Not all free-agency periods are equal.
Sometimes we’re waiting for an offseason is which Trey Flowers is the biggest catch. Nothing against Flowers, a good defensive end for the Detroit Lions, but this year’s class has a lot more pizzazz.
The quarterback carousel could be as lively as ever. There are big-name skill position players, quality offensive linemen and defensive stars at all levels. The landscape of the NFL is going to change a lot next week, starting on Wednesday afternoon (or on Monday, with the start of the so-called legal tampering period).
There are plenty of teams with holes to fill and salary-cap room to spend, which should create a frenzy. Here are our rankings for the teams to watch in free agency, in terms of which could be the biggest story in a few weeks after the dust settles (with last year’s record and the projected cap space for each team from OverTheCap based on a $200 million cap, though the exact 2020 salary cap figure has not been settled):
32. Atlanta Falcons (7-9, $4.2 million)
The Falcons could use some help on defense, but won’t have the cap space to make a big move. A pass rusher would be nice, especially with Vic Beasley moving on, but the Falcons are probably going to have to shop the bargain bin for that.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8, cap space: $1.6 million)
The Steelers are in bad cap shape, but can clear off some big hits to focus on re-signing some of their own free agents like linebacker Bud Dupree. Just don’t expect much outside of that.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10, cap space: $32.3 million)
The talent drain from Jacksonville is in full effect. Completely misplaying the quarterback situation, all the way back to extending Blake Bortles and then needlessly overpaying Nick Foles, has cost them dearly.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (2-14, cap space: $44.9 million)
The Bengals aren’t known for spending much money, so their cap situation probably doesn’t matter too much. The A.J. Green situation is the most pressing for the organization, and getting help for presumptive No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow should be a priority. We’ll see.
28. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, cap space: $13.7 million)
The Chiefs have to figure out how to keep defensive lineman Chris Jones, and there’s the matter of Patrick Mahomes’ soon-to-be record contract coming up. But all that is easier to figure out after you’ve won the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 50 years.
27. Minnesota Vikings (10-6, cap space: $1.4 million)
The Vikings had to know they had a two-year window to make a run once they signed Kirk Cousins. Now the bill comes due. The Vikings are in bad cap shape and will have to make tough decisions. And the nucleus they had wasn’t good enough to make it past the divisional round for the past two seasons. Yet, it’s not like they can start a rebuild. They’re in a tough spot.
26. San Francisco 49ers (13-3, cap space: $12.7 million)
It’s hard to map out the 49ers’ plan. It’s a team that was a fourth-quarter collapse from a Super Bowl title. You don’t want to change too much. But the Super Bowl hangover is real, and nobody wants to be complacent. It’s a very good roster that should be right back in contention, and perhaps a few minor additions are in order. Re-signing defensive lineman Arik Armstead will be a priority.
25. Los Angeles Rams (9-7, cap space: $19 million)
It would be interesting to see what the Rams would look like had they gone with a radical plan and traded Jared Goff instead of signing him. The Rams don’t have the type of cap space to make huge moves this offseason, with the deals for Goff and Todd Gurley taking up more than $53 million of the cap.
24. Detroit Lions (3-12-1, cap space: $47.7 million)
If you ever played for the Patriots, give Matt Patricia a call. The Lions’ plan seems to be finding whoever knows “The Patriot Way,” but that hasn’t really worked out yet. The Lions’ pass defense was absolutely miserable last season, so that needs to be a priority.
23. New York Jets (7-9, cap space: $49.4 million)
Offensive players beware: Adam Gase will be your coach, and there’s a good chance you won’t reach your potential with him. Ask Ryan Tannehill. Or Kenyan Drake. Or DeVante Parker. Or Le’Veon Bell. Take note, Robby Anderson. The Jets are bad enough that no position can be ignored in free agency. It seems there’s a good chance the Jets will land one expensive cornerback.
22. Carolina Panthers (5-11, cap space: $34 million)
The Panthers cratered last season and fired coach Ron Rivera, and then star linebacker Luke Kuechly retired. They’re also still in a bit of a holding pattern with quarterback Cam Newton’s health. Not ideal. Owner David Tepper seems like a bit of an impatient sort, which makes the reeling Panthers an unpredictable team to watch this offseason.
21. Arizona Cardinals (5-10-1, cap space: $39.7 million)
All of a sudden, Kenyan Drake became a priority in free agency after a seemingly innocuous midseason trade with the Dolphins. Whether or not Drake comes back, the Cardinals also have to work on building a defense. The offense has some promise.
20. Seattle Seahawks (11-5, cap space: $44.7 million)
The defense probably needs to be retooled if Jadeveon Clowney leaves in free agency. But it’s always hard to predict what the Seahawks will do. They march to their own beat with many of their philosophies.
19. Denver Broncos (7-9, cap space: $57.4 million)
The last few weeks of the 2019 season were huge for the Broncos. They have hope again, after quarterback Drew Lock gave them a shot in the arm. Not that Lock is the definite answer at quarterback after a few good games, but at least the Broncos can worry about other positions this offseason. They have a good young offensive core, but GM John Elway needs to make sure the defense doesn’t slip.
18. Baltimore Ravens (14-2, cap space: $30.7 million)
For a team with an MVP quarterback on his rookie deal, you’d think the Ravens would have more cap space. They still have enough to make a big move, though that’s generally not how the Ravens operate. They’re more likely to retain their best players and run it back with a team that was on pace to be historically good before a playoff debacle.
17. Chicago Bears (8-8, cap space: $16.3 million)
Bears fans seem to want a new quarterback, but who? And where does the money come from for that? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of wiggle room to add much to the roster, especially if the Bears do get involved trying to find another quarterback option to go with Mitchell Trubisky.
16. Houston Texans (10-6, cap space: $61.3 million)
The Texans will eventually have to pay Deshaun Watson, and then that cap space evaporates. For now, they can still make a big splash. But given the seemingly vague nature of any big-picture plan, do you trust the Bill O’Brien-led front office to make the right moves?
15. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, cap space: $41.9 million)
The Eagles have followed up a Super Bowl title with two lackluster seasons. Cornerback and edge rusher should be priorities, and another receiver or two for Carson Wentz would be a good idea too.
14. New Orleans Saints (13-3, cap space: $9.3 million)
Is there another team whose backup quarterback decisions have been more interesting? Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill are both free agents. They couldn’t be more different as players. Will the Saints sign one? Both?
13. Indianapolis Colts (7-9, cap space: $86.2 million)
The Colts want to be patient. That made more sense when Andrew Luck was their quarterback. Now it’s a good roster that has a window to be good for a couple years, and maybe great with a quarterback solution. The Colts had a ton of money last offseason and were surprisingly passive, but perhaps that could change this offseason.
12. Los Angeles Chargers (5-11, cap space: $57.3 million)
There’s a big shift happening in Los Angeles. Philip Rivers won’t be back. Melvin Gordon and Hunter Henry are among the biggest free agents about to hit the market. The Chargers are moving into a new stadium. If the Chargers are going to try to win over Los Angeles — and it’s looking more like they might be content to simply take advantage of a sweetheart deal in a plush stadium the Rams paid for — then anything seems on the table for them this month. And yes, they make sense for the Tom Brady sweepstakes.
11. Cleveland Browns (6-10, cap space: $67.7 million)
A new season, a new team of people making decisions for the Browns. Rinse and repeat. This isn’t a Browns team swimming in cap space anymore, though there’s still plenty of room to make some moves. But what good has that done them to this point? At very least, Cleveland should be in the market for offensive linemen. The team watched its offensive line decay last season and that didn’t help Baker Mayfield.
10. Washington Redskins (3-13, cap space: $61.1 million)
Ron Rivera has a big job ahead. The Redskins need a lot of help, and are in good cap shape to land an impact player. Cornerback has never been a huge priority for Rivera’s defense and Washington is pretty solid up front on defense, so the team might focus its energy on the offensive side.
9. Las Vegas Raiders (7-9, cap space: $56.1 million)
You just get a feeling the Raiders, in a new market that gave them a record amount of tax dollars for a stadium, wants a star to sell to its fans. Not that the team won’t sell all their tickets either way, but it’s not like they have a marquee player in a city that is used to marquee talent.
8. New York Giants (4-12, cap space: $78.5 million)
We can probably assume that any ex-Patriots player in need of a new home can find one in Detroit or New York. Former Patriots coaches love their former Patriots players, and it would be no surprise if new Giants coach Joe Judge followed the unsuccessful road that Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels have gone down. What fun.
7. Green Bay Packers (13-3, cap space: $20.5 million)
Any agent for a receiver hitting free agency should have the Packers’ number punched in, ready to hit “call” the moment the tampering period begins. Green Bay needs someone to go with Davante Adams. If all the Packers did this offseason was land a high-end pass catcher or two, and they did nothing else, it would still be a successful offseason.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9, cap space: $79.9 million)
The Jameis Winston conundrum has been hovering for a long time. Once the quarterback situation is figured out, the Bucs seem like a prime destination for a running back and some secondary help. Getting NFL sack champion Shaquil Barrett back in the fold is on their docket too.
5. Tennessee Titans (9-7, cap space: $50.4 million)
The Titans rode Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry to a playoff berth and couple of huge postseason wins last season. They’re set up pretty well for future success. But Henry and Tannehill had expiring contracts, and the Titans have some tough decisions to make.
4. Miami Dolphins (5-11, cap space: $88.1 million)
The Dolphins are the most interesting team in the draft, with a ton of extra picks, but they should be active in free agency too. Usually Miami settles for big-ticket free agents to win the offseason, so we’ll see if they have any more restraint during what seems to be a patient rebuild. Any young free agent who can be a long-term contributor should be on Miami’s radar.
3. Buffalo Bills (10-6, cap space: $82 million)
This is a crucial offseason in Buffalo. The Bills finally showed signs of being able to challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. The Patriots face a critical offseason of their own. The door is slightly open, but the Bills still need to add playmakers on offense around developing quarterback Josh Allen.
2. New England Patriots (12-4, cap space: $41.7 million)
Only a potentially historic shift at quarterback that we’ll remember forever. No big deal. If Tom Brady leaves, who is his successor? What’s the Patriots’ plan? There’s also the matter of finding some weapons for whoever will play quarterback, which was a problem last season. What an interesting offseason for Bill Belichick.
1. Dallas Cowboys (8-8, cap space: $75.9 million)
Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones. The most attention-fed team in the NFL has three of the biggest names on the potential free-agent market. Jerry Jones doesn’t mind spending money, but there are cap considerations. And it doesn’t seem there will be a lot of wiggle room to add any outside talent. The Cowboys always get the headlines, and that will be especially true this month.