Free agency opens March 13 with one of the deepest veteran classes in recent memory.
Combined with a clause in the new collective bargaining agreement that allows teams to increase their salary cap by rolling over unused 2011 cap space into the coming year, a perfect storm is brewing that may see a record number of blockbuster deals for marquee signings.
The 2011 salary cap was set at $120 million, and the 2012 figure is likely to be fixed in the coming days in the $120-125 million range.
To give you a feel for the amount of cap room available across the league right now, the Buffalo Bills don't even make the top 10 with a $19.3 million surplus (based on the 2011 cap ceiling) to bargain with next month.
At the other end of the scale, four teams have to get under the cap by March 13—including perennial playoff contenders the Pittsburgh Steelers—with another six teams that have less than $5 million of space.
With thanks to blog site NFL Football Now for the assist—it compiled its list using data from Pro Football Talk and ESPN's John Clayton—here are the top teams with the most breathing space heading into free agency and what they might do with their money once they get there.
Cap Space (Projected): $60.5 million
It's hard to know where to begin with a team that finished 4-12, but improving the No. 32 run defense has to be a good start.
D'Qwell Jackson heads the group of free agents at inside linebacker and has the athleticism to play either in the middle or the strong side of a 4-3 formation comfortably.
Signing Jackson to a big-money, long-term deal would be no problem, but if the Bucs want to spend their money elsewhere, the Giants' Jonathan Goff and the Vikings' E.J. Henderson fit the bill as lower-cost alternatives.
On the offensive side of the ball, another receiver would ease the pressure on young Mike Williams' shoulders.
This is the deepest class of available wide receivers in years, and there are options in all shapes and sizes, for all schemes, and at all prices.
The Buccaneers have the financial muscle to pursue any veteran of their choosing. Stevie Johnson will be targeted by many suitors, but the prospect of joining a young offense on the rise down in Tampa may appeal to the Bills wideout.
Cap Space: $60 million
Mike Wallace to the Cincinnati Bengals? The division rivals Pittsburgh Steelers have a cap headache to manage; they must clear a further $11-12 million of cap space before March 13, and Wallace is a restricted free agent.
I don't see it happening. With such a deep pool of free agents at wide receiver, having to give up your first-round draft pick for Wallace doesn't represent good business for the Bengals.
If they want to land a veteran receiver to complement A.J. Green, they could do worse than Marques Colston.
That would tie up a large amount of long-term money at one position, however, and Colston's Saints teammate Robert Meachem remains a solid, cheaper alternative.
The bigger need lies at running back, and unless the Bengals like their chances of landing Trent Richardson in the draft, the veteran market could yield a replacement for—or a complement to—Cedric Benson.
Michael Bush is a highly effective downhill runner whom the Raiders will struggle to re-sign; they are approximately $8 million over the cap at today's estimate.
Depending on their appetite for character issues, the Bengals could also pick up Peyton Hillis for a sensible sum of money. Either free agent would take pressure off second-year quarterback Andy Dalton and the passing game.
Cap Space: $59.6 million
The Chiefs stole a march on the rest of the league, landing cornerback Stanford Routt, who was released by the Raiders just a week ago.
Time will tell if the acquisition is an insurance policy for Brandon Carr's likely foray into the open market, but the Chiefs have enough money to keep him too if they wish.
Playing into that decision will be the re-signing of Dwayne Bowe. With little else at the position, a deal for Bowe should be a top priority, even if the wideout commands a deal worthy of his talent in the second tier at the position, below the elite.
Along the offensive line, most observers agree that right tackle Barry Richardson has played his last game as a starter in the NFL, and Khalif Barnes (Raiders) or Kareem McKenzie (Giants) could be explored here.
On the interior, neither Casey Wiegmann nor Ryan Lilja is a long-term answer, and while the Chiefs are linked with Stanford's David DeCastro with the 11th pick in the draft, that is a high price to pay for a guard prospect.
Dan Connolly is nobody's idea of an elite center or guard, but his versatility will come cheap, and he has grown into his role in both positions over the last two seasons in New England.
Finally, a backup quarterback will be on the shopping list if Kyle Orton doesn't return. Jason Campbell or Chad Henne could legitimately push Matt Cassel for his place if the 2012 season gets off to a rocky start.
Cap Space: $50.7 million
Love him or hate him, Tim Tebow is going to be given a chance to succeed in Denver.
In order to do that, the Broncos must surround him with talent, starting with receivers. Demaryius Thomas was inconsistent in 2011, but he is the best at a relatively thin position.
A big-bodied target, such as the 6'5" Vincent Jackson, would play to Tebow's inaccuracy, allowing the quarterback to throw up jump balls with confidence. However, whether Jackson would move to, or be welcomed by, a division rival is questionable.
Marques Colston, on the other hand, is a reliable downfield threat and could be in line for a major payday with so many teams in a strong position against the cap.
An upgrade at cornerback to Andre' Goodman is essential, and Champ Bailey is firmly in the twilight of his career.
Brandon Carr or Aaron Ross would fit nicely. Alternatively, Cortland Finnegan would bring attitude and aggression to a secondary that was victimized by elite quarterbacks in 2011.
Guard is a major area of concern too, and given the available cap space, this could be one of the few landing spots in the NFL for Carl Nicks and the monster deal he is searching for.
Cap Space: $47.6 million
Dan Snyder has never been afraid to make big moves in free agency, and with help needed at most key positions, the Redskins are well placed to make a huge splash next month.
Even if the rumored interest in Robert Griffin III ends up in a blockbuster draft-day trade to land the Baylor signal-caller, Washington could still afford a second key acquisition.
But where to start? The running back class is loaded at the elite end of free agency. Matt Forte, Ray Rice and even restricted free agent Arian Foster can be bought at a price.
Any number of wide receivers are on the table here—Stevie Johnson, DeSean Jackson or Vincent Jackson—or if character concerns are an issue, Marques Colston or Robert Meachem.
With Fred Davis, LaRon Landry and London Fletcher as the key offseason re-signings, there is little to stop Snyder rolling the dice in free agency once again.
Cap Space: $45 million
With holes all over the Jags' roster, there's scope to make a wave of mid-range acquisitions, but for a franchise attempting to build momentum through Blaine Gabbert, its recruitment drive might come unstuck.
A veteran backup quarterback should top the wish list in Jacksonville, in the event the wheels fall off with Gabbert under center. Chad Henne or Kyle Orton could be sold by the prospect of taking over the controls midseason.
At the very least, Gabbert would learn from an experienced veteran, something that he was denied with the release of David Garrard last season.
A decent receiver to invigorate the No. 32 passing attack is a must. Marcedes Lewis and Maurice Jones-Drew need a wideout to draw coverage away from the best two threats on the team, and almost any of the candidates on the market would represent an upgrade.
As with every team, many of these needs will be addressed through the draft, but given the strength of the cornerback free-agent class, making a splash here (Aaron Ross, Brandon Carr, Cortland Finnegan) to complement or replace Rashean Mathis makes sense.
Cap Space: $39.3 million
If Jim Harbaugh sees Alex Smith as the future at the quarterback position, he won't be held to ransom over his demands, allowing the Niners to re-sign their other free agents.
Carlos Rogers is one of the top cornerbacks in free agency along with Brent Grimes and Lardarius Webb, and his signature would solidify the success of the 2011 defense.
Dashon Goldson is less of a priority, but given the strength of his play last year and a lack of quality alternatives at safety, he should also return.
Beyond re-signings, a star wide receiver could be the missing link that brings a championship to San Francisco. If Marques Colston's demands are too rich, then Reggie Wayne would be a nice, low-cost solution for the next year, maybe two.
However, given the overall strength of the existing roster, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Niners avoid free agency and concentrate on building the franchise through the draft.
Cap Space: $30.6 million
I fully expect general manager Thomas Dimitroff to keep a lid on any major free-agency acquisitions, outside of re-signing his own players—despite having no first-round pick heading into the draft.
Brent Grimes established himself as one of the top five cornerbacks in the league this season, and his signature will top the Falcon's "to-do" list on March 13.
Defensive end John Abraham should return for one final bite at a championship, and linebacker Curtis Lofton will likely see some mid-range money too.
Relieving some of the load from Michael Turner would benefit their bell-cow at running back, and a low-cost acquisition backing him up, such as LaDainian Tomlinson or Mike Tolbert, could be an option.
The priority elsewhere should be to get younger at tight end and draft complementary players at wide receiver—a slot or possession guy would allow Julio Jones and Roddy White to stretch the field with more impact.
Cap Space: $21.3 million
The offseason boils down to two key ingredients for Seattle: re-sign Marshawn Lynch and find a legitimate starting quarterback.
Tarvaris Jackson is not a legitimate starting quarterback that will take the Seahawks to a championship any time soon. Very few observers—outside of a few scouting departments—know if the Packers' Matt Flynn is the answer either, but based on the small sample size we've seen, his chances of succeeding are pretty good.
Most of the Seahawks' needs should be addressed via the draft. Despite the team's 7-9 record, there are a number of quality veterans on board, and prospects for the future are the top priority across the board.
Bringing those veterans back, such as Red Bryant at defensive end and tight end John Carlson, retains leadership at the top of the roster.
Cap Space: $20 million
With four draft picks in the first two rounds, you can be sure that Bill Belichick will address one or two major needs through the draft.
But with holes at cornerback, safety, outside linebacker and wide receiver, expect another busy period of activity in New England.
The return of one-year signings Mark Anderson and Andre Carter is far from certain, with base scheme dictating the make-up of front seven bodies on the roster. If a hybrid 4-3 and 3-4 formation plays a role in 2012, I like Anderson's chances of another season in a Patriots uniform.
Re-signing Wes Welker remains a top priority, but with negotiations at an impasse, the franchise tag will likely come into play, eating roughly half of New England's cap space, if Welker chooses to play under the tag.
At safety, Chris Hope, Tyvon Branch and LaRon Landry are possibilities, but the most speculation revolves around a fourth pass-catching target.
The Josh McDaniels connection with Brandon Lloyd is well documented, and Reggie Wayne makes sense as a replacement for the disappointing Chad Ochocinco.
But of all the teams on the list, the Patriots could be best placed to make a run at Mike Wallace and would only have to give up the 31st pick in the draft to do so.
With the 27th pick obtained from New Orleans (as part of the 2011 trade to land Mark Ingram), the Patriots could still land a top defensive rookie, while creating one of the most potent offenses in recent times.
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