Predicting the Biggest Spenders of the 2014 NFL Offseason
Yes, the 2013 NFL season just ended, and if you're reading this, you're likely depressed by that fact.
So take a deep breath, and repeat after me:
There is no NFL offseason.
Feel better now? Good.
The NFL's business season opens up in a little over a month on March 11 with the start of free agency, and while the draft remains the most important facet in building a championship roster, there's no doubting the positive impact that a successful free-agent class can have on a team.
Take the Seahawks for example. They've definitely drafted with aplomb, but would they have won the Super Bowl without signing free-agent pass-rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett last offseason? Highly unlikely.
While I use the Seahawks to illustrate the importance of free agency, their roster was already loaded and at an elite level. General manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll only needed to make a few moves to push the team over the hump. That's the fascinating thing about the NFL, where different teams have different needs. Some squads need a total overhaul, while others only need a piece or two.
Regardless, there are a variety of teams that are poised to spend big this offseason, and they vary from the NFL's bottom-feeders to the Super Bowl runner-up. It's going to be a spellbinding offseason.
Here are my predictions for the biggest spenders of the 2014 NFL offseason:
Honorable Mention: Jacksonville Jaguars
Fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars might be wondering why I've chosen to include their team in the honorable mention category on this list, considering the team is under the cap by over $50 million.
The answer is simple: General manager David Caldwell's philosophy is to build through the draft, not via free agency.
Look for the Jaguars to target a top pass-rusher, perhaps Carolina's Greg Hardy, in an effort to improve a defense that accumulated a league-low 31 sacks last season. But outside of that, don't expect the Jaguars to splurge and sign a number of big-name players. That's simply not Caldwell's style.
The Washington Redskins are coming off a disastrous 3-13 campaign that resulted in the dismissal of coach Mike Shanahan and his staff, and there's no doubt that owner Dan Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen want to quickly right the ship.
Aiding matters is the fact that the team is finally out of the throes of financial hell and is now around $38 million under the cap. Allen confirmed the team's intent to spend, telling Jim Miller and Pat Kirwan of SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post):
We’ll have some (cap) room. We’re gonna have some room to do some things. But we have some players who are free agents, and we’re going to talk to them first, to try to retain them. But we have the ability to maneuver around, and we’ll be active in free agency.
Re-signing pass-rushing linebacker Brian Orakpo is surely the team's top priority, as he led the Redskins in sacks with 10, but he's far from the only need. They allowed the second-most points in the NFL (behind the Vikings), and their secondary was awful.
The defense needs an injection of playmaking ability, and considering the team has only six draft picks, it stands to reason that free agency will be vital to its rebuilding process.
Look for the Redskins to be active early and often in free agency as they attempt to return to the top of the NFC East.
In his two seasons as general manager of the Oakland Raiders, Reggie McKenzie has watched his team win a grand total of eight games. That's not good.
But part of the reason for that is the salary-cap mess he inherited, and despite the team's awful win-loss mark in his two years, McKenzie has successfully navigated the Silver and Black out of financial hell. And now the team is ready to spend and spend big, as it's $70.6 million under the cap.
That's right. You read that correctly. $70.6 million under the cap. McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen will be able to lavish money on their free-agent targets in an effort to build a 53-man roster ripe with quality and depth.
As currently constituted, the Raiders just aren't a good football team. The roster is substandard at almost every level. Oakland isn't just a few quality players away from being able to compete in the ultra-tough AFC West; it needs a substantial amount of work.
McKenzie knows this, as he told the team's reporters (via Raiders.com):
We’re trying to accumulate as many really good players as possible. The philosophy is not to dump every dollar and cent into one or possibly two players, no. That’s not my philosophy. We’re not at that point with our team that we’re able to do that, because we have more than one or two needs. We’re going to figure out how we can best get as many good players as we can. If that, by chance, leaves enough money or cap space to get that one player, then we’ll do that, too. We’re going to do things that make sense for the big picture. The big picture is the overall of the roster.
Raiders fans should feel very good about that statement. Look for the Raiders to make a big splash in free agency, but more along the lines of signing seven or eight mid-level options as opposed to one or two elite players. That's the right move.
It hasn't been a great calendar year for the Cleveland Browns.
The club hired Rob Chudzinski last January, only to fire him after a 4-12 campaign that saw the bottom completely fall out. The team was roundly criticized for the move and for the ensuing process of hiring a new coach, in which it seemingly interviewed everyone for the job except you and me.
Owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi ultimately settled on Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and with a coach in the fold, the team can now focus its energies on free agency. And it definitely has money to spend, coming in at $35 million under the cap.
The Browns have several free agents of their own to make decisions on. Center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward are slated to hit the open market, and both are excellent players. Plus, receiver Eric Decker and running back Ben Tate are logical candidates for an offense in dire need of playmakers.
Haslam, Banner and Lombardi surely know that the team needs to start winning soon to appease an angry and jaded fanbase, and they'll likely do everything in their power to put a winner on the field in 2014. That means opening up the checkbook this free-agent period and signing a number of big-name players.
Last offseason, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay opened up his checkbook, allowing general manager Ryan Grigson to bring in a number of players to improve the roster.
The result was an 11-5 season that saw the Colts capture their first AFC South title since 2010 and advance to the divisional round of the postseason. But there is still a lot work to do on the roster, and Irsay and Grigson surely know that.
The run defense hasn't been good for years, as the club finished ranked 29th in 2012 and 26th in 2013 in that particular category. And the Colts simply must upgrade the offensive talent around quarterback Andrew Luck, as the unit simply wasn't the same after receiver Reggie Wayne was lost with a torn ACL in Week 7.
Fortunately for the Colts, they're once again under the cap and poised to be big spenders, with around $40 million to play with. And even though they spent a lot of Irsay's money last offseason, Grigson knows he's fortunate to have an owner who will likely let him do it again, telling Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star:
We have an owner that's supportive. Even in the locker room after the (Patriots) game, he's so supportive in what we feel we need, he will let us get. He will be supportive of that and we can go get it.
In the aforementioned Patriots game, the Colts allowed 234 rushing yards. Look for Grigson to improve the run defense and bring in a weapon or two for Luck.
The Baltimore Ravens suffered through a lackluster 2013 campaign, finishing 8-8 the season after they claimed the franchise's second Super Bowl championship.
And now general manager Ozzie Newsome is ready to open up the checkbook and spend the necessary money to pilot the team back to the postseason, as Newsome told Ravens.com:
We will be active, but let me say something: All of those players that we signed last year were free agents and weren’t UFAs. They were cap causalities of other teams, which allowed us to be able to maintain our compensatory picks for the guys that we lost. So, there is a rhyme and reason in how we acquire players – to continue to maintain our ability to stay strong going forward. And we will do the same. If it means we have to go out and get a UFA this time, which means we probably lose a compensatory pick, we won’t say, ‘No’ to anything. We look at everything from an individual standpoint, and then we see what’s going to make us better for this year and years going forward. The cap room … You can make the cap as fluid as you want it to be. But again, we’re not restructuring contracts. We’re not doing that.”
That's a very telling statement from Newsome. Normally, the Ravens protect their draft picks the way the mythical dragon Smaug guards his mountain of treasure, but this year, they're more apt to go out and make a splash on the market and potentially lose some draft picks.
The Ravens are nearly $15 million under the cap, so they have some room to spend. With left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta both set to hit the market, look for Newsome to make signing those two men his top priority, and then the team will move from there in an effort to get the team back over the hump.
Last Sunday, the Denver Broncos were annihilated by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, bringing a dark end to one of the franchise's brightest seasons.
With quarterback Peyton Manning turning 38 this March, the Broncos' window to win a championship in the team's current iteration is certainly closing, and John Elway, the team's executive vice president of football operations, is certainly aware of that fact.
In a season-ending press conference that was equal parts fiery and testy, Elway told reporters (via Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com):
The goal has not changed and will not change. We will use this (losing the Super Bowl) as experience we went through (and) be disappointed that we didn't play better. But the bottom line is, this organization, what Pat Bowlen wants from this organization, that has not changed. It will not change.
What Bowen wants is a third Super Bowl title, and he surely knows that the best way to make that happen is to surround his aging quarterback with a team capable of competing with the big boys in the NFC. Denver can score another 600 points next season and run roughshod over the inferior AFC, but in its current iteration, it would get smoked again by the likes of Seattle or San Francisco.
The Broncos are $21.6 million under the cap and will surely make moves to open up more space. Even if they don't retain receiver Eric Decker or running back Knowshon Moreno, both of whom are free agents, the team should be extremely active in an effort to return to the Super Bowl.
Any other objective would be silly. It's unclear how many more years Manning will play, so Elway and the Broncos must try and win now.
*Unless otherwise noted, salary-cap information courtesy of Over the Cap.