Predicting the Biggest Spenders of the 2016 NFL Offseason
Congratulations to the Denver Broncos, Super Bowl 50 champions, for their physical domination of the Carolina Panthers.
Welcome to NFL 2016…sort of.
You won’t be surprised by most of the six teams (three from each conference) included. Each is listed in order of most anticipated available salary-cap space, because all have room to improve or have definitive needs.
We have also factored in a team’s recent free-agent history. In other words, there are those franchises that use the open market, and there are clubs like the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers that are quiet this time of year and rely on the draft. We are also taking into account the uncertainty of changes in front offices.
Remember, free agency doesn’t begin until March 9. So keep in mind things can shift dramatically. In the meantime, kick back, relax and…
Note: Salary-cap figures are accurate as of Feb. 8.
2016 Cap Space: $74.1 million
Look which franchise finds itself at the top of the list when it comes to the most available salary-cap room in the league this offseason.
The Oakland Raiders are coming off a 7-9 campaign and made some strides in 2015. And as we all know, general manager Reggie McKenzie has never sat in the cheap seats when it comes to free agency.
But one reason the Silver and Black were almost back this past season was a nice blend of youth and experience. The last two years McKenzie has hit on some high draft choices such as defender Khalil Mack and quarterback Derek Carr in 2014 and rookie wideout Amari Cooper last April.
Still, the defense needs some additional help, although the free-agent acquisitions of outside linebacker Malcolm Smith (who led the team in tackles in 2015) and defensive tackle Dan Williams could be considered pluses in some ways last season. Of course, you could also make the case that the mid-September signing of cornerback David Amerson, released by the Washington Redskins, was the club’s best defensive addition.
Once again, look for McKenzie to be aggressive these next few months during free agency (as well as the draft in April) and for the franchise to open up its wallet as the Raiders seek their first winning season since 2002.
2016 Cap Space: $71.0 million
While a five-win season and a fifth consecutive campaign with 11 or more losses and a combined record of 19-61 since 2011 is hardly encouraging, the Jacksonville Jaguars did make some strides this past year, especially on the offensive side.
Last offseason, general manager Dave Caldwell brought in the likes of tight end Julius Thomas and tackle Jermey Parnell, as well as center Stefen Wisniewski (who will once again be an unrestricted free agent), and all proved to be positives in various ways. Now Caldwell plans on turning his attention elsewhere.
"Now, we can really focus on which side of the ball do we really want to build,” said the Jaguars executive to Hays Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union two weeks ago. "We feel good about the offense right now. We still have a ways to go and aren’t done by any means, but we’ll really focus on the defensive side of the ball."
Injuries on the defensive front were an issue in 2015 as rookie defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. missed the entire season and defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks managed to play in only four games.
"Getting Fowler and Marks back will help us; then we have cap space and eight draft picks to fix the rest of the needs," added Caldwell.
Getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 would be an even bigger fix.
2016 Cap Space: $55.1 million
Following an awful start in which the team was outscored a combined 105-46 during a 0-3 start, the Chicago Bears settled in and played respectable football under new head coach John Fox. The team went 6-7 in its last 13 games (six of those losses by six points or less).
Now it’s time to concentrate on 2016—a season that will not include offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who is now the head coach with the Miami Dolphins. But will it include the team’s top wide receiver in potential free agent Alshon Jeffery?
Bears general manager Ryan Pace said to Jeff Dickerson of ESPN:
Obviously when Alshon played he was explosive and a playmaker for our offense. The previous two seasons he’d been healthy and highly productive. He was frustrated by his injuries. We were frustrated by his injuries. We got to get a better grasp of that. Part of the evaluation of a player is his injuries and his availability. We’ll take that into account.
In 2015, the former Pro Bowler was limited to only nine games but still led the team in catches (54) and receiving yards (807). His four touchdown receptions came in his final eight appearances.
As you will recall, Pace had few problems spending money last offseason, and the feeling is Jeffery will be back in Chicago. But who will the team add in free agency? Vic Fangio’s defense could use some more help. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee was a good addition, but this was a team that produced only 35 sacks and totaled a mere 17 takeaways this past season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016 Cap Space: $52.8 million
At one time last season, the improving Tampa Bay Buccaneers owned a 6-6 record and were in the NFC playoff race.
But Lovie Smith’s team dropped its final four games, and then the organization opted to drop him after only two seasons on the job. But it seems the real reason for Smith’s departure was ensuring offensive coordinator-turned-head coach Dirk Koetter wasn’t going anywhere. The well-respected coach had been drawing interest around the league.
Of course, one of the main priorities this offseason for the Bucs is to get running back Doug Martin back under contract.
“I love Tampa, and Tampa loves me,” said Martin last week to Mike Florio on PFT Live (via Curtis Crabtree of Pro Football Talk) in San Francisco, during the days leading up to Super Bowl 50. “I’ve got a house out there so I do wish I’ll go back to Tampa.”
There also figures to be more money spent on improving the defense, which is something general manager Jason Licht began to do a year ago with mixed results. While Martin, rookie quarterback Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay offense gained the fifth-most yards in the league this past season, the Buccaneers finished 10th in the NFL in total defense but totaled only 38 sacks and allowed 31 touchdown passes.
Could Tampa spend big bucks on a premier pass-rusher and some more help in the secondary this offseason? Don’t bet against it. And the team has eight defensive players slated to become unrestricted free agents next month—four on the defensive front and four in the secondary.
2016 Cap Space: $29.1 million
It’s been quite a run for the Seattle Seahawks, who have reached the playoffs four straight seasons. Still, the team finished three games behind the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West in 2015 and failed to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in three years.
First things first. Via Adam Schefter of ESPN on Sunday, according to league sources, running back Marshawn Lynch “has told people close to him he plans to retire.” Then later on Super Bowl Sunday, the nine-year veteran (via Sheil Kapadia of ESPN) made it clear he planned on hanging up his cleats…literally.
So does that mean Pete Carroll’s team is in the market for a running back and would the Seahawks fill that need via free agency? They do have undrafted free agent Thomas Rawls, who led the club with 830 yards rushing but was injured during the season.
More importantly, could Carroll and general manager John Schneider opt for some much-needed offensive line help in free agency? Keep in mind veteran left tackle Russell Okung is slated for free agency in March should the parties fail to get him re-signed over the next month or so.
This is a team that’s never been afraid to be bold in the offseason so look for the Seahawks to be a player when the new fiscal year begins.
2016 Cap Space: $26.9 million
This may be the most intriguing team on our list.
The Houston Texans rallied from a 2-5 start this past season to finish 9-7 and win the AFC South for the third time in five years.
While Bill O’Brien’s club gave up the third-fewest total yards in the league and defensive end J.J. Watt was the league's Defensive Player of the Year for the third time in his five year career, the offense had its ups and down for any number of reasons.
To start, the midseason loss of veteran running back Arian Foster was a big blow, but the team seemed to manage with Alfred Blue, Jonathan Grimes and Chris Polk. But managing and having a healthy Foster are two different things. The former Pro Bowler suffered an Achilles injury in October, but via Tania Ganguli of ESPN, he’s on the road to recovery.
But quarterback play was an issue in 2015, be it the early mishandling of the Brian Hoyer/Ryan Mallett situation or Hoyer’s inability to stay on the field at times (T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden chipped in with key relief roles).
So would the Texans throw some free-agent money at a young but veteran signal-caller the likes of Brock Osweiler or Kirk Cousins? It’s highly doubtful considering neither will be available next month. Could the team also make a play for Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery if he hits the market?
Houston has a lot of its key players under wraps for now and may be a surprising player once free agency begins.
All free-agent information, player signings/transactions and salary-cap info comes courtesy of Spotrac. Depth chart information comes via Ourlads. Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro Football Reference and ESPN.com.