NFL Free Agency 2014: Advice for League's Cash-Strapped Teams
With free agency set to begin on March 11, teams have less than two weeks to get their initial salary cap numbers in order. A majority of the teams will be sitting pretty when unrestricted free agents hit the market, yet that's not the case for every organization.
There are a handful of teams that have put themselves in a bad salary cap predicament. Poorly structured contracts, years of dismal drafting and misses in free agency are all examples of things that can put teams behind the eight ball.
Luckily, inadequate decisions aren't permanent in the NFL. Teams can restructure contracts, ask players to take pay cuts and part ways with underperforming individuals. All of those things offer salary cap relief for the franchises that need it.
Let's take a look at the five of the most cash-strapped teams and offer them some advice on how to get their finances in order.
Note: Financial and salary-cap information for the teams in this piece come courtesy of www.overthecap.com. Also, the salary cap floor is expected to go up this year, but no official number has been given at this time.
After three straight 8-8 finishes, the Dallas Cowboys are hoping the 2014 season offers a breath of fresh air.
Scott Linehan was hired to call the offensive plays, Rod Marinelli was promoted to defensive coordinator and Derek Dooley became the team’s third wide receivers coach under head coach Jason Garrett. It’s clear that owner Jerry Jones is open to change and is willing to do whatever it takes to right the ship before it completely sinks.
Unfortunately, Jones and the Cowboys still have a long way to go, thanks in large part to their abysmal salary-cap situation. As it stands right now, Dallas is over the cap by $18,945,688. That is the largest deficit in the league.
The good news is the organization can make a handful of moves to cut its deficit down.
Even though the most obvious move would be an unpopular one, Dallas would be wise to cut All-Pro defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Without question, Ware is still a top-notch talent in the NFL, but his hefty contract has the Cowboys’ front office in a bind.
“He [Ware] has had a tough time getting on the practice field because of various injuries,” Jones said, per Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News. “All of that we have to weigh with how much of that has impacted him for the future as well as where he is in his career and with his age.”
By cutting the ninth-year pass-rusher out of Troy, America’s team would save $7,432,250.
In addition to releasing Ware, the Cowboys could restructure the contracts of quarterback Tony Romo and inside linebacker Sean Lee. Restructuring their contracts would net them about $13 million in additional cap space, Todd Archer of ESPN.com reports.
In all, those three moves alone would get Dallas out of the red. From there, it could then decide what it wanted to do with the contracts of wide receiver Miles Austin, right tackle Jermey Parnell and quarterback Kyle Orton.
Like the Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2013 season with an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs for the second straight season.
Some would say the Steelers struggled because of a lackluster run game, but it’s evident their problems ran much deeper. Dick LeBeau’s front seven couldn’t rush the passer to save its life, and coverage on the back end was shaky more often than not.
Let’s not forget, Pittsburgh struggled on special teams as well. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Steelers had the fifth-worst special teams unit in the league. Kicker Shaun Suisham finished the year with a plus-1.7 grade, and punters Mat McBriar and Zoltan Mesko combined for a negative-7.3 grade.
However, last year is now in the past. Head coach Mike Tomlin and Pittsburgh’s front office are solely focused on the 2014 offseason. That’s a good thing based on the fact the Steelers have their work cut out for them as far as the salary cap goes.
If the organization wants to relieve itself of salary-cap hell, it will have to think long and hard about cutting cornerback Ike Taylor, offensive tackle Levi Brown and linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
Axing Taylor would save the Steelers $7 million, Brown would net them an extra $6.25 million and Woodley would free up $8 million. Yet, there’s a catch with Woodley. The team has to wait until after June 1 to set him free.
This, in turn, means the most logical move would be to cut Taylor and Brown immediately. With a current salary cap figure of $140,275,524, the Steelers could easily get under the cap by cutting those two players loose.
Then, at a later time, they could address Woodley and the value he holds at 29 years of age.
San Diego Chargers
Despite being above the salary cap by $2,876,336, the San Diego Chargers still have work to do if they want to make noise in free agency and upgrade positions of need.
In 2014, tight end Antonio Gates carries a $7,362,500 cap number, and right guard Jeromey Clary carries a $6.25 million cap number. Both contracts need to change for obvious reasons.
Gates was on a steady decline all throughout the 2013 season, and Clary was downright awful. Gates and Clary both finished with negative PFF grades.
Clearly, the easiest decision would be to cut Clary. Aside from his negative PFF grade, he surrendered five quarterback sacks, six quarterback hits and 25 quarterback hurries. Based on the number of pass-block snaps he played, defenders notched a quarterback pressure against him once every 16.7 snaps.
In comparison to the rest of the right guards in the NFL, that’s simply not good enough. His release would free up $4.55 million. As far as Gates goes, cutting him saves the team $2,637,500. Yet, San Diego could approach him about a pay cut or a contract restructure before it sends him on his way.
Even though his decline in 2013 was sharp, the Chargers may look to bring him back for another year. After all, he did lead the team in receptions with 77. Nevertheless, 2014 could be the season where Ladarius Green steps in and takes over.
He’s entering his third year, and PFF awarded him with plus-7.1 grade in 450 snaps (playoffs included). Here’s what general manager Tom Telesco had to say about Green's eye-opening ability on Jan. 19, via Ricky Henne of Chargers.com:
Ladarius does give us some of that big play ability. With that long stride, it's deceiving how fast he really is. He can run away from defensive backs and has made some big plays for us this year. I know he had that drop in the Denver game and I don't remember having another drop all year. He had a good year for us and he is coming along as a blocker. He's not the biggest body in the world, but he gets in there and fights with people. He definitely has a role moving forward.
By the sounds of it, he has more than just a role. In all likelihood, Green is in store for a monster year. That doesn’t bode well for Gates, which is why he would be wise to take a pay cut. It would end up being a win-win situation for both sides.
St. Louis Rams
Is this the year where the St. Louis Rams finally break out and notch their first winning season since 2003? That’s the million-dollar question.
In two short seasons, head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have put the Rams in a position to succeed. They have acquired numerous players in the draft, sprinkled in veteran free agents at various positions and re-signed homegrown talent.
Disappointingly, the organization hasn’t progressed as quickly as Fisher and Snead would have liked it to. To make matters worse, the Rams now have salary cap complications that need to be dealt with before free agency begins.
With a mere $6,317,229 of cap room to their name, the Rams have to trim the fat to better the team’s future. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan, center Scott Wells and right guard Harvey Dahl all possess high-dollar contracts that need to addressed.
Finnegan is due $10 million in 2014, Wells is due $6.5 million and Dahl is due $4 million. That’s a lot of money for three players who have been viewed as utter failures in St. Louis. The Rams must do themselves a favor and discard two of these three players.
As much as I would like the Rams to alleviate all three veterans, they are not in a position to that quite yet. Why? Because there’s no guarantee Rodger Saffold will be back. If Saffold moves on and Wells and Dahl are cut, St. Louis would have zero depth on the offensive.
Yet, the team could save $8.5 million by cutting both Finnegan and Wells. Dahl would be safe for the final year of his contract due to the fact he has value at both guard and tackle. It never hurts to have an offensive lineman that can play either spot in a pinch.
Wells doesn’t have the same type of value. Finnegan, on the other hand, is just down right awful. Per PFF, the eighth-year defensive back graded out as the second-worst corner in the NFL. Furthermore, opposing quarterbacks amassed a 136 quarterback rating when throwing into his coverage and scored four touchdowns.
No matter what Fisher says, there’s no way Finnegan deserves to be on the roster in 2014.
New Orleans Saints
Unlike the Cowboys, Steelers, Chargers and Rams, the New Orleans Saints got to work before the 2014 league year began. On Feb. 13, general manager Mickey Loomis slashed the Saints’ salary. He cut four members of their 2009 championship team: defensive end Will Smith, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, safety Roman Harper and cornerback Jabari Greer.
"These were not easy decisions to make," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement, per Mike Triplett of ESPN.com. "Since we acquired them, Jabari, Roman, Will and Jonathan have all been excellent players on the field for us. Each of them were integral parts in turning this program around and winning a Super Bowl. They were a great example to our players as team leaders in the locker room as well.”
Those four cuts brought the team’s cap number down to $125,317,010, which is $7,182,990 above the current salary cap floor. Fortunately, the Saints have the opportunity to garner even more cap space from now until the start of free agency. Considering tight end Jimmy Graham’s impending contract extension, they will need it.
The next player the Saints should part ways with is wide receiver Lance Moore. As good as Moore has been for New Orleans over the years, Kenny Stills put together a fine rookie season and will look to build upon it once his snap count increases.
Furthermore, Moore will be 31 years old in August and is due $5,068,750 in 2014. For a guy who only played 452 snaps in 2013, there’s no way he performs well enough to command that much money. By giving him his walking papers, New Orleans would save $2,531,250 against the cap.
Another player the Saints should consider cutting is running back Darren Sproles. Yes, he means a lot to their offense, yet there’s going to come a time when Khiry Robinson needs to find his way onto the field. And head coach Sean Payton sure talked him up after the team’s playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles, via Mike Triplett of ESPN.com:
I was proud of how he finished. I thought ball security was never in doubt. [That was] strong. He's powerful. For a guy that was at a tryout camp, basically, and even after having him we almost didn't bring him back to training camp, obviously he has progressed and done a great job. It was a big night for him.
At 31 years of age, Sproles is set to make $4.25 million in 2014. Only $750,000 is considered dead money, so the Saints need to do what’s right and use the $3.5 million they would save if they released him on Graham’s extension.