There were second thoughts pulsing through the minds of some of the candidates for the New York Jets' general manager vacancy. Throughout the interview and hiring process, some wondered exactly how they would navigate the team's cap and contract mess if in fact they were offered the gig.
Several candidates expressed a desire to me that landing at least a five-year deal would be a prerequisite, given the extent of the challenge before them, and the amount of time it would take to get the positioned to a point where the Jets could once again add salary and notable free agents again. "There is no easy fix there," one candidate said after exhaustive study of the team's contracts. "You're looking at years -- plural -- before you start to make progress and come out the other side. It's not a pretty picture."
With NFL teams now about a month away from having to be cap compliant at the start of free agency, the Jets can stand as the latest cautionary tale about the perils of guaranteeing too much money, of restructuring too many hefty contracts, and of overestimating their own talent.
New York stands roughly $25 million over the $120 salary cap for the 2013 -- a cap that has remained stagnant in recent years and isn't poised for any meaningful leaps until 2015 at the earliest (many project a cap in the range of $122-$123 million for 2014). The Jets can alleviate their crush by starting with three simple moves -- cuts that make sense based both on cap and diminished production. Cutting tackle Jason Smith frees up $12 million, cutting linebacker Bart Scott frees up $7.15 million and cutting linebacker Calvin Pace frees up another $8.6 million in space. These moves still leave them needing breathing room and they may have to restructure David Harris' $11 million base salary among others to create more space.
The Jets know corner Darrelle Revis isn't playing for just $6 million this season and will be trying to trade him, sources said, and they remain handcuffed by the ill-advised deals handed out to quarterback Mark Sanchez and receiver Santonio Holmes, to name a few. Trying to retain free agents like safety LaRon Landry, tight end Dustin Keller and running back Shonn Greene is highly unlikely, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, while the Jets will make a push to keep defensive tackle Mike DeVito.
The Saints, who spent massively in 2012 to re-sign Drew Brees and add players like guard Ben Grubbs, are about $23 million over the cap, and that could cost them starting tackle Jermon Bushrod and other free agents as well. Retaining end Will Smith, at over $10 million, is impossible, while Jonathan Vilma ($4.8 million) is another fairly obvious departure with the need to create space. The cap crunch could put the Saints in a bind trying to extend young tight end Jimmy Graham, who has vastly out-played his contract, and filling needs at pass rusher and in the secondary may have to come from within given their plight.
The Cowboys are nearly $20 million over the cap, which comes at a time when they are still facing a $5-mllion cap penalty from the NFL from a year ago, and with owner Jerry Jones trying to extend quarterback Tony Romo's deal. Tackle Doug Free ($7 million salary) is one likely casualty, and trying to retain Anthony Spencer after his breakout year playing on the franchise tag won't be easy, either. Dallas always lives dangerously, pushing out cap hits and redoing deals, and Miles Austin and Brandon Carr (a combined $21 million in salary) are obvious targets for restructurings, while nose tackle Jay Ratliff and safety Gerald Sensabaugh could be deemed too expensive to stay.
New Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman inherited some significant issues as well, with his team about $19 million over the cap; Carolina projects even worse against the 2014 cap, and a year from now also serves as the first time Cam Newton can renegotiate his bargain rookie deal, which means tough decisions ahead for the Panthers. Corner Chris Gamble makes nearly $8 million, and offensive lineman Jordan Gross makes nearly $9 million -- expect restructurings if not at a cut there. It's hard to imagine DeAngelo Williams making another $5 million there given all of the running backs the Panthers are paying and his declining output, while in 2014 defensive end Charles Johnson and safety Charles Godfrey will account for nearly $15 million in base salary combined.
The Eagles also project about $18 million over the cap. Dumping historic free-agent bust corner Nnamdi Asomugha, and his $15 million salary, would be a bold move, but would also create a big chunk of space. The Eagles won't be paying quarterback Mike Vick $15.5 million in salary either, though, they are exploring trying to keep him at a lesser salary. They must redo Jason Peters contract, with the tackle coming off multiple Achilles injuries set to make $10.4 million in 2013. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans filled a big void last season but is set to make nearly $7 million this season. And Cullen Jenkins, another throwback to their doomed "Dream Team" foray into the deepest waters of free agency, could be gone with his salary at $4.5 million for this season.
And the Steelers are just a few million better off than the Eagles, themselves about $16 million over the cap, and they are bracing for a sweeping exodus of talent. The team does not expect to bring stalwart but aging nose tackle Casey Hampton back, and are also likely to release linebacker James Harrison, who is set to make nearly $7 million this season. Safety Troy Polamalu and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will likely be restructured, again, while the Steelers do not expect to retain free-agent receiver Mike Wallace and running back Rashard Mendenhall, sources said.
The Lions, about $6 million over the cap, must redo Matthew Stafford's deal to lower his $20-million cap figure. Division rival Green Bay is slightly over the cap, and with Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji in line for new deals, the Packers face tough choices on whether to retain tight end Jermichael Finley and corner Charles Woodson -- both could be gone -- while free agent receiver Greg Jennings seems likely to be sign elsewhere. The Giants came into the week about $12 million over the cap, but took care of some of their business right away, getting back down to the cap with the release of veterans Ahmad Bradshaw, Chris Canty and Michael Boley. The Giants still might find it difficult to keep both safety Kenny Phillips and tackle Will Beatty, and could be redoing deals for guys like Eli Manning.
The Super Bowl participants, the Ravens and 49ers are pretty flush against the cap. Baltimore is likely to let free agents Paul Kruger and Cary Williams walk, sources said, while focusing on new deals for quarterback Joe Flacco, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and safety Ed Reed (signing all three, however, may not be possible). The 49ers could free up $8.5 million in cap space by cutting back-up quarterback Alex Smith free, and are well positioned with most of their young core already signed long-term.
At the opposite end of the spectrum stand rebuilding teams just brimming with cap space. Several of these clubs are under new management, which is often a harbinger of big spending and substantial roster turnover. Of course the team with the most space (roughly $40 million) is the Bengals, who are generally in this position and whom, history would indicate, won't go too bonkers chasing other team's free agents.
However, the Dolphins, with about $38 million in space, are prepared to spend, and league sources expect them to pursue Jennings heavily. The Green Bay wide receiver played for head coach Joe Philbin in Green Bay. Miami could be in the market for Finley as well, whether via trade or signing should he become available as expected. The Dolphins expect to lose running back Reggie Bush and will try to work something out with versatile defensive lineman Randy Starks, but it's unlikely they come up with enough to keep him off the market.
The Dolphins would like to sign corner Sean Smith long-term but may have to franchise him while left tackle Jake Long's play has waned and his injuries have mounted. Still, letting a tackle drafted No. 1 overall leave in his mid-20s is pretty much unheard of. Miami wants to add weapons, particularly on offense, and should be aggressive this offseason.
The Browns have about $30 million in space and will be big spenders under new owner Jimmy Haslam and team president Joe Banner. Many in the Steelers organization believe Wallace will end up with their division rivals in Cleveland (Haslam was a former minority owner of the Steelers), and the Browns could make a play for a pass rusher like Kruger, too. Should Vick become available, he too could be in play -- this new regime badly wants to upgrade from former first-round pick Brandon Weeden -- otherwise Alex Smith might make sense, among others.
The Colts, who absorbed their cap pain a year ago, are right there with the Browns in terms of available space, and Ed Reed could be a prime target for them (head coach Chuck Pagano is very close with Reed) They will make a run at several free-agent offensive linemen as well (if Ryan Clady or Brandon Albert are not franchised, they could be prime targets, otherwise Jermon Bushrod is among a handful of veteran free agents who would be a major upgrade over who tried to protect quarterback Andrew Luck a year ago). I expect the Colts to be aggressive in trades and signings. It's the only way their successful, young GM Ryan Grigson knows.
And despite their big spending from a year ago, the Buccaneers are about $20 million under the cap (they could create another $8 million in space by releasing embattled corner Eric Wright), and given how they fell off in the second half last season under rookie coach Greg Schiano, I anticipate them trying to address issues in the secondary and with pass rush in free agency this year.
|Where Teams Roughly Stand In Cap Space|
|(Based on team's top 51 salaries vs. the $120M cap)|
|Note: Not all teams have 51 players under contract yet, and all numbers subject to change based on cuts, restructurings, etc.|
|Team||# of Contracts||Projected Team Cap #|