Everyone is gearing up for free agency and the prospect of making your favorite team better with new players. But before acquiring supposedly better players, the salary cap must be addressed. So, let's take a look at the salary cap situations around the NFL as of Feb. 15.
When the league's 2014 business year begins March 11, teams will only have to count the top 51 salaries against the cap -- a little relief from the reality of the season when they have to count the top 53 salaries, plus the practice squad and players on injured reserve.
I've always felt that looking at the true picture now is probably better for business down the road, preventing teams from cutting a good veteran player in August because of salary cap reasons. There are nine teams scheduled to be over the salary cap right now and six teams with less than $3 million of cap space.
About half the league has work to do to get in the right place before March 11. Here's a look at each team's situation. The first number is the amount of players under contract, the second the salary cap situation. These cap numbers are ever changing with some teams bringing forward 2013 salary cap space they didn't use, player cuts (we already have had 12 significant player salaries removed from rosters) and players or clubs not exercising option clauses.
Arizona Cardinals (58 players under contract, $7.8 million under cap): The Cardinals have the best cap situation in the NFC West. They have the space to bring back Karlos Dansby but need to be careful at his age (33).
Atlanta Falcons (53, $8.7 million under): The Falcons are in good shape and have a few high salaries they could dump if they need more space to be aggressive in free agency, which I expect.
Buffalo Bills (63, $18 million under): The Bills have a quarterback on a rookie deal and all the cap space they need to re-sign players and be active in free agency. Jarius Byrd isn't coming back, so there will be no big franchise tag hit.
Carolina Panthers (55, $2.9 million under): The Panthers have some decisions to make. Greg Hardy is the premier defensive end in free agency and right now they don't have the cap space to tag him. A new deal for Cam Newton is right around the corner. Look for a few cuts and more importantly a few renegotiations, converting salary to signing bonus.
Chicago Bears (47, $2.9 million under): The Bears have $50 million of their salary cap tied up in three players (Jay Cutler, Julius Peppers, Brandon Marshall). Look for the club to hit the bank on Cutler to convert salary to signing bonus and make a tough decision on Peppers.
Cincinnati Bengals (62, $18.7 million under): The Bengals have the cap space to tag Michael Johnson or they can be active in free agency. Their top three players use up only $26 million of cap space, compared to the Bears' $50 million.
Cleveland Browns (67, $38.2 million under): With all the turmoil, what has gone unnoticed is their fantastic cap situation. Players and agents are looking at Cleveland as an outstanding destination.
Dallas Cowboys (62, $32.7 million over): No team is in a tougher cap situation. The Cowboys could cut the bottom 10 players on the roster and still be more than $20 million over the cap. Expect big-name players to be released in the next few weeks and also expect Jerry Jones to keep using his credit card (converting salaries to signing bonuses) to keep this team afloat.
Denver Broncos (61, $3 million under): The Broncos could easily release Champ Bailey and another player or two and be in very good shape. I don't think they can tag Eric Decker. They will move on with other receivers unless he takes a deal before free agency, which I doubt.
Detroit Lions (51, $2 million under): The Lions' big three (Ndamukong Suh, Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson) count $51 million against the cap and the team is always going to have trouble building a complete roster being that top heavy. And $2 million of cap space doesn't allow for much building.
Green Bay Packers (57, $22.6 million under): The Packers have a significant number of free agents, especially on the defensive line, but they have space and love to use the draft to replenish the roster. If they need more cap space, CB Tramon Williams' deal could be a target.
Houston Texans (60, $3.1 million over): The Texans have a new coach (Bill O'Brien). Matt Schaub's $10 million salary will be coming off the books, putting the team in a good a cap situation. There are also 17 players with more than $1 million in base salary and a few of them could be gone, too. This is an easy fix.
Indianapolis Colts (58, $28.6 million under): The Colts are already good under the leadership of Andrew Luck and don't have a single player with a base salary over $5 million. They can be very aggressive in free agency to build this roster up and still have a year before dealing with Luck long term.
Jacksonville Jaguars (64, $42.9 million under): If the Jags want to build a team they have the two things players want: Money and opportunity. Let's see how aggressive they will be.
Kansas City Chiefs (68, $6.8 million over): The Chiefs have no dead money tied up in Alex Smith, so they can do a deal with him to get back to at least even in the salary cap. They also have a few solid young players, like Eric Berry and Tamba Hali, with whom they could convert salary to signing bonus and make cap space.
Miami Dolphins (49, $31.4 million under): The Dolphins can be players in free agency. While I'm not sure they should throw money around like they did to get WR Mike Wallace, they could fortify their roster. Now is the time because a year from now they have Ryan Tannehill questions to answer.
Minnesota Vikings (52, $24.9 million under): The Vikings don't know who their QB is, have a new coach and have 17 players making more than $1 million base salary. They have the cap space to be aggressive in free agency and there could be some surprising roster moves.
New England Patriots (66, $7.9 million over): The Patriots already have gone to the "Bank of Tom Brady" for salary cap help and now they may release a few older veterans. Isaac Sopoaga, Adrian Wilson and a few others could be gone.
New Orleans Saints (52, $1.9 million over): The Saints can still tap into Drew Brees when they need to. His base salary can be converted to signing bonus, considering he only has $22 million of future dead money as compared to a guy like Matthew Stafford, who has more than $40 million sitting out there.
New York Giants (51, $10.2 million under): The Giants are in solid shape and can always go to Eli Manning for salary-to-bonus conversion relief. He has a $15 million base salary and very little acceleration left. There could be a few veterans targeted for release. It will be interesting to see what they do about DT Linval Joseph, who is scheduled for free agency. Center David Baas could be one of the vets released.
New York Jets (57, $15.8 million under): The Jets are in good shape because GM John Idzik made some tough decisions last year. If they release Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes, they will have cap space to be very aggressive in free agency.
Oakland Raiders (52, $57.7 million under): Salary cap jail is officially done in Oakland and coach Dennis Allen gets a chance to coach a team with a full roster of NFL starters. There are no more bad contracts, and this is a real opportunity to bring the Raiders back to respectability.
Philadelphia Eagles (60, $13.3 million under): The Eagles have the space to bring back a few of their good free agents, like Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper. Michael Vick is a free agent, so they need to consider landing a backup QB unless they think Matt Barkley can handle the job.
Pittsburgh Steelers (62, $17.3 million over): The Steelers will continue to make tough roster decisions. QB Ben Roethlisberger could get a new deal, but he is going to want a big jump up from $12 million to the $20M range. Veterans like LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu may have to take pay cuts soon or this team simply can't get younger and under the cap.
Seattle Seahawks (57, $3.3 million over): Not a bad spot for a team that just won the Super Bowl, but there are still decisions to be made. Sidney Rice has a big base salary and could be gone. Percy Harvin has a big salary which could be converted to signing bonus, so just like that the Seahawks would be under the cap and recruiting players.
San Francisco 49ers (64, $2.5 million under): The 49ers can release CB Carlos Rogers and be in very good shape to open for business in March. They also have enough solid starters that they could do a few contract extensions if need be.
St. Louis Rams (53, $2.9 million over): The Rams have been in cap jail for more than a year and they need to open space or fall further behind the Seahawks and Niners. Time for Cortland Finnegan to go and restructure Chris Long ($13 million base salary) and James Lauranitis ($10M). The Rams could easily wind up with over $15 million of cap space so no worries going forward.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (57, $8.6 million under): The Bucs spent big in free agency and the team failed. It will be interesting to see if ownership lets it happen again. Darrelle Revis' contract is the obvious one for a restructure with a $13 million base salary and very little acceleration. Carl Nicks' health issues may make it tough to do anything, plus there's a guaranteed money issue. Punter Michael Koenen is on the books for more than $3 million a year. At least they have some cap space to get started while Lovie Smith figures out who he wants on the roster.
Tennessee Titans (59, $2 million under): The Titans have a balanced salary situation and the top three players are only a $26 million cap hit, but the top hit is Chris Johnson. Releasing him could solve most of their problems, and there are a lot of young running backs in free agency.
Washington Redskins (58, $20 million under): My hat's off to the Redskins for weathering the league-enforced salary cap penalties from a year ago. They can create another $8 million of space with a few cuts. Expect the Redskins to be active in free agency.