Speculating about free agency is a pastime for fans of teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs—or in today's case, have already been eliminated.
But, with free agency now on the horizon, it's time to curb the wild speculation and separate the contenders from the pretenders. In other words, it's time to establish which NFL teams actually have the cap space to compete in free agency and which teams will sit by the sidelines.
ESPN's John Clayton provided a great breakdown of each team's projected cap space headed into 2013, and these figures are used in this article—along with analysis, of course.
These projected cap numbers are subject to change as teams cut and restructure contracts over the next two months. Anyway, here's an idea of how each NFL team shapes up financially heading into a free-agency period that figures to feature plenty of talent.
By inking Kevin Kolb to a $62 million deal in 2011, the Cardinals not only whiffed on a franchise quarterback, they also dug themselves into a huge hole. Arizona is over the cap heading into the 2013 offseason, which is very troubling news for a team that so desperately needs to overhaul its offense.
In order to get under the cap, the Cards will have to restructure some contracts, or perhaps, cut a notable name or two.
From Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com:
According to figures reported by John Clayton, the Cards are currently set to come in around $720,000 above the 2013 salary cap. That means at the very least there will be some restructuring to do. To have any flexibility for free agents or the like will take some paperwork.
That’s why, beyond Kevin Kolb’s injuries, it will be important to try and restructure his deal (his cap number is around $13 million this coming season), or extend safety Kerry Rhodes ($6M), or make a call on linebacker Stewart Bradley ($6.5M).
The cap numbers of Larry Fitzgerald (more than $10M), Darnell Dockett ($7.7M) and Adrian Wilson (more than $5M) also could be looked at in some way, shape or form.
Projected cap space: -$723,000
The Falcons won't have much cap space to work with this offseason, but this team doesn't necessarily need it. With so much talent on both sides of the ball, Atlanta can focus on re-signing its two biggest impending free agents: Brent Grimes and Sam Baker.
Things could get tricky if Tony Gonzalez decides to return for one more year, though.
From Pat Yasinkas of ESPN:
They have $113 million committed toward a cap that is expected to be slightly more than $120 million. Don’t expect a free-agent frenzy from the Falcons, because they could use most of their cap room to re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes and left tackle Sam Baker.
The Falcons won’t be getting much help from carry-over money, because they finished the 2012 season a league-low $425,000 under the cap.
Projected cap space: $4.9 million
Surely, the Ravens will miss Ray Lewis, but there is a silver lining to his retirement. Baltimore will save $4.35 million, which is pivotal for a team that has a slew of marquee players slated for free agency. Among those players is quarterback Joe Flacco—the team's first priority and a candidate for the franchise tag—as well as Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbee and Cary Williams.
From Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:
The Ravens are expected to face a tight salary-cap situation even with Lewis' departure because they are expected to have to use the franchise tag to retain quarterback Joe Flacco, barring an advancement in contract discussions that hit an impasse in August with talks tabled until after the season.
If Ed Reed decides to return for another season, then it might have to be with another team. That is, unless he takes a pay cut. Reed made $7.2 million this season, a hefty price tag for a 34-year-old safety.
Projected cap space: $15.1 million
The Bills might not contend for a few years, but losing impending free agents Jairus Byrd and/or Andy Levitre could set them back. Both players deserve substantial raises, and if Buffalo doesn't provide that, then other teams will. Fortunately, the Bills have one of the healthier cap figures in the NFL.
From Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com:
NFL clubs do not get the established salary cap for the new league year until March, but it’s projected to be around $121M. The Bills do not provide their cap figures as a team policy.
Reports indicate they’ll be around $15M under. That number obviously is subject to change between now and the opening of free agency.
John Clayton projects the Bills will actually have closer to $20 million at their disposal. Either way, Buffalo has one of the NFL's healthier cap figures but expect it to use it on its own guys, not any big-name free agents.
Projected cap space: $20.6 million
The Panthers enter the 2013 offseason with the third-worst cap figure in the NFL. By handing out huge extensions to its own players over the last few years, Carolina has dug itself in a hole that will be exceedingly difficult to climb out of.
Handing DeAngelo Williams a $43 million deal in 2011 is just one example of this front office's ill-advised moves.
From Pat Yasinkas of ESPN:
I don’t know if former general manager Marty Hurney deserves all the blame or if he was acting on orders from above, but the contracts given to guys like DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Steve Smith, Jon Beason, James Anderson and Charles Godfrey in recent years have left the Panthers in a real salary-cap mess.
Whoever ends up as the new general manager is going to have his hands tied in a lot of ways, because most of those contracts include so much guaranteed in base salaries and so much pro-rated money that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get out from under some of the team’s biggest contracts by releasing players.
Projected cap space: -$11.8 million
The Bears enter the 2013 offseason with reasonable flexibility, but Phil Emery can greatly increase the team's cap space by inking Julius Peppers, Jay Cutler, Charles Tillman and/or Brandon Marshall to contract extensions.
Chicago will need to create some more cap room in order to re-sign some of its impending free agents, a list that includes Brian Urlacher and Henry Melton.
From Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times:
There will be an incremental increase in the salary cap to $121 million, and the Bears’ combined cap number of their top 41 players is about $14.5 million under that. That includes a carryover of space from this season.
According to a league source, the Bears are among the top 10 teams in terms of cap space.
Projected cap space: $13.3 million
The Bengals enter the 2013 offseason with $55.1 million—yes, you read that right—in cap space. No team in the NFL has more cash to spend but don't expect Cincinnati to go on a shopping spree. This franchise rarely pursues expensive free agents, so expect most of this money to go toward extensions for Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson.
From John Clayton of ESPN:
The "haves'' are in good shape. The "have nots'' have to be creative. Thanks to the carryover, there is $350.7 million of cap room in 2013, but $200.3 million of carryover is part of that.
Eight teams, though, account for 79 percent million of total room. The Cincinnati Bengals saved $8.5 million of cap room in 2012 and made the playoffs for the second consecutive year. They have $55.1 million of room.
Projected cap space: $55.1 million
The Browns—another team that rarely spends big in free agency—happens to have the NFL's second-highest cap number. It's impossible to predict what Cleveland will do with its wealth until it hires a new general manager.
However, the Browns don't have any marquee players to re-sign, so they might actually have no choice but to pursue some notable names in free agency.
From Jamison Hensley of ESPN:
There's only five teams in the league who are projected to have over $30 million in cap space and two of them reside in the AFC North. The Bengals have the most projected cap room in 2013 with $55.1 million.
The team with the second-most cap room in the NFL is the Browns, who are projected to have $48.9 million. Indianapolis ($46 million), Miami ($35.8 million) and Tampa Bay ($31.3 million) round out the top five.
Projected cap space: $48.9 million
Jerry Jones has a penchant for handing out inflated contracts, and that bad habit will come back to haunt the Cowboys this offseason. Dallas' roster is studded with overpaid players, namely Doug Free and Jay Ratliff. These two are candidates for the chopping block, as is Miles Austin, who is scheduled to make $6.8 million this season.
From Jonathan Bales of DallasCowboys.com:
After running through the Cowboys’ contracts, you start to get a sense of why the team doesn’t have much money to dish around in free agency this year. Eight players have contracts worth a minimum of $25 million, six of which are over $48 million.
More concerning is the fact that the ‘Boys have three players whose recent production clearly doesn’t match their contracts—Miles Austin, Jay Ratliff, and Doug Free—due to make $26.5 million in 2013 alone.
Projected cap space: -$18.2 million
Peyton Manning is being credited for the Broncos' revival and understandably so. But, it's time to give John Elway serious props for putting this franchise in position to contend for years to come. Although Denver just inked Manning to a $96 million deal, it still enters this offseason with $18.5 million.
A chunk of that will go toward the re-signing of Ryan Clady. After all, if you're going to shell out nearly $100 million for a quarterback, you better make sure he's protected by a fortified offensive front.
Projected cap space: $18.5 million
With eight defensive starters entering free agency, the Lions' front office is going to be exceedingly busy.
On top of that, offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus will enter free agency as well.
From Dave Birkett of Freep.com
As of [December 11], the Lions had a projected $6.98 million in cap space for 2013. That includes $1.15 million in space they could roll over for next year but doesn't include potential tenders to restricted free agents like Jason Fox, Willie Young or Amari Spievey.
John Clayton's calculations differ quite a bit, but the bottom line here is that the Lions are in a very precarious situation. Detroit has a long list of free agents to sign and little space to re-sign them.
Projected cap space: -$1.1 million
The Packers won't exactly enter the offseason with a wealth of cap space, but that could change if the team decides to restructure, say, Charles Woodson's contract. He's due as much as $10 million over the next two years, which is a hefty payload for a 36-year-old who missed most of 2012 with an injury.
From Bob McGinn of jsonline.com:
The salary cap will increase minutely next year to about $121.3M. Green Bay will roll over what's left under the present cap, or $7.1M, into 2013 because all of their moves are designed to facilitate contract extensions for Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and [Aaron] Rodgers in the next six to nine months.
Projected cap space: $7.1 million
On the heels of its second divisional-round elimination in as many years, Houston will look to polish off a roster on the cusp of championship contention. The Texans don't have too much to spend—especially with a few impending free agents to re-sign—but they could have enough room to lure in a handful of role players.
From Paul Kuharsky of ESPN:
Houston’s in better shape than I would have guessed, but has three significant guys with expiring contracts: Fullback James Casey, safety Glover Quin and outside linebacker Connor Barwin.
Projected cap space: $12.9 million
Colts GM Ryan Grigson enjoyed a phenomenal first season in Indianapolis. His first draft class is headlined by Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Vick Ballard, and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are due for breakout seasons in 2013.
Now, one year removed from a playoff appearance, Grigson has $46 million to spend. It remains to be see if he'll take an aggressive approach in free agency, but he's in an envious position nonetheless.
From Paul Kuharsky of ESPN:
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson will enter a whole new world with that $46 million of cap room a year after his team swallowed about $37 million in dead money plus a $19 million cap hit for Dwight Freeney in the final year of his contract.
Projected cap space: $46 million
The Jaguars are eons away from contention, but recently hired general manager Dave Caldwell has enough cap space to start building for the future. With just more than $20 million, Caldwell can begin overhauling a roster that's devoid of talent on both sides of the ball.
From Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida-Times Union:
Depending on reports, the Jaguars have $22 million in salary cap space this year and Khan has been willing to spend money to eat the remaining years on the contracts of Gene Smith and Mike Mularkey.
Because of his role in Atlanta. I’m familiar with pro free agency [this year] so that was a good selling point that I could hit the ground running and not have too many setbacks.”
Projected cap space: $22.1 million
Andy Reid inherits a Chiefs team that isn't necessarily lacking in talent. Rather, it just might need the right coach to groom its young roster. However, Kansas City—like any other NFL team—can only get so far without a topflight quarterback, and Matt Cassel certainly is not one.
From Jeffrey Flanagan of FOX Sports Kansas City:
Matt Cassell, who had been the teams' starter for three seasons until being benched in 2012, could be a financial liability, especially as a backup quarterback.
Cassel is due to have a $7.75 million base salary in 2013, and a $9.825 salary cap number. It has been widely reported that if Cassel is released, the Chiefs would free up about $5.825 million in salary cap space.
If the Chiefs free up that cap space, then Reid could use it to bring in an old friend: Michael Vick.
Projected cap space: $16.1 million
With needs at wide receiver, offensive guard, offensive tackle, defensive end, cornerback and safety, the Dolphins have to put their $46 million of cap space to use.
Miami faces difficult decisions with many of its own impending free agents—Jake Long, Sean Smith, Reggie Bush, Randy Starks, Brian Hartline—but it must make a concerted effort to surround Ryan Tannehill with a legitimate supporting cast.
From Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald:
Frankly, I left Monday's talk not knowing if the Dolphins -- a team with approximately $46.8 million in salary cap space this offseason -- are expecting to be a big player in free agency or not.
In one breath, Ross said he'll pay whatever it takes to get a player. In the next breath he said free agency is not the answer. Sooo, the message was a little garbled.
Projected cap space: $46.8 million
The Vikings enter the 2013 offseason in solid shape, having just capped off an unlikely playoff run. However, Minnesota relied far too heavily on Adrian Peterson down the stretch, so GM Rick Spielman has to alleviate the burden on his best player.
Ironically, the Vikings' second-most dangerous weapon—Percy Harvin—is disgruntled as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. Harvin is a special and productive player, but his chronic injury issues make him a very risky investment. Minnesota has to decide if it will stand pat, extend his contract or trade him.
From Tom Pelissero of ESPN 1500:
The Vikings will carry over a little more than $8 million in unused cap space from 2012, according to sources with access to NFL salary data. That's on top of the $1.643 million adjustment they didn't use last year from the Washington and Dallas cap penalties.
Pending final accounting on incentives and escalators that will be done after the Super Bowl, the Vikings project to be about $12.3 million under their adjusted cap, putting them comfortably in the top half of the league in terms of space.
Projected cap space: $16.1 million
The rich get richer.
New England enters the 2013 offseason with the eighth-highest cap figure amongst NFL teams, which is a frightening proposition for the rest of the league.
The Patriots are already loaded with talent, and though they may use a large chunk of their cap space re-signing Wes Welker and Sebastian Vollmer, Bill Belichick can also use it to reel in more weapons for Tom Brady's arsenal or bolster his young and budding defense.
From Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston:
When I see those numbers, the first thought that comes to mind is that the Patriots are well-managed. Even with quarterback Tom Brady accounting for a $22 million salary-cap charge, there is room to maneuver.
Another way to look at it is that if the Patriots can't reach a multi-year agreement with receiver Wes Welker, and ultimately assign him a franchise tag at $11.4 million, the numbers become a bit tighter.
The final point is that salary cap space is fluid and can always change with roster transactions. But the way the Patriots have operated under Bill Belichick is that they have attempted to avoid situations where they have to release players to clear salary cap space, and their financial discipline has served them well.
Projected cap space: $18.6 million
The chaos surrounding the Saints hasn't all settled quite yet. New Orleans enters this offseason nearly $15 million above the salary cap, making some of its marquee players—Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper—candidates for release. Only the Jets are in worse financial shape.
In the midst of this situation, Mickey Loomis has to re-sign Jermon Bushrod, who secures Drew Brees' blindside.
From Nakia Hogan of NOLA.com:
Once the 2013 free agency period begins in March, the Saints - unless they cut some veteran players and/or restructure the current contract of others - are expected to be about $16 million above the 2013 NFL salary cap.
With 11 unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis figures to have his work cut out for him if he's going to upgrade the roster to get his team back in the playoffs next season.
Cap space: -$14.7 million
The Giants are one of eight teams entering the offseason over the cap. That doesn't mean they're in bad shape, however. New York can get under the cap by restructuring the contracts of players such as Michael Boley, Corey Webster, Chris Canty and Chris Snee, among others.
From Paul Schwartz of the New York Post:
Given the money the Giants had to distribute, they are not in terrible shape when it comes to gearing up for the 2013 season, but at the moment, they are $4.7 million over the projected salary cap, according to ESPN.
It means the Giants have plenty of work to do in the coming months, especially because they have 22 of their own free agents to consider.
Projected cap space: -$4.7 million
The Jets are a whopping $19.4 million over the cap heading into the offseason, which is absolutely crippling. New York's cap troubles, coupled with its on the field and off the field failures, may also be deterring potential general manager candidates from taking the job.
From Rich Cimini of ESPN New York:
Let's put that into some perspective, though. By cutting LB Calvin Pace, LB Bart Scott, OT Jason Smith and S Eric Smith, the Jets will clear $30.7 million in cap space. That will give them some room to operate, but keep in mind that, by cutting those players, they'll have only 10 starters under contract.
This offseason is a double-edged sword, really. Sure, the Jets can get under the cap, but it'll come at a steep cost. No matter how you look at it, Gang Green is in for rough 2013 season.
Projected cap space: -$19.4 million
Rebuilding continues in the post-Al Davis Era. Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie is still in the beginning stages of a rebuilding phase that could take some time due to years of ill-advised and inflated contracts.
From Bill Williamson of ESPN:
Oakland is one of 10 teams currently over the salary cap. Oakland is $4.5 million over the cap. It was severely over the cap last season.
This year, the Raiders, who will have to address punter Shane Lechler, tight end Brandon Myers and linebacker Philip Wheeler in free agency, will still have to make a lot of tough decisions and will have to tweak some contracts again. But they should be able to do a little more than they did last year.
Projected cap space: -$4.5 million
Vince Young's "Dream Team" prophecy never materialized. In fact, two of the big acquisitions that inspired the nickname—Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie—might not return in 2013, and a third—Jason Babin—was already cut.
And, of course, the Eagles have to decide what to do with Michael Vick, though his fate was all but sealed upon the departure of Andy Reid and promising play of Nick Foles.
From Reuben Frank of CSN Philly:
Vick is under contract through 2015 with base salaries of $15.5 million in 2013, $12.5 million in 2014 and $14.5 million, although the Eagles could release Vick during the three days immediately after the Super Bowl and owe him nothing. In that event, he would count $4.2 million against the cap.
Projected cap space: $5.2 million
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert will spend the next two months trying to restructure a slew of contracts to get his team under the cap.
Colbert will have to approach players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley and seek extensions or some adjustments. Then, there's James Harrison, who's scheduled to rake in roughly $10 million.
The soon-to-be 35-year-old linebacker has missed eight games over the last two seasons and registered his lowest sack total since 2006 this season.
His tenure in Pittsburgh just might come to an end.
Projected cap space: -$10.8 million
New Chargers GM Tom Telesco arrives after a 15-year stay with the Indianapolis Colts. During his time in Indy, the Colts were rarely big players in free agency, and it'll be interesting to see if he brings a 'build through the draft' approach with him to San Diego.
Either way, Telesco will have ample cap room to reel in some free agents.
According to Bill Williamson of ESPN:
"San Diego is $8.7 million under the cap. It should be enough to get a couple of starters. The Chargers need the most help on the offensive line."
True, the Chargers need to bolster their offensive line, but they currently don't have enough money to sign a blue-chipper such as Jake Long or Sebastian Vollmer. Unless San Diego restructures some contracts or sheds a few inflated ones, it'll have to play modestly in free agency.
Projected cap space: $8.7 million
After his historic performance in Saturday's playoff win over the Green Bay Packers, Colin Kaepernick has cemented himself as the 49ers' quarterback of the future. Obviously, this means Alex Smith is the odd man out—literally and figuratively.
From Pro Football Weekly on December 8:
Even though 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman caught a fair amount of flak for QB Colin Kaepernick’s ill-fated option pitch to Ted Ginn that was recovered for a TD by the Rams in St. Louis’ overtime victory in Week 13, we keep hearing Roman's name mentioned as a possible head-coaching candidate.
Some close observers have been wondering out loud whether there might be a team or two interested in a package deal of Roman and QB Alex Smith, whose future with the Niners beyond this season is not looking real bright all of a sudden.
There’s no question he’s got a great offensive mind,” one team insider said of Roman. But I honestly have no idea if he knows how to handle a defense.
With Greg Roman being rumored as a leading candidate for the Jaguars head coaching gig, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport (h/t Kareem Copeland of NFL.com), there's a very real chance Smith could follow to Jacksonville. If this indeed happens, then the Niners can use some of the salvaged money to re-sign Dashon Goldson.
Projected cap space: $8.7 million
Though Seahawks GM John Schneider has built his team almost entirely through the draft—with some exceptions, of course (i.e. Sidney Rice)—he'll have enough money at his disposal to shop around the free-agent market.
From Mike Sando of ESPN:
Seattle appears best positioned, at least initially, to operate freely from a cap standpoint in 2013. I use the word "initially" because cap situations can be fluid. Teams can often clear room quickly when necessary.
Clayton's latest mailbag notes that teams are managing a flatter cap by pushing unused space into the future. Seattle did this on a large scale in 2012, one reason the team has $18.6 million in space for 2013.
Projected cap space: $18.6 million
The Rams won't have much money to spend this offseason, but that could quickly change if the team opts to part with overpaid players such as Wayne Hunter and/or Quintin Mikell.
However, unless St. Louis can also restructure Sam Bradford's gargantuan contract, it can only free up so much money.
What the Rams do clear will most likely go toward re-signing Danny Amendola and Bradley Fletcher.
Projected cap space: $1.8 million
It takes some shrewd maneuvering to sign two blue-chip free agents one year and still have more than $30 million in cap space going into the next.
Yet, the Tampa Bay Bucs have managed to do just this. GM Mark Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano showed a willingness and desire to scour the free-agent market to improve their roster and boost the Bucs into contention ASAP.
The Bucs' decision to restructure the contracts of receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks means they are going to be a big player in free agency. It's an emotional uplift for fans and players who will survive the expected Schiano purge.
The move creates nearly $18 million more in cap space for 2013. Tampa Bay has committed about $98 million toward a cap that is expected to be around $121 million.
The Bucs can create even more space if they dump troubled cornerback Eric Wright and redo the contract of injured Quincy Black.
The Titans could greatly increase their cap space by cutting Chris Johnson and his $10 million cap hit, but the team has no plans to do so.
From Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean:
Johnson, 27, is scheduled to make $10 million in 2013 — $9 million of which becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of the new NFL year (Feb. 9). The Titans, who are expected to have plenty of salary cap room for next season, have no plans to release Johnson before the guarantee kicks in, sources said.
Johnson signed a $53.5 million contract extension in September 2011, and the guaranteed money in the lucrative deal has fueled speculation about his future with the Titans ever since then.
Johnson's strong play in the second half of the season helped his cause, as did the Titans' overall offensive struggles. While Tennessee could certainly use the money that would be saved by cutting CJ2K, there's little guarantee they'd be able to replace his production and presence in free agency—especially given how few quality backs are slated to hit the open market.
Projected cap space: $19.4 million
With Robert Griffin and Alfred Morris in the fold, the Redskins have a fresh nucleus of young talent that will anchor this team for years to come.
However, Washington still has quite a few overpaid veterans on its roster, which explains why it's over the cap heading into the offseason. In order to get financially comfortable, the Redskins will have to make some discomforting decisions.
Fan favorites such as DeAngelo Hall, London Fletcher and Santana Moss are all carrying inflated cap hits, which makes them candidates for release—though the Skins could try to restructure their contracts instead.
It won't take much for the Redskins to get under the cap, but some big names might be casualties in the process.
Projected cap space: -$4 million