Woe is Dallas: Tony Romo and the Cowboys have some significant salary-cap trouble to overcome.
The winter wonderland can be a time of wistful dreaming about your NFL team's change of fortune. For teams headed for salary-cap hell, it will be wishful thinking—we're talking to you Dallas Cowboys fans.
In this 10-part slideshow, we take a look at the top five teams well-positioned with the salary cap for 2014 and give you the bottom five teams needing some major overhauls just to operate next season.
This won't only be objective number crunching. Anyone can read the bottom line of a spreadsheet.
Teams like the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars have the most cap space—yet no team in its right mind would trade positions with them. They couldn't buy enough players this winter to really be counted on to compete in their divisions.
Instead, our rankings in this slideshow have more to do with overall outlook than just mere salary-cap room.
Note: The majority of our data and information came from two resources specializing in this sort of thing, OvertheCap.com and Spotrac (subscription required). So, thanks to them, we didn't have to do a whole lot of chasing down data. It was all in one neat place for us to peruse.
As disappointing as the Cincinnati Bengals' postseason ouster at the hands of the San Diego Chargers was, they have plenty to look forward to. They have arguably the best thing to have right now: buying power.
OvertheCap.com estimates the Bengals are almost $25.5 million under the cap with 11 unrestricted free agents—just two of which are starters, DE Michael Johnson and OT Anthony Collins. Cincinnati was already a very good division champion, and the Bengals are positioned nicely for the future.
The only problem is you cannot buy superstar experience for your quarterback. Dalton has to just go out and earn that. With the room to add pieces around him, that should get a whole lot easier.
You don't need salary-cap data or a calculator to be all in on the Indianapolis Colts' future. All you need to know is Andrew Luck is just 24 years old, healthy and under contract for two more years on his rookie deal.
With Luck, the Colts' future is as bright as anyone's—heck, brighter than anyone's.
The news gets even better when you consider the Colts have just around $91.5 million slated for contracts in 2014, according to OvertheCap.com. Spotrac estimates (subscription required) the Colts enter the offseason with over $36.5 million in cap space.
Sure, the Colts have 17 unrestricted free agents to try to retain—nine of which are starters, according to OvertheCap.com—but Luck and his core are intact. Whatever you think the Colts will have to spend a lot to re-sign their guys, there is still plenty of flexibility for Jim Irsay to make the Colts a dynasty in the Luck era.
Irsay is one of the most aggressive owners in the business. The Colts are going to improve from here, and they were already pretty darn good because of Luck.
It was a frustrating year for Aaron Rodgers and Co., but the arrow is still pointing up for the Green Bay Packers.
It is hard to believe the decades of fielding competitive teams haven't left the Green Bay Packers in salary-cap hell. Consider this a testament to a very well-run organization.
Oh, and having years of Hall of Fame quarterback play helps, too.
Aaron Rodgers represents a $17.9 million cap hit, which is over 14 percent of his team's allocation, according to Spotrac (subscription required), but the Packers still have plenty of room to operate. They will have plenty of room to sign James Jones and B.J. Raji if the numbers make sense.
With a healthy Rodgers in 2014, they don't need much help outside of bolstering their secondary.
Only one team can win the Super Bowl. The Carolina Panthers are the highest-seeded team to have already been sent home, but there will be some other very successful 2013 teams whose seasons end with a disappointing loss. There will be three more.
The Panthers can make a case to be better positioned for the future than all of them, no matter which three it will be among the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
No, Cam Newton is not a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady game-changer—nor did a very good Panthers defense prove to be as good as that of the Seahawks' or 49ers'. The Panthers do have the cap room to add some targets for Newton and really put this team over the top.
The Panthers have 21 free agents, nine of which were year-end starters, according to OvertheCap.com, but Spotrac (subscription required) projects over $12.5 million in cap space. That is enough to return the important free agents, like DE Greg Hardy, and add that premium wideout to work with Newton as Steve Smith tails off at the end of his career.
The selection of the New York Jets here is sure to generate the most debate—on both sides. Yes, the Jets have a lot of cap space, but they still don't have the quarterback those teams preceding them on this list have.
Spotrac estimates the Jets are more than $24 million under the cap, while OvertheCap.com notes they have just lower-end unrestricted free agents to retain. Rex Ryan has won all the way up to AFC Championship Games with Mark Sanchez as his quarterback. He could put together a competitive team because of the defense his teams play, regardless of who is under center.
It won't be Sanchez. He is widely expected to be cut this winter—Seth Walder of the New York Daily News certainly thinks so—and you cannot call him a cap casualty. He is a victim of his awful play, more than this contract.
Geno Smith might not be the answer at quarterback—the jury is still out on that—but the Jets sure have a lot of room to adorn his offense with weapons, if they don't use it exclusively to win with defense again.
Austin Miles' large contract might get him cut, but even that won't help the Cowboys' cap situation much.
Switching gears to the cupboard-half-empty teams, you have to feel for the Dallas Cowboys the most. And, no, not because they are stuck with Tony Romo as their quarterback.
He remains one of the things they actually have going for them, even if he accounts for over 17 percent of the Cowboys' salary with a cap number of $21,773,000, according to Spotrac (subscription required). OvertheCap.com estimates Dallas to have to trim over $21.5 million.
They are almost certain to lose free agent Jason Hatcher from a defense that was already ranked dead last in the NFL. Jerry Jones will find a way, but that way won't come with buying his way to a competitive team. He has to get far more clever than ever before.
Drew Brees desperately needs free agent Jimmy Graham to stay, so expect Brees to restructure his own deal.
Drew Brees knows the challenges the New Orleans Saints face this winter. Their projected salary-cap crunch looks a lot more bleak when you consider the biggest and best free agent in football, Jimmy Graham, is about to dangle out there.
That is why Brees came out this week and told Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune: "Whatever I can do to help this team."
That means restructuring his deal so the Saints can wash away what is $9 million too much on their salary-cap total—according to Spotrac (subscription required)—and attempt to re-sign Graham. Brees knows there is more to do than just reworking his own deal. Heck, the Saints also have their right tackle and center as pending free agents, too.
Brees is fully prepared to help, telling Holder:
As far as our team, I know that our team is going to spend whatever they...I don't think ours has, ever since I've been here, been in a situation where they're not going to do what they feel like they need in order to field the next team. So within cap constraints with whatever they feel like they need to do, for me, I signed a six-year ($60 million) deal when I first got here. I'm two years into a five-year deal ($100 million) and hopefully I can play that out and sign another deal and continue to play this game even longer.
Listen, I get compensated very well. I don't take that for granted for one second. But I play this game because I love this game, I love this locker room and I love the opportunity to win a championship.
Now, it is a matter of Brees putting his money where his words are—which are clearly in the right place.
A Ben Roethlisberger contract extension might creatively help solve some of Pittsburgh's salary-cap issues.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are projected to be further over the cap going into the offseason than the New Orleans Saints, but their situation isn't quite as dire. They don't need to re-sign two starting offensive linemen and a superstar in Jimmy Graham, like the Saints do.
The Steelers do enter the winter an estimated $10.5 million over, according to Spotrac (subscription required), and they currently have 21 unrestricted free agents. Only six of those are starters, according to OvertheCap.com, and none is a must-have like Graham.
The Steelers can alter their fate by actually spending more money here—and following the Saints' and Drew Brees' lead. Ben Roethlisberger has two years remaining on his current contract, but Art Rooney II told ESPN's Scott Brown the Steelers would like to have Big Ben around longer.
We've got to have Ben retire as a Steeler. There's no doubt about that. ... When both sides are able to come together on an extension—I don't know when that will be—but there's no doubt we look at Ben as somebody who's going to be here for the long term and hopefully five or more years.
Big Hitter: The Lions' Ndamukong Suh has one of the biggest cap hits in football this year at $22,412,500.
The Detroit Lions are the last of the four teams estimated to be over the salary cap heading into the offseason, according to OvertheCap.com, but they are close to being near it, and they don't have any marquee unrestricted free agents.
It is surprising, though, to see a team that has the longest active streak of consecutive seasons without a division title, per Wikipedia, to be so strapped. It sure cannot be the price of success, at least standings-wise.
It is more the cost of drafting early so often, collecting high-priced stars and watching them pile up stats in losses. The Lions have three players sucking up more than 10 percent of their projected salary cap—Ndamukong Suh (17.75 percent), Matthew Stafford (12.53) and Calvin Johnson (10.34)—according to Spotrac (subscription required).
Save for the Saints, if Brees helps cook the books with an extension, the Lions are one team over the cap that you should still be buying stock in, even if it needs to be trimming its own bottom line.
The most recent team to be eliminated from Super Bowl contention has had a rough week of turnover and questions. The San Diego Chargers lost to Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos on Sunday night, lost offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt (to be the Tennessee Titans head coach) and now they face the reality they are right around the salary cap.
This will sure make it difficult for them to improve on their surprising 2013 season.
Depending on which estimation you reference, the Chargers are either $1.3 million over the cap (Spotrac, subscription required) or just under $1 million under it—ironically at OvertheCap.com. Clearly they are close, and they need to make decisions on 14 unrestricted free agents, including four starters, as OvertheCap.com reports.
The good news is there is emerging young talent around Philip Rivers, and none of the pending free agents is a big-ticket guy. There are teams that will be far more impacted by free agency, like the New York Giants and Chicago Bears. Both those teams have 20-plus veterans headed for free agency and are similarly close to salary-cap capacity.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this season. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.