Championship teams are primarily built through the draft, but NFL free agency often tips the balance of power in favor of teams that know how to take advantage of their opportunities.
Heading into the 2017 season, there are many teams with a glut of cash to spend. Not all of them have the same kind of pull, however. For instance, the New England Patriots (who surprisingly have a ton of cap space) will be much more attractive than say, the Cleveland Browns, who have more cap space than any team in the NFL.
That doesn’t mean the Browns can’t make some noise in free agency and significantly improve their lot heading into 2017. But it does show there isn’t necessarily a correlation between a lot of money to spend and how well teams have performed.
With that in mind, here’s a look at 10 teams that have significant room to make big moves in free agency.
Note: Salary cap information courtesy of Spotrac.com
1. New England Patriots ($62,946,093)
What can you get for the team that just won its fifth Super Bowl in 17 years and second in its last three? Why, a ton of cash to spend during the offseason, of course!
The fact that Bill Belichick has built up his roster with as much talent as it has and has nearly $63 million of cap space to spend speaks to his greatness. During a time in which dynasties were supposed to be impossible to build, he’s engineered one of the most successful in NFL history.
New England has some of its own to reward with some of this money. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, cornerback Logan Ryan, tight end Martellus Bennett, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard are all going to need some of that money if they’re to remain.
Then, there’s the matter of getting Tom Brady some legitimate help at receiver. For years, he’s made do without elite talent on the perimeter. Then we all witnessed what was possible when he teamed up with Randy Moss in 2007. One can imagine a guy like Alshon Jeffery would have a huge impact on New England’s offense.
No doubt, the Patriots will do a few things that have us scratching our heads this offseason. But if we’ve learned anything over the years, its that it’s never a good idea to doubt Belichick’s methods. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens next for the Super Bowl champs.
2. Green Bay Packers ($43,568,612)
It seems like Aaron Rodgers has been holding up the Packers all on his own the past few years. His offensive line has held up well in pass protection, but it broke down in the playoffs against the speed of the Atlanta Falcons and struggled to make running lanes all year long.
Defensively, the Packers featured one of the league’s worst units at defending the pass, which was clearly evident in the NFC Championship Game as well. Green Bay doesn’t have any running backs and needs more help outside at receiver.
There are a lot of needs here. Thankfully, the Packers have some money to spend and don’t have that many of their own free agents to worry about. They’ve already released veteran running back James Starks and cornerback Sam Shields to save some cash. General manager Ted Thompson has also vowed to be aggressive in free agency to fill the team’s voids.
As much as Rodgers needs some help on offense, the Packers would be better served to address those needs via the draft and focus on bringing in defensive free agents to immediately make a difference on that side of the ball.
3. Oakland Raiders ($47,085,414)
The Raiders were one bad break away from potentially challenging the best in the AFC last year.
Assuming Derek Carr returns healthy and gets back to slinging the ball around at an elite level, the Raiders are going to be very tough to beat this next year. Finishing with a record of 12-4, Oakland surpassed all expectations before losing Carr to injury. Free agents are going to find the Raiders to be quite attractive, both in terms of their spending cash and their potential for greatness.
Though, it should be noted that the Raiders are making it a priority to lock up Carr and Khalil Mack up on long-term deals (more on that here), which will eat into their overall money available somewhat.
The big area of need for Oakland is defensive help. This was an area of weakness all year long, but Carr’s ability to make things happen late in games covered up the defense’s transgressions. Then, when he wasn’t there to bail them out, this unit collapsed in the wild card round against none other than Brock Osweiler.
Bringing in some experienced defensive backs will be beneficial, as will beefing up the team’s defensive line — Calais Campbell would be a tremendous addition. Mack is amazing, but he needs help up front. Thankfully, the Raiders have the funds to make a few impact moves and improve their roster.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($67,038,655)
The turnaround we’ve seen from Tampa Bay the past couple of years since Jameis Winston was drafted has been tremendous. That said, there is still plenty of work left to do if this team is going to take that critical next step that will vault them from just falling short to legit contender.
The big areas of need here for the Bucs revolve around the offensive line, receiving corps and defensive secondary.
It’s a really bad year to need offensive tackles, which means Tampa Bay might feel inclined to re-up with Gosder Cherilus. But he’s not the long-term answer there and the draft is also not a great place to look for offensive tackles this year. This means the Bucs should take a look at trying to lure Sebastian Vollmer away from New England or nab Riley Reiff from the Detroit Lions.
Tampa Bay also needs to provide Winston with more firepower outside. Mike Evans is a monster, but the team should consider trying to add the likes of DeSean Jackson or even Kendall Wright to take pressure off the big-bodied phenom.
Perhaps most of all, however, Tampa Bay’s back end defensively must be bolstered. Targeting a premier player like Eric Berry (who won’t play under the franchise tag again) and/or Trumaine Johnson (a guy the Los Angeles Rams are thinking long and hard about) could trigger a bidding war with their respective teams, and the Bucs have more capital to invest.
5. Tennessee Titans ($67,150,138)
The Titans are in a terrific spot to make a big move in the AFC South and could really make some big moves in free agency to further their cause.
A team that already has its quarterback in place, a fantastic offensive line set up, a running back crew that can wreck mountains, an up-and-coming receiver in Tajae Sharpe and a tight end in Delanie Walker who continues to bloom even in his latter years, there is a lot to like about Tennessee.
Adding an impact receiver to pair with Sharpe should be a priority, but most of the work in free agency should revolve around improving the team’s defense.
Ranked No. 20 overall last year in total defense, the Titans struggled to defend against the pass but featured a stout run defense. Going after a shut-down man-to-man specialist like Stephon Gillmore would be a smart move that would have a ripple effect on the entire defense. Another player the Titans should pursue hard is A.J. Bouye, who has become an outstanding cover man in Houston.
Finally, adding some more firepower off the edge would make a big difference for Tennessee’s defense. Brian Orakpo had a nice season, and so did Derrick Morgan, but the Titans need more than two pass-rushing specialists to optimize their defense.
6. San Francisco 49ers ($81,885,485)
Let’s just get this out of the way first: The 49ers are likely a few years away from becoming a legitimate playoff team.
That said, “likely” doesn’t always play out. The franchise, despite all its dysfunction the past few seasons, made some amazing moves to put some smart people in place at key positions.
Kyle Shanahan was the catch of the 2017 coaching circuit. He still has to form up his entire coaching staff, but he brought most of his assistants on offense over from Atlanta with him — a top-notch crew of coaching talent. And as inexperienced as John Lynch is, he will be aided by NFL vets like Martin Mayhew, Adam Peters and Tom Gamble, all of whom are highly respected around the league.
Then there’s the young talent the 49ers have that could attract some free agency hits. Defensively, they’re loaded. DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Jaquiski Tartt, Aaron Lynch and Jimmie Ward all are still looking at their best football ahead of them, not to mention talented vets like Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea.
The 49ers also have some talent offensively as well, including a couple of excellent offensive tackles Joe Staley and Trent Brown, as well as running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Torrey Smith. We’ve speculated that Tony Romo could actually be a perfect fit in Shanahan’s offense, especially since the 49ers have the aforementioned offensive tackles to protect him.
It’s going to be interesting to see what the 49ers can do with all their money.
7. Cleveland Browns ($105,046,997)
Speaking of all their money, no team in the NFL has more to spend than the team that won just a singular contest in 2016. And with holes to fill up and down the roster, there will be plenty of opportunities to spend, too.
One of the things Cleveland has going for it — something that could attract free agents — is head coach Hue Jackson. He had such a positive impact on this team in 2016 that tears were shed when the Browns finally won their first and only game of the season. He also said he’d swim in Lake Erie if the Browns go 1-15 again.
It’s been reported that the Browns will end up landing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in a trade with the Patriots. If that happens, they’ll need to sign him to a long-term deal at some point in the process, but with so much money under the cap that won’t be an issue.
Another player that will eat into the cap a bit is receiver Terrelle Pryor, whose 2016 season should make him a fair bit of money. Aside from him, and potentially Jordan Poyer and Austin Pasztor, the Browns will be looking outside the organization for most of their free agency spending this year.
This could bring in some unexpected interest by players who are willing to bank on Jackson’s ability to turn the ship around in Cleveland.
8. Washington Redskins ($60,365,810)
It’s going to cost a fair amount to lock up Kirk Cousins, though at this point we almost certainly know what that number will be. He’s expected to receive the franchise tag, which will cost $24 million for 2017.
This still leaves Washington with roughly $36 million left to spend, and it has some decisions to make about how to spend it. Notably, receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are set to be free agents, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see one or both jump ship if the Redskins play hardball at the negotiating table.
Washington needs help on defense, especially in the middle of the field. The defensive line needs to be bolstered, as does the linebacking corps and safety spot. This team has been known to be uber aggressive in the past to land players it covets, so don’t rule out a power play to land the likes of Eric Berry, Lawrence Timmons, Dontari Poe or even Jason Pierre-Paul, who is looking for a monster deal.
We never know quite what to expect from this team from year to year. But we can expect it will be active in free agency, for better or worse.
9. Indianapolis Colts ($60,915,819)
Rookie general manager Chris Ballard, hired after Ryan Grigson was finally shown the door, has an opportunity to make some big moves to help the Colts this offseason.
The first order of business has to be for Ballard to fix the team’s offensive line. It’s been a patchwork unit for every one of Andrew Luck’s five seasons as a pro, though Grigson did make one smart move last year by drafting Ryan Kelly out of Alabama.
While it is a bad year to chase after offensive tackles, there are some options, such as the aforementioned Reiff, Vollmer and even a veteran like Andrew Whitworth on a short-term deal. There are plenty of interior linemen to choose from.
In addition to shoring up the offensive line, Ballard must also bring in a new era of defensive competence after an age of mediocrity. From cornerback to linebacker, defensive linemen to safety (minus Mike Adams, who is also a free agent), the Colts could use upgrades all around.
We’re going to be watching the Colts closely this year to see what kind of impact Ballard makes as a personnel executive.
10. Carolina Panthers ($49,083,149)
How in the world did the Panthers go from a 15-1 record and Super Bowl berth to missing the playoffs and a 6-10 record?
Losing cornerback Josh Norman didn’t help. Neither did losing Luke Kuechly for a bunch of games as he recovered from a concussion. But there were plenty of other issues at play as well.
The team’s offensive line was pathetic this past year. Once Michael Oher went down with a concussion (one he’s still suffering effects from now), it was a domino effect. Cam Newton was hit. He was hit hard and he was hit often. The running game also suffered a drop-off in production compared to 2015. Oher is hopefully going to come back, but there is no guarantee there.
Mike Remmer is a free agent, and we’ll be surprised if the Panthers bring him back. He was a big liability in pass protection. With that in mind, the Panthers must aggressively pursue the top offensive tackles in this year’s market.
General manager Dave Gettleman must also find some answers at the cornerback position, both in the draft and in free agency. Thankfully he has plenty of money to work with in order to make this all happen.