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 Wednesday, March 9th. 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 and change 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 63-133 (.321 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 1994, New Orleans stealing Drew Brees in 2006, or New England securing the services of Darrelle Revis in 2014, 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 Ndamukong Suh 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 Wednesday’s bonanza, the Salary Cap is currently set at a whopping $155.27 million (increasing by over $12 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 three 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 $80.1 million to spend, followed by the Oakland Raiders at $60.4 million, New York Giants with $55.7 million, San Francisco 49ers at $53.7 million, and the Cleveland Browns at $49.8 million in Cap Space. Now, none of these five teams made the Playoffs, and though some came moderately close, none managed to compile a winning record. In fact, with a combined resume’ of 26-54 (.325 Win Percentage) Cleveland, Jacksonville, San Francisco, and New York will be selecting Second, Fifth, Seventh, and Tenth in late April’s NFL Draft, so yeah, there is plenty of room for improvement for these teams. In the case of the Browns, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team with more needs; in addition to finally solving the long-standing riddle that is a Franchise Quarterback, the newly-appointed Hue Jackson has his work cut out for him as he looks to augment the Receiving Corps, along with virtually every level of the Defense. Ditto for the Niners, who aren’t only in need of great players, but many players; with the mass exodus of talent during the 2015 Offseason, San Francisco was robbed of precious depth, leaving them dangerously thin, and will no doubt be in search of both quality AND quantity. The Jaguars and Raiders benefit from the emergence of solid young Franchise Quarterbacks (Blake Bortles and Derek Carr) buttressed by a wealth of talent at the skill positions (Allen Robinson and Amari Cooper), and will look to empty their respective coffers building around their promising nuclei. Meanwhile, the Giants are a bit of a wild card, as Tom Coughlin’s departure has signaled the beginning of the Ben McAdoos 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 defensively, yet possess a proven Super Bowl-winning Quarterback (Eli Manning) along with one of the most electrifying Receivers in the game today (Odell Beckham) in what was a very winnable division in 2015. Don’t discount the allure of New York City either, as big city appeal always plays a role in suiting the more prominent players on the Market.
“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 Broncos’ Von Miller, the Panthers’ Josh Norman, the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson, the Chiefs’ Eric Berry, the Bears’ Alshon Jeffery, the Bills’ Cordy Glenn, and the Redskins’ Kirk Cousins were all handed the Franchise Tag last week, effectively removing the best players at their respective positions from the Market. So let’s take a moment to run down the top five players that are actually available as Free Agency is set to begin in two days.
- Malik Jackson, Defensive Tackle; Apart from Von Miller, no member of the Broncos’ Super Bowl-winning Defense stands to gain more than this guy. Once an unheralded 5th Round Selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, the 6-4, 284 lb Jackson has emerged as a bonafide playmaker along the defensive front, racking up 5.5 sacks and a safety in 2015, while starting all sixteen games for the first time in his career. At 26-years of age, his best years are likely still ahead of him, and his scheme versatility should make him the apple of many an eye. And unlike his All-Pro comrade, Jackson will almost assuredly depart the Broncos’ organization, who reportedly offered him a deal in the $10 million/year domain, only to be rebuffed as the Defensive Lineman is looking for a minimum of $12 million. As his team proved last year, defensive still wins championships, and any team flush with cash should be interested in acquiring his services.
- Olivier Vernon, Defensive End; Another young talented Defensive Lineman, Vernon will be arguably the most sought-after Pass-Rusher on the Market. At 25-years old, this guy still has room to develop, which is a rather frightening proposition considering his 290 sacks over the past three seasons. With the Dolphins spending so lavishly on their Defensive Line (cough, Ndomukong Suh, cough), all they could really do in an attempt to keep Vernon was hit him with the ambiguous Transition Tag, which is indeed a gamble, as opposing suitors could steal him away with a loaded offer. Think a Restricted Free Agent, just without the Draft Pick Tender. Any team willing to acquire his services could offer him a contract that could be too rich for Miami to match, despite giving them seven days to attempt to do so. In a Quarterback-driven league, Pass-Rushers have never been more important, and this kids checks all the boxes across the board.
- Sean Smith, Cornerback; While Pass-Rushers have never been in higher demand, the same can be said about Cornerbacks, as there never seems to be enough of them. And it’s with that notion that Smith figures to be the prize at this position. At 6-2, 215 lbs, he has the prototypical size and length that teams covet these days, as the Chiefs oftentimes placed him on an island with little help (46 Passes Defended since 2013). His potential impact on a defense is potentially substantial; during Kansas City’s dismal start to the campaign, Smith missed the first three games, and played sparingly over the following two as he returned to health, but saw the fortunes of his unit and his team as a whole change for the better once he was 100%. However, with a plethora of players set to hit the Market (Tamba Hali, Jaye Howard, Derrick Johnson, Jeff Allen), it’s very likely that he’s been deemed to expensive to retain. That’s good news for the rest of the league, for at 28-years old, he’s still in the prime of his career.
- Kelechi Osemele, Offensive Tackle; Transitioning to the offensive side of the ball, many bemoaned the overall play of the Offensive Lines across the NFL last year, which will no doubt make quality Pass Protectors and Road Graders in high demand. Then again, when aren’t they? With the aforementioned Glenn off the Market via the Franchise Tag, Osemele has now rocketed to the top of the list. Versatility is the key word here, as the 6-5, 333 lb behemoth has played virtually everywhere along Baltimore’s Offensive Line over the past four years, even kicking out to Left Tackle late last season, which likely increased his value exponentially. There are questions that he may be better suited at his natural position of Guard, but with good tape over the final four games of the campaign, there are going to be plenty of suitors that will play him (and in turn pay him) as a blindside protector. However, with the Ravens’ restructuring Joe Flacco’s gargantuan contract and likely to make more cuts in the coming days, there is a chance that the 26-year old remains in Charm City. Reports indicate Osemele is looking for at least $10 million/year, and if he explores his options he’s more than likely going to find some team willing to exceed that price tag.
- Doug Martin, Running Back; Over the past few years, no position has become as devalued as Running Back, with fewer and fewer guaranteed dollars allotted to what is the league’s most sacrificial position. With that said, that’s not say that there aren’t gems to be had in the Backfield these days, as Doug Martin proved in what is likely to be his final year with the Buccaneers. The former 31st Overall Pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Martin was essential to the emerging young Bucs’ Offense, ranking second in the NFL with 1,402 yards (4.9 y/r) and six touchdowns. With that said, he’s quite a curious case, for aside from his stellar rookie campaign and last year’s heroics, Martin was largely mediocre between 2013 and 2014, compiling just 950 yards and three scores on 3.6 yards per carry while plagued by injuries. At 27-years of age, he probably has three, maybe four more productive seasons left, but in this day and age, he’s likely to be disappointed in the contract he’ll eventually land.
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!
- Mario Williams, Defensive End; 96.0 career sacks is sure to warrant a wealth of attention, even if the 31-year old is coming off his worst campaign in years, in which he seemed disinterested. How motivated he is will be a big issue with wherever he ends up, but let’s face it folks, these guys don’t come around very often.
- Janoris Jenkins, Cornerback; Many would argue that this guy’s the top Corner on the Market, and they may just be right; Jenkins has racked up 10 interceptions and 48 defelcted passes over the past four years. The aggressive Cover Man should be very motivated as the Rams chose to Franchise Tag his teammate Trumaine Johnson (8 interceptions) instead of him.
- Eric Weddle, Safety; There hasn’t been a better Free Safety over the past few years than Weddle, who has picked off thirteen passes since 2011. At the age of 31, he’s likely got a few more years left in the tank, and his desire to play for a contender could mean that he takes a bit of a discount.
- Lamar Miller, Running Back; Many would claim that this kid is a better buy than Martin; at 24-years old, he’s much younger, and at just 410 carries over the past two years, he’s definitely got a pair of fresher legs. Averaging 5.1 and 4.5 yards per carry with eight touchdowns apiece in 2014 and 2015, Miller has the potential to EXPLODE with more touches where he lands.
- Jason Pierre-Paul, Defensive End; 2015 was indeed a lost season for Pierre-Paul, for his pocket book and his hand after a bizarre fireworks accident left him without an index finger. However, he started to round to into shape once he got back onto the field, and 43.0 sacks in six years likely means that this 27-year old, former All-Pro is in line for a short, prove-it type deal.
- Matt Forte, Running Back; As versatile a Running Back the league has ever seen, no one at his position caught more passes (487) and totaled more receiving yards (4116) since 2008. At 30-years of age, Forte’s best days are behind him, but he could still bring a good deal of value to any of the pass-happy offenses that are so prevalent in today’s game.
- Danny Trevathan, Linebacker; Another casualty of Denver’s success, Trevathan is sure to be in demand as he personifies the new breed of Linebacker. Long, rangy, and just as adept in coverage shadowing Running Backs and Tight Ends as he is coming up and making the stop, the 25-year old is just scratching the surface of his serious potential.
- Brock Osweiler, Quarterback; Speaking of the Broncos, will the retain the services of the guy that kept them afloat while Peyton Manning recuperated from injury? Denver has been in negotiations with Osweiler well before Manning announced his retirement, but are unlikely to break the bank to keep the 25-year old. However, they should be wary of other teams’ interests.
- Bruce Irvin, Linebacker; One of the less heralded members of Seattle’s Defense, which ranked No. One in points allowed fours years in a row. Irvin brings good value in his versatility as both an Outside Linebacker and in putting his hand in the dirt and rushing the passer (22.0 sacks since 2012). He’s reportedly expressed his desire to stay in Seattle if the money is right.
- Russell Okung, Offensive Tackle; The former 6th Overall Pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Okung hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty expectations coming out of College. Missing 22 games over his career will likely diminish his value, despite holding down the Left Tackle position on a two-time NFC Champion. It should also be noted that he will representing himself in negotiations.
- Alex Mack, Center; Having grown disenchanted with the never-ending Browns’ struggles, Mack voided the last three years of his deal to become a Free Agent. As steady as they come, the 3-time Pro Bowl Center has started all sixteen games in six of his seven NFL campaigns. He would be a real boon to any team looking to solidify their Offensive Line.
- Jaye Howard, Defensive End; An unheralded member of the Chiefs’ star-studded Defensive Front, Howard emerged as stellar Five-Technique End, shutting down the run, while offering potential in rushing the passer (5.5 sacks). With others to pay, Howard will likely slip through the cracks in Kansas City, and at 27-years old, he provides plenty of upside.
- Damon Harrison, Nose Tackle; Similar to Howard, this guy thrived in the background on a loaded Front Seven. With the Jets Franchising Muhammad Wilkerson, the massive 6-5, 350 lb Harrison will draw a good amount of demand as the top Nose Tackle and Interior Run-Stuffer on the Market. However, also like Howard, is he a product of his talented teammates?
- Chris Long, Defensive End; One of the top Pass-Rushers from 2008 to 2013 (50.5 sacks), the former No. 2 Overall Pick in the 2008 NFL Draft suffered through an injury-plagued 2014 and 2015, making just eleven starts (4.0 sacks). At 30-years old, he should have plenty left in the tank, but how he checks out medically will dictate the prominence of his role wherever he lands.
- Ryan Fitzpatrick, Quarterback; The oft-traveled veteran will be playing for his seventh team in eleven years, and his fifth since 2012. At 33-years old, he’s not a Franchise Quarterback, but brings great value as a bridge to a developing prospect or a steward for a team without one of their own. By no means a star at the position, Fitzpatrick can bring credibility and stability (3,905 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2015) in the short term to any team in need of his services.