Only one game remains in the 2013 NFL season: Super Bowl XLVIII. And while the vast majority of football fans are concentrating on the big game, 30 of the 32 NFL teams (congratulations to the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks) are already looking ahead to the next league year, which begins on March 11.
With the new year comes free agency, and the all-important salary cap comes into effect. Some teams are in better financial position than others, meaning they have a better chance of re-signing their own players and poaching from other squads.
Teams that are up against the cap or over it will have to get creative in getting sufficiently under, and that means "cap casualties" or players that are released to create financial flexibility.
Some squads loom as major players in free agency, while others appear to be in a spot of trouble. It'll be fascinating to see how it all shakes out.
In this column, we list the biggest salary cap question for every NFL team, whether it be retaining a specific player, the ability to bolster a certain position or if an overpriced veteran looms as a cap casualty.
All salary cap information comes from Spotrac.com (subscription required).
The Arizona Cardinals surprised many in 2013, finishing with a 10-6 record and just outside the postseason. One of the main reasons for their success was the play of linebacker Karlos Dansby, who finished with 113 tackles, 6.5 sacks and four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
The Cardinals are in a tight squeeze financially, only $5.7 million under the cap, so bringing back Dansby isn't a lock. Plus, if he demands a big-money deal, that could scare off general manager Steve Keim, as Dansby is 32-years old.
But if the two teams can find a happy medium, they should consummate a deal. Dansby provided leadership on and off the field in 2013, and he would be a welcome addition on defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' unit in 2014.
The Atlanta Falcons entered the 2013 season as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but they crashed and burned with a 4-12 record, leaving general manager Thomas Dimitroff to pick up the pieces.
The Falcons are $10.7 million under the cap, and that isn't enough to make a significant splash in free agency. In order for that to happen, the team would have to part ways with some of its high-priced veterans. And as D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, running back Steven Jackson, defensive end Osi Umenyiora and cornerback Asante Samuel could be among those players to which the Falcons bid adieu.
Ultimately, the Falcons failed in 2013 and need a fresh start in 2014. That could mean the team releases a number of veterans in order to bring in new blood.
When the Baltimore Ravens traded receiver Anquan Boldin last offseason, they likely thought that tight end Dennis Pitta would be able to pick up the slack in the passing game. But the best laid plans of mice and men and so on and so forth, as Pitta dislocated his hip before the season and only played in four games, catching a grand total of 20 passes.
The Ravens offensive line also struggled mightily, leading to an in-season trade for Jacksonville Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe. But the team still couldn't run the ball after acquiring him, finishing 30th in the league in rushing and averaging a paltry 3.1 yards per carry.
It's no wonder that the Ravens went 8-8 with their offense sputtering. Now, general manager Ozzie Newsome needs to concentrate on bringing both men back to stabilize the unit and get the team back on track for the postseason.
The Ravens are $14.5 million under the cap and have a number of other free agents as well. But Pitta and Monroe are the most important, and they should stay in the Charm City for 2014 and beyond.
The Buffalo Bills and safety Jairus Byrd spent last offseason locked in a game of chicken, resulting in the Bills using their franchise tag on him after the two sides failed to reach agreement on a long-term deal. Byrd held out of training camp for a while as a result, and after he eventually reported, he injured his foot and ended up missing five games.
But Byrd played well upon return and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl for his efforts. The Bills would be wise to try and bring him back into the fold, something general manager Doug Whaley is acutely aware of, per Joe Buscaglia of WGR550.com.
The Bills are only $15.9 million under the cap, so retaining Byrd will be tricky, as he will likely command a large payday, but look for Whaley and Co. to do everything in their power to keep Byrd in Western New York.
The Carolina Panthers' season might have ended in disappointing fashion with a divisional-round playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but it was ultimately a massive success. Their 12-4 record represented significant progress and featured the ascent of several players, including defensive end Greg Hardy.
The Panthers are slated to be $15 million under the cap and should do everything in their power to retain the services of Hardy, a soon-to-be free agent who compiled 15 sacks on the season and emerged as one of the best young pass-rushers in the NFL.
General manager Dave Gettleman knows that the team will be facing difficulty with the cap this offseason, telling Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer:
Everybody lets players go. There isn’t a team in this league that hasn’t let a big dog walk out the door. And don’t print that I’m saying that he’s going to go. I’m just making a statement. There isn’t anybody that hasn’t done that. It’s a whole big puzzle we’re putting together and (Hardy is) one of the pieces.
Despite that, expect Gettlemen to try and keep Hardy in Carolina.
Complicating matters is the impending free agency of left tackle Jordan Gross, whom the team would love to keep as well.
Keeping Hardy in the fold needs to be the priority, whether via the franchise tag or a long-term contract. Carolina's defense was one of the league's best in 2013, and losing Hardy could prove disastrous to its success in 2014.
The Chicago Bears barely missed the postseason at 8-8, and their failure to qualify largely rests on the failures of their defense, which finished the season ranked 30th.
The loss of defensive tackle Henry Melton, the team's franchise player in 2013, was especially devastating. Melton was coming off a Pro Bowl campaign in 2012 and was lost for the season in Week 3 with a torn ACL. The Bears struggled to stop the run without him clogging up the middle of the line.
Melton did have an off-field incident in late December, as he was arrested for assault and public intoxication. That prompted general manager Phil Emery to say, "Obviously, he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure that he's focused on football and having a passion for football," per Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune.
But at his best, Melton is a dominant force that would help stabilize a Bears defense that had more holes than a moldy piece of Swiss cheese. The Bears, who are under the cap by $14.8 million, would be wise to bring him back.
The Cincinnati Bengals took a step forward by winning the AFC North in 2013, but they followed that accolade with a third consecutive first-round playoff exit. Now, the team will enter 2014 with two new coordinators: Hue Jackson (offense) and Paul Guenther (defense).
The team's biggest salary cap-related question will be whether or not it can keep defensive end Michael Johnson. The Bengals franchise-tagged Johnson last offseason, but that was coming off a 13.5 sack season. This past year, he only compiled three sacks.
Cincinnati has a bevy of cap room, sitting at $24.1 million under the cap, but giving Johnson a long-term, big-money deal might be out of the question. Whether or not it re-signs him will be a major story this offseason.
The Cleveland Browns are a franchise in disarray. The front office fired coach Rob Chudzinski after only one season, and they are currently the only squad without a coach in place, infuriating a jaded fanbased and raising questions about the viability of the team's leadership.
Once a coach is in place, the new regime will need to focus on the futures of free-agent center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward. Both men are among the better players on the roster, and for a squad coming off a 4-12 campaign, it would behoove the team to try and retain both.
The Browns have a ton of cap space (scheduled to be $35.3 million under), so they should be able to finagle a way to bring both players back. The question will be if Mack and Ward want to return to Cleveland after experiencing firsthand the dysfunction that has seemingly permeated the franchise since it returned to the NFL in 1999.
The Dallas Cowboys have gone 8-8 for three straight years and have lost in three consecutive "win-and-in" NFC East championship games in Week 17. So, of course, owner Jerry Jones opted to stay the course and retain coach Jason Garrett and the coaching staff.
Making matters worse is that the team is in the throes of salary cap hell, coming in at $22.3 million over. Back in December, former NFL agent Joel Corry ranked the Cowboys' cap situation as the worst in the NFL in a column for CBSSports.com.
In order for the Cowboys to get under the cap, they'll likely need to restructure the deals of some of the higher-paid players on the team. That list could include quarterback Tony Romo, linebacker DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Brandon Carr.
Finding a way to massage the cap in a way that will enable them to spend in typical aggressive fashion will be a challenge for Jones and Co.
The salary cap situation is likely the last thing on the minds of the Denver Broncos brass, who are getting set to watch their team play for the Super Bowl on February 2.
It's worth noting that key members of what was the most prolific offense in the history of the NFL are set to hit the free-agent market. Running back Knowshown Moreno was the team's primary ball-carrier, and receiver Eric Decker caught 11 touchdown passes.
But if quarterback Peyton Manning returns, it's hard to imagine the offense operating at anything but an elite level, even if both Moreno and Decker walk. That means the team's most important offseason move must be keeping cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Rodgers-Cromartie stepped up this season in a major way, emerging as the team's top cornerback. Keeping him in the fold must be a top priority for the Broncs, who are about $24.6 million under the cap.
It was a season where the NFC North title was all but gift-wrapped for the Detroit Lions. But in typical Lions fashion, they gave it away, stumbling down the stretch to miss the postseason, resulting in the firing of coach Jim Schwartz.
New coach Jim Caldwell and general manager Martin Mayhew will have some finagling to do with the salary cap, as the team is slated to be $1.2 million over. That means some players with large numbers might not be returning.
One such player is receiver Nate Burleson. As B/R featured columnist Jeff Risdon wrote, with a cap number of $5.5 million, Burleson is no lock to return in 2014. Releasing him could provide the team with the cap relief necessary to re-sign players such as center Dominic Raiola or defensive end Willie Young.
Even if the team restructures Burleon's deal, it will still have work to do to alleviate its salary cap issues.
The Green Bay Packers won their third consecutive NFC North title in 2013, but they lost in the first round of the postseason to the 49ers. And now, general manager Ted Thompson has work to do in the offseason.
The team has several critical free agents, including receiver James Jones, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, tight end Jermichael Finley and cornerback Sam Shields. The good news is that the team is $25.5 million under the cap, so it should be able to retain some of its own players.
The Packers have never been a team that splurged on other team's free agents, but with so many of their own up for free agency, this could be a year where the normally reserved Thompson makes a splash in the market.
Hey everyone, remember when the Houston Texans started the 2013 season 2-0? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
The Texans followed that 2-0 start with 14 consecutive losses, and, as a result, the team "earned" the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft and parted ways with coach Gary Kubiak. Owner Bob McNair and general manager Rick Smith hired former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien to replace Kubiak, and the regime will have nearly $7 million in cap space to work with.
The team's running back situation could be an interesting one. Arian Foster has been the team's primary ball-carrier over the past few seasons, but he carries a cap number of $8.5 million next season. That makes it unlikely that the Texans will be able to retain Foster's understudy, Ben Tate, who looks set to command a nice payday on the open market
Tate's situation will be one to monitor as the free-agent period opens.
While the Indianapolis Colts finished 11-5 and won the AFC South, they finished with the 20th-ranked defense in the NFL. With quarterback Andrew Luck in place, the offense should be just fine. That means general manager Ryan Grigson must focus his efforts on the defensive side of the ball, particularly the run defense.
Indianapolis was shredded in the postseason on the ground by Kansas City and New England, and it was porous against the run all season (finishing 26th overall). The Colts are flush with cap space, with $40 million to play with, so they should be able to bring in some help.
Also key will be bringing back cornerback Vontae Davis and safety Antoine Bethea, two of the stalwarts of the secondary.
While it's more than likely that the Jacksonville Jaguars' quarterback of the future is not on the roster, the team still has a decision to make on the signal-callers currently on the roster.
Last year's primary starter, Chad Henne, is in the final year of his contract, and calling Blaine Gabbert a bust would be an insult to busts everywhere.
Coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell will surely use one of their first few picks on a quarterback, making either Henne or Gabbert expendable. Do they want to give Gabbert another chance to show the skills that made him the 10th overall pick of the 2011 draft or bring back Henne?
In addition, running back Maurice Jones-Drew is set to enter free agency, but he'll enter the 2014 season at age 29. Will the Jaguars lock him up to a multiyear deal or opt for a younger, cheaper alternative at the position?
With $51.9 million in cap space, the Jaguars have the money to make whatever decisions they want on Henne and Jones-Drew.
The Kansas City Chiefs completed a meteoric turnaround in 2013, finishing 11-5 a season after bottoming out at 2-14. But they lost six of their final eight games, including an epic collapse in the Wild Card Round against the Colts.
One of the strengths of the Chiefs was their offensive line, and left tackle Branden Albert had a very good season. But he's a free agent, and it's unknown if he'll be back in Kansas City for 2014 and beyond.
The Chiefs do have two starting-caliber tackles in Eric Fisher and Donald Stephenson, but you can never have too many quality bookends on the offensive line. Albert wouldn't come cheap, and the team is only $17 million under the cap, so signing him could limit its ability to make other moves.
Albert's situation will certainly be one to monitor for Chiefs fans.
The Miami Dolphins struck gold in the offseason with the signing of cornerback Brent Grimes, inking him to a one-year, $5 million deal as he came off a torn Achilles. Grimes was spectacular, emerging as the best player in the Dolphins secondary, intercepting four passes and earning a Pro Bowl nod.
Now, Grimes is up for free agency. And while the Dolphins front office is in flux with no general manager currently on board, coach Joe Philbin and his scouts surely know the importance of bringing Grimes back into the fold.
The Dolphins are $24.5 million under the cap, so they do have room for Grimes. If the two sides can't work out a long-term deal, the franchise tag is a possibility, but given the fact that he was already tagged once (by the Atlanta Falcons), his price tag would be higher than a player tagged for the first time.
Defensive end Jared Allen has had a sensational six seasons in Minnesota, compiling a ridiculous 89.5 sacks. But 2013 could very well have been his last season as a Minnesota Viking.
Allen's cap number in 2013 was a little over $17 million, and with the team nearly $35 million under the cap, it isn't outside the realm of possibility that he could be brought back. But Allen will be 32 at the start of the season, and the Vikings have a new head coach in Mike Zimmer. The team might not be apt to give him another large payday.
Losing Allen would be tough for the Vikings, who only managed 41 sacks in 2013.
Last offseason, the New England Patriots let receiver Wes Welker leave for Denver. Julian Edelman was the man who stepped up in his absence, catching 105 passes in the regular season and evolving into quarterback Tom Brady's top target and security blanket.
Now, Edelman is a free agent, and the Patriots would be wise to keep him. Doug Kyed of NESN.com agrees, saying the Patriots would be "insane" to let Edelman walk.
The team is only $5.7 million under the cap, but that can't stand in its way. Coach Bill Belichick must find a way to keep Edelman on the team in 2014.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is an absolute beast. He was named first-team All-Pro after a season that saw him haul in 86 catches for 1,215 yards and an absurd 16 touchdown receptions.
And he's now in line for a massive payday. But with the Saints sitting at $11.8 million over the salary cap, keeping Graham will be tricky. It's a move that they absolutely have to make, though, and general manager Mickey Loomis knows it, saying via Mike Triplett of ESPN.com, "We're going to franchise him if that's necessary."
If the Saints do franchise Graham, it could become tricky, as Graham's representatives could argue for him to be compensated as a wide receiver. Either way, he must be a Saint next season, regardless of whether it's a long-term deal or the franchise tag that keeps him on Bourbon Street.
Perhaps no player exemplified the disappointing season of the 7-9 New York Giants like wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. Nicks, who is a supremely gifted player, only caught 56 passes and scored a whopping zero touchdowns. His chemistry with quarterback Eli Manning also appeared to be off for much of the year.
Now, he's a free agent, and he did himself no favors with his poor 2013. But he's still young (Nicks will be 26 at the start of the 2014 season) and talented, and there's no doubt that he'll get paid somewhere. The question is if the Giants will be the team to do it.
The Giants are $16.3 million under the cap, so bringing Nicks back is within the realm of possibility. Whether or not they do so will say a lot about their belief in his ability to bounce back, as they'll surely be able to ink him at a discounted price, given his struggles last season.
There have been various iterations of miracles in sports throughout the years. The Miracle on Ice. The Music City Miracle. And then there's the New York Jets going 8-8 in 2013 despite possessing a horrendous 53-man roster, and that's perhaps the greatest sports miracle of all.
Now, the directive for coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik needs to be to surround young quarterback Geno Smith with talent at the skill positions.
The Jets are $27.6 million under the cap, so they have money to sign some players. Bringing back tight end Jeff Cumberland should be a priority, and then it'll be time to open the checkbook once free agency opens on March 11.
Since he was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the 2008 draft, running back Darren McFadden has shown flashes of brilliance, but they've been muted by his inability to stay healthy. McFadden has never played in more than 13 games in a single season.
Now, he's a free agent. And although the Raiders need all the help they can get, he is no lock to sign, even with the team flush in cap space (an outrageous $70.6 million under the cap). The team's other primary running back, Rashad Jennings, is also a free agent, and he will likely be had at a lesser price than McFadden.
If the Raiders choose to move on from McFadden, few would blame them given his injury history. But it's not outside the realm of possibility that he could put it all together in a new city, making this a situation to watch closely.
The Philadelphia Eagles finished 2013 with the NFL's ninth-ranked passing offense in the first season under coach Chip Kelly. And with the emergence of quarterback Nick Foles, it's easy to imagine the aerial attack being even better in 2014.
But the team faces two critical decisions at wide receiver. Jeremy Maclin, who tore his ACL before the season began, was coming off a 2012 in which he had 857 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. And Riley Cooper burst onto the scene with 835 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2013.
Both men are free agents, and with the team $30.4 million under the cap, there should be enough room to bring back both, but that is certainly not a lock to occur.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are $9.6 million over the salary cap. They selected an outside linebacker, Georgia's Jarvis Jones, in the first round of last year's draft. Another outside linebacker, Jason Worilds, is a free agent, and he led the team with eight sacks. And yet another outside linebacker, LaMarr Woodley, carries a cap number of $13.59 million in 2014 and has only played in 34 of a possible 42 games since 2011.
The Steelers have some major decisions to make at the position, and it's difficult to imagine them being able to keep both Woodley and Worilds.
The team will likely ask Woodley to take a pay cut to allow it to re-sign Worilds, but it's unknown if that will happen, meaning the Steelers could be forced to release Woodley and get creative with the cap in an attempt to keep Worilds.
The San Diego Chargers made a surprise trip to the postseason in 2013, and one of the main reasons why was a defense that steadily improved as the season went along. Linebacker Donald Butler was a central figure in the defensive renaissance, and he's now a free agent.
The Chargers are slightly over the cap, meaning they'll have to get a little creative to bring Butler back. But there's no doubt it would be a wise move. General manager Tom Telesco agrees, telling Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune:
Butler played very well down the stretch and in the postseason, forcing a fumble against Cincinnati in the Wild Card Round and intercepting a Peyton Manning pass in the divisional round. The Chargers would be wise to lock him up long-term.
Last offseason, the San Francisco 49ers fleeced the Ravens by acquiring receiver Anquan Boldin for a sixth-round pick. He responded by hauling in 85 passes for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns.
But he's a free agent, and he proved last year that he isn't one to accept a salary that he deems to be beneath him. He was dealt to San Francisco after refusing a pay cut in Baltimore, and while he has indicated a desire to remain a 49er, it will likely depend on the amount of money offered.
The 49ers are $6.9 million under the cap, so this will be fascinating to monitor. Boldin played very well and was a reliable target for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, so the team should definitely consider any and all options to keep him in the Bay Area next season.
Much like the Denver Broncos, the last thing on the mind of the Seattle Seahawks is the salary cap and the offseason as they get set to play for the Super Bowl on February 2. But win or lose, decisions will have to be made, and the biggest one that looms is wide receiver Golden Tate.
The Seahawks are $12.9 million under the cap, so they should be able to bring Tate back if they'd like. Tate caught 64 passes for 898 yards and five touchdowns, and he proved to be a valuable member of both the offense and special teams.
But again, the Seahawks aren't worried about next year. They'll concern themselves with those matters in the aftermath of Super Bowl XLVIII.
Since the St. Louis Rams selected quarterback Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, they have yet to make the postseason, and Bradford is 18-30-1 as the starter. He only played in seven games in 2013 after tearing his ACL.
With two first-round picks in the 2014 draft, including the second overall selection, the Rams have the opportunity to start over at the quarterback position if they so desire. Bradford carries a massive cap number into 2014 at $12.595 million, and he hasn't yet shown that he's the quarterback to lead the Rams into the promised land.
ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner reported that Rams general manager Les Snead remains "committed" to Bradford, but that could simply be pre-draft posturing. He is no lock to return in 2014, regardless of what Snead says. If the Rams fall in love with one of the top quarterbacks, it shouldn't come as a surprise if they part ways with Bradford.
After a 5-11 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik and replaced them with Lovie Smith and Jason Licht. The team will import Smith's Tampa 2 defense, which rose to prominence under the reign of Tony Dungy in the late '90s and early '00s.
The Bucs are $15.3 million under the cap, and it's likely that Smith and Licht will want to add defenders that fit the scheme. It's worth noting that the team's new defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, ran the Tampa 2 in Minnesota, and Vikings defensive end Jared Allen is a free agent. He looms as a potential fit in Tampa Bay.
In addition to Allen, look for the Bucs to spend their money on players that fit the Tampa 2, even if it's a few midlevel players as opposed to one big signing.
Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner burst on to the scene in 2013, earning a Pro Bowl berth and emerging as one of the best young defenders in the league. Now, he's a free agent.
Forget about the hoopla surrounding running back Chris Johnson. He's as good as gone, according to Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean. Verner is guy that Titans fans should concern themselves with.
The Titans haven't made much of an effort to keep Verner in the fold, and that could cost them, as he'll test the free-agent market, per the Twitter feed of 104.5 The Zone's Jonathan Hutton.
But Tennessee is under the cap by $16 million, and one would have to believe that new coach Ken Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Ray Horton would love to keep Verner in the fold. Expect the Titans to do whatever they can to secure his services moving forward.
In 2012, the Washington Redskins went 10-6 and won the NFC East title. In 2013, they crashed and burned, finishing 3-13, leading to the dismissal of coach Mike Shanahan.
Jay Gruden is the new coach, and he and general manager Bruce Allen have a lot of work to do in improving a below-average 53-man roster. Chief among their priorities must be re-signing pass-rushing demon Brian Orakpo, who had 10 sacks last season.
The Redskins will be $38 million under the cap and will likely make a splash in free agency. Re-signing Orakpo and then lavishing money on a number of players to improve the roster would be a wise course of action.