NFL free agency: Outlooks for five teams with most salary cap space
Just because you have a lot of financial flexibility doesn't mean you're going to move up in the world. You can ask the principals of any bust-out bank in the last decade, or anyone who's wasted his or her resources over time. But with the new league year, even teams that have mismanaged their assets get a chance to start all over ... if they're on the right side of the salary cap. For the 2015 league year, there are five teams with at least $45 million in cap room, and each has needs all over the place. Having the money is a good start. What will these five teams do with those resources?
Jacksonville Jaguars (2015 cap space: $68,477,511)
The Jaguars have smartly tied themselves to analytics in their mission to turn around the fortunes of a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 2007, but there may be a less cautious approach to free agency in 2015. This hasn't been a team eager to spend on high-dollar contracts, but there seems to be a realization that without some risk, the Jags risk throwing all that metric intelligence away at the altar of caution.
"Any year is good to have cap space," Jaguars general manager David Caldwell said at the combine. "But you have to be wise. Just because you have a lot of money, you have to be wise to not mortgage the future. For us, it’s important we make good decisions but you can’t manufacture players if they’re not there. There’s no sense of urgency for us to go out and spend for the sake of spending, but we’ll be aggressive. If there is a player we want, we’re going to do what we need to do to get him."
With nearly $70 million in cap space and no major contracts to re-do, Caldwell and his staff have as close to a blank check as any franchise will have, and there's a lot to spend on. Jacksonville ranked 31st overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted offensive metrics, and 17th in those same defensive numbers. The team ranked 29th in Offensive Adjusted Line Yards and dead last in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate -- and while some of those sack numbers had to do with the inexperience and subpar pocket presence of rookie quarterback Blake Bortles, a lot had to do with the offensive line.
Jacksonville's defensive line, led by the criminally underrated Sen'Derrick Marks, was a surprise positive, ranking ninth in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards, and second (behind the Bills) in Adjusted Sack Rate. Clearly, the pressure will be on the offense in 2015, starting with Bortles. The plan had been for the UCF product to sit his entire first season, but injuries scuttled that plan, and Bortles had to learn under the gun. Head coach Gus Bradley has said that he wants Bortles to take the proverbial next step in 2015, and he does have the targets to succeed. Free agent receiver Cecil Shorts might not be back, but the team has a great belief in WRs Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. Shorts led the team with 110 targets last season, but he caught just 53 passes. The pleasant surprise was undrafted rookie Allen Hurns, who racked up 110 yards and two touchdowns in his first NFL game. Where the Jags most need help is in the run game and along the offensive line. There are also holes to fill along the back seven, but if this team is to finally walk out of the hole it's been in the last few years, a better ground game is the place to start.
Oakland Raiders (2015 cap space: $55,707,735)
This will be the fourth season for general manager Reggie McKenzie, and while McKenzie has done a lot to purge the organization of the worst of Al Davis' mistakes, there hasn't yet been the signature move that will define McKenzie and set the Raiders on a new track. Oakland has won a grand total of 11 games under his tenure, and though his 2014 draft brought great dividends at multiple positions (linebacker Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr, left guard Gabe Jackson, defensive tackle Justin Ellis), there was also the strategy to throw a bunch of veterans on the downside of their careers at the problem last season, and that went about as well as expected. The hope is that new head coach Jack Del Rio will bring a stability that was not present through the Dennis Allen era, and certainly went missing when Allen was fired in-season and replaced by interim head coach Tony Sparano.
Where the Raiders seem to have things on lock is at the game's more important position -- Carr had few targets to speak of and a non-existent ground game, but he led all rookies in attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Job One for McKenzie in 2015 will be to surround Carr with the kind of targets capable of taking him to another level. Veteran James Jones led the team with 73 receptions, but gained just 666 yards and six touchdowns, created in part by an overwhelming reliance on the short passing game -- Carr completed just 15 of 71 passes over 20 yards in his rookie campaign. This is one place the Raiders would do well to heed the old lessons of Davis, and get a true vertical receiver who can win battles upfield. Darren McFadden led the team with 534 yards, and while Latavius Murray is an intriguing prospect, this is a team with a real need for a dominant back -- and the interior offensive line (minus Jackson) to help that go.
On defense? Well, start with the fact that the Raiders amassed just 22 sacks all season. That's the same number that Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston put up last season all by himself. The Raiders don't need Houston per se, but they need better pass rushers all over the place, and they need to start developing a secondary that can be relied upon. If McKenzie doesn't make the same number of prominent additions he did in 2014, the Raiders could be in for more change in a big hurry.
Cleveland Browns (2015 cap space: $54,020,896)
So... besides the owner who's been investigated for fraud, the general manager who was busted by the league for texting illegally during games and the quarterback who's in rehab, the Browns' outlook is nothing but positive! In all seriousness, this dysfunctional franchise does have a few things on the ball. The defense is pretty special at times, there are young and talented running backs, the left side of the offensive line could be All-Pro for a good long time, and head coach Mike Pettine appears to have the strong and calm presence needed in the middle of a full-blown circus.
Owner Jimmy Haslam and GM Ray Farmer must conspire to give the Browns' quarterback du jour the kind of targets who can make the passing game special, and it does appear that the quarterback du jour will be veteran Josh McCown, who signed a three-year, $14 million contract with $6.25 million guaranteed on Feb. 27. The idea is that McCown will provide a level of stability and mentor Johnny Manziel when he comes back from rehab and tries to improve on a rookie season that couldn't have gone much worse. On the other hand, Cleveland has two promising young backs in Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, rookie left guard Joel Bitonio was a knockout, and the Browns ranked 12th overall in Football Outsiders' defensive metrics -- second against the pass behind the Bills.
The obvious need here is for a wide receiver, or, actually, for multiple wide receivers. The Browns ranked dead last in 2014 with 12 touchdown passes, and Josh Gordon's most recent suspension will have him out for the 2015 season. The good news, we suppose, is that Cleveland can start pretty much from ground zero there. There's also a need for at least one dominant defensive tackle, as rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert didn't make many friends with his attitude, and the pass rush is average at best. It's a lot to ask, but if the Browns can fix their quarterback and receiver situations, they could at least scale over the .500 mark in 2015.
New York Jets (2015 cap space: $51,728,474)
The one good thing about the tenure of former general manager John Idzik is that he left the Jets in a good salary cap situation. That's to be expected from a guy whose sole credential for the job seemed to be that he once managed the Seahawks' salary cap, but the talent attrition along several roster groups was pretty severe. It's now up to new GM Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles to turn things around, and the most glaring need is at a position with which Bowles, an excellent defensive coordinator and former defensive back, is most familiar with. Ever since Idzik alienated Darrelle Revis a couple years back, the Jets have been leaking talent in the back four. Idzik mysteriously believed that he didn't have to spend to make the secondary great, which is why the Jets finished with only one cornerback, undrafted rookie Marcus Williams, who allowed an opponent passer rating lower than 106.0.
"I’d say at this point in time, it’s literally every position we’re trying to make more competitive," Maccagnan said at the combine. "I’d say there are certain positions, if you look at our roster, based on injuries last year... cornerback would be a position we’d probably address, whether it’s the draft or through free agency. But, overall, we’re going to try to address the talent and make the team as competitive as we can be. We’re early in the process from that standpoint."
[daily_cut.nfl] And there's a lot to do. The Jets also have to decide whether Geno Smith is the answer at quarterback, though with the team's current pass protection and receivers, it would be hard to separate the stuff from the stuff. Band-Aiding the quarterback position with Marcus Mariota won't do much if Mariota is running for his life and throwing to guys who can't get open. And then there's the matter of an outside pass-rush: Sheldon Richardson led the team with eight sacks, based primarily on his ability to destroy double-teams from the inside.
Indianapolis Colts (2015 cap space: $45,469,186)
On the surface, the Colts' situation looks pretty darned good: they've gone 11-5 in each of the last three seasons, they have an unbelievable franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck, and with that much cap room for the 2015 season, it would appear that general manager Ryan Grigson can spend his team's way past the AFC championship and onto the Super Bowl. However, Grigson has made enough mistakes in his time with the team to make some wonder if that money will be spent wisely. The Trent Richardson trade was the most glaring example of Grigson's missteps, but there are others: the selection of Florida State end Bjoern Werner in the first round of the 2013 draft, and the insistence that Werner would be an elite quarterback disrupter, was a sure way to ensure that Grigson's second draft would not be as impressive as his first.
In truth, the 2014 Colts were an average team buttressed by a weak division and propelled by their three stars, Luck, receiver T.Y. Hilton and cornerback Vontae Davis. If Grigson is going to turn the Colts into the kind of team that can hang with any opponent, he's going to have to use all that spending room in ways that enhance Indianapolis' depth at a number of positions. Start with the running back rotation. Richardson is as good as off the team whether he's on the team or not, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw have dealt with injuries too often, and Luck is one of the NFL's better play-action quarterbacks. The entire defensive line could use a push, several spots along the offensive line are problematic, Hilton needs a young potential star to partner with as Reggie Wayne goes through the end of his career, and Davis needs a lot of help in that secondary.
Grigson has benefited enough from the incredible efforts of a few key players and it's now time to round that out with a better plan, especially since Luck's second contract (which must be done before the start of the 2016 league year) will probably make him the highest-paid player in NFL history.