Predicting the Biggest Spenders of the 2017 NFL Offseason
With free agency approaching, it's time to start thinking of players as assets. Not only are they talent, but they are contracts and/or draft picks.
With that in mind, we looked through the NFL's landscape to find which teams would be most likely to have an agressive offseason in 2017. Some teams have a quantifiable advantage, as they have mountains of money available to spend this offseason. One even has more cap room right now than a franchise is slated to spend on their current roster in 2017.
Others may not have the same capital, but based on their recent history, either by landing or chasing big name free agents, they will be big players when they are afforded an open market. Follow us as we overview who may be running national headlines in March.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The state of Florida has no income tax. Tampa has fall and winter weather that can't be beat by the likes of Buffalo or Green Bay. The Buccaneers have $72.8 million in cap space, according to spotrac.com, the third-highest amount in the league.
Go ahead and guess why a free agent might find himself in pewter this offseason.
Tampa Bay could use big help with offensive skill players, some of the more expensive players in the sport, because of their recent history. Mike Evans is a one-man show at receiver right now, running back Doug Martin will start the season with a three-game suspension for performance enhancing substances and their tight end experiment with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the 38th overall pick in the 2014 draft, ended after less than three full seasons.
On top of that, their offensive line isn't solidified, and it may already be time to move on from Donovan Smith, their 2015 second-round pick playing left tackle. If nothing else, they need to bring in competition to battle him for the starting role.
Defensively, they still need that one premier pass-rusher, plus they've been slacking in supporting Gerald McCoy with an above average teammate next to him in the trenches. 4-3 defensive ends and defensive tackles are some of the highest-paid players in the sport.
Top talents don't usually hit free agency, but odd circumstances may lead to Jason Pierre-Paul, the defensive end from the New York Giants, hitting the open market. If he does, JPP, a 6'5" former first-team All-Pro who just turned 28 years old, may return to native Florida to play in Raymond James Stadium, where he played on Saturdays at the University of South Florida.
The Buccaneers have holes in expensive pockets right now. This was also a team that only rolled over about $5 million of cap space from last season, per Spotrac. If that stays consistent this year, Tampa will spend $67 million between now and September.
5. Tennessee Titans
Last year, under the guidance of new general manager Jon Robinson, the Tennessee Titans went from a team which held the first overall pick to one which was in the playoff hunt right up until star quarterback Marcus Mariota went down with an injury.
One of Robinson's first moves as a general manager was moving that first overall pick, along with some Day 3 changes, for what amounted to being the 15th, 43rd, 45th and 76th picks of the 2016 draft and the fifth and 69th picks in the 2017 draft. Robinson likes to make deals an manipulate; It's in his background.
After spending 2002 through 2013 with the New England Patriots, it should be no surprise as to how he acts. After a full year of evaluating where his team is, this finally might be time to pounce on a large free-agent signing.
Last year, the Titans didn't sign one of the 40-plus free agents who signed deals worth more than $5 million per year, according to Spotrac. Instead, their top signings were boring names like Rishard Matthews and Ben Jones.
That's one reason why they rolled over $24 million in cap space, the fourth-largest amount in the sport, from last season, per Spotrac. Now they have more than $67 million to spend this offseason, which again ranks fourth in the NFL in 2017. Start to expect Robinson to earn a reputation as a free agent dealer, too.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars rolled over $39 million in cap space from 2016 to 2017, the second-largest amount of any team in the NFL behind the Cleveland Browns, per Spotrac. They now have nearly $65 million in cap space, the fifth-largest amount in the NFL.
That was after signing Malik Jackson, a former Denver Broncos defensive lineman, to a six-year, $85.5 million contract, the largest contract in terms of total money in the last free-agent cycle. The team also gave Kevin Beachum, a former Pittsburgh Steeler tackle, a four-year, $45 million contract, the second-largest for any tackle in the 2016 free-agency pool and a top-10 contract in free agency overall based on total money.
The additions of Tashaun Gipson, who had the highest contract awarded to a safety, and Chris Ivory, who had the highest contract awarded to a running back, hardly made a dent. Jacksonville wants to spend money; it just can't find players willing to take it.
After now Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, the largest contract on an average salary basis from the 2016 free-agency cycle was defensive end Olivier Vernon, who signed a five-year, $85 million contract with the New York Giants after leaving the Miami Dolphins.
In an article with The MMQB's Peter King, Vernon let the world know how close Jacksonville was to landing him, noting the fact that there's no income tax in the state of Florida. That always seems to be the case with the Jaguars, though. If it's not Vernon slipping away, it's Ndamukong Suh or Bryan Bulaga.
If Jacksonville turns down the option to pick up the remainder of Beachum's contract, they'll have over $73 million in cap space. Shaking tight end Julius Thomas' contract will bring them to $75 million and will save them $21.8 million over the next three seasons.
This could be the year they land the big fish.
3. New England Patriots
You want to know what's scary? The thought of Bill Belichick with an extra advantage of cap freedom and extra picks. That's exactly what we might see with the New England Patriots' head coach-general manager in the 2017 offseason.
If Belichick is able to move backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for a first-round pick or several Day 2 picks, he's going to make up for the distance lost in the Deflategate scandal. On top of that, the Patriots are currently seventh in the league with nearly $63 million in cap space, per Spotrac, heading into 2017.
The Patriots only rolled over about $5 million from the 2016 season, meaning that if they play to last year's plan, they're going to spend around $58 million this offseason. Think of what Belichick can do with $58 million.
This is the same franchise that players like tight end Martellus Bennet and defensive end Chris Long, among others over the last decade or so, gush about when discussing the possibility of joining to chase a Super Bowl ring. Belichick wants players on discounts, can have players on discounts and has more freedom than just about anyone in the NFL this year.
In terms of cap space, the Patriots have the highest ranking in terms of teams returning from a playoff berth. Of the top dozen teams in cap space, per Spotrac, only the Patriots and the Oakland Raiders went to the postseason in 2017.
No team has as little money invested on the defensive side of the ball as New England does right now. The Tom Brady machine runs itself at this point, and Bennett, tackle Sebastian Vollmer and running back Brandon Bolden are the only offensive players who had an average salary of over $1 million who are coming off of the books in 2017. Expect huge money to be dumped on defense for the Patriots.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Former Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins and Houston Texans offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, at 37 years old, took the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers almost immediately after the Super Bowl. This comes after the firing of Chip Kelly, which came a year after the firing of Jim Tomsula, which came a year after the firing of Jim Harbaugh.
To say the least, the 49ers, on the surface, look like one of the more dysfunctional franchises in the sport, which could have been why free agents have avoided them recently. Shanahan will be in charge of the 53-man roster, according to Nick Shook of NFL.com, but the rest of the roster moves should be in the hands of general manager John Lynch, who after retiring in 2008 immediately started a second career as a color commentator.
Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, Lynch volunteered for the general manager gig in San Francisco, in case you were wondering about that "dysfunctional" label. Per the San Jose Mercury News, 49ers owner Jed York told reporters, "I own this football team. You don’t dismiss owners. I’m sorry that that’s the facts and that’s the case, but that’s the facts."
There seems to be some odd power struggle involving the owner, which might be why he chose a young head coach who had no other choice but to come to San Francisco if he wanted to be a head coach in 2017 and a general manager with literally no experience in an NFL front office. Still, San Francisco has nearly $82 million in cap space heading into the 2017 cycle, good for the second-highest mark in the league, per Spotrac.
That's including the contract of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who if released, would save the team north of $14 million in 2017. Under Shanahan, the Falcons brought in plus free-agent contracts in receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel and center Alex Mack, while he also developed tight end Austin Hooper and running back Tevin Coleman in their young careers.
Shanahan seems to have an eye for offensive talent, and on a team which may have the most bare cupboard in terms of talent on the offensive side of the ball in the NFL, that is significant. Day 1 on the job: start to find a long-term solution at quarterback.
1. Cleveland Browns
2016 was a weird season for the Cleveland Browns. While they weren't the only team to transition out of a general manager and head coach, they were the first team to hire a predominant analytics member to their front office.
By title, the team has no true general manager, though the job does seem to be separated into three people. Paul DePodesta, the former general manager of the MLB's Los Angeles Dodgers, is the chief strategy officer of the Browns—basically the analytical mind.
Sashi Brown, the executive vice president of football operations who came via the Jacksonville Jaguars, is the business mind of the team. Hue Jackson, the team's head coach, is the football mind for the franchise.
With all of that chemistry coming together at once, during a short season, the Browns didn't make many moves last offseason in free agency. Because of that, according to Spotrac, Cleveland rolled over $50 million in extra cap space from the 2016 season into the 2017 year, by far the most in the NFL.
That's more than double of the Tennessee Titans', who rank fourth in the NFL in the same metric. Overall, the Browns have $108 million of free cap to spend this year. To put that into perspective, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers only have $100 million of cap used up of the assumed $168 million salary cap heading into this offseason.
The Browns can match the contracts of an entire NFL team, and they'd still have more cap space left over than the Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs have entering 2017. After Jamie Collins, a linebacker who the New England Patriots traded away in-season, received the largest off-the-ball linebacker deal in the history of the sport, it's safe to say that Cleveland realizes they have to spend big to land young, talented players, and they have all the assets they need to do so.