The NFL's Most Cash-Strapped Teams Heading into Free Agency

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IMarch 9, 2013

The NFL's Most Cash-Strapped Teams Heading into Free Agency

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    And down the stretch they come.

    "Stretch" is the operative word here as all 32 teams look to put their financial books in the proverbial taffy machine and get as much bang for their buck as possible.

    Reworking, restructuring and re-signing are not nearly as fascinating to some as touchdowns, sacks or interceptions, but it’s a necessary evil of the job for all of the franchises as they prepare for the business side of 2013.

    So, which teams have the most work to do with less? Here’s a list of the 12 clubs (in order of least financially strapped to most) that are reportedly less than $10 million under the league’s $123 million cap number this upcoming season.

    Note: Financial and salary-cap information for the teams in this piece come courtesy of www.spotrac.com. Please refer to the site for the most updated information as teams remain active this weekend.

New York Giants

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    The New York Giants got down to business rather early this offseason as they try to recapture that Super Bowl fire of 2011.

    Gone are running back Ahmad Bradshaw, linebacker Michael Boley and defensive lineman Chris Canty, cut by the team over a month ago. Recently, center David Baas and cornerback Corey Webster restructured their deals to give Big Blue a little relief. The Giants are just under $9 million under the salary cap.

    The team also took care of a big piece of business when it kept left tackle Will Beatty off the open market. The four-year pro signed a five-year, $38.75 million deal at the end of February.

    It will be interesting to see what transpires with wide receiver Victor Cruz, slated to become a restricted free agent and a player the team would probably like to wrap up sooner than later.

Denver Broncos

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    When it was all said and done, 2012 proved to be a year of disappointment for the Denver Broncos.

    But in a league where moping is highly discouraged, John Elway, John Fox and the organization know the team made big-time strides a year ago and now it’s time to fill in the necessary pieces.

    The Broncos are another team that's not too close to the $123 million cap (114.653), but not too terribly far away.

    We saw that Elway will do what’s necessary to improve his team, making the big splash with quarterback Peyton Manning last offseason.

    Now we’ll see what he can do for a defensive unit that may not be as good as the final numbers indicated. The Broncos gave up far too many big plays in that double-overtime playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

    As for Manning at the offensive, the team put the franchise tag on left tackle Ryan Clady, who’s been named to three of the last four Pro Bowls.

Houston Texans

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    Even two double-digit-win seasons and two consecutive AFC South titles are starting to look disappointing to the Houston Texans.

    Gary Kubiak’s club owned an 11-1 record a dozen games into 2012 only to flounder down the stretch. Now, the team will look to get better and finally get past the divisional round of the playoffs.

    The Texans don’t have a lot of wiggle room cap-wise (less than $9 million) and would certainly like to re-sign safety Glover Quin. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, but he's coming off a disappointing season after leading the team in sacks in 2011. Houston also has Whitney Mercilus waiting in the wings.

    Could the team target some more defensive help in free agency? Wade Phillips’ unit slumped in the second half of 2012, but a healthy Brian Cushing will help there. By the way, Cushing will become an unrestricted free agent following the 2013 season. This may be something that the Texans address now rather than down the road.

New York Jets

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    The New York Jets may not always be good, but they work very hard to be interesting. And there have already been some changes to Rex Ryan’s squad this offseason, with possibly more to come.

    On February 19, the house-cleaning began with the releases of linebackers Bart Scott and Calvin Pace, safety Eric Smith and tackle Jason Smith. Then there’s the daily discussion of dealing star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who saw his 2012 season cut short by a knee injury.

    The Jets (just over $8 million under the cap) do have some work to do in terms of their starting offensive lineup. Running back Shonn Greene, tight end Dustin Keller and guards Brandon Moore and Matt Slauson are expected to hit the free-agent market on Tuesday. Right tackle Austin Howard is a restricted free agent.

    On defense, starting safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell could move on as well, which would be big losses for a team that hasn’t won the AFC East since 2002.

Detroit Lions

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    The Detroit Lions were obviously so excited about reaching the playoffs in 2011 that they forgot there was a 2012.

    All kidding aside, Jim Schwartz’s team was a big-time disappointment a year ago and heads into 2013 riding an eight-game losing streak.

    The Lions also enter the year with some work to be done in terms of their roster. Last month, they released veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and guard Stephen Peterman. On the plus side, they just re-inked potential free agent outside linebacker DeAndre Levy to a new contract.

    But what of defenders such as defensive end Cliff Avril, defensive tackle Corey Williams, safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston. They’re all slated to hit the open market on Tuesday. Detroit is just over $8 million under the cap, but it still has some major decisions to make in terms of defensive personnel.

    In a division in which all but the 4-12 Lions won at least 10 games last season, general manager Martin Mayhew, Schwartz and company have a lot to do to play catch up. 

Carolina Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers are so close and yet so far.

    Last season, Ron Rivera’s team won its last four games to finish 7-9 and technically in second place in the always-interesting NFC South. Unfortunately, be it second, third or fourth-place in the division, it was still six games behind the division champion Atlanta Falcons.

    With about $7 million to play with cap-wise, the Panthers are in very good shape in terms of their current roster. They have only two restricted free agents to re-sign (defensive tackle Andre Neblett and cornerback Nate Ness).

    The Panthers did save some cap room with the recent releases of cornerback Chris Gamble and defensive tackle Ron Edwards. Gamble’s departure could also open the door for the return of corner Captain Munnerlyn, who's slated to become an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday.

    It will be interesting to see what changes could be coming for a team that may be a few playmakers away from closing the gap in the NFC South.

Oakland Raiders

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    After a few baby steps forward in recent years, the Oakland Raiders took a huge step back in 2012.

    That’s bad news for a team that has gone 10 straight seasons without a winning record.

    Now, let’s see what changes are coming, as general manager Reggie McKenzie doesn’t have much salary cap room to play with ($6 million) and decisions to make on some veteran players.

    Performers such as defensive tackle Richard Seymour, guard Cooper Carlisle and star punter Shane Lechler are expected to hit the unrestricted market on Tuesday. That list also includes tight end Brandon Myers, who led the Silver and Black with 79 receptions in 2012.

    It will be interesting to see where veterans such as cornerback Shawntae Spencer, linebacker Philip Wheeler and defensive end Andre Carter fit in as well.

    Time will tell indeed.

Chicago Bears

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    Usually, 10 wins in a season is enough to secure a playoff berth. Usually.

    But winning double-digit games in a season is also usually enough to ensure job security, which was not the case for the Chicago Bears’ Lovie Smith, let go by the team after nine seasons with the club.

    Enter Marc Trestman, who’s seen all aspects of the pro game, from the NFL to the CFL. The offensive specialist hopes to bring more consistency to that side of the ball.

    But will the Bears look for help in free agency for quarterback Jay Cutler and company? Chicago is just over $4 million under the cap and has some decisions to make on veteran middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, outside linebacker Nick Roach (who could be the heir apparent to Urlacher) and possibly defensive end Israel Idonije, all slated to become unrestricted free agents on Tuesday.

    The team did designate Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton as its franchise player last week.

    With Smith out and Trestman in, let’s see how many more changes are coming in the Windy City.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    It’s business as usual for the Pittsburgh Steelers, although the team is coming off its first non-winning season of the six-year Mike Tomlin era.

    The bad news in the Steel City is that the Steelers have very little wiggle room when it comes to the salary cap.

    The good news is that this isn’t news. And even better news is the fact that this is a franchise, must like the Green Bay Packers, that never breaks the bank to overpay either one of its own or a potential addition from another team.

    Even with a bevy of restructured deals, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers are less than $3 million under the salary cap.

    They have some key restricted free agents to deal with in wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, nose tackle Steve McLendon and linebacker Sylvester Stevenson.

    They also have numerous players, such as wideout Mike Wallace, running back Rashard Mendenhall, nose tackle Casey Hampton and linebacker Larry Foote, who will likely hit the open market Tuesday.

    And while it hopes to bring back promising cornerback Keenan Lewis, the team did bring back a familiar face in William Gay, recently released by the Cardinals.

    Work to be done, to say the least.

New Orleans Saints

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    It’s safe to say that when it came to the New Orleans Saints last year, nothing came easy for the team from the Big Easy.

    And if this team is to regain the top spot in the NFC South—a place it owned two of the previous three seasons prior to 2012—it must first do a little bookkeeping and then turn its attentions to improving that defensive unit.

    But finances first, and that means getting under the cap. It also means making sure some standout pros like two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod and reliable wideout Devery Henderson don’t necessarily get the chance to hit the open market on Tuesday.

    Bushrod is very intriguing because it wasn’t long ago that he was having his issues as a pass protector. But he’s made steady progress in the Saints’ system, and it will be interesting to see what it will take to secure his future services.

    The Saints, coming off a year in which they gave up the most total yards in a season in NFL history, now turn to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. New Orleans will convert to the 3-4 this season and will be looking for players to fit the system.

    Until this team gets under the number (the Saints are about $1 million over the cap), those fixes may be coming later than sooner. Time will tell.

Washington Redskins

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    The Washington Redskins are coming off of their first division title since 1999 and their first playoff appearances since 2007.

    But there are still some big decisions to make before this Tuesday, as the franchise is still over the salary cap as it stands right now.

    The team could certainly restructure some of its contracts. Washington has 10 players that will each count at least $5 million toward the cap, including wide receiver Pierre Garcon, left tackle Trent Williams and cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

    As far as potential unrestricted free agents, it would be somewhat surprising if the Redskins let talented tight end Fred Davis (the team’s designated franchise player in 2011) get away, although he's coming off an injury shortened season.

    The franchise has done an excellent job rebuilding through the draft in recent seasons. Despite not having a first-round pick in April due to last year’s deal with the St. Louis Rams that enabled the club to select quarterback Robert Griffin III, look for that to be the case again.

    In the meantime, there could be a familiar face or two elsewhere in the next few days.

Dallas Cowboys

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    There’s some work to be done by the Dallas Cowboys, who still have some tweaking to do in terms of contracts if they are to be ready to do business on March 12.

    Over the last week or so, Jerry Jones and the Dallas brass have made some moves, one more surprising than some others. For the second straight year, the team used the franchise tag on linebacker Anthony Spencer, who led the team in tackles and totaled 11.0 sacks in 2012. The hope is that the Cowboys can secure the Pro Bowler to a long-term contract.

    The club also released veteran safety Gerald Sensabaugh.

    It will be interesting to see what changes are in store for the entire Dallas defense, now under the guidance of veteran coordinator Monte Kiffin.

    But back to following the money. In February, the Cowboys restructured the deals of veterans such as wide receiver Miles Austin, tight end Jason Witten, cornerback Brandon Carr and outside linebacker/defensive end DeMarcus Ware.

    It will be interesting to see what other moves Jones and company will have to make before next Tuesday.