2014 NFL Free Agency: Posing the Toughest Question for Every Team
The offseason free-agent and salary-cap questions are easy to ask. They are much tougher to answer.
We will leave the latter up to the professionals that run the NFL teams, but it won't keep us from asking the hard-to-answer questions.
Like: How in the world do the New Orleans Saints get under the salary cap and retain arguably the biggest fish in the free-agent market, Jimmy Graham—all the while retaining two of their best offensive line protectors for Drew Brees?
We take a look at each franchise's toughest question heading into free agency this winter in this must-read 32-part slideshow.
What is the cost of the Seahawks' success?
Ask the Baltimore Ravens the price of winning the Super Bowl. All those players you counted on for depth tend to seek starting jobs and big contracts elsewhere.
This Seattle Seahawks team won't even have to win the Super Bowl to experience it, either. Their elite defense could be picked over, like situational pass-rusher Michael Bennett and nickelback Walter Thurmond. Bennett and Thurmond are good enough to start elsewhere and earn bigger paychecks.
How much can the Broncos afford to offer Eric Decker?
The Denver Broncos are going to be a victim of Peyton Manning's success here. Decker might be a slot receiver, but the two-year, $12-million deal they gave Wes Welker forced Decker over to the outside. That gives Decker, after two big years with Manning, greater bargaining power.
With a secondary that has been awful at times this season, how much can the Broncos pour into giving Manning four elite targets in lieu of their defense—which tends to be head coach John Fox's priority?
Decker could give the Broncos a hometown discount, but he certainly deserves more than Welker and the five-year, $28.5-million deal the New England Patriots gave Danny Amendola last offseason.
San Francisco 49ers
Can the 49ers add another receiving weapon?
Perhaps the question here should be: Do the 49ers need to add another receiving weapon for quarterback Colin Kaepernick? The return of Michael Crabtree (Achilles) might have been enough to supplement an offense that wound up being the 30th-ranked passing offense in football.
Anquan Boldin is a free agent, though, and perhaps too old (33) to be a real threat going forward. A healthy Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis are good, but when you rank ahead of just the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers—two teams that started rookie quarterbacks for most of the season—you need some help for your signal-caller.
New England Patriots
Do the Patriots go back to the well on a free-agent receiver?
When you consider the New England Patriots are in the AFC Championship Game, Tom Brady his team managed just fine after losing Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead. Even expected replacement Danny Amendola was lost for stretches, and he was hardly a factor when healthy.
Rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce seemed to be more trouble than they were worth at times, but Julian Edelman bailed out Brady and the Pats with a career year (105 catches and 1,056 yards) at age 27. Now, Edelman is a free agent.
The Pats have a number of big free agents on defense, along with their stretch-run feature back, LeGarrette Blount, too.
They need a reliable veteran receiver, perhaps even a real go-to man like Eric Decker or Hakeem Nicks, but can they afford that with their cap situation and defensive holes?
What receiving help can the Panthers get for Cam Newton?
Yes, the Carolina Panthers potentially have the biggest fish in the 2014 free-agent market—pass-rushing and run-stuffing defensive end Greg Hardy—but that defense figures to be championship-caliber even if Hardy earns megabucks elsewhere.
The Panthers are only going to go as far as Cam Newton takes them. With Steve Smith past his prime as the oldest starting wide receiver in football at the end of this season (age 34), the Panthers need a new go-to man. Tight end Greg Olsen does not cut it.
Hakeem Nicks is a North Carolina guy, so perhaps he could be the free-agent ticket, but ask the New York Giants just how reliable he is.
New Orleans Saints
How can the Saints get under the salary cap and afford the likes of Jimmy Graham, Zach Strief and Brian de la Puente?
You are like many others and just cannot see the New Orleans Saints without Jimmy Graham on their roster. But, how in the world do the Saints trim over $8 million from their salary cap—which will be needed, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required)—and sign Graham, their elite right tackle and All-Pro-quality center?
It is going to be tough, particularly since Graham has earned the right to be the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. Reworking Drew Brees' deal will be a start, but that alone won't be enough.
This is a make-or-break offseason for the Saints.
Do the Colts spend on defense or get Andrew Luck some more weapons?
The Indianapolis Colts have 17 unrestricted free agents, nine of which are starters, according to OvertheCap.com, but Spotrac.com (subscription required) estimates Jim Irsay's club will be almost $37.5 million under the cap heading into the offseason. That should allow Irsay to set his franchise up to be a potential dynasty in the Andrew Luck era.
Irsay often says he wants to build a more well-balanced team than he did in the Peyton Manning era, so you should figure he uses his cap space to overhaul a defense that barely sniffed the top 20.
The temptation Irsay will face, though, is he will have to build a defense in lieu of arming Luck with offensive weapons. The Colts have some young talent like T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener, but with Reggie Wayne, 35, coming off knee surgery, Luck needs help with downfield threats, too.
Do you go all-in on offense to make it a juggernaut there, or share the wealth with the defense and make two parts of your team closer to good than great?
San Diego Chargers
Is there any salary-cap space for the Chargers to add cornerback help this winter?
The San Diego Chargers are over the cap heading into the offseason, according to Spotrac.com's estimations (subscription required). It will make it tough to improve after a surprising rebound year for Philip Rivers and Co.
The Chargers' biggest weakness was a secondary that had its two starting cornerbacks, Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright, both grade out of the top 100 corners in football, according to Pro Football Focus' rating system (subscription required). They need to upgrade there—an expensive position to try to do so with little in the way of cap space.
What can the Bengals do to make Andy Dalton more successful?
Earlier this week, we surmised the Cincinnati Bengals have the most enviable salary-cap situation in football. With plenty of space and few key free agents outside of disappointing pass-rusher Michael Johnson, the Bengals stand to be able to really add to what was already a division champion.
The question is: What exactly can the Bengals do? Perhaps the one thing that kept them from advancing in the postseason was Andy Dalton. You cannot buy championship-caliber quarterback experience. You just have to earn it.
The Bengals can use their cap space to protect him, perhaps even sign a big-time No. 2 threat to work off of A.J. Green, but do they need to with the emerging likes of tight end Tyler Eifert and receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones?
Kansas City Chiefs
Which offensive linemen can the Chiefs afford, if any?
Andy Reid remade the Kansas City Chiefs into a powerhouse by focusing on the tackles. He brought back Branden Albert and picked Eric Fisher No. 1 overall. Now, Albert is once again a potential free agent after being franchised, and guard Jon Asamoah is also potentially going on the free-agent market.
The Chiefs are perhaps too close to the salary cap to keep both, if Spotrac.com's estimation (subscription required) proves accurate. Does Reid trust Fisher as a left tackle after his slow start to 2013, or do they bring back Albert on a long-term deal and risk losing Asamoah?
These tough decisions are the price the Chiefs had to pay for potentially going from worst to first in Reid's first year.
Will Jeremy Maclin (knee) accept a one-year deal?
As promising as that Chip Kelly-injected Philadelphia Eagles offense looked with Nick Foles at quarterback, imagine what might be with a healthy Jeremy Maclin (knee) in 2014. We might not get to find out if Maclin doesn't return on an incentive-laden, one-year deal coming off knee surgery.
Green Bay Packers
What can the Packers do to upgrade the defense?
Usually perennial contenders are stuck in salary-cap hell, especially if you have a big-ticket quarterback sucking up a large percentage of your cap space. This does not apply to the Green Bay Packers.
Spotrac.com (subscription required) estimates that the Packers head into this offseason with more than $15 million to spend. James Jones figures to accept a reasonable deal to return, but the Packers could stand to improve quite a bit defensively with that much cap space.
You can argue a year of health from Aaron Rodgers and an upgraded defense are all that keep the Packers from being the best team in football.
How can the Cardinals upgrade their offensive line?
The Arizona Cardinals just missed the postseason in Bruce Arians' first year, but that was mostly thanks to a quality defense. Arians is an offensive guy that likes to attack downfield. It is hard to do that if you cannot protect the passer.
The Cardinals have had some notorious issues along their offensive line, so expect them to make some upgrades there—perhaps signing Kansas City Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert. The Chiefs need to improve running the ball as well, having a bottom-10 team in rushing offense.
The right moves for line help can make the Cardinals pretty good offensively, no matter what you think of Palmer as a quarterback at this stage of his career.
How much can the Dolphins upgrade their trenches?
Not only did the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin scandal rob Ryan Tannehill and company of the left side of their offensive line, the Miami Dolphins also have two quality defensive tackles, Randy Starks and Paul Soliai, as pending free agents.
Oh, Brent Grimes also had a great comeback year as a shutdown cornerback. The Dolphins fired their offensive coordinator, Mike Sherman, and might have to make some dramatic changes defensively, too.
Expect the Dolphins' estimated cap space, around $20 million, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required), to get burned up quickly by bolstering the lines on both offense and defense.
New York Jets
Do the Jets help out a young quarterback, or go all-in on defense?
It is easy to see the New York Jets' biggest weakness: poor quarterback play. It is tougher to fix what ails here. They are likely stuck giving Geno Smith a few years to prove himself.
Rex Ryan is going to be around those few more years, so do the Jets use their considerable cap space—around $25 million, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required)—to make them a defensive juggernaut again? Or do they buy some pieces to help out a young quarterback?
The Jets went defense with their first two picks last draft. They might just stick with what Ryan knows.
If you ask Jets fans, they are going to do both—help their young quarterback and keep bolstering the defense—and buy everybody. Wishful thinking.
What can the Ravens do to help their putrid running game?
After winning the Super Bowl and suffering considerable losses in the offseason, Ray Rice figured to be something the Baltimore Ravens could count on. If not Rice, then it would be emerging backup Bernard Pierce.
However, Rice and Pierce were the root of their issues, instead of a part of the solution. The Ravens had the third-worst rushing attack in football.
Joe Flacco needs another receiving threat, but the Ravens might be forced to use their money on multiple upgrades to the offensive line.
How the heck do the Cowboys get down to the salary cap?
The Dallas Cowboys easily have the worst salary-cap situation in football going into the offseason, as we outlined here earlier this week. Jerry Jones' signing of disappointing veterans like Miles Austin to big long-term deals is a part of that.
Unlike many non-playoff teams, the Cowboys stand to actually have to lose players to get down to the cap, which they are projected to be more than $22 million over, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required).
This will be a tumultuous offseason for a team that was dead-last defensively.
Do the Steelers fix their cap troubles with a Ben Roethlisberger extension?
The Pittsburgh Steelers have salary-cap issues, too, albeit not on the scale of the Dallas Cowboys. They could take a page out of the New Orleans Saints' book by extending the contract of their quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger is not a free agent, but he is due a contract extension, and a well-written deal can help fix some of the Steelers' salary-cap issues. The problem with this is just getting down to the cap by spending money on the quarterback doesn't help what has been a rapidly aging defense.
How do the Bears repair an aged and banged-up defense?
What a difference a year and a head-coaching change make. From Lovie Smith to Marc Trestman, the Chicago Bears went from defensive stalwarts to a defense sieve.
The good news is the Bears showed some big-time potential offensively. The question the Bears face is whether injured free-agent stars Henry Melton (DL) and Charles Tillman (CB) can be brought back to be a part of the solution defensively.
St. Louis Rams
How do the Rams help their quarterback situation?
The St. Louis Rams spent last offseason giving Sam Bradford the weapons to succeed offensively. Now, they might be faced with doing that all over again.
The Rams do have some first-round picks to potentially start over at quarterback, but they don't necessarily have the salary-cap space to surround him with new talent. The Rams have under $4 million to spend against the cap, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required).
New York Giants
How can the Giants fix their broken-down offensive line?
The New York Giants have their scapegoats for their disappointing season and the pitiful play of two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning: retired offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and a banged-up offensive line. It hides the fact the defense has given up a lot of yards and points the past few years, too.
Expect the Giants to spend most of their limited offseason resources on helping prop up Manning at the end of his career. Picking offensive tackle Justin Pugh in Round 1 last year was a start, but clearly there is a lot more work to do here.
Do they choose to make Chris Johnson a 2014 free agent?
It certainly looks like this question is more of an answer. Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean writes it is not a matter of if the Titans will release the well-paid Johnson, but when.
That then begs the question: How are the Titans going to allocate those new resources? First, they would need a new feature back. Shonn Greene has never been an answer there.
How do the Lions improve and trim their salary-cap number at the same time?
The Detroit Lions are projected to be more than $1.2 million over the salary cap, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required), with Ndamukong Suh's cap number of $22.4-plus million accounting for almost 18 percent of the Lions' entire 2014 allocation.
Like the Saints with Drew Brees and the Pittsburgh Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, the Lions might attempt to bail themselves out of cap trouble by extending their most expensive player.
What length do the Bills go to retain safety Jairus Byrd?
The Buffalo Bills have salary-cap space of almost $7 million, according to Spotrac.com (subscription required), but they also have one of the best safeties in football, Jairus Byrd, back on the potential free-agent list.
The Bills franchised Byrd last year, but doing so again would require a 20 percent raise on his near $7 million contract. Re-signing Byrd might require making him the highest-paid safety in football.
The Bills need to decide if that is worth it.
How do the Vikings plug all of their myriad holes?
What the Minnesota Vikings lack in salary-cap issues, they more than make up for in offseason question marks. They don't have a franchise quarterback and do have one of the worst defenses in football, which ranked 31st.
Other than having Adrian Peterson, the Vikings have nothing but questions.
Expect them to draft a quarterback in Round 1 and use their offseason cap space to bolster that putrid defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Do the Bucs go all-in on defense with Lovie Smith?
Lovie Smith might have been the best head-coaching hire in all of football, because he just fits what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' strengths are. They can play defense on the level of anyone, and Smith is arguably one of the best defensive minds in football.
With rookie quarterback Mike Glennon having proven capable enough, Doug Martin (shoulder) hoping for a healthier year and Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams as the outside threats, the Bucs might have enough offensive firepower to allow Smith to take the Bucs defense from good to great.
How can the Falcons address their porous defense?
When Matt Ryan is your franchise player, you tend to want to help him out. Instead, the Falcons will have to use their money this winter to bolster the other side of the ball.
Do they use up their considerable cap room or practice patience?
The Oakland Raiders have finally dug themselves out of salary-cap hell. With almost $70 million available to allocate this winter, according to Spotrac.com estimations (subscription required), do they go hog wild to burn it up in one offseason or practice some much-needed patience?
The Raiders figure to draft a quarterback and might consider pending free agent Michael Vick as a stopgap option, too.
This might be the most interesting team to watch this winter with how they move going forward.
Do they fix their running game via free agency or the draft?
Despite having the All-Pro-caliber tackle in Joe Thomas and the best free-agent center on the market, Alex Mack, the Cleveland Browns still had the fifth-worst rushing offense in football. Even if they retain Mack, they will still have to spend more to fix that problem.
The draft tends to leave running backs on the board, or the Browns could consider a game-breaker like Chris Johnson, if he becomes available. The Browns certainly have the salary-cap room—over $50 million, according to OvertheCap.com—to call their shots this winter.
Who will the quarterback be?
This isn't a free-agent question, but the Jacksonville Jaguars' draft position will allow them to estimate who they will pick in the draft to lead this team from under center. Clearly, Chad Henne or Blaine Gabbert are not the answers.
Whoever the Jaguars plan on selecting should determine how they use their salary-cap space this winter. OvertheCap.com estimates the Jaguars have over $53 million to spend, if they so choose.
It won't be used on the awful issues at quarterback, but they could prop up the future passer with some offensive line, wide receiver and running back help.
What length do the Redskins have to go to keep Brian Orakpo?
It almost seems like a forgone conclusion the Washington Redskins will bring back linebacker Brian Orakpo. The question is: What lengths will they have to go to do so?
That rhymes, too!
Clearly, the Redskins need help on both sides of the ball, outside of retaining Orakpo. If the linebacker eats up too much money, it might preclude the Redskins from getting a premium receiver to aid Robert Griffin III's development.
Do they extend J.J. Watt sooner than later?
The worst team in football always tends to have myriad problems to address. All-world defensive end J.J. Watt is not one of them, since he is under his rookie contract for one more year in 2014.
Re-signing Watt to a long-term deal might be the Houston Texans' first offseason priority, though.
Drafting a young quarterback No. 1 overall and making certain Arian Foster (back) can return to his All-Pro status are Nos. 2 and 3. This could be a quick return to contention for a team that came into 2013 with Super Bowl hopes.
Most teams picking this early can rarely say that.
The Texans really have to hit on that quarterback in the draft, though, whether or not they trade down.
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.