NFL: How teams approach uncapped free agency
How each of the 32 NFL teams are approaching Friday’s opening of free agency with no salary cap:
Ravens don’t intend to be thrifty. In quest to enhance roster, especially at wide receiver, Ravens expect to benefit from cost-cutting measures by other teams.
“There will be some real good players that are going to get cut,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “And we’ve had good success with Derrick Mason, Trevor Pryce, Samari Rolle — guys that got cut because of the salary cap situation that that particular team was in.”
For all the holes Buddy Nix has to fill on team that missed playoffs for 10th straight season, it’s unlikely first-time general manager will be making any T.O.-type splashes, as Bills did last March. When hired in December, Nix cautioned he intends to build through draft and would rather target mid-range free agents. That doesn’t mean Bills won’t be busy. Buffalo has needs at offensive tackle, receiver and on a defense switching to 3-4 scheme under new coach Chan Gailey.
What they do is anybody’s guess. Coach Marvin Lewis is entering final year of contract and wants assurances team will do what it takes to keep winning before he commits. So far, no deal, which says a lot about uncertainty ahead. Bengals need deep-threat receiver and tight end to revive subpar passing game. They have already signed troubled receiver Matt Jones to one-year deal, but need much more than that low-cost, low-risk move. What they do in free agency will be indication of how they would operate in uncapped environment.
Owner Randy Lerner has had no problem spending mountains of money in free agency, and he may be even more willing to part with big bucks now that Mike Holmgren is running his team. Browns are thin at virtually every position, so there’s no priority. Holmgren’s first free agent signing in Green Bay was Hall of Fame DE Reggie White, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he goes after a major prize, maybe Julius Peppers. Cleveland is likely to release QB Derek Anderson before he’s due signing bonus, making it possible they’ll go for QB. If free agency doesn’t bring enough help, Browns have 11 draft picks.
Big spenders in free agency last year; don’t expect a repeat. In first year as coach, Josh McDaniels quickly needed to fix problems on both sides, so he turned to veteran talent such as S Brian Dawkins. Owner Pat Bowlen led cry for a new revenue split model in league. So McDaniels has to focus more on building through draft than he did a year ago, even though Broncos have plenty of needs that in other years would have them busy in free agency.
Texans have never been big spenders in free agency and there’s no reason to think that will change. They do have several needs, but philosophy over last few years has been to build with young talent through draft instead. They’ve picked up some players in free agency, but have never broken bank on a proven star. Needs include RB to complement smaller Steve Slaton; CB after decision to part with last year’s franchise player Dunta Robinson; DT to play alongside 2006 top overall draft pick Mario Williams. WR could help, but with most of the major pieces returning from the franchise’s first winning season, they don’t really need to be among the big spenders.
Indianapolis has traditionally not been a big player in free agency. Only notable players brought in during last decade were receiver Brandon Stokley and kicker Adam Vinatieri. Instead, Colts have focused on re-signing their players — a policy not expected to change this year.
Two priorities: re-signing middle linebacker Gary Brackett and extending Peyton Manning’s contract when they can take advantage of new rules. Manning’s deal doesn’t end until next season.
Colts also have 13 restricted free agents, including starters at safety, Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt; defensive tackle, Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir; and offensive tackle Charlie Johnson.
Jacksonville, which blacked out nine of 10 home games in 2009 because of slumping ticket sales, plans to build through draft. Small-market franchise hasn’t ruled out adding key players via free agency.
Nonetheless, Jaguars don’t anticipate getting into bidding war for some high-priced free agents such as Peppers. Team owner Wayne Weaver is still recovering from more than $20 million he gave WR Jerry Porter and CB Drayton Florence two years ago. Both were busts.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Secretive Scott Pioli will give no hints how deeply Chiefs might participate in free agency. But after winning 10 games in three seasons, team has needs just about everywhere, particularly at safety, offensive line, linebacker, wide receiver, and tight end. Could use running back as well. Another consideration when evaluating how much to spend is opening in September of new-look Arrowhead Stadium, renovated to tune of about $375 million of mostly taxpayer dollars. Attendance waned last year and long streak of non-blackouts ended.
They already signed two of their own, backup QB Matt Guttierrez and RB Kolby Smith.
Owner Stephen Ross, a New York billionaire, took financial hit with downturn in market. Team has given no indication it plans spending spree; Bill Parcells regime continues to stress the draft.
Dolphins need help at receiver, linebacker, nose tackle, tight end and free safety. They may pursue Arizona ILB Karlos Dansby, who would be expensive.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Patriots rarely spend big on free agency, but need pass rushing help and Julius Peppers could be the answer. They may invest a huge chunk in a long-term contract for two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was given franchise tag. TE Benjamin Watson is expected to become a free agent. RB Kevin Faulk and G Stephen Neal also are among longtime contributors who could become available. With Wes Welker recovering from knee injury, the Pats need help at WR. But, as the signing of David Patten, who sat out all last season, at that position, it’s unlikely they’ll allot much money there. Randy Moss has said he doesn’t expect to return in 2011 because “the Patriots don’t really pay.”
NEW YORK JETS
Jets aren’t expected to be big factors in free agency, mainly because of Final Eight Plan, which will hamper ability to sign unrestricted free agents. But don’t expect GM Mike Tannenbaum to stand; he may look to fill holes through trades — as he has done in acquiring key players such as Kris Jenkins, Braylon Edwards and Thomas Jones.
With Jets releasing Jones, who led NFL’s top-ranked rushing offense, New York will seek veteran backup to Shonn Greene and Leon Washington, recovering from broken leg. New York also will look for cornerback to play opposite All-Pro Darrelle Revis, some defensive line depth and perhaps veteran QB to help mentor Mark Sanchez.
Owner Al Davis doesn’t have tons of money to spend with a bad stadium deal and only one sellout last season. Also, he might feel burned by all the money he gave Javon Walker, DeAngelo Hall, Gibril Wilson, Tommy Kelly and others following 2007 season. Davis has put more focus into keeping his own guys: star CB Nnamdi Asomugha and P Shane Lechler last season, PK Sebastian Janikowski and DE Richard Seymour this year.
Steelers already have been active by re-signing DL Casey Hampton and putting franchise tag on PK Jeff Reed — and they normally don’t like to go franchise tag route. They need help at S, especially with Ryan Clark unsigned and coming off subpar season — one that illustrated why S Troy Polamalu is their defensive MVP. Looking for help at WR, CB, OL and LB.
Will team that says it will impose salary cap on itself look to pick up players in free agency or wait until draft. Steelers are among most patient teams in league, and sometimes wait out others to pick up players who are cast off in June.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
The Chargers made two surprise moves in the hours before free agency began, deciding to keep speedy little Darren Sproles and releasing veteran defensive tackle Jamal Williams. Six days ago, Sproles was thought to be gone, but his agent said there was “tremendous” interest in Sproles around the league, which may have led the Chargers to change their mind. Williams has been one of San Diego’s key run-stuffers for 12 seasons. The Chargers also made first-and third-round tenders to outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, left tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receivers Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson.
An uncapped year isn’t likely to change Titans’ approach since GM Mike Reinfeldt took over. That means trying to spend smartly, not overpaying for anyone, and signing players with potential they think are ready to bust out. This is team that let DT Albert Haynesworth walk a year ago.
Titans return almost all of their offense led by QB Vince Young and RB Chris Johnson, but must decide whether to re-sign veteran center Kevin Mawae. Biggest spending decisions will come on defense — end Kyle Vanden Bosch and LB Keith Bulluck are headed into free agency. Defense will be Tennessee’s focus: end, LB and CB.
Cardinals have several free-agency needs, although it might mean simply re-signing a player they had before. They lost middle linebacker Karlos Dansby and are unlikely to re-sign him considering how much he wants. As of now, Matt Leinart is only QB under contract, so they need another — veteran Charlie Batch has been mentioned. They also lost LT tackle Mike Gandy but may re-sign him. Team is expected to release S Antrel Rolle, then try to re-sign him rather than pay what he’s due next season. Cardinals are short at OLB and DE with Chike Okeafor gone and Bertrand Berry retired.
Falcons have not been afraid to be aggressive in pursuit of top free agents during Arthur Blank’s ownership. Team signed Michael Turner two years ago and added Tony Gonzalez in trade last offseason. Still, no indication team will be big spender in this market. GM Thomas Dimitroff has said team will be fiscally responsible. Dimitroff believes Falcons will receive boost by having last year’s first-round pick, DT Peria Jerry, back from knee injury. Falcons could be bargain-hunters in search for complement to Roddy White at wide receiver and help at linebacker and defensive end.
Carolina’s Jerry Richardson is expected to play major role in owners’ negotiations with players, and his quest to lower costs likely played major role in Panthers’ about-face with five-time Pro Bowl DE Peppers. After paying him $18.2 million last season, Panthers decided against using franchise tag again for $20.1 million in 2010, allowing franchise career sacks leader to leave without compensation.
It leaves giant hole on defensive line. Panthers also need help at receiver, have numerous restricted free agents and don’t have first-round draft pick.
After three straight playoff misses, Bears could be busy shoppers in free agency. They have issues on all sides, not to mention win-or-else mandate from above. They also have reconfigured coaching staff, with new defensive and offensive coordinators in Rod Marinelli and Mike Martz.
What they don’t have is first or second-round draft pick, and if they’re looking for quick fix, a trade or signing is best route. Top free-agent targets could be Peppers and Arizona S Rolle.
During combine, owner Jerry Jones predicted next season’s roster could feature 10 or more new players and talked about current players competing for playing time. Changes will come through free agency, draft or players already in organizations.
Cowboys could cut LT Flozell Adams and FS Ken Hamlin, who have big contracts and young backups.
Lions are expected to focus spending on some key free agents instead of trying to turn around team with numerous second- and third-tier players, as they did last year, when they were coming off NFL’s first 0-16 season. They might sign running back and veteran quarterback to back up Matthew Stafford. On defense, one of league’s historically worst units past two years could use help in secondary and on line from free agents.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Packers’ biggest concern going into free agency is holding on to several of own key players. Green Bay took big step in that direction by placing franchise tag on nose tackle Ryan Pickett, an underrated force in strong run defense. But Packers still have to make decisions on veteran offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, both unrestricted free agents.
Green Bay must figure out future of unrestricted free agent Aaron Kampman, a defensive standout coming off major knee injury and not perfect fit as OLB in 3-4 defensive scheme. Packers also have several core players who are restricted free agents: safeties Nick Collins and Atari Bigby, DE Johnny Jolly and OLs Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz.
GM Ted Thompson isn’t big spender on free agent market.
By virtue of top-four finish last season, Vikings will be handicapped when free agency begins, unable to sign a player unless one of their free agents leaves first. Salaries must be comparable, too. That won’t really change their approach. Since coach Brad Childress and personnel VP Rick Spielman were hired in 2006, the Vikings have been remarkably productive in free agency — signing several starters and some Pro Bowlers. But Vikings don’t have major holes to fill this year.
RB Chester Taylor is their only unrestricted free agent of note and will draw interest. Unless he prefers to return to Minnesota as Adrian Peterson’s backup, Vikings will need replacement for him.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Saints have tendered offers to 15 of their 18 restricted free agents, covering all regulars including All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans, LT Jermon Bushrod, RB Pierre Thomas, WR Lance Moore and SS Roman Harper. Saints also tendered offer to former starting LT Jammal Brown, who missed last season with hip injury.
Saints have 10 unrestricted free agents; only two, All-Pro safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Scott Fujita, are starters. Both expressed interest in returning to Super Bowl champs.
New Orleans could look for DE, but only if they decide Charles Grant is no longer worth $4 million base salary.
NEW YORK GIANTS
While Giants have been player in free agent market in recent years, they need to do better. They signed four free agents last year and three were busts. Weakside linebacker Michael Boley played in 11 games because of hip and knee injuries and was OK. DT Chris Canty did little in eight games with calf and knee injuries. DT Rocky Bernard and safety C.C. Brown were horrible.
Defense needs help up middle, particularly at linebacker with release of Antonio Pierce and at safety with Kenny Phillips coming off knee surgery. Expect GM Jerry Reese to make run at Cardinals LB Dansby and Saints safety Sharper.
New York has four unrestricted free agents. Punter Jeff Feagles and backup quarterback David Carr will be courted. DT Free Robbins and LB Danny Clark probably won’t be back.
Philadelphia needs help at DE and LB. Peppers and Brackett would fit nicely, but may be too pricey. Eagles usually don’t make huge splash in free agency, though they have selectively spent big bucks during Andy Reid’s tenure by targeting players at need positions. Tackle Jon Runyan, DE Jevon Kearse and CB Asante Samuel are among biggest free-agent acquisitions since 1999.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
With top selection in draft after 1-15 season, Rams will be spending lots of money on whoever they pick. Most likely, their participation in free agency will not be for top-end players, but for guys who are improvements over what they had. They were young, but as coach Steve Spagnuolo points out, Rams need “firepower throughout.” Biggest holes are on offense; St. Louis scored league-low 175 points. But they also gave up 436, better than only Detroit.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
GM Scot McCloughan says team is acting as if there is salary cap, so controlled spending will be Niners’ approach. They believed last few drafts provided foundation for contender, and any free agents they 49ers sign figure to be supplements to starters. But free agency often is inexpensive way to bolster special teams, which is weakness in San Francisco.
How proactive will new coach Pete Carroll and new GM John Schneider be in free agency? There are holes everywhere, yet with no track record, it’s hard to determine if duo will try for most of their overhaul in free agency, draft or via trade. Seattle owns sixth and 14th picks in April’s draft. Regardless, Seahawks won’t have money concerns, thanks to deep pockets of owner Paul Allen.
About the only positions seemingly off limits in free agency are linebacker and quarterback. They lack downfield threat at receiver. Leaky secondary might be helped by veteran, while both lines have underperformed in last two seasons. Will LT Walter Jones be back, or will his replacement come from draft or free agency?
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Buccaneers have not been major players in free agency recently and trend should continue. They spent past year accumulating draft picks while initiating youth movement by releasing veterans Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard. Bucs have 10 draft picks: three in the first two rounds and five in first 99 picks.
Dan Snyder’s dream year! No salary cap! Spend at will!
There’s a catch: Redskins owner had to hand over control of roster to Mike Shanahan as part of bait to lure former Denver coach to Washington. Still, expect Shanahan and new GM Bruce Allen to use Snyder’s millions to be active, but perhaps not as over-the-top as Snyder was.
Here’s a thought to tempt anyone, no matter what the cost: imagine how many sacks Redskins could generate if Peppers joined Albert Haynesworth and rookie Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo in reconfigured 3-4 defense.