Which NFL Teams Have the Most at Stake in 2018 Free Agency?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystFebruary 26, 2018

Which NFL Teams Have the Most at Stake in 2018 Free Agency?

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Free agency is about more than just throwing money at players. Yes, that is the main event, but broader shuffling and roster-shaping takes place, which has a major impact on the rest of the NFL offseason.

    For example, look at the Denver Broncos. Their need for a quarterback is clear, but they likely don't have the salary-cap space to really take a swing at Kirk Cousins. Does that mean they'll part with one of their key defensive veterans to clear space, like cornerback Aqib Talib?

    Every team has looming questions like that one to answer, but for some the impact is greater. The Dallas Cowboys face a similar decision regarding wide receiver Dez Bryant, who's become a cap anchor.

    There are also teams with needs beyond typical roster holes entering free agency—instead they face intimidating craters. That includes the Buffalo Bills, a team reaching peak wide receiver desperation. The Detroit Lions are getting to the same point with their pass-rushers, a need that will only grow if defensive end Ezekiel Ansah walks.

    Many unanswered questions and moving parts need to line up, and difficult decisions must be made once the market opens on March 14. Here's a deeper look at the teams with the most at stake during free agency in 2018.

         

    Salary figures courtesy of Spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.

Cleveland Browns

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    New Browns general manager John Dorsey (left) has plenty of cap space and two first-round picks.
    New Browns general manager John Dorsey (left) has plenty of cap space and two first-round picks.Associated Press

    What's at Stake: Whether they take advantage of their ample cap space

    Everything about the Cleveland Browns is far too familiar. That starts with their record (1-31 since the beginning of 2016) and the lack of a competent quarterback.

    But at this point in the offseason, that list also includes the amount of money at their disposal. As free agency approached in late February 2017, the Browns had $106.5 million in cap space, which was over $20 million ahead of the next closest team, per Business Insider's Cork Gaines.

    Now in 2018 the Browns have $110.7 million in cap space, enough financial muscle to bully any team.

    Or at least that's true in theory. In practice the Browns' stack of cash will merely be the largest in a mountain range of tall peaks, which could quickly mitigate or even erase any advantage gained from having the most space.

    The Browns may have over $25 million more in space than any other team. But they're also one of eight teams with $50-plus million to spend, and one of 11 teams at $45-plus million. The league average is $35.8 million.

    Like the Browns, several cap-rich teams are hungry for a quarterback, including the New York Jets ($84.7 million) and Minnesota Vikings ($53.2 million). Those teams can afford to be just as aggressive while wielding a giant money hammer.

    But the Browns can match any offer to quarterback Kirk Cousins, the top prize in free agency. Or they could acknowledge they're far more than one piece away from being contenders again and spread their money around.

    The latter path makes much more sense. Which means the Browns definitely won't do it.

New York Jets

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    The Jets might throw an obscene amount of money at Kirk Cousins.
    The Jets might throw an obscene amount of money at Kirk Cousins.Associated Press

    What's at Stake: How aggressively they pursue Kirk Cousins

    The New York Jets could be like the neighborhood kid who gets his first taste of money cutting a few lawns, only to lose it minutes later after a wide-eyed sprint to the mall.

    The Jets have the league's second-highest cap space. That number will only climb once they release defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and running back Matt Forte, those moves which feel inevitable. They would then have roughly $98.3 million to spend, and could quickly turn into the true bullies of free agency.

    Like the Browns, the Jets know their most recent record isn't exactly appealing to a rock-star free agent like Cousins, even if they did somehow win five games in 2017 when notching one or two victories initially looked difficult. So they're reportedly considering a power move that would be the equivalent of subbing in an enraged Incredible Hulk for an arm-wrestling match.

    A source told Brian Costello of the New York Post the Jets might throw down $60 million up front in the first year of the contract, then see if Cousins can pull himself away from such a massive commitment.

    They would still have around $30 million in cap space, which is plenty to improve their 28th-ranked offense from 2017. The Jets would also be able to get an immediate-impact player with their sixth overall pick, and still own two more top-50 picks in the draft.

    The strategy sounds laughable and absurd when you first try to absorb the enormity of that guaranteed figure in the first year of Cousins' contract. But in an era with a sharply rising cap, the Jets could be set to sketch out a blueprint teams will happily follow in the future.

Denver Broncos

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    Has Aqib Talib played his last snap for the Broncos?
    Has Aqib Talib played his last snap for the Broncos?Robert Reiners/Getty Images

    What's at Stake: Whether they can afford a top quarterback

    The Denver Broncos are the league's most quarterback-desperate team, and it's really not all that close.

    Some would argue that title should belong to the Minnesota Vikings. But they just played in the NFC Championship Game, and they could re-sign any of their three pending free-agent quarterbacks (Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater) and still remain a title contender in 2018.

    The Browns and Jets, meanwhile, are overflowing with cash to spend, but won a combined 11 games over the past two years. The Broncos still aren't far removed from a championship after going 12-4 in 2015 and winning Super Bowl 50.

    Most of the core defensive pieces that propelled them toward that banner are still around, which will make the Broncos appealing to Cousins. Denver fielded the league's third-ranked defense in 2017, allowing only 290 yards per game.

    The problem, however, is the Broncos simply don't have the cash clout to keep up.

    They're projected to have $25.9 million to spend, a figure well below other quarterback-desperate teams. So the main question for the Broncos is this: How much are they willing to sacrifice in their pursuit of a quarterback?

    They could find more cap space by releasing one or more highly paid veterans. Cornerback Aqib Talib is high up on that list, and cutting him would save the Broncos $11 million. But although Talib is 32 years old, he was still among the league's best corners in 2017 after allowing only 250 yards in coverage, per Pro Football Focus.

    The Broncos have to determine how much they can afford to subtract from a strength in order to address a weakness. That gives them one of the more difficult balancing acts of the 2018 offseason.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Jimmy Graham is likely leaving Seattle as a free agent.
    Jimmy Graham is likely leaving Seattle as a free agent.John Froschauer/Associated Press

    What's at StakeReplacing key pass-catchers

    The Seattle Seahawks are about to go through a transition, or at the very least a period of uncertainty.

    Safety Kam Chancellor wants to play in 2018 despite suffering a serious neck injury, as NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported. But getting medically cleared is still a major hurdle. Meanwhile, defensive end Cliff Avril missed 12 games in 2017 due to a neck issue of his own, and the Seahawks will likely release the soon-to-be 32-year-old.

    Cutting Avril will save Seattle $7.6 million against the cap in 2018. But that would still give them only about $20 million in cap space with difficult questions coming up tied to their offense.

    The Seahawks finished 2017 with a middle-of-the-pack passing offense, largely because of quarterback Russell Wilson's weekly routine of spinning in circles until he finally escaped pressure and someone was open. Still, he needs pass-catchers beyond just wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who can separate and be a presence in the red zone. And he's about to lose two such targets.

    Tight end Jimmy Graham might be aging and declining somewhat, but he still caught 10 touchdown passes in 2017. Graham was one of just three pass-catchers in the NFL to hit the double-digit touchdown mark, and now he's likely gone as a free agent.

    There's a good chance wide receiver Paul Richardson will follow him too. The athletically impressive 25-year-old finally emerged in 2017, finishing with 44 catches for 703 yards and six touchdowns. Graham and Richardson combined to be on the other end for 30 percent of Wilson's completions in 2017, and 16 of his 34 touchdown passes.

    That's a whole lot of pass-catching efficiency to replace without much money to work with.

Buffalo Bills

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    Kelvin Benjamin could enter 2018 as the Bills' top receiver, and that's a problem.
    Kelvin Benjamin could enter 2018 as the Bills' top receiver, and that's a problem.Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    What's at Stake: A glaring wide receiver hole

    The Buffalo Bills are also overflowing with pass-catcher desperation and likely little money to address that need in free agency.

    The Bills are projected to have $29.4 million in cap space, which will put them about $6 million below the league average. It's unclear who will be throwing passes in 2018 with quarterback Tyrod Taylor's future with the team in doubt. But the Bills will need to surround any quarterback with better weapons after tight end Charles Clay led the team in 2017 with just 558 receiving yards (on 49 catches).

    Jordan Matthews and Deonte Thompson, two of the Bills' top receivers, are set to depart in free agency. Thompson finished with the team's second-most targets among wideouts in 2017, and although Matthews struggled through injuries, he's still only 25 years old and has logged three career seasons with 800-plus receiving yards.

    Right now Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones lead the Bills' wide receiver depth chart. Benjamin recorded six games with less than 50 receiving yards after being acquired by Buffalo at the trade deadline (playoffs included). Worse, Jones averaged only 11.7 yards per catch and 21.1 yards per game as a rookie.

Dallas Cowboys

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    Dez Bryant is underproducing and has turned into a salary-cap anchor.
    Dez Bryant is underproducing and has turned into a salary-cap anchor.Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    What's at Stake: A tricky salary-cap situation

    The Dallas Cowboys are paying Dak Prescott a mere $630,000 in 2018. And they'll pay running back Ezekiel Elliott, who has averaged 104.6 rushing yards per game over two seasons, only $2.7 million—an especially tiny sum considering he's the soul of their offense when on the field.

    Usually when a team is paying two offensive pillars that little, salary-cap space isn't an issue. But the typical course of events don't often apply to the Cowboys, a team often in salary-cap turmoil while hanging on to veterans for far too long.

    Which is why the Cowboys have some tough decisions to make.

    They have $20 million in available cap space, but much of that will be devoured by defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. It's now feeling inevitable that after a 14.5-sack season in 2017, he'll be slapped with the franchise tag, which guarantees him a one-year deal worth roughly $17 million.

    If the Cowboys want to find the cash to do anything else—absolutely anything at all—they can look at two underproducing veterans.

    Wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten will account for a combined cap hit of $23 million in 2018. Bryant alone will soak up 9.75 percent of the Cowboys' salary cap, and do it after he landed with a thud in 2017. The 29-year-old finished with only 838 receiving yards, by far the lowest full-season total of his career.

    Witten, meanwhile, is slowing as he enters his age-36 season and averaged a career-low 8.9 yards per reception in 2017. The longtime Dallas fixture would cost the Cowboys nothing to release because there's no more dead money in his contract.

Detroit Lions

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    The Lions have to find a way to keep Ezekiel Ansah.
    The Lions have to find a way to keep Ezekiel Ansah.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    What's at Stake: Reinforcing their pass rush

    Ezekiel Ansah is interesting, tricky and confusing all at once as a pending free agent. And that alone makes the Detroit Lions' offseason a difficult one to navigate.

    Losing him would lead to a swirling hole heading into free agency. The 28-year-old's sack totals over the past three seasons make you rub your eyes and blink a lot. In 2015 (14.5) and 2017 (12), he registered double-digit sacks.

    But sandwiched in between is a quiet, whimpering dud. Ansah recorded only two sacks in 2016, a season when he started 13 games but battled injuries. His medical history is long; the fifth overall pick in 2013 has fought through shoulder, knee, ankle and back issues, sitting out seven games over five seasons.

    That's why making a long-term commitment is tough to stomach, as is a franchise tag that would cost about $17 million.

    It's an insomnia-inducing decision the Lions will wrestle with while trying to mitigate their risk. In the end a tag might be the best path forward for a pass-rush-starved team. If Lawrence is tagged by the Cowboys, the pass-rusher market in free agency will be weaker, and the Lions would be hard-pressed to replace Ansah's production.

    Detroit has $47.1 million to work with—the 10th-most cap space in the league—and can comfortably absorb Ansah's one-year guaranteed deal under the franchise tag and still address issues elsewhere.

    He might be injury-prone and inconsistent, but the former BYU standout accounted for a significant chunk of the Lions' 35 sacks in 2017 (just 20th in the NFL). They have little pass-rushing depth beyond him, as fellow defensive end Anthony Zettel finished second on the Lions with only 6.5 sacks.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Case Keenum led the Vikings to an NFC Championship Game appearance in 2017.
    Case Keenum led the Vikings to an NFC Championship Game appearance in 2017.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    What's at Stake: The Case Keenum question

    It's easy to label the Minnesota Vikings as another heavyweight in the Kirk Cousins pursuit. They have $53.2 million in cap space, the league's seventh-highest total, and most of their core is still locked up in 2018.

    But throwing a lot of money at Cousins could be short-sighted at best, and crippling at worst.

    In 2019 the Vikings will need to re-sign linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, in addition to defensive end Danielle Hunter and wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Then in 2020 their list of key pending free agents includes safety Andrew Sendejo, tight end Kyle Rudolph and cornerback Trae Waynes.

    A good handful of the players who made up the Vikings' top-ranked defense in 2017 will need to be retained over the next two seasons. And that won't be possible if somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million annually is being dedicated to Cousins.

    Which brings us to the Case Keenum question—or if you prefer, the Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford question. All three quarterbacks are scheduled to become free agents, though there's still some uncertainty surrounding Bridgewater and whether his contract will toll for 2018 after he was inactive for much of 2017.

    If the Vikings are going to bring back one of their 2017 quarterbacks, Keenum has the edge simply because of what he did during a season that ended with an NFC Championship Game appearance. Sure, Minnesota was thumped in that game, but in the regular season Keenum threw 22 touchdown passes with only seven interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 98.3.

    Keenum has earned his raise, but he'll be much cheaper than Cousins, and retaining him instead would put the Vikings in a better long-term position for sustained success.

Arizona Cardinals

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    Carson Palmer retired after 14 NFL seasons.
    Carson Palmer retired after 14 NFL seasons.Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    What's at Stake: Their QB depth chart

    Like the Vikings, the Arizona Cardinals wouldn't have anyone to throw passes if the 2018 season started today.

    It's alarming that after Carson Palmer retired, all three of Blaine Gabbert, Drew Stanton and Matt Barkley are set to enter free agency.

    The Cardinals' situation at quarterback is identical to the Vikings then in every way except one rather important area: money. Whereas the Vikings could easily muscle their way into the Cousins discussion, that will be trickier for the Cardinals with their $22.5 million in cap space.

    Arizona could make a play for one of the three former Vikings quarterbacks. Or they could get creative and try to pry Tyrod Taylor away from the Buffalo Bills in a trade. AJ McCarron has entered into the free-agent pool as an option too, though overpaying for him is dangerous and a clear sign of desperation gone too far.

    An unusually strong quarterback free-agent market is about to open up in addition to other trade possibilities. Still, there are never enough talented quarterbacks to fill out starting spots around the league, and one team could get left out when the music stops during this latest round of the QB carousel.

    That team may be the Cardinals due to their lack of cap space, and a No. 15 draft slot in the first round isn't ideal either.

Oakland Raiders: How Will They Address a Weak Secondary?

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    The return of Gareon Conley should help the Raiders' secondary, but more is needed.
    The return of Gareon Conley should help the Raiders' secondary, but more is needed.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    What's at Stake: Addressing their weak secondary

    The Oakland Raiders have a consistent problem. It's one they started to address during the 2017 offseason, and that effort needs to continue.

    Their secondary gets torched far too often, ranking 26th in 2017 while giving up 241.1 passing yards per game. The Raiders also somehow managed to record just five interceptions, the fewest in the league.

    They used a first-round pick on cornerback Gareon Conley in 2017. Then his rookie season was essentially wiped out because of a shin injury. He appeared in only two games and played 92 snaps. His improved health alone in 2018 will boost a struggling unit, but it won't be enough.

    The Raiders are set to lose defensive backs T.J. Carrie and Reggie Nelson in free agency, and have already released cornerback David Amerson. All three were contributors to a lackluster secondary, and their departures give the Raiders an opportunity for a clean slate.

    To solve their problem on the back end, the Raiders have the cap space ($27.9 million) to get aggressive and bid heavily on the best available defensive backs. That could include going after safety Lamarcus Joyner, who snatched three interceptions in 2017, or cornerback Trumaine Johnson (two picks in 2017) and his 18 career interceptions.

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