Clearly, Revis helped the Pats get to this point, so he will warrant a huge contract even if the Pats cannot afford the $20 million it will cost on his current option. The question is: Just how far can the Pats stretch to retain a cover corner who will be 30 years old next season?
New Orleans Saints
Do the Saints move on from Mark Ingram?
Last year at this time, it would have been easy to see Ingram leaving New Orleans in free agency. Now, it might not be so clear. A career year for the erstwhile back (nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns) will do that.
Ingram is not going to break the bank by any means, but do the Saints need to offer him anything?
Pierre Thomas is past his prime at age 30, but Khiry Robinson, 25, has shown spurts of being a potential feature back. Ingram has long been considered more valuable to a team other than the Saints. After his breakout 2014, we will find out if that is still the case.
New York Giants
Is Jason Pierre-Paul worth elite pass-rusher money?
A few years ago, JPP was one of the best pass-rushers in football. After totaling just 8.5 sacks in 2012 and '13 combined, he returned to form with 12.5 this past season.
Blame the back issues that plagued him for the statistical downturn, but the question remains: Which JPP will you be buying in free agency?
The Giants need to decide whether they even want to find out. They haven't ruled out using the franchise tag on him, ESPN.com's Dan Graziano reported.
Graziano reported the franchise tag could cost $15 million for one year for a defensive end. Ouch. Clearly, the Giants have to try to sign JPP long term to make him more cap friendly.
New York Jets
Is it Geno Smith's team or not?
This isn't a free-agent question directly as much as indirectly. The Jets have to improve offensively after finishing dead last in passing offense.
Clearly, that starts and ends with the quarterback. The question comes not in which free-agent quarterback the Jets bring in—there are no answers out there. Do they sign guys to help prop Smith up, or do they turn back to the draft?
The Jets have the third-best running game, and it is tough to argue they can find any more viable downfield threats than Eric Decker and Percy Harvin. The improvement has to come at the quarterback position. It is the one spot where a team cannot be wrong—and where the Jets have gone wrong for decades.
How much is center Stefen Wisniewski worth?
The Raiders have the most cap space in the NFL again, which just means they have the most question marks. Center Stefen Wisniewski looks like a pretty capable option in a modest market for interior linemen. The question is whether the Raiders want to afford him.
They couldn't convince left tackle Jared Veldheer to stay last year, or they didn't want to pay him to. Wisniewski is the next name-brand lineman to potentially leave.
First things first, the Raiders have to decide on their next coach. That hire might decide the direction they go with their loads of salary-cap space, almost $50 million.
The Raiders are going to get a lot better this winter, if only because there is no place to go but up.
With regard to Jeremy Maclin, is it the players or the system?
Chip Kelly clearly can turn a franchise into an offensive juggernaut. The question is whether he can do it with any old talent.
We ask this because the Eagles allowed DeSean Jackson to leave without compensation a year ago, and now Jeremy Maclin is an unrestricted free agent. Will Maclin be following Jackson out of Philly, and will that be the right move?
Rookie Jordan Matthews is a burgeoning 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown wideout, but was his success tied to the attention that Maclin (1,318-10) received? The Eagles will decide that with their pending decision on Maclin.
Do the Steelers have to do a Ben Roethlisberger deal sooner than later?
Big Ben is under contract for 2015, but what is the quarterback contract market going to look like after Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck get paid? All of these guys are going to get paid big-time money.
This is a free-agent question for the Steelers, because all personnel decisions start at the quarterback spot and trickle down from there. The Steelers need to decide how much wiggle room Big Ben's next deal will leave them long term.
The advisable move would be to sign Big Ben before Wilson, Newton and Luck get paid.
St. Louis Rams
Do the Rams commit to Sam Bradford?
The Rams have a lot of big-picture balls in the air right now. No one can be sure their future is even in St. Louis or Los Angeles at this point. They also still don't know what they have in Bradford.
The question they need to get ahead of—more important than their home address—is whether an injury-prone Bradford is better than the alternatives?
The Rams don't have a whole lot of salary-cap space, but signing Bradford to a low-cost deal now might be a way to set their franchise up well financially long term. There are obviously huge risks in doing so when you consider Bradford's lack of health, though.
San Diego Chargers
Do the Chargers keep going to the well on Ryan Mathews?
Mathews, 27, is still as promising as he is frustrating. He is now headed for free agency.
Can the Chargers really start over with another project at running back with Philip Rivers' clock running out? Or do they keep hoping Mathews can stay healthy for once and make good on his longtime potential?
The Chargers are going to be all about what's right for Rivers, and there is no such thing as a rookie running back who excels in NFL pass protection. The team might be best off retaining Mathews while grooming a younger draftee behind him.
San Francisco 49ers
Is Michael Crabtree a "sorry receiver," as Richard Sherman claimed?
The 49ers have huge question marks offensively. They also have veterans Frank Gore and Crabtree heading to free agency.
Are they a part of the solution or a part of the problem?
While Gore can be given a pass because the 49ers were still an elite running team—and he shouldn't be difficult to re-sign at his advanced age of 31—the 49ers were third-worst in passing offense. Can they take Crabtree out of the equation and improve?
We are skeptical. We will find out if the 49ers believe Crabtree was a problem or a potential solution.
How high will Russell Wilson's demands go?
To the victor go the spoils. Wilson is clearly an NFL victor. Now, the Seattle Seahawks are going to spoil him with cash, as Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times predicts.
The Seahawks are still in good shape with the salary cap, but that is mostly because Wilson is a dirt-cheap player under contract at the highest-cost position. That is going to potentially change this winter, Condotta reports.
Wilson isn't the statistical marvel Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck is. He isn't even the physical specimen Cam Newton is. But he wins, even if you can give most of the credit to the Legion of Boom defense.
Wilson's contract is going to determine the Seahawks' fate with the cap for years to come.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Did the Bucs learn from their 2014 failure?
This is more of a hypothetical question. The Bucs were arguably the most aggressive team in free agency last winter, and what did that get them? A last-place finish and the No. 1 overall pick.
So they have that going for them, which is nice.
Now, they have cap space galore and holes everywhere. Do they go through another spending spree for other teams' castoffs? Or do they save their coins and rebuild through what should be a huge draft haul?
The answer is probably somewhere in between, but you should expect the Bucs can't even screw this up, right? Right? Ah, gawd.
Who is the quarterback?
Jake Locker was an endless amount of questions and injuries in his time with the Titans. Now, he is a free agent.
He flashed some potential when he was actually on the field, but the question the Titans have to answer is whether he is better than the draft alternatives. You could not like how Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston finished up this past college season.
With or without Locker, Zach Mettenberger or a newly drafted quarterback, the Titans have a long row to hoe at the position. Again, free agency doesn't appear to have any answers right now, unless Locker is it.
Has Brian Orakpo's injuries priced him back into the Redskins plans?
There might be a silver lining in another season lost to injury for Orakpo. He doesn't have that much of a case for a big-time, long-term deal any more.
Not at age 29, which he will be next season, and having lost the majority of the 2012 and '14 seasons due to injury. Orakpo's lower cost due to injury risk is going to be better than anyone the Redskins can get to replace him.
The question is whether they want to or not.
Salary cap and contract information is drawn from Spotrac.com.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.