The Dos and Don'ts of the 2015 NFL Free-Agent Market
The Super Bowl and the official end to the 2014 NFL season are right around the corner.
For the 30 teams not participating in Sunday's big game, however, planning for the 2015 season has already begun.
Teams are evaluating draft-eligible prospects and potential free-agent fits to make improvements to their current rosters. Since free agency—which begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 10—is less than a month and a half away, now is definitely the time for NFL organizations to start weighing their options.
This year's free-agent pool is expected to be one of the best in recent memory, which means teams will have an opportunity to fill needs and add depth long before the incoming rookies are selected.
What follows is a quick rundown of what teams should and shouldn't do during the 2015 free-agent period if they hope to kick off a successful offseason.
Don't Be Afraid to Spend Money
Last year, the base salary cap for NFL teams was $133 million. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the NFL has informed teams that the 2015 salary cap will be somewhere between $138.6 million and $141.8 million.
This is a large sum for teams to play with, even considering the league's rising salaries. Since the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) allows teams to roll over unused cap space to the next year, several teams will have a cap high above the base.
The CBA also put a rookie wage scale into place, which means teams no longer have to set aside astronomical sums to negotiate with high draft picks.
This also means that teams in need of immediate help or looking to get over the playoff hump can and should eschew frugality during the free-agency period, provided they haven't already gone overboard in terms of salary. There is simply too much proven talent to be had and, as always, there are plenty of questions surrounding the incoming draft class.
Teams currently over the salary cap, per Spotrac, like the Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens, obviously have to take a different approach.
Do Look to Fill Holes
Does your team struggle to protect the quarterback, move the ball through the air or defend against the run? If so, your best bet is to bolster the area of weakness in free agency.
This doesn't mean every team needs to go out and overspend to plug a hole. However, it makes perfect sense to seek out a starting-caliber player or solid depth option. Even the most promising rookie prospects are unproven and each team is limited by the number of draft picks it has.
Even if your team is targeting a particular position in the draft, there is no guarantee your selection will succeed as a rookie or that a team picking ahead of you won't grab the guy you have your eye on.
Filling holes allows for more flexibility on draft day. Even if a team only finds one or two starters in free agency, that's one or two picks it can potentially package to trade up for a prospect it really wants or use to snag a developmental prospect.
Don't Expect to Find a Star Quarterback
If your team is in need of a franchise-caliber signal-caller, well, this probably isn't your year.
The 2015 draft class isn't particularly deep at the quarterback position and the free-agent pool may be even more lackluster.
The quarterback group is headlined by the likes of Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker and Brian Hoyer. These are guys who may hold down the job for a season or help mentor a rookie or developmental quarterback, but they probably aren't going to lead a team to the Super Bowl.
According to Pro Football Focus, Sanchez ranked 27th overall among quarterbacks for the 2014 season. Locker ranked 30th and Hoyer came in at 35th.
Other experienced quarterbacks expected to hit the open market include Michael Vick, Jason Campbell and Matt Moore. There's nothing wrong with grabbing a guy to provide backup presence or add to a quarterback competition, but don't go looking for a long-term solution to your team's quarterback woes this offseason.
Do Target a Wide Receiver
The NFL has become a passing league, meaning virtually every team can afford to add wide receiver help.
Boasting the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Sammy Watkins, the 2014 rookie receiver class proved first-year pass-catchers can make an immediate impact.
However, teams shouldn't ignore the available veterans, especially in a year like this.
The 2015 free-agent class is highlighted by receivers such as Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Jeremy Maclin, Randall Cobb and Torrey Smith. These are guys worth chasing, especially if your team is lacking a No. 1 or No. 2 wideout.
As teams move to re-sign their own, the list of available receivers is sure to shrink. However, proven veterans such as Miles Austin, Eddie Royal, Nate Washington and Hakeem Nicks may still be available to strengthen your team's receiving corps.
Don't Plan to Count on Guys with an Injury History
It's definitely a going-after-a-receiver year in free agency, but guys like Wes Welker and Reggie Wayne should be avoided.
Welker has had three concussions over the past two years and Wayne has missed 10 games in that span because of injury. At this point, Welker should seriously consider retirement and Wayne only really makes sense if he's returning to the Indianapolis Colts for a final act.
Running back C.J. Spiller (eight missed games in past two years), linebacker Brian Orakpo (10 missed games in two seasons) and cornerback Charles Tillman (22 missed games since 2013) bring similar concerns.
Don't ignore oft-injured players with upside, but know the risks and don't count on them to make it a full year (or longer) without spending some time on the sideline.
Do Look for Pass-Rushing Help
Since the NFL is a passing-league, it only makes sense for defensive game plans to focus heavily on pressuring and sacking the quarterback before the pass can be delivered.
Fortunately for teams without a dominant pass rush, there are plenty of younger players scheduled to hit free agency who can bring pressure on opposing QBs. Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck is leading the charge in pining for pass-rush help for his team. As quoted by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Tuck thinks Ndamukong Suh would be a great fit in the black and silver:
(He's) Raider-ish. And that's one of the reasons why I know Raider Nation would applaud that move, beyond the fact that he's an awesome football player. He kind of fits the mold of ... the toughness and the ferocious player that built the Oakland Raiders.
The list is headlined by Suh (36.0 sacks in five seasons), defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (42.0 sacks in five seasons) and outside linebacker Justin Houston (48.5 sacks in four seasons, 22 in 2014).
Promising players such as linebacker Jabaal Sheard (23 sacks in four seasons), Jason Worilds (20.5 sacks over the past three years) and defensive end Jerry Hughes (20.0 sacks over past two seasons) are also scheduled to become available.
Don't Ignore Special Teams
Football specialists are like quarterbacks in the sense that your team either has a good one or it doesn't.
While specialists don't touch the football nearly as much as a quarterback, an unreliable one can easily cost your team a football game or two over the course of a season.
Some of the top special-teams targets in free agency include kicker Matt Bryant (ranked eighth overall for 2014 by Pro Football Focus) and punter Brett Kern (ranked ninth overall by Pro Football Focus).
Special teams standouts such as Eric Weems are also scheduled to hit free agency, as are veteran return specialists Dwayne Harris, Joshua Cribbs and Marcus Thigpen (restricted free agent).
Do Consider Adding a Fullback
This will only apply if your offense regularly depends on having a fullback in the backfield. In today's pass-first NFL, the fullback has become a forgotten position, ignored perhaps even more than the special teamer.
If your offense relies heavily on the fullback, however, you want to have a good one.
This year's free-agent class includes talented fullbacks such as Henry Hynoski, John Kuhn, Jerome Felton, John Conner and James Develin (restricted). These are some of the top fullbacks in the game. All were ranked 12th overall or higher by Pro Football Focus for the 2014 season.