NFL Teams Set to Have the Most Cap Space to Throw at 2022 Free AgencyMarch 31, 2021
NFL Teams Set to Have the Most Cap Space to Throw at 2022 Free Agency
A lot can change in a NFL calendar year, though we should expect teams flush with cap space to make tidal waves during free agency in 2022.
This offseason, the New England Patriots used their available resources to their advantage, signing several veterans to improve a squad that went 7-9 in 2020.
Some general managers choose not to spend heavily on the open market and prefer to rely on the draft to fill holes across the depth chart, but roster cuts, trades and pressing needs could force a front office to change its philosophy. Before this year, the Patriots had a conservative approach to free agency.
Looking ahead to the 2022 offseason, we'll profile five clubs projected to have the most cap space, per Spotrac. The Seattle Seahawks aren't listed because they're probably going to sign All-Pro safety Jamal Adams to a lucrative extension during his contract year after trading two first-round picks, a third-rounder and safety Bradley McDougald for him last offseason.
We've listed the top potential needs and free-agent targets for each team.
Top Projected Needs: IOL, WR, CB
The Carolina Panthers will need to kick their rebuild into high gear going into the third year under head coach Matt Rhule. With a significant amount of cap space, the front office should look to fill holes with proven veterans who would mesh with the 2020 and 2021 draft classes.
The Panthers could find a long-term answer at quarterback in the upcoming draft. For now, Teddy Bridgewater has the stopgap role. Regardless, running back Christian McCaffrey will likely remain the centerpiece of the offense. In 2020, Carolina signed him to a four-year extension that includes $38.2 million in guaranteed money.
The Panthers must rebuild their offensive line, specifically on the interior, to clear lanes for McCaffrey.
At the pivot, Matt Paradis allowed three sacks this past season, per Pro Football Focus. His contract automatically voids after the 2021 campaign. Guard John Miller will also hit the open market next offseason. Carolina signed interior offensive lineman Pat Elflein to a three-year deal, but he's struggled at guard and center throughout his career.
James Daniels of the Chicago Bears and Ethan Pocic of the Seattle Seahawks would fit the Panthers' needs across the offensive line. Both veterans have at least 30 starts with the ability to play guard and center.
The Panthers can replace wideout Robby Anderson, who's entering a contract year, with a speedy threat in Tyler Lockett. The latter has eclipsed 1,053 receiving yards in consecutive terms. After signing Dak Prescott to a four-year, $160 million deal, the Dallas Cowboys may have to let wideout Michael Gallup walk with Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb on the roster. If that's the case, Carolina should send him a contract offer, as well.
In 2022, cornerback Donte Jackson could test free agency. If the Panthers don't re-sign him, the front office should take a big swing at two-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro cover man Kyle Fuller to shore up the pass defense. The Panthers need a proven playmaker on the back end with quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Ryan still performing at a high level in the division.
Top Projected Needs: Edge, ILB, RB
The Denver Broncos will have quarterback Drew Lock on his rookie deal. As a 2019 second-round pick, he'll go into 2022 with a modest cap number of $2.2 million. Furthermore, edge-rusher Von Miller's contract will come off the books.
Miller could re-sign, but he's unlikely to match his current $22.2 million cap hit as a 33-year-old next March. The Broncos may want to add a younger veteran at the position. If Haason Reddick has a one-year stay in Carolina, he could find a home in Denver opposite Bradley Chubb. The 26-year-old is coming off a 12.5-sack season and may further elevate his market value in the upcoming term.
The Broncos would have more reason to sign Reddick if they lose soon-to-be restricted free agent Malik Reed, who had an eight-sack 2020 campaign.
Between the edge-rushers, the Broncos may need an established inside linebacker. Their two leading tacklers from this past season, Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, will become free agents in 2022.
Anthony Walker could bring some leadership to the position group. This offseason, he signed a one-year deal with the Cleveland Browns to balance their young linebacker unit. The 6'1", 235-pounder has played in even- and odd-man fronts.
Denver may select a running back in April's draft after it rescinded a tender for Phillip Lindsay, who signed with the Houston Texans. Melvin Gordon III and Royce Freeman will go into contract years.
The Broncos don't have to make a big signing at one of the most disposable positions. However, if Marlon Mack bounces back from a torn Achilles with the Indianapolis Colts in 2021, he could become a hot commodity who crosses the team's radar next offseason. The 25-year-old racked up 1,173 yards from scrimmage in 2019.
Top Projected Needs: WR, TE, DE
Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard went into the 2021 offseason with cap flexibility. He made his biggest splash in a trade for quarterback Carson Wentz and went conservative on the open market. The club re-signed wideout T.Y. Hilton on a one-year, $10 million deal for its most expensive free-agent acquisition.
Wentz will reunite with his former offensive coordinator and new head coach, Frank Reich. Despite the signal-caller's down 2020 season, the Colts should move forward in win-now mode with a playoff-caliber roster.
They put a Band-Aid on their need at wide receiver with Hilton's short-term contract, and they could address the position in the upcoming draft. But Michael Pittman Jr. is the only player in the group with a foreseeable future in Indianapolis. The club should add veteran help next offseason.
If the Chicago Bears don't come to terms with Allen Robinson II on a lengthy deal, he should rank atop the Colts' free-agent wish list. He would immediately become Wentz's go-to receiver. The seven-year veteran has eclipsed 1,146 yards in back-to-back seasons.
The Philadelphia Eagles haven't moved tight end Zach Ertz despite the trade buzz (h/t NFL Network's Ian Rapoport) swirling around his name. Regardless of where he plays for the 2021 campaign, he'll hit the open market in 2022. We could see him reconnect with Wentz in Indianapolis.
According to The Athletic's Stephen Holder, Indianapolis is in contact with Justin Houston. He'll turn 33 years old in January. Even if the Colts re-sign him on a short-term deal, they'll need some help at defensive end. Kemoko Turay will hit the open market next offseason, and Ben Banogu hasn't established himself as a starter.
The Colts should take a look at Emmanuel Ogbah, who had his best showing this past season, logging a career-high nine sacks. If he prices himself out of Miami, Indianapolis will have the cap space to propose a competitive offer.
Los Angeles Chargers
Top Projected Needs: OL, CB, TE,
The Los Angeles Chargers should take advantage of their financial freedoms while they have quarterback Justin Herbert on a rookie deal. In 2022, he has a $7.2 million cap hit.
General manager Tom Telesco must protect the ascending quarterback who won the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He signed versatile offensive lineman Matt Feiler and All-Pro center Corey Linsley this offseason, though the team may not want to keep Bryan Bulaga with a $14.1 million cap number at 33 years old next season.
Los Angeles could select a left tackle and a guard in the upcoming draft, but new head coach Brandon Staley may push to use early-round picks on the defense. Keep in mind, he's a former defensive coordinator. The Chargers may have some uncertainties across the offensive line if they release Bulaga or pass on top tackle and guard prospects in the 2021 draft.
In the event that the New Orleans Saints don't keep offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk off the market, he could replace Bulaga on the right side. If guard Wyatt Teller tries to cash in on consecutive solid years with the Cleveland Browns, the Chargers should show him the money to bolster their ground attack.
Los Angeles has a question mark at cornerback on the boundary opposite Michael Davis. Casey Hayward is still a free agent. Chris Harris Jr. can line up in the slot or on the perimeter, but he's going into a contract year.
Set to become a free agent next offseason, Darious Williams could follow Staley, his former Rams defensive coordinator, to the Chargers. He recorded 14 pass breakups and four interceptions while allowing a 54.2 percent completion rate this past season.
Herbert could lose perimeter playmakers in wideout Mike Williams and tight end Jared Cook via free agency in 2022. Telesco could restock the pass-catching group by signing tight end O.J. Howard, who could see more targets as a featured option in the Chargers' aerial attack.
Top Projected Needs: QB, OL, CB
The Pittsburgh Steelers had to make tough decisions because of cap-space limitations this offseason. They released cornerback Steven Nelson and linebacker Vince Williams. Edge-rusher Bud Dupree and slot cornerback Mike Hilton signed with the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively.
Although the Steelers will likely sign edge-rusher T.J. Watt to a massive extension before his contract year concludes, they should still have a ton of cap space left to spend in free agency. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract will come off the books. Secondly, a couple of highly paid veterans may not return for the 2022 campaign.
The Steelers need a quarterback plan for the future. Roethlisberger couldn't carry the offense with his arm last season, ranking 22nd in QBR (60.1). He'll celebrate his 40th birthday next March.
Even if the Steelers intend to draft a quarterback in April or next year, they should acquire a stopgap option in case the young signal-caller needs time to develop on the practice field. Marcus Mariota draws the most intrigue because he's had some level of success, leading the Titans to a playoff berth in 2017 and winning a playoff game as a starter.
Pittsburgh hasn't re-signed Alejandro Villanueva, who's still a free agent. Matt Feiler signed with the Los Angeles Chargers. Maurkice Pouncey retired this offseason. Guard David DeCastro will become a free agent in 2022. General manager Kevin Colbert should address the offensive line in April's draft and next offseason.
With clear holes at left tackle and center, grizzled veterans such as Terron Armstead or Ryan Jensen could pique Colbert's interest. As starters, they've suited up for big games with the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively. Both could play right away if the Steelers' draft picks struggle to develop in first-string roles.
The Steelers secondary, particularly on the boundary, could look completely different in 2022. Nelson is a free agent, and Joe Haden could hit the open market next offseason.
If Pittsburgh allows Haden to walk, the front office could take a look at 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, who earned a Pro Bowl nod in each of the last three seasons. He could play opposite Cameron Sutton or Justin Layne.