An extra $10 million in available cap room has pumped some life into the annual players auction known as NFL free agency.
According to a press release sent out by the NFL Players Association, the salary cap has been set at $133 million for the 2014 league year, marking a $10 million bump from 2013 and the first major jump in several years.
The new salary cap works two ways for the NFC North, a division with a three-time reigning champion and two new head coaches for 2014.
In Green Bay and Minnesota, the extra $10 million in cap space only adds to already cash-rich situations. Both the Packers and Vikings rank among the top six in available funds ahead of free agency, with each possessing over $30 million in cap space. Both will have monetary flexibility over the next several weeks.
For the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears, the new money provides some much-needed breathing room. Neither team is currently among the top 20 franchises in terms of cap space, but the new $10 million has helped keep both clubs above water ahead of the new league year. The Lions and Bears can also add to their current totals with a few likely moves down the road.
The bottom line ahead of free agency: The 2014 cap is larger than expected, with teams now flush with cash and players looking to break the bank.
Here's a more detailed review of the salary-cap situation at each NFC North locale.
Note: All salary cap information taken from Spotrac.
Salary-Cap Space: $8.9 million
Key Free Agents: DT Henry Melton, CB Charles Tillman, QB Josh McCown, KR Devin Hester, DL Corey Wootton
The extra $10 million really benefited the Bears, who remain pressed up against the cap thanks to a number of new deals already completed this offseason. Chief among them was Jay Cutler's seven-year, $126.7 million extension, which gave Chicago's franchise quarterback a suffocating cap hit of $22.5 million in 2014.
The Bears do have options, however.
Cutting veteran defensive end Julius Peppers will save the Bears almost $10 million. Designating him as a June 1 cut would split the dead money over two years and provide Chicago roughly $14 million in cap space. Peppers would otherwise count for almost $18.2 million against the Bears' cap in 2014, which simply isn't reasonable given his age and declining production.
Chicago could save another $1.85 million by releasing backup running back Michael Bush or $1.1 million by letting go little-used returner Eric Weems. Receiver Earl Bennett, who wouldn't have a dead-money cost to cut, could provide another $2.45 million in space.
The Bears might also ask Cutler to convert some of his $22.5 million base salary in 2014 to a signing bonus, which would lower his cap hit this season.
Any freed-up money would likely go toward the Bears' offseason effort of rebuilding a defense that finished last season as one of the NFL's worst. General manager Phil Emery needs to get younger and more talented on defense, which can be a tricky balancing act without using a sprinkle of free agency.
Most of the team's important in-house free agents have new deals, including Cutler, Tim Jennings, Matt Slauson and Jeremiah Ratliff. But the Bears also need to work out agreements with Melton and McCown, two of the free agents still on Chicago's offseason to-do list.
Emery has work to do, but he also has options to create wiggle room. And if the Bears truly fall in love with a top free agent—say, a safety such as Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward or a defensive end such as Michael Bennett—the team can do enough maneuvering on the cap to make it work.
Salary-Cap Space: $11.7 million
Key Free Agents: DE Willie Young, QB Shaun Hill, TE Brandon Pettigrew, RB Joique Bell (restricted)
The Lions are structured differently than most teams, with three players—Ndamukong Suh, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson—in line to account for more than $50 million (or roughly 40 percent) on the 2014 cap.
Still, Detroit remains under the $133 million limit ahead of the new league year. The release of veterans Nate Burleson and Louis Delmas is a big reason for that, as the two moves saved the Lions $11.5 million. General manager Martin Mayhew can create more room by restructuring Suh's deal, which is scheduled to cost the Lions $22.4 million against the cap next season.
From there, Mayhew will have to account for the restricted tender on Bell, which could cost as much as $2 million, plus new deals for Young, Pettigrew or Hill. The Lions will also need $6-7 million to sign their incoming draft class.
To have any money left to add a player or two in free agency, the Lions may need to get closer to $20 million under the cap. Suh's restructure—which could add $10 million or more in cap space—would be a major step in that direction.
But remember that just last season, the Lions walked the cap tightrope and still wound up with deals for Reggie Bush, Jason Jones and Glover Quin. And cornerback Chris Houston also re-signed in Detroit.
Mayhew is experienced at working under the stress of tight financials. With the extra $10 million in store, the Lions can still add one or two second-tier free agents while also bringing back their top in-house players. New head coach Jim Caldwell needs the depth.
Green Bay Packers
Salary-Cap Space: $35.1 million
Key Free Agents: CB Sam Shields, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, DL B.J. Raji, TE Jermichael Finley, QB Matt Flynn, WR James Jones, OLB Mike Neal, FB John Kuhn
Like most offseasons under Ted Thompson, the Packers are again flush with cap space. The extra $10 million, when combined with the over $9 million Green Bay carried over from 2013 and the team's relatively small amount of dead money, has provided the Packers with the sixth-most cap room in the NFL.
How Thompson ends up using the freed-up money is another matter.
The Packers have a considerable number of in-house free agents to deal with, including a few who would be big losses if allowed to depart Green Bay. Shields is an asset at cornerback, Dietrich-Smith ranked No. 5 in the B/R NFL 1000 center rankings, and Raji and Finley are both young, core players. Veterans Jones and Kuhn have been important in supporting roles.
While signing his current free agents might be a higher priority, Thompson also has future extensions coming for Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Bryan Bulaga and Mike Daniels to consider. By the time everything is squared away on the home front, the Packers might not have much wiggle room to consider outside free agents.
That said, Green Bay is still faced with the possibility of major roster turnover, which might require a few dips into unrestricted free agency to counter.
The Packers have obvious cash to spend. But with present and future obligations on the table and a draft class to eventually sign, Green Bay's $35 million might go quickly.
Salary-Cap Space: $40.9 million
Key Free Agents: DE Jared Allen, DE Everson Griffen, DT Kevin Williams, CB Chris Cook, QB Matt Cassel, RB Toby Gerhart
New head coach Mike Zimmer inherits a team just one year removed from the postseason but one that also needs a serious injection of talent at quarterback and on the defensive side. Luckily for Zimmer, the Vikings have the cap room to institute a roster overhaul.
Minnesota's $40.9 million of free money ranks fourth overall. The team could add more space by restructuring Chad Greenway's far-too-expensive $8.2 million cap charge or by releasing a player such as Jamarca Sanford (which would save over $2 million). The team already cut Letroy Guion in a move that saved $4 million.
For now, the Vikings are free to negotiate deals with their most important in-house free agents, such as Griffen. While Minnesota has a large number of expiring contracts to deal with, many aren't top priorities and will leave without too much hassling from the Vikings. Allen and Williams, former franchise bedrocks, are likely gone.
Once free agency opens on March 11, Minnesota will be expected to be active on the open market.
Almost $41 million can fill a lot of holes, especially with Zimmer's keen eye for defensive talent and the likelihood that several impact defenders could hit free agency. Top targets might include defensive end Michael Johnson, whom Zimmer coached in Cincinnati, and cornerback Alterraun Verner, a 2013 Pro Bowler. Or the Vikings could pluck a plethora of second-tier free agents to jump start the rebuild. Either way, Minnesota will have options.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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