5 Teams Sure to Improve the Most in Free Agency
There has been a debate taking off as free agency nears. One side values the importance of adding key free agents as a components in building a Super Bowl roster. The other side, myself included, believes that building through the draft and supplementing a tad in free agency is the way to go.
Either way, front offices around the league have to find a happy medium between the two. After all, while the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers are two representations of teams with home-grown talent, both went outside of the organization to find talent that helped them get to the Super Bowl. Anquan Boldin with Baltimore and Justin Smith with San Francisco come to mind first.
There are a multitude of teams with a lot of salary-cap room to work with when the new league year begins tomorrow. This doesn't mean that every team in this situation will go out there and spend like they're the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. Instead, some (the Cincinnati Bengals) will look to lock up key cogs they currently have on the roster.
With that in mind, let's take a look at five teams destined to improve the most in free agency.
Salary Cap Figure: $74,816,914
The Cleveland Browns expect to be much busier in free agency this season than in the past. They have an entirely new front office, coaching staff and ownership group calling the shots in 2013. One really does have to wonder of this is finally going to be the offseason that free agents make the decision to entertain offers from the Browns.
Maybe a changing of the guard in Ohio will lead to renewed interest in the fledgling franchise. Of course, this is all pure conjecture on my part.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who was released on Saturday, has indicated that the Browns and their new 3-4 defensive scheme could interest him (via Akron Beacon Journal).
Playing for the Browns would bring me back home... Harrison said through his agent, Bill Parise...It would be great.
Harrison is correct about it being a great fit. Jabaal Sheard will be moving to outside linebacker in Cleveland's new defense and needs a running mate. Harrison, who has recorded 60 sacks in the last six seasons, has experience playing in a 3-4 with Pittsburgh. It just seems to make too much sense not to happen.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer, Cleveland has contacted the agents for Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe as well. Both seem to be great fits and would take talent away from the division-rival Baltimore Ravens.
As it is, Cleveland has a whole heck of a lot of money to work with in free agency. While it will continue to build its roster through the draft, adding veterans would help what is one of the youngest teams in the league.
Of course, the big question here is what Cleveland will do at quarterback? It passed on Alex Smith last month and doesn't seem to have a whole heck of a lot of options.
One rumor that consistently makes its way around the water cooler is Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots. Again, Kay Cabot came out and indicated through a source that Cleveland will go after the former Arkansas standout. Another source stated it would take at least a second-round pick to land the Patriots' current backup (h/t Cleveland Plain Dealer).
Either way you look at it, things seem to be on an upward trajectory for a franchise that has been the butt of jokes for far too long.
Salary Cap Figure: $81,221,218
The Indianapolis Colts did one heck of a job last season with a young core. Rookies Andrew Luck, Vick Ballard, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener led one of the most surprising offenses in the entire league.
Common sense seems to indicate that Indianapolis will just sit there and wait for the draft to roll around in order to upgrade its young roster.
Common sense doesn't have a starring role in the NFL when it comes to free agency.
Indianapolis is said to be preparing for an active couple of days, beginning tomorrow.
First and foremost, Indianapolis will have to think about upgrading a secondary that struggled a great deal throughout the '12 season. While the addition of Vontae Davis in a trade with the Miami Dolphins prior to the season helped, the Colts just have too many holes here.
One way to help fix issues as they relate to pass defense is to acquire more pass rushers in the front seven; especially on a defense that runs a 3-4.
On that note, The Baltimore Sun has indicated that Indianapolis and Cleveland are "in bidding war for (Paul) Kruger." The talented outside linebacker from the Baltimore Ravens recorded nine sacks last season and is a perfect fit for the Colts' 3-4 scheme.
According to Jason Cole of Yahoo!, Indianapolis is also looking upgrade its pedestrian offensive line. It is chasing Louis Vasquez of the San Diego Chargers and Andy Levitre of the Buffalo Bills, the two top guards on the market. Either would be enormous upgrades over what the Colts currently have along the interior of their offensive line.
Indianapolis is about $43 million under the cap and will be major players in free agency this week. It will be interesting to see where general manager Ryan Grigson looks to upgrade. While some will conclude that the success Indianapolis had this past season was a fluke, it will be a contender moving forward with the wide array of young talent it possesses.
If Grigson can go out there and find immediate veteran help at multiple positions, mostly on defense, the Colts will be in contention for the AFC South next season.
Salary Cap Figure: $88,957,784
What a difference a year makes in South Beach. This time last year, fans of the Miami Dolphins were nearly ready to riot outside of the office of general manager Jeff Ireland.
The relationship between the organization and its fans really didn't get much better when Miami "reached" for quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the top-10 of the 2012 NFL draft last April.
Coming off what has to be a successful season for the Dolphins, they're about to hit the open market with "enthusiasm unknown to mankind."
Various reports have linked them to enigmatic former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace, while they have retained three important in-house talents in the form of Matt Moore, Brian Hartline and Randy Starks, the latter through the franchise tag tender (h/t Pro Football Talk).
While some have indicated that Greg Jennings could be a fit in Miami, Jeff Darlington over at NFL.com throws some ice into that pretend fire.
If all goes as planned -- and yes, there is a plan -- Ireland will have a corps of pass catchers within the next week that includes Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Devone Bess... The plan ("Plan A," at least) does not include Greg Jennings, who isn't as valued by the organization as many outsiders believe him to be.
Miami isn't far off from contending for a playoff spot in the AFC. While it will have to get the cornerback situation figured out following the likely departure of Sean Smith in free agency, there is a whole heck of a lot to like here.
Of course, it all starts with its franchise quarterback and what promises to be a vastly improved offensive attack. Reports that Miami is the favorite to land Mike Wallace seem to fit into what Ireland is attempting to build in free agency. That is, adding weapons to the passing game.
The Miami Herald reported on Sunday that three teams are in on free-agent running back Reggie Bush. The same report indicates that "Bush categorically will not be back in Miami." Fret not, Dolphin fans, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas are more than capable of shouldering the load at running back.
With over $30 million to spend in free agency, Miami is in a good situation to make noise. It will have to focus on wide receiver, offensive tackle and the secondary in the coming weeks.
If Miami makes a splash in free agency and has another solid draft, it is likely to be an under-the-radar playoff hopeful next season. This is the happy medium between free agency and the draft that I referenced in the opening slide.
New England Patriots
Salary Cap Figure: $97,691,634
The rich keep getting richer. Just put money signs up in front of Tom Brady and call it a day. The future Hall of Fame quarterback signed a new deal last month that saves the New England Patriots $15 million in cap room over the next two seasons (via CNNSI).
Now that New England has some wriggle room to work with, it will likely go out there and look to add top-tier free agents to an already talented roster.
Mike Wallace has been mentioned as a possibility (h/t Pro Football Talk). The dynamic deep threat would bring an entirely new dimension to a Patriots' offense that seems to lack that dynamic right now.
In short, pairing him up with Brady would make opposing AFC East defensive coordinators lose a ton of sleep at night. This doesn't even take into account the multi-faceted duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski at tight end.
While it remains to be seen if Wes Welker will return to New England in 2013, the team seems to have a ton of back-up options at this point; most notably Wallace and Danny Amendola.
As it relates to what was an improving defense, New England is not sitting still on that side of the ball either.
Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald has indicated that the Patriots are going to be testing the cornerback market when free agency begins tomorrow.
I've been told they've shown interest in Sean Smith, Chris Gamble and Derek Cox, who are three of the best on the market.
It's been reported the Pats are one of the favorites for Smith, but the word is it's still way too early for any favorites to emerge.
Sean Smith would come in to replace another free agent, Aqib Talib, who is likely seeking more money than his counterpart from Miami. If not, a trio of Alfonzo Dennard, Smith and Talib is mighty good for a pass defense that struggled through the first half of last season.
Another interesting player to consider here is Chris Gamble, who was just recently cut by the Carolina Panthers. Gamble, who has seen his game drop off a bit over the last two seasons, would seemingly come on the cheap as a reserve/nickel guy.
Spin it whichever way you want, New England isn't going away anytime soon. While it only has five selections in April's draft, it will improve an already talented roster in free agency.
Scary proposition for the rest of the AFC East.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Salary Cap Figure: $92,498,545
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a questionable decision to hit the free-agent market heavy last season. They doled out a total of nearly $140 million to Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson and Eric Wright last April (via Spotrac).
While Jackson had a tremendous amount of success in his first season with Tampa Bay, the other two failed to make much of an impact. Wright dealt with injuries and a suspension, while Nicks, the class of the 2012 NFL free-agent class, missed the final nine games of the season with a toe injury.
Despite these issues, Tampa Bay is expected to hit the free-agent market hard this week. It has over $40 million to spend.
The Tampa Bay Times has indicated that the Buccaneers are not expect to retain free-agent defensive end Michael Bennett, who recorded a career-high nine sacks this past season.
This coupled with the recent arrest of Da'Quan Bowers on gun-possession charges leads me to believe that Tampa Bay will be looking to find multiple upgrades along its defensive line (via CBS Sports). Bowers and Bennett combined for nearly half of Tampa Bay's sacks this past season.
On that note, multiple free agents have been linked to the Buccaneers.
According to Pro Football Talk, Tampa Bay joined multiple teams interested in defensive end John Abraham. The former Pro Bowler fits its 4-3 defense to a T and would be a major upgrade. Though, it is important to note that San Francisco and Seattle should be considered favorites to land Abraham.
In addition, the Buccaneers are said to be extremely interested in obtaining Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis from the New York Jets (via The Tampa Bay Times).
Either way, the Buccaneers are going to be hot suitors for some of the top free agents. They're still a relatively young team with a whole heck of a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. If they are able bring in solid free-agent and draft classes, it wouldn't surprise me to see them in the conversation for a postseason spot in '13.
As with every team on this list, it is all about pinpointing areas of weakness and going out there to find suitable upgrades.
Vincent Frank is a NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. He was hired on prior to the 2011 season and couldn't be happier working with a great group of individuals here. In addition, Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft and co-host of eDraft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 PM ET. Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.