Money will be flying fast and furious when free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 14. Initially, it's a seller's market with multiple players signing surprisingly large contracts. The tide turns once the first wave of free agency ends a few days into the signing period. That's when it starts becoming a buyer's market, where bargains can be found with a little patience.
Undeterred by past free-agency failures, the Jaguars' aggressiveness in the open market finally paid big dividends in 2017. Cornerback A.J. Bouye was signed away from their AFC South rival Texans for $65 million over five years, where $26 million was fully guaranteed at signing. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell was brought in after spending his entire nine-year career with the Cardinals. His four-year, $60 million deal had $30 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Not only did the Jaguars win in free agency, but also on the field in 2017. The duo transformed Jacksonville's defense into arguably the NFL's best while earning All-Pro honors. The Jaguars won the AFC South en route to the franchise's first AFC Championship game appearance since the 1999 season.
The NFL's preliminary projections put the 2018 salary cap between $174.2 million and $178.1 million. Each team's actual salary cap (known as adjusted salary cap) usually is different from the NFL's set amount because unused cap room can be carried over from one year to the next and other adjustments can further increase or decrease cap space. Teams rarely carry over less than the full amount of the surplus.
This fundamental change from previous Collective Bargaining Agreements allowing carryover has led to more teams annually having an abundance of cap room. The Browns ($59.91 million), 49ers ($56.048 million), Titans ($30.339 million) and Jaguars ($27.77 million) are carrying over the most unused cap room from the 2017 league year. These same four teams, albeit in a different order, also had the most carryover room from the 2016 league year.
Salary-cap accounting is different during the offseason than in the regular season. Only the top 51 cap numbers count on the cap until the start of the regular season. In addition to players under contract to a team, the top 51 includes any franchise/transition, restricted free agent and exclusive rights tenders for unsigned players once the tender has been made.
Here's a look at the six teams projected to have over $60 million of cap space for the upcoming league year assuming the 2018 salary cap is set at $178.1 million. The projections take into account the following items to try to portray a more complete salary cap picture.
- The fourth-year proven-performance escalators earned by third- through seventh-round picks under the 2011 CBA's rookie wage scale
- Tenders for restricted free agents and exclusive-rights players with expiring contracts
Adjustments for earned incentives
Salary-cap room projection: $110.12 million
Team needs: QB, CB, WR, RB, FS
Key UFAs: RB Isaiah Crowell
Potential RFA tenders: DT Jamie Meder-$1.916 million
The top priority is finding a solution at quarterback after trading away draft picks the last two years that could have been used to select Carson Wentz or Deshaun Watson. The Browns seem unlikely to pay top dollar to Kirk Cousins, with former Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan having new general manager John Dorsey's attention through his NFL draft consulting for him. McCloughan recently stated he doesn't view Cousins as special. Perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, who is contemplating retirement, isn't optimistic about Cousins coming to Cleveland despite publicly lobbying for his signing.
It may make sense for the Browns to adopt the approach the Eagles took in 2016 when quarterbacks were found through multiple avenues. A.J. McCarron, who was almost acquired from the Bengals at last season's trading deadline, is hitting the open market after winning a grievance over his free-agency status. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles' two-year, $34.497 million extension (worth up to another $12.5 million through salary escalators and incentives) with $26.5 million fully guaranteed may serve as a limit for McCarron's compensation. With the 2018 draft's first and fourth overall picks, the Browns can land their highest-graded passer whether it's Wyoming's Josh Allen, USC's Sam Darnold, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield or UCLA's Josh Rosen in addition to a veteran quarterback.
Crowell is the only free agent of any consequence but isn't indispensable. Jaguars salary-cap casualty Chris Ivory has met with the Browns. Head coach Hue Jackson may be intrigued by Jeremy Hill, who is coming off ankle surgery. He was Hill's offensive coordinator with the Bengals in 2014 and 2015, when Hill was at his best. Since, Hill hasn't come close to duplicating his 2014 rookie-season success, when he rushed for 1,124 yards and was third among NFL running backs with 5.1 yards per carry, a one-year prove-it deal could be in order. It shouldn't be as much as the $4.25 million deal (worth up to $5.55 million through incentives) Eddie Lacy got from the Seahawks during free agency last year.
Jackson reportedly was upset when cornerback Joe Haden was released late in the preseason. Cornerback wasn't a position of strength before Haden was cut. The Browns never seriously pursued Marcus Peters, who will be dealt from the Chiefs to the Rams when the trading period re-opens on March 14, despite a huge need at cornerback. The lack of interest speaks volumes about Peters' baggage since Dorsey drafted him when he was Kansas City's general manager.
Trumaine Johnson, who has played the last two seasons with the Rams on franchise tags, could fill the void Haden's departure created. He tied for the NFC lead with seven interceptions in 2015 when Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was running the Rams defense. Although Johnson hasn't performed at that same level since his breakout 2015 season, he's likely going to look for elite cornerback money ($14 million to $15 million per year with over $40 million in guarantees).
Wide receiver Josh Gordon continuing to keep his drug and alcohol problems in the past would be a tremendous boost to a passing game lacking weapons. Cleveland still has Gordon's exclusive rights because the multiple drug suspensions have kept him from getting enough service time for any type of free agency.
The Browns quickly moved on after realizing that giving Kenny Britt a four-year, $32.5 million deal in free agency last year was a mistake. 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman has struggled, partially due to injury. A reunion with Terrelle Pryor is a possibility after a lost season in Washington. Pryor caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards with four touchdowns for Cleveland in 2016 following his conversion from quarterback.
With six of the first 125 picks, the Browns have more than enough draft capital to acquire Jarvis Landry, who has been designated a franchise player by the Dolphins. His franchise tag is expected to be more than $16 million. Landry is reportedly looking for a deal similar to the four-year, $58.5 million extension the Packers gave Davante Adams at the end of the 2017 regular season, which would easily re-set the slot wide receiver market.
New York Jets
Salary-cap room projection: $86.689 million
Team needs: QB, CB, pass rush, interior OL, WR
Key UFAs: K Chandler Catanzaro, CB Morris Claiborne, LB Demario Davis, DE Kony Ealy, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, C Wesley Johnson, QB Josh McCown
Potential RFA tenders: DT Xavier Cooper-$1.916 million, WR Quincy Enunwa-$1.916 million, OT Brent Qvale-$1.916 million
The Jets are reportedly willing to do "whatever it takes" to sign quarterback Kirk Cousins. It wouldn't be a surprise if Cousins became the NFL's first $30 million per year player with upwards of $100 million in guarantees where at least $65 million is fully guaranteed at signing. Re-signing 38-year-old Josh McCown is a fallback option. The 2018 draft's sixth-overall pick could then be used to select the quarterback of the future.
There's reportedly mutual interest in bringing back free-agent defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, who was dealt to the Seahawks for a 2018 second-round pick and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse at the preseason roster cutdown. Richardson's return would help offset the loss of Muhammad Wilkerson, who the Jets released on Wednesday. The Jets could get gun shy about a reunion if the five-year, $86 million deal with $36.75 million fully guaranteed Wilkerson signed in 2016 as a franchise player is an important data point to Richardson.
The offensive line tied for the seventh-most sacks allowed in 2017 with 47. Wesley Johnson didn't make anyone forget seven-time Pro Bowler Nick Mangold. An upgrade at center is likely going to run the Jets between Corey Linsley's recent $8.5 million per year extension with the Packers and the $10.34 million per year Brandon Linder received in an extension from the Jaguars last July. Weston Richburg (Giants) and Ryan Jensen (Ravens) are potential upgrades.
The Jets are set at safety after using their first two selections of the 2017 draft on Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. The same can't be said for cornerback. Malcolm Butler's familiarity with AFC East wide receivers after four years with the Patriots could be a positive. He's probably going to still seek the type of money New England gave Stephon Gilmore ($13 million per year/$40 million in guarantees) instead of him in free agency last year despite a self-described bad 2017 season and a mysterious benching in Super Bowl LII. Butler earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2015 and second team All-Pro honors in 2016.
The Jets are trying to retain Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who resurrected his career in 2017 after previously washing out with the Buccaneers because of a drinking problem. The 2014 second-round pick has reportedly been offered a new deal averaging $4 million per year. It's probably going to take something in the neighborhood of the three-year, $18.9 million deal (worth a maximum of $21 million through salary escalators) the Colts gave Jack Doyle to get Seferian-Jenkins' attention.
Davis should also be a re-signing priority. He had a career year in his second stint with the Jets after an offseason trade from the Browns. Davis was sixth in the NFL with 135 tackles. His five sacks were tied for the NFL's second most among inside linebackers. Davis, who is 29, has probably taken note of the Jets giving the newly retired David Harris a three-year, $21.5 million contract with $15 million fully guaranteed in 2015 as a 31 year old.
Salary-cap room projection: $68.789 million
Team needs: OL, DE, LB, RB, WR
Key UFAs: WR Kamar Aiken, ILB Jon Bostic, CB Pierre Desir, RB Frank Gore, CB Rashaan Melvin, OG Jack Mewhort, OLB Barkevious Mingo, WR Donte Moncrief
Potential RFA tenders: None
The Colts gave up a league-high 56 sacks in 2017. Keeping franchise quarterback Andrew Luck upright is a must once he returns from the shoulder problems that forced him to miss last season. If the knee injuries limiting Jack Mewhort to 15 games over the last two seasons affect his market in free agency, he could be a candidate to return on a one-year prove-it deal. Luke Joeckel took a one-year deal worth $8 million from the Seahawks in free agency last year. Even with Mewhort back in 2018, an upgrade is needed at guard. General manager Chris Ballard could look to the Chiefs, where he was a front-office executive for the four years prior to coming to Indianapolis in 2017, to find help with center Zach Fulton. The four-year, $29 million contract Brian Winters signed to remain with the Jets shortly after the 2016 season ended could be a good financial barometer for Fulton.
The defense needs to be revamped with new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus switching to the 4-3 scheme the Cowboys utilized while he was their linebackers coach the last few years. It isn't a bumper crop of pass rushers in free agency, with the Cowboys and Lions designating Demarcus Lawrence and Ziggy Ansah as a franchise players. The Colts are more likely to find an impact pass rusher through the draft with either the third-overall pick or in the second round (36th overall pick).
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens has been linked to the Colts because he knows Eberflus' system and has the athleticism wanted for the scheme. Eberflus was Hitchens' position coach during his four NFL seasons with the Cowboys. Hitchens has the versatility to play all three linebacker spots. Free agency wasn't kind last year to non-pass rushing linebackers switching teams. The market never developed in a significant way. A deal in the $7 million per year neighborhood like Danny Trevathan got from the Bears in 2016 free agency would probably be too rich for Dallas, who would like to re-sign Hitchens.
Rashaan Melvin was the Colts' best and most consistent cornerback in a season that ended early for him because of a fractured wrist. He revealed in a Sirius XM NFL Radio interview that preliminary discussions about a new deal have taken place. Melvin's 2017 breakout campaign could result in a contract comparable to the deal Robert Alford got from the Falcons late in the 2016 regular season ($9.5 million per year and $21 million in guarantees).
The Colts are looking for fresher legs at running back since Frank Gore, who turns 35 in May, won't be back. Marlon Mack, a 2017 fourth-round pick, may not be ready to be a feature running back. It could be hard for the Colts to pass up Penn State's Saquon Barkley with the third-overall pick.
The wide receivers could have a much different look than the last time Luck played. With one high priced wide receiver, T.Y. Hilton, already on the books, a more moderately priced pass catcher may be a consideration. Marqise Lee (Jaguars) could be looking for a contract consistent with the $6 million to $8 million per year with over $15 million in guarantees that No. 2 wide receivers have been getting in free agency over the last couple of years.
Lee's teammate, Allen Robinson, could be an interesting possibility. A torn ACL in the first game ended Robinson's season. Robinson would be a lock for the type of money the Packers gave Davante Adams ($58.5 million/four year extension) with a healthy and productive 2017 season. He may have take a short term deal, like Alshon Jeffery did, provided the Jaguars don't stick a franchise tag on him for over $16 million. The Eagles gave Jeffery a one year deal for $9.5 million that was worth as much as $14 million through incentives last March. Jeffery signed a four-year, $52 million extension during the latter part of last season.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers were projected to have more than $110 million in 2018 salary cap space when the 2017 regular season ended. The biggest piece of San Francisco's offseason puzzle was solved by making sure quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo didn't get out of the Bay Area. Garoppolo won all five of his starts after a midseason trade from the Patriots without a full grasp of head coach Kyle Shanahan's playbook.
The 49ers recently made Garoppolo the NFL's highest-paid player with a five-year, $137.5 million contract, despite him having only seven career starts. The deal contains $74.1 million of guarantees. Garoppolo's $48.7 million fully guaranteed at signing is the second most in an NFL contract. The deal was structured with an unusually large $37 million 2018 cap number.
Garoppolo isn't the only 49er with an expiring contract who's returning. Center Daniel Kilgore signed a three-year, $11.775 million (worth up to $12.975 million because of performance bonuses) contract, and defensive end Cassius Marsh signed a two-year, $7.7 million (maximum of $12.7 million with salary escalators and incentives) deal. Offensive tackle Garry Gilliam also received a two-year deal for $7.7 million.
There's still work for the 49ers to do if they are going to be legitimate playoff contenders next season. The 49ers intend on being active in free agency, just like last year.
It's probably going to require making Andrew Norwell, who was a first-team All-Pro in 2017, the NFL's highest-paid offensive guard to land him. Kevin Zeitler currently holds the distinction with the five-year, $60 million deal containing $31.5 million in guarantees he received from the Browns in free agency last year.
The 49ers ranked near the bottom of the league in several conventional statistics that measure pass defense (passing yards allowed, interceptions, yards per pass attempt, passer rating, etc.), which means cornerback is likely to be addressed during the offseason. A preference for cornerbacks with size could put Kyle Fuller and Trumaine Johnson on San Francisco's radar screen. Fuller is probably going to be a little cheaper if the Bears don't give him a franchise tag, which should be in excess of $15 million. A deal comparable to A.J. Bouye's $13 million per year from the Jaguars is within the realm of possibility for Fuller.
Garoppolo could use more weapons in the passing game. Pursuing Sammy Watkins may be a good move because signing him would weaken their NFC West rival Rams. The transition would be seamless because of the similarities in the Rams' and 49ers' offenses. Watkins shouldn't be able to command elite wide receiver money because foot injuries have largely kept him from living up to the potential that made him the fourth-overall pick in the 2014 draft. Any long-term deal that could interest Watkins would still need to be significantly more than the five-year, $45 million contract with $20 million in guarantees the 49ers gave Pierre Garcon as a free agent last year.
It could be telling that Carlos Hyde hasn't been a bigger signing priority. If the 49ers are serious about keeping him, they are going to have a hard time justifying to his camp that he's worth less than fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who signed a four-year, $21 million contract in 2017 free agency. Juszczyk was given a deal that averaged more than twice as much as the next highest paid fullback under the guise of being a versatile offensive weapon. Although Juszczyk led NFL fullbacks in playtime last season, his 40 touches were 259 fewer than Hyde's.
Middle linebacker probably shouldn't be ignored because of 2017 first-round pick Reuben Foster's off-the-field troubles. Foster, a top-five talent, was still available late in the first round because of character concerns. He could be facing a six-game suspension under the league's personal-conduct policy because of domestic violence allegations, if not more discipline under the NFL's substance-abuse policy due to a January arrest for possession of marijuana.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Salary-cap room projection: $66.135 million
Team needs: Pass rush, RB, CB
Key UFAs: CB Brent Grimes, DT Clinton McDonald, K Patrick Murray, RB Charles Sims
Potential RFA tenders: TE Cameron Brate-$2.929 million, DE Adarius Glanton-$1.916 million, WR Adam Humphries-$2.929 million, DT Russell Ryan-$1.916 million
The Buccaneers underachieved in 2017 after being expected to contend for a playoff spot. General manager Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter will have a tough time surviving another 5-11 season.
The inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks contributed to the Buccaneers giving up an NFL worst 378.1 yards per game. Tampa Bay ranked last in the league with 22 sacks. Vernon Hargreaves' sophomore slump makes retaining Grimes, who turns 35 before training camps open in July, or signing a veteran cover man important. Six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is in favor of bringing back two former Buccaneers -- Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett -- should they get released. Talib, who the Broncos are attempting to trade, has a better chance of getting released than Bennett.
The running game was considered as a strength when Doug Martin signed a five-year, $35.75 million contract (worth up to $42,937,500 with salary escalators and incentives) in 2016 after finishing second in the NFL during the 2015 season with 1,402 rushing yards. He was recently released because of disappointing 2016 and 2017 seasons in which he averaged less than 3 yards per carry. Adding a running back in free agency won't be nearly as expensive as the three years that were remaining on Martin's contract, which averaged close to $7 million per year. Options include Isaiah Crowell, Carlos Hyde and Alfred Morris.
Mike Evans is in line for a contract extension that should make him one of the NFL's highest-paid wide receivers. In 2017, he joined A.J. Green and Randy Moss as the only wide receivers in NFL history to reach the 1,000 receiving yard mark in each of their first four seasons. The five-year, $81 million extension with $49 million in overall guarantees and $36.5 million fully guaranteed at signing that DeAndre Hopkins received from the Texans last preseason could be a salary benchmark for Evans.
Salary-cap room projection: $62.32 million
Team needs: OL, CB, S, TE (if C.J. Fiedorowicz retires)
Key UFAs: OT Chris Clark, OT Breno Giacomini, SS Marcus Gilchrist, CB Johnathan Joseph, P Shane Lechler, OG Xavier Su'a-Filo
Potential RFA tenders: C Greg Mancz-$1.916 million
Free agency is more important than usual for the Texans because they don't have 2018 first- and second-round picks due to trades. Upgrading the offensive line is a necessity so quarterback Deshaun Watson won't have to rely on his mobility to erase mistakes in pass protection. It wouldn't be a surprise if none of the Texans' free-agent offensive linemen return next season.
A left tackle to replace Duane Brown, who was dealt to the Seahawks at the trading deadline after a bitter contract dispute, must be found. Nate Solder, whose rookie season with the Patriots in 2011 was when Texans head coach Bill O'Brien was New England's offensive coordinator, is clearly the best left tackle in free agency. Since slightly-above-average left tackles like Solder and mediocre ones have become valuable commodities in free agency, there's a chance that he could surpass Russell Okung as the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman (by average yearly salary). Okung signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Chargers that had $25 million fully guaranteed in free agency last offseason even though he is never going to be confused with future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas as a pass protector.
The Bills are expected to shop left tackle Cordy Glenn again this offseason. Going the trade route would be cheaper financially than signing Solder. Glenn is under contract through the 2020 season for $30 million. His deal also contains $3.5 million of remaining salary escalators based on achieving league honors. The 2018 third-round and 2019 second-round picks received for Brown could be used as the foundation for compensation going to Buffalo in a trade.
A.J. Bouye's absence with his departure to Jacksonville was felt in the secondary. Even if soon to be 34-year-old Johnathan Joseph is re-signed, the Texans can still go shopping in the high-end cornerback market. All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has been making recruiting pitches to Malcolm Butler on social media. Despite a regression in 2017, it's hard to imagine Butler getting less on the open market than the $10 million per year Logan Ryan, his former Patriots counterpart, got from the Titans as a free agent last year.
New general manager Brian Gaine acknowledged at his introductory press conference that a new contract for outside linebacker/defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is on the offseason to-do list. Clowney, who is due a $13.846 million fifth-year option salary in 2018, has been named to consecutive Pro Bowls and earned some first-team All-Pro/All-NFL honors in 2016. He can make a case that he should get more than former Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson after adjusting his deal to a 2018 salary cap environment. At $17.2 million per year, Wilkerson became the NFL's third highest paid non-quarterback in 2016. With the 2018 salary cap expected to be in the $180 million neighborhood, a deal equivalent to Wilkerson's would average slightly under $20 million per year with over $60 million in guarantees.