If you’re like us and bummed out that football won’t be back until the Fall, get ready for one of the most exciting periods of the Offseason as Free Agency begins this coming Tuesday, March 10th. With plenty of big names and a number of teams with millions of dollars in Cap Space to spend, the building blocks of parity are literally laid at the feet of a number of General Managers looking to turn their teams around from perennial doormats to championship contenders. Growing up an Oakland Raiders fan, I’ve spent the last decade eagerly awaiting what the Offseason had in store for my team, gaining more pleasure in watching it unfold more so than the Regular Season itself. Then again, when the franchise that you have invested so much in for so long goes a dreadful 56-124 (.311 Win Percentage) since getting embarrassed in Super Bowl XXXVII, you tend to madden yourself over ways to improve them, realistic or not. Outside of the Draft, Free Agency is the place where that happens, as plenty of fortunate teams have managed to ink that special superstar to a lucrative deal, helping to propel them to postseason glory; look back to Green Bay snaring Reggie White in 1995, New Orleans stealing Drew Brees in 2006, or Baltimore plucking Anquan Boldin in 2010, in which each player hoisted the Lombardi Trophy not long after their respective acquisition. Sure, the most successful way of building a champion is through the Draft, but in this cutthroat “win-now” league, going that route oftentimes moves at the pace of evolution. Free Agency is where General Managers can truly expedite the process. Then again, as is the case with Draft, it’s also a stage where some rather expensive mistakes can be made as well, as the likes of Albert Haynesworth, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Jay Cutler serve as a reminder that “Buyer’s Remorse” is a very real thing. There is nothing quite like selling hope to a fan base (believe me, I’ve heard it many times), and this is where it starts, so journey with us into the wild landscape that is Free Agency, as we predict where some of the major dominos may fall.
So before we get into the many teams that figure to be aggressive throughout Free Agency, let’s give a brief history on the matter. Once upon a time, the National Football League followed in the footsteps of Major League Baseball, utilizing the “Reserve System”, in which basically the only way a player could move on to a different franchise was if his incumbent franchise sold or traded him, or he retired. In fact, under that system, when said player’s contract expired and he still wanted to continue playing for that franchise despite being unable to hammer out a new deal, Management could simply renew his previous deal with a 10% pay-cut. Thus, no other team in the league could negotiate with that player, allowing Owners to repeatedly renew these contracts on one-year deals as frequently as they liked. Well, since that system more or less sucked for the players, everything changed in 1963, when R.C. Owens became the first player in NFL History to move on his own, signing with the Baltimore Colts after playing out a one-year renewal with the San Francisco 49ers. However, the floodgates wouldn’t open for many years to come, as only thirty-four players exchanged teams this way over the next twelve years. It was in 1976 in which the NFL Player’s Union won a court decision that proclaimed Commissioner Pete Rozzelle’s practice exhibited “unfair restraint of trade”, as teams were forced to compensate (usually with Draft Picks or cash) whoever they signed a player from. Eventually becoming unhappy with the results of that decision, the union went on Strike in 1987, but couldn’t sue the league itself due to anti-trust laws, with basically a two-year chess match with the owners that ended with the Union decertifying in 1989. Now the players were free to sue the league themselves, led by former Jet Freeman McNeil, which continued until 1993, with the Owners finally giving way to the current Free Agency system with the caveat of a Salary Cap. Unlike the NBA or MLB, the NFL employs a hard Salary Cap, which changes marginally from season to season, where teams are penalized for being over said Cap by the start of the New League Year, with fines and docked Draft Picks levied to any that violate the system. Basically, this means every team is allowed to spend up to a certain amount of money, affording every team the luxury of being on an even playing field with the thirty-one other teams in the league. The Salary Cap reflects the volume of revenue generated by the league, and heading into Tuesday’s bonanza, the Salary Cap is currently set at a whopping $143.28 million, meaning business is indeed a boomin’.
With everyone up to speed on what exactly Free Agency is, let’s take a moment to look at the teams that really figure to attack the market next week, for they are all flush with Cap Space. Keep this in mind, though; good teams typically resign their own players, so teams with tons of Cap Space are generally at the bottom of the league, meaning the more money available means the more holes in need of filling. And to make things even more interesting, these teams cannot simply invoke Scrooge McDuck and sit on their millions; due to the current CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement), all teams are required to spend a minimum of 89.% of their Cap Space over a four-year span, and with many teams falling significantly short of that figure throughout the first two years of the agreement, they must use said funds to make up the difference or else be penalized. So without further ado, here are the teams who are likely to exhaust their checkbook this March. Leading the way are the Jacksonville Jaguars with an insane $64.48 million to spend, followed by the Oakland Raiders at $53.99 million, Cleveland Browns with $51.51 million, New York Jets at $48.94 million, Tennessee Titans with $43.27 million, and the Indianapolis Colts at $40.07 million in Cap Space. With the exception of the Colts, none of the other five teams made the Playoffs, and though Cleveland came closest, none managed to compile a winning record. In fact, with a combined resume’ of 13-52 (.250 Win Percentage) Tennessee, Jacksonville, Oakland, and New York will be selecting Second, Third, Fourth, and Sixth in this May’s NFL Draft, so yeah, there is plenty of room for improvement for these teams. In the case of the Jaguars and Raiders, both teams will be investing heavily in weapons to surround their young Sophomore Quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Derek Carr, while also looking to add more talent on defense. There may not be a team in the league with more overall needs than the Jags, who don’t just need playmakers but also depth, so in their case it’s a matter of finding quality and quantity over these next few weeks. The Titans sit in the cat-bird’s seat in the Draft, and could very well sell the Second Overall Pick to the highest bidder, but figure to upgrade their pathetic defense (29th Overall) via Free Agency, particularly with longtime Steelers’ Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau coming aboard. Meanwhile, the Jets are a bit of a wild card, as Rex Ryan’s departure signaled the beginning of the Todd Bowles Era in the Big Apple; there may not be team in the NFL with more comings and goings than New York, who were absolutely abysmal offensively, particularly under Center. Cleveland remains an interesting suitor, for at 7-9 they spent much of the campaign competing in the rugged AFC North. Armed with a wealth of Draft Picks and Cap Space, they could end up making the biggest impact in Free Agency. But let us not forget the Colts, who are the only team on this list with a Pro Bowl Quarterback guiding a Top-10 Offense in a very winnable division. After advancing to the AFC Championship game last season, Indianapolis isn’t far from greatness, as they look to bolster their Backfield and Defensive Front in an effort to become tougher in the trenches. Also keep an eye on the likes of Cincinnati ($38.58) and Green Bay ($32.19), who each have plenty to spend as they sit primed to add to already formidable foundations.
“Show me the money!!!” Art often imitates life and vice versa, with that immortal line from Jerry McGuire serving as the mantra for a number of Free Agents on the verge of breaking the bank. However, unfortunately for a number of these teams flush with dough, some of the brightest stars on the market have already been Franchised by their respective teams. For those new to the lingo, the Franchise Tag allows every team to designate one of their free agents virtually untouchable for one season, and is usually a tool utilized by a team to buy more time in negotiating a long-term deal with a player, or in some cases just prolong an inevitable departure. Being tagged means said player will be paid the average of the top five highest-paid players at his respective position, so don’t weep for these guys, for they’re being heavily compensated. The Chiefs’ Justin Houston, the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas, the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant, and the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul were all handed the Franchise Tag last week, and have been effectively taken off the market. So let’s run down the top five players available as Free Agency is set to begin in five days.
- Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle; The Crown Jewel of Free Agency, Suh is set to become the biggest free agent acquisition since Reggie White. The monstrous Defensive Tackle has racked up 36.0 sacks in five years with the Detroit Lions and is coming off a season in which he posted 46 tackles, and 8.5 sacks on the league’s second-ranked defense. At 28 years old, he’s in the prime of his career, and he’s only missed two games over the course of five seasons, as one lucky team is set to acquire his services. However, whomever signs him, it’s going to be expensive; Suh is said to be looking for more than the six-year, $100 million that J.J. Watt signed for earlier this season, which would make him the highest-paid defensive player in the league today. During the season, Suh made the comment that he would leave his destination in the hands of his agent, meaning that it will likely indeed be all about the money. It’s rare that true game-changers are allowed to hit Free Agency, but that is exactly what is happening with this guy. Prediction: Signs with Oakland Raiders; Only the Jags have more money to spend, with the Raiders poised to make Suh the highest-paid defender in the league. A West Coast native, we’re betting that once he sits down with Head Coach Jack Del Rio and Defensive Coordinator Ken Norton and sees the ensuing financial commitment, he may not leave the facility when he visits Oakland on Wednesday.
- Darrelle Revis, Cornerback; Arguably the top Cornerback in the game, it’s odd to think that Darrelle Revis could be suiting up for his fourth different team in as many years. After acquiring the 29-year old upon be released by the Buccaneers, the Patriots took a trip to Revis Island and came back with a Lombardi Trophy. It’s not often that a Super Bowl Champion let’s one of their three best players walk for nothing, but the exotic nature of Revis’ contract means that New England can only keep him under contract without overture from outside parties by picking up a Team Option worth north of $20 million. As of the date of this publication, Bill Belichick and Co. haven’t picked up the Option yet, but there actions over the last few days suggests that that may be exactly what they plan on doing; the Pats released longtime Nose Tackle Vince Wilfork on Wednesday, possibly freeing up enough space to keep the Defensive Back in Foxboro, Massachusetts for at least one more year. Prediction: Stays with New England Patriots; The Patriots are one of the shrewdest organizations in sports, but something tells us that they won’t let a talent like Revis hit the open market with nothing in return, not after a Super Bowl triumph. With other Free Agents in their Secondary also demanding attention, New England will likely only be able to keep one of them. Even money says it’s this guy.
- Randall Cobb, Wide Receiver; In a market flooded with solid Receivers, Cobb is the object of most team’s attraction. At 24-years old, the versatile former Packer is coming off a career season in which he logged personal bests in catches (91), receiving yards (1,281), and receiving touchdowns (12), all the while participating in a full sixteen-game campaign for the first time in his brief four-year career. Interestingly, Green Bay had the opportunity to tag him and ultimately passed, as it’s reported he is seeking over $9 million annually. With so much money committed to Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson, the typically conservative Packers are unlikely to pay two Receivers the kind of money that Cobb is seeking. Not mention, it is fair to ask if he will be able to produce without the reining MVP throwing him the ball, and Nelson drawing Coverage. With that said, he figures to have a wealth of suitors, for he can be utilized all over the field, particularly in the return game; Cobb totaled 2,637 return yards with three scores. Prediction: Signs with Oakland Raiders; Oakland is flush with Cap Space and in dire need of weapons to ease the development of Derek Carr, and Cobb fits the bill. General Manager Reggie McKenzie served as Director of the Packers’ Scouting Department when they drafted this kid, and will likely pull out all the stops to bring him to the East Bay.
- DeMarco Murray, Running Back; You could make the argument that no player was more valuable to the Dallas Cowboys’ renaissance 2014 campaign than this guy. After all, Murray rushed for a league-high and franchise record 1,845 yards last season, as the Cowboys won the NFC East and advanced to the Playoffs for the first time since 2009. He helped mask one of the worst defenses in the league, and gave Tony Romo a ground game to lean on while rehabbing from back surgery. Oh, and he in all likelihood saved Jason Garrett’s job. However, it looks like he’s become a victim of circumstance; with Dallas up against the Salary Cap and franchising Dez Bryant, along with the entire league devaluing Running Backs as a position, all signs point to Murray wearing a different helmet in 2015. Whomever he lands with must take note that while he was tremendous last year, he carried the ball a whopping 392 times, and with his injury history, the 27-year old carries a lot of risk with his price tag. Prediction: Signs with Indianapolis Colts; Indianapolis ranked third in Total Offense, but 22nd in rushing yards (100.8) and yards per carry (3.9). Trent Richardson is a bust and could be gone and Ahmad Bradshaw is on his last legs. To truly challenge for a Lombardi Trophy the Colts need balance, and if Murray does for them what he did for the Cowboys, look out.
- Greg Hardy, Defensive End; The big question mark of Free Agency is Hardy, who comes with a considerable amount of baggage. After racking up 26.0 sacks between 2012 and 2013, The Kraken was franchised by the Panthers in an effort to keep the pass rusher from hitting the market. Unfortunately, due to a lingering Domestic Case he only suited up for the Season Opener, before landing on the Commissioner’s Exempt List, effectively being suspended for the entirety of the campaign with pay. With Carolina a virtual certainty to let him hit the market, any team that signs him must be weary of any lingering suspension that the league levies upon him once his eligibility is sorted out. With that said, it’s a passing league, and pass-rushers are in high demand, and at just 26-years old with fresh legs and something to prove, he may be bargain for a team willing to look past the possible PR issues sure to follow his acquisition. Prediction: Signs with Atlanta Falcons; Look for Hardy to stay within the division, and sign with the Falcons, who with over $30 million to spend and a ton of holes on defense are in need of upgrading their pass-rush. New Head Coach Dan Quinn is fresh off of coaching Seattle’s top-ranked defense to back-to-back Super Bowls, and Hardy has the talent and the kind of attitude to facilitate the transition
While those guys are sure to attract the majority of attention, don’t sleep on these fifteen Free Agents, who may put some lucky team over the top!
- Jerry Hughes, Defensive End; Amassed ten sacks in each of the last two seasons, but his suitors will have to decipher if the pass-rusher is a blossoming star or indeed a product of his three Pro Bowl teammates along Buffalo’s ferocious Defensive Line.
- Devin McCourty, Safety; Arguably the best Coverage Safety in the league, McCourty is likely a casualty of New England’s attempts to keep his teammate Darrelle Revis in house.
- Julius Thomas, Tight End; With 24 touchdowns over the last 25 games, Thomas is a playmaker, but how would fare without Peyton Manning throwing to him is a legitimate concern for the athletic Tight End.
- Jeremy Maclin, Wide Receiver; Rebounded from an ACL Tear that cost him all of 2013 to post career-highs in catches (85), yards (1,318), and touchdowns (10). Will Philadelphia let a stud Receiver fly the coup for the second straight Offseason?
- Byron Maxwell, Cornerback; While opponents avoided Richard Sherman like Plague, this kid more than held his own, logging 6 interceptions and 27 passes defended over the past two seasons.
- Mike Iupati, Offensive Guard ; The massive road-grader was arguably the nastiest Lineman of a San Francisco Offensive Line that paved the way for a punishing rushing attack that ranked in the Top-4 in each of the last three years.
- Pernell McPhee, Defensive End; Despite not starting a game over the last two seasons, he distinguished himself among a stacked Defense, racking up 7.5 sacks in 2014. The versatile Lineman played multiple positions for the Ravens.
- Rodney Hudson, Center; At just 25-years old and one of the finest Centers the league, Hudson is likely a casualty of Kansas City’s lack of Cap Space. Leader of an Offensive Line that opened lanes for Pro Bowl Tailback Jamaal Charles (3,829 yards last three years).
- Mark Ingram, Running Back; Former Heisman recorded career-highs in carries (226), rushing yards (964), and touchdowns (9), but can he carry the load on his own outside the comfort of New Orleans’ Offense?
- Bryan Bulaga, Offensive Tackle; Missed all of 2014 with a knee injury, but bounced back to start fifteen games and protect MVP Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Versatile Tackle that can play inside if needed.
- Terrance Knighton, Defensive Tackle; Pot Roast, as he’s known is arguably the premier run-stuffer in the league. Anchored a Denver Defense that ranked second against the run in 2014.
- Torrey Smith, Wide Receiver; Drops were an issue, but the speedster made the most of his opportunities, hauling in 49 passes for 767 yards and 11 touchdowns. A strong vertical threat with 30 touchdowns in four seasons.
- Brian Orakpo, Linebacker; Missed 9 games with a Pectoral Tear, but logged 10.0 sacks in 2013. Offers scheme versatility as a Down Lineman or 3-4 Outside Linebacker, whoever signs must look into his injury history; missed 24 games over the last three campaigns.
- C.J. Spiller, Running Back; Dogged by injuries over the last two seasons, but one of the most electrifying Tailbacks in the NFL. Rushed for 1,244 yards on just 207 carries in 2012, averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
- Da’Norris Searcy, Safety; Played everywhere in the Secondary, emerging as a playmaker in Buffalo putting up 4 interceptions, 14 passes defended, and 4.0 sacks over the last two seasons.
So what do you think? Who will land where? Who will get overpaid? Who will underperform? Which team will clean up in Free Agency, and which will completely miss the boat? We here at Oracle Sports always value the opinion of you, our customers, and would love to hear your thoughts on Free Agency!!! Be sure to leave your comments below in the Comment Section, and be sure to check out any of our lucrative products!!! Remember, keep it clean!!!