This is a strange offseason to try and figure out who will be spending the most money in free agency. The normal equation—something like Desperate GM times Impatience of Aloof Owner divided by Faith in Equally Desperate Coach—doesn’t apply as squarely when a new collective bargaining agreement could strike at any minute, altering ever slightly the fiscal directives of those who actually command the purse strings.
Then there is the fact that so many teams might desire new rookie quarterbacks, trade for quarterbacks with a large, existing salary or make an attempt at signing one of the 38-plus year old veterans on the market who will cost a lot of money on short-term deals that don’t provide a ton of financial wiggle room.
All of this impacts the calculus, as does a growing sense that the kind of long-term planning we used to fawn over as football observers is ultimately fruitless when there are so many good general managers adept at managing the moment and maximizing their success now. That said, we must press on. There are still teams who will throw gobs of money at declining veterans. The ecosystem will survive. Here is our best guess at who it will be:
1. New York Jets (estimated cap space: $34.6 million)
The Jets don’t need a quarterback, but they do need foundational pieces. Foundational pieces are expensive. A quick look at their depth chart as presently constructed is a tad horrifying. Almost their entire offensive line needs to be turned over. They’ll need at least one starting wide receiver, perhaps two depending on what happens in free agency with Robby Anderson. Secondary depth is razor thin. The only things they are actually in possession of are top-end safeties, a top inside linebacker, a developmental defensive tackle prospect and Sam Darnold. It’s a reflection of why there may have been such desperation on Adam Gase’s behalf to readjust the personnel department in the first place.
The franchise took some pretty extraordinary steps to align Gase and general manager Joe Douglas, so it wouldn’t seem like the pair is traditionally desperate. However, they’ll need to spend just to get themselves to the starting gate this season. This is a fairly robust free-agent offensive line class, with Joe Thuney, Jack Conklin and Bryan Bulaga available, among others.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (estimated cap space: $27.7 million)
The Eagles aren’t loaded with available funds but that never seems to stop Howie Roseman from making the offseason interesting. The roster crumbled to a series of injuries and sub-optimal performances last year and still managed to win the division. There is no indication that the Eagles have slipped from their Super Bowl window despite some minor roster tweaks and changes to the coaching staff. Questions linger at expensive positions like offensive line and wide receiver. Their secondary needs both critical re-signings and some new life at the top end of the market. The Eagles have found success at the top of the receiver market before, though the cost for entry this season might be exceptionally high for a product like Amari Cooper, who sits alone at the top of the market.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (estimated cap space: $69.13 million)
As we mentioned up top, I tried not to populate the list with obvious teams who will need to carry a big contract this offseason because of uncertainty at the quarterback position (in that case, the Colts, Patriots, and a handful of other potential teams would be locks), but the Buccaneers should also be shopping elsewhere. This could be an interesting moment if Bruce Arians can nab a veteran signal caller with some cache, putting the team on similar footing to some of his old Cardinals teams. A lot about Arians has not changed: He’s still a great coach to play for and, alongside offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, has a staff that players want to play for. Like a lot of teams on this list, Tampa Bay could use help at corner, offensive line and defensive line. Shaq Barrett will remain in town one way or another, but he could use a few more complementary pieces to successfully unlock Bowles’ system.
Unlike other teams on this list, it feels like Tampa is going through a bit of a cocoon shedding. New uniforms you say? Probably couldn’t hurt to have an established star wearing one to draw attention to the Pro Shop.
4. Denver Broncos (estimated cap space: $49.5 million)
The Broncos make sense here for a few reasons. The first is that there seems to be some genuine belief in Drew Lock as their starter heading into 2020, which means, from an accounting standpoint, you can throw the switch on the let’s win a Super Bowl while he’s still on his rookie deal and spend on other positions like children at a GameStop clearance event switch. The timing is good. While I’m not by any stretch of the imagination calling the Super Bowl champion Chiefs vulnerable, they’ll be trimming the financial fat off their roster. The Chargers may be starting over with a rookie quarterback. The Raiders are the Raiders, and could either be Super Bowl contenders with Tom Brady at the helm this December or a dramatic fever dream coming unglued at the seams. Plus, this gives John Elway a legitimate chance to see what Vic Fangio can do with a top-15 roster—and there should be curiosity after the team’s performance down the stretch in 2019, going from 3-8 to 7-9 and second place in the AFC West.
5. New York Giants (estimated cap space: $62.06 million)
Dave Gettleman has been talking about the creation of said salary cap space for a few years now, and while the Joe Judge era is just beginning, the highly controversial Gettleman era has been in full swing for a few years now and could use a defining moment. Should he refuse to buck tradition and hold on to his No. 4 draft slot, preventing the team from accumulating some much-needed draft capital, there is going to be a lot of work to do in free agency to patch up the pieces. At the least, it would be hard not to bake in the too-high salary the Giants will need to pay Leonard Williams given the circumstances of their 2019 trade deadline deal. It would then not be surprising to see the Giants continue to center their activity around the defensive line in free agency, rebuilding a formidable pass rush Gettleman can use to attack the analytics nerds.
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