While the 2013 NFL season may not start on the field for another six months, the off-the-field business begins in earnest on Tuesday when the new league year officially begins. More specifically, the action will really heat up when free agency commences at 4 p.m. ET.
The good news for NFL teams is that the salary cap for the upcoming season went up to $123 million, which is about $3 million more than the 2012 level of $120.6 million. The flip side of this, however, is the fact that there are more than 500 restricted and unrestricted free agents on the market this offseason, meaning every team has some work to do.
Every team has to be under the cap by the time the new league year begins, but there are clearly some teams who figure to be more active in free agency than others, if anything because they have so much cap space to work with. Pretty much every team did some maneuvering before the start of free agency to either clear more cap space or to get under the cap level, which in turn also created more personnel holes for teams to fill.
With these factors in mind, here is a list of teams who figure to be fairly active on the free agent market (in alphabetical order):
The defending NFC South champions made some tough decisions before free agency even started, as the Falcons cut running back Michael Turner, defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson on March 1 to improve its cap situation. This was somewhat necessitated by the fact that two other key members of its secondary — cornerback Brent Grimes and safety William Moore — along with starting left tackle Sam Baker and center Todd McClure are all free agents. Tight end Tony Gonzalez also is a free agent, but he first has to decide if he’s even playing next season. If he chooses to come back, it will be to play for the Falcons.
Atlanta wasted little time putting that extra cap space, a little more than $20 million, to work as the team reportedly agreed to a new five-year deal with Moore, one that could be worth as much as $32 million, during a new negotiating window allowed by the NFL this season before the official start of free agency on Tuesday. With Moore back in the fold, the Falcons can turn their attention to their other free agents and seeing what other options are on the market that their needs.
The other issue facing Atlanta is franchise quarterback Matt Ryan’s next contract. Ryan’s current deal expires following the 2013 season. There’s little question the team would like to do nothing more than to lock him up, which will not only take a lot of money, but also a fair amount of cap space. Joe Flacco’s deal (six years, $120.6 million, $52 million guaranteed) set the new standard for quarterbacks and even though Ryan doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring to his credit, there’s no reason to not expect his next contract to use the same framework as Flacco’s.
The reigning world champions took care of their most pressing piece of offseason business when the team locked up Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco for six more years. He didn’t come cheap, however, as he signed the richest contract in NFL history and there are several other key contributors who are free agents.
On defense alone, defensive end Arthur Jones, nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, cornerback Cary Williams and safety Ed Reed, all of whom started in the Super Bowl, are free agents. Add linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis, who has retired, to the mix and the Ravens’ defense could be in for a complete overhaul. The offense is a little more intact, although tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are both restricted free agents and on Monday, the Ravens traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin, their leading receiver last season, to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick in April's draft.
The Ravens have some, but not a lot of cap space to work with, so the reality is the team that will defend its Super Bowl title will look a lot different than the one that won it.
Coming off of back-to-back playoff appearances, Cincinnati appears primed and ready to take that next step as a team. Helping matters is the Bengals’ projected cap space, which is estimated to be around $40 million once defensive end Michael Johnson’s franchise tag number is factored in.
The Bengals can be aggressive on the free agent market and look to make a big splash by signing one or more of the marquee names that are out there, but this also is a team that needs to keep an eye on the future. Players like wide receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton and other young building blocks will be coming to the end of their contracts in the next few seasons, so the team needs to make sure it protects to enough future cap space so it can be in position to keep its current core intact.
That said, don’t be surprised to see Cincinnati active in free agency, as it will look for the right fit to improve its young defense or add to the offensive pieces it already has in place, particularly in the backfield and along the offensive line.
Cleveland is in the catbird seat when it comes to cap space, as the Browns are estimated to have nearly $50 million to work with. This is good news for new head coach Rob Chudzinski, who understandably has plenty of holes to fill considering the Browns finished 5-11 last season.
The cupboard isn’t exactly bare, as the Browns have a relatively young defense that showed signs of growth last season and drafted running back Trent Richardson last April. The jury is still out on fellow first-round pick quarterback Brandon Weeden, however, although getting him some weapons to throw to would certainly help his development. The Browns will be heard during free agency, it’s just a matter of how much noise they plan to make and which players will be willing to come to Cleveland to help the team become more competitive in an already loaded AFC North.
The Broncos, and their fans, are probably still smarting from the double-overtime AFC Divisional round home loss to Baltimore, but that doesn’t mean Denver's championship window is closed just yet. The team tagged left tackle Ryan Clady to make sure he didn’t go anywhere else, and still should have enough cap space to address other areas of need.
A decision has to be made on whether players like cornerback Tracy Porter, wide receiver Brandon Stokley and punter Britton Colquitt will be back, but the Broncos should also be an appealing potential destination for veterans who want a shot at winning the Super Bowl.
Green Bay Packers
As long as Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback, Green Bay can’t be counted out as a contender in the NFC North. That doesn’t mean the Packers don’t have some areas of weakness to address, starting with the offensive line and their backfield. The Green and Gold should have around $20 million in cap space to work with, which should leave them with some options in free agency.
There also are some holes that will need to be filled, either in free agency or through the draft, especially considering it appears that wide receiver Greg Jennings and defensive back Charles Woodson have played their final games in a Packer uniform.
The young Colts were the turnaround story of the 2012 season, going from two wins to 11 and a playoff spot thanks to No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck and the unity and resolve forged by first-year head coach Chuck Pagano’s battle with cancer. Pagano and interim head coach Bruce Arians, squeezed every single win they possibly could out of last year’s team, and the Colts look to have around $40 million in cap space to improve the roster.
Linebacker Dwight Freeney, wide receivers Donnie Avery and Austin Collie and cornerback Cassius Vaughn are some of the Colts’ key free agents, although it’s pretty much a given that Freeney won’t be back. His spot will definitely have to be filled, and look for the team to be most aggressive on the defensive side of the ball once free agency commences. In particular, don’t be surprised if Pagano targets some of the Ravens’ defensive free agents, since he was Baltimore’s defensive coordinator before taking over the Colts.
The Dolphins have already been busy this offseason, first applying the franchise tag to defensive end Randy Starks and then re-signing wide receiver Brian Hartline and quarterback Matt Moore. The team should still have a fair amount of cap space, possibly as much as $30 million, to make other moves through free agency and there’s no reason to think Miami will just sit on the sidelines and watch.
Retaining Hartline was a key move for the Dolphins, but there’s still room for another wide receiver, so expect them to be a player for one of the top names on the market, like a Wes Welker or Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings. Offensive line also will have to be addressed at some point as the team decided against using the tag on former No. 1 overall pick left tackle Jake Long. Re-signing cornerback Sean Smith will probably be another priority for the front office.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady did his part by agreeing to a team-friendly three-year contract extension, now it’s up to the front office to provide him with a roster that can continue to contend for Super Bowl titles. The Patriots have a boatload of free agents, starting with wide receiver Wes Welker. Brady’s favorite target has already expressed his desire to test the market, so it may come down to if he thinks New England is the best option for him, or if the opportunity (i.e., money) is better elsewhere.
Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, running back Danny Woodhead and wide receiver Julian Edelman are some of the other free agents on that side of the ball, while the defensive group features seven defensive backs alone. The Patriots have an estimated $25 million in cap space to work with, but also have plenty of mouths looking to get fed. It’s going to take several more team-friendly deals like Brady’s to keep the 2012 roster even relatively intact.
This will be new head coach’s Brian Kelly’s first go-around with NFL free agency, so we will see if the recruiting skills he honed at Oregon translate to the pros or not. Fortunately for Kelly, he is projected to have more than $33 million in cap space to assist with his efforts.
It’s a new era in Philadelphia, so it will be interesting to see how Kelly and the Eagles' new brain trust choose to build their roster. For example, will cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie be back with the team in 2013? With the right moves in free agency and the draft, the Eagles could be in a position to turn things around this season, much like the Colts did in 2012.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are in excellent shape to not only make another run at the Super Bowl in 2013, but for seasons to come. Many of the team’s core players are already signed to multi-year contracts, while quarterback Colin Kaepernick still has two years remaining on his rookie deal. This is good since the 49ers don’t have a lot of cap space to work with, as they had to trade former starting quarterback Alex Smith to Kansas City and cut veteran kicker David Akers just to get to where they are now, around $12 million under.
Re-signing All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson is the team’s main priority in free agency, but San Francisco is also in the market now for a backup quarterback. The rest of the focus in free agency will be on looking for ways to improve the team's depth, especially in the secondary and on the defensive line. The 49ers also have a bunch of draft picks that they can use in April to either find new talent, or perhaps acquire other players. The latter is exactly what the team did on Monday when it acquired veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin from Baltimore, who beat them in Super Bowl XLVII, for a sixth-round pick in this year's draft.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Considering the Buccaneers were one of the most active teams in free agency last offseason, it’s somewhat surprising to see them in a position to do the same this go around. Tampa Bay committed more than $140 million last March when it signed a trio of free agents – wide receiver Vincent Jackson, left guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright.
Tampa Bay is projected to have more than $30 million in cap space, with Wright once again having a hand in this. He signed a five-year, $37.5 million deal last March, but was suspended four games during the 2012 season for his use of Adderall, which is on the NFL’s list of performance-enhancing drugs. The suspension nullified the guarantees contained in Wright’s contract, basically wiping out his base salary for 2013 and making him all but disposable.
Defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Roy Miller are two of Tampa Bay's free agents expected to draw plenty of attention. However, given what happened with Wright, not to mention that Nicks was limited to just seven games last season because of injury, will the Bucs proceed a little more cautiously with free agency this time around or be willing to spend once again? We should find out the answer fairly soon after the clock strikes 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.