Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis after winning a championship in his final NFL game.
Since the inception of the salary cap era in 1994, the NFL has been a league built upon parity. The notion that in any given year, any team has the ability to shock the masses and contend for a playoff berth is what glues fans to their television sets every Sunday during the season. In all but one season since 1996, there have been five teams to make the playoffs that did not do so in the previous year.
The salary cap, along with advanced drafting and scouting reports, have created an entity in which small market teams have just as good of a chance (on paper at least) to put a contending football team on the field. However, while it's much easier to build a competitive football team in today's league, it's also extremely difficult to keep one together. That's a notion that even the most respected general managers around the league can not avoid.
In fact, it's often the premier general managers that find their teams in salary cap "jail" at least once during their tenure. The reason behind that fact is simple.
The most successful teams in recent history found their key pieces in the NFL draft. Although free agency is a useful tool, it often causes teams to overpay for older players who can never live up to their contracts. However, when a team consistently drafts well, it can reap the benefits of several players on the roster producing above their pay-grade.
What do Joe Flacco, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Osi Umenyiora, Kenny Phillips and Will Beatty all have in common? They are all recent Super Bowl champions, they have all played their entire career with the teams that drafted them and they will all hit the open market this offseason. Besides Flacco, none of the aforementioned names are a lock to re-sign with their current team.
Heading into the offseason, there are several teams that do not have the salary cap room to retain the talent that they have groomed through the draft, or have acquired elsewhere. There are other teams that are just completely incompetent and will once again find themselves at the top of the draft next April. Regardless, let's take a look at seven squads who may have tempered expectations by the time Week 1 rolls around.
New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Let's get this one out of the way first.
The New York Jets are not getting any better in 2013. In fact, they might get a heck of a lot worse before anything improves for Gang Green. Heading into the offseason, the Jets are a projected $19.4 million over the salary cap. They will pay Mark Sanchez $8.25 million next season to play behind a shaky offensive line and provide average to below average quarterback play.
It's one thing to be in salary cap trouble after a championship or a deep playoff run. Competitive teams are going to encounter problems keeping their core together. That's how the salary cap was designed to work. However, it's quite another thing to go 6-8 and still have no cap room or any viable avenues in which to significantly improve the roster. Mike Tannenbaum isn't around anymore, and it's likely because many of the gambles he took with his veterans failed miserably.
With the media circus surrounding the team, no answer at the quarterback position and no way to improve via free agency, it would not be a surprise to see the Jets at the very top of the 2014 draft. This organization has shown a consistent inability to operate efficiently, and there is no reason to suspect they will be anything other than a train wreck next season.
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III after tearing his ACL.
At the end of the 2012 regular season, the Washington Redskins looked like one of the premier up-and-coming teams in the NFL.
With Robert Griffin III tearing up the league in his read-option offense, it appeared as if the 'Skins were on the verge of becoming legitimate Super Bowl contenders. However, with the uncertainty surrounding RG3's knee, the Redskins are in some serious trouble in 2013.
Quarterbacks reign supreme in the NFL. It's tremendously difficult to consistently win football games without stellar quarterback play. RG3's ability to run and throw took a historically average offense and transformed them into one of the most dynamic groups in the league. Even if he does find a way to to make a full physical recovery from a potentially debilitating injury, he's still never going to be the same player.
The Redskins are never going to allow Griffin the freedom he had this past season. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is going to transform Griffin into a pocket passer who will occasionally take off down the field. Defenses are always going to have to respect his ability to run, but the Redskins know their young standout signal-caller will not survive in the NFL if he continues to get hit the way he did in 2012.
When RG3 comes back, he may not be the same player he once was. He's suffered two torn ACLs in his career, which is going to make it extremely difficult for him to play at the level we have become accustomed to see him perform at. He still has a great arm and the potential to develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber pocket passer, but he will never be as dynamic as we saw last season. For those reasons, the Redskins may not reach the heights that many believed Griffin would take them to.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It would be fair to characterize the Pittsburgh Steelers as a franchise in rebuilding mode. The core of the team is aging and there are several big-name free agents that the team does not have the salary cap room to retain.
Mike Wallace and Casey Hampton already have one foot out the door, James Harrison is likely getting cut and the offensive line is in limbo. The team is going to rely on a solid draft to keep them competitive in 2013. However, the reality is that this is an 8-8 squad that is going to lose a ton of talent this offseason.
With Ben Roethlisberger on the roster, it's impossible to ever count the Steelers out. He's an elite quarterback in the NFL and has won two Super Bowl rings. However, barring any unforeseen circumstances, the Steelers are in for a reality check in 2013.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
The 2012 New Orleans Saints had the worst statistical defense in NFL history. As good as Drew Brees is, he can't cover a receiver down the field. The Saints are the only team in NFL history to give up over 7,000 yards in a single season, a trend that will get them nowhere near the playoffs in the in future seasons.
Given the Saints' salary cap issues and their transition to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, there may be even more misery in the bayou next season. The Saints will not have the salary cap room to add any significant free agents to help fit their new defensive scheme. In all likelihood, Ryan is going to have to take players suited for a 4-3 defense and plug them into unfamiliar roles within his system.
With the lack of talent the Saints possess on defense, it's not likely there is much improvement on the defensive side of the ball in the near future.
Furthermore, the impending departure of left tackle Jeremy Bushrod and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is going to hinder the Saints' ability to improve 2013. With the return of Sean Payton to the sidelines and the effects of Bountygate in their rear-view mirror, we could see the team rebound. However, they do not have the talent to consistently beat the elite teams around the NFL.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The New England Patriots' decline will be less pronounced than many of the teams on this list. With Tom Brady behind center and Bill Belichick on the sidelines, this organization will always be a threat to win a championship in any given year. However, neither of the aforementioned future Hall of Famers are miracle workers.
With the impending loss of both Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, the Patriots could be devoid of a downfield threat in 2013. Without a consistent rushing attack or reliable defense, the team would rest their hopes entirely upon the right arm of Tom Brady. There are a lot of squads out there that would take that scenario in a heartbeat heading into next season. However, none of those teams would be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
The Patriots have come painstakingly close to winning championships during the past two seasons. However, they are not going to improve by getting older and less talented on offense.
That's not to say that they should bring Welker and Lloyd back. Both players are getting older and will decline in the coming years. In particular, Welker is a free agent who is looking to cash in on a long-term contract this offseason. The Patriots should not, and probably will not, cave into those demands. Regardless, they will still lose a five-time Pro-Bowler that has helped their offense remain explosive over the last several seasons.
New York Giants safety Kenny Phillips bats down a Tom Brady Hail Mary to win Super Bowl XlVI.
The New York Giants have an explosive offense, along with pass rushers that will keep them competitive in most games they play in 2013. Furthermore, Big Blue will have the easiest schedule in the NFC East in 2013. However, with 26 impending free-agents and little to no salary cap room to spare, the Giants are going to be losing some talent this offseason.
Kenny Phillips and Osi Umenyiora are likely to be lost in free agency. Additionally, the team still has to find a way to re-sign Will Beatty, Kevin Boothe and Martellus Bennett to new contracts. It's likely that at least one, maybe even two of those players are not going to be retained.
Without Ahmad Bradshaw, Michael Boley or Chris Canty on the roster either, the Giants are going to look significantly different next season than during their magical Super Bowl run in 2011. With a solid draft and the emergence of David Wilson, this team still has more than enough talent to make some noise next season. However, several players are going to have to step up to make that happen.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Baltimore Ravens are fortunate that the team was able to come together over the final four games of their 2012 campaign and bring home a Lombardi Trophy. Realistically, this was the final season in what was a relatively significant championship window.
With Joe Flacco, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Bryant McKinnie, Dennis Pitta (restricted) and Ed Dickson (restricted) all hitting free agency, it's unlikely the team will be able to retain the core of talent that won them a Super Bowl in 2012. Flacco is a near lock to be back next season; however, the rest of the Ravens free-agents all stand a good chance to be pilfered on the open market.
With the retirement of Ray Lewis and the impending release of Anquan Boldin, the 2013 Ravens are not going to look anything like the 2012 squad. Specifically, there will be several unproven players in significant roles next season. The 2013 team will have less talent on paper, so it stands to reason Baltimore will fall back to Earth.
It's a harsh reality to come to grips with. However, in today's NFL, that's how the system was built to operate.