There are a handful of teams each spring that approach free agency with a certain swashbuckling attitude. We’ve gotten in the habit, thanks to the cursed Nnamdi Asomugha and Vince Young Eagles of 2011, of calling these “dream teams” even if such a thing is largely impossible to create in the NFL. The Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, a club that benefitted immensely from a handful of high-profile free agents, had a bounty of talent on the roster before the arrival of big-name stars like Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and LeSean McCoy. Theirs is the more accurate blueprint for free agency success.
Despite a depressed cap situation and less available cap space, teams that are similarly primed—and view their window to compete for a Super Bowl as finite—will make a splash on the open market this coming week when the free-agency window opens. Similarly, you might see some players cluster in advantageous places if they cannot reap the financial benefits of an open market (and you can bet teams will use the pandemic and the cap situation as an excuse for why they are offering laughably small deals in comparison to a player’s fair market value).
So, after ranking the 200 best free agents available on Tuesday, and ahead of a more comprehensive assessment of team needs around the league later in the week, let’s now take a look at six teams that will make some noise once the new league year starts.
New England Patriots
Cap space: $66.5 million
Draft picks: 1st (15), 2nd (46), 4th (111), 5th (142), 6th (171), 6th (173), 7th (207)
Big moves already made: Trading for Trent Brown, who left the Patriots for the Raiders via free agency in 2019 but played just two seasons (16 total games) with Oakland/Las Vegas.
Why they’re going for it: This is Bill Belichick’s opportunity to build a contending roster in the post-Brady era. His quarterback options are better than they were a year ago when they signed Cam Newton, he returns several key defensive starters, he has one of the highest draft picks he’s ever had, and he reclaimed former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia on the coaching staff. The Patriots will be better than they were last year by default. A depressed market will be an advantage for Belichick, who has successfully squeezed veterans in the past for the privilege of playing in his system. He could find similar success in this climate.
At the very least, New England is going to have to make noise at quarterback. It could be as (relatively) banal as signing Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Fitzpatrick, or it could be as clamorous as reuniting with Jimmy Garoppolo. Either way, the Patriots will almost certainly throw some money around.
Cap space: $12.5 million
Draft picks: 1st (16), 2nd (49), 3rd (80), 5th (144), 7th (208)
Big moves already made: Signing J.J. Watt to a two-year, $31 million deal.
Why they’re going for it: The Cardinals, like a few teams on this list, will recognize the dwindling years on their rookie quarterback’s affordable contract. Perhaps they, too, sense a little bit of a weakness among their divisional opponents. The Seahawks appear fractured and their defense is beyond one offseason’s worth of repairs. The 49ers may end up stuck with Jimmy Garoppolo again. The Rams are going to be better with Matt Stafford, but are they that much better? L.A. beat the Cardinals twice last season and in order for the Cardinals to better position themselves for a playoff berth, they’ll have to improve the roster at several key spots. It would not be surprising to see them active on the cornerback, interior defensive line and wide receiver/pass catcher markets.
Cap space: $1.9 million
Draft picks: 1st (30), 2nd (61), 3rd (94), 5th (145), 5th (158), 6th (189), 7th (200)
Big moves already made: Nothing yet, but keep an eye on Buffalo crawling all over the trade market. Zach Ertz is a name that makes some sense, with the Eagles likely willing to let him go.
Why they’re going for it: With Dak Prescott hitting the $40 million mark, essentially resetting a quarterback market that hit a speed bump with the Jared Goff/Carson Wentz deals, the Bills know that it’s a matter of time before Josh Allen hits $42 million APY with more than $100 million in guarantees. Before that happens, Buffalo hopes to mount a Super Bowl run, building on a 2020 season that saw them make a quantum leap offensively. However, Buffalo could use some help on the interior of their offensive line, they could lose a valuable linebacker in free agency and there is no shame in, beyond Ertz, looking for ways to upgrade Allen’s weapons.
New York Jets
Cap space: $67.3 million
Draft picks: 1 (2), 1 (23), 2 (34), 3 (66), 3 (87), 4 (98), 5 (130), 5 (138), 6 (162)
Big moves already made: Franchising safety Marcus Maye
Why they’re going for it: Going for it can have different meanings. For the Jets it means a return to relevance and respectability. Hiring Robert Saleh was the first step in an image makeover that has been necessary for years. The cap space will go toward building an offensive line, the likes of which any Jets quarterback has not had at an elite (or close to elite) level since the days of Nick Mangold, Damien Woody, Matt Slauson and D’Brickashaw Ferguson. They can solve a lot of problems with this free-agent class and upcoming draft, or they can use their draft capital to solve one or two very pressing issues via trade (hello, Deshaun Watson!).
Cap space: $44.681 million
Draft picks: 1 (21), 2 (54), 4 (118), 5 (149), 6 (182), 7 (213)
Big moves already made: Trading for Carson Wentz
Why they’re going for it: This was supposed to be the Colts’ golden window with Andrew Luck, but plans need to be made on the fly when your generational quarterback retires. The Wentz deal is really only advantageous for the Colts if they’re good right away, which means pairing Wentz with a handful of better pass-catching options (T.Y. Hilton is a free agent). I believe they are in the race for Zach Ertz just as much as the Bills would be. This division is breaking down around them. The Texans are falling apart. The Titans will attempt to recreate a run-first offense behind a generational back for the third straight season. The Jaguars will be starting a rookie quarterback. All of this, combined with the fact that Chris Ballard is one of the shrewder executives in the NFL and knows that this is a time to maximize his cap space, leads us to believe Indy will be in on plenty of free-agent options.
New Orleans Saints
Cap space: minus-$58.7 million
Draft picks: 1 (28), 2 (60), 4 (124)
Big moves already made: Franchise tagging safety Marcus Williams
Why they’re going for it: The Saints have zero concern for the salary cap and are likely planning on some kind of Zorp-ian takeover in the near future, so why not spend what you can and get some interesting players? They’ll likely let go of some key free agents like Sheldon Rankins, but with the thin shavings of cap room they’ll manage to create, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to expect Sean Payton to recruit some veterans. Maybe Drew Brees will come back. Maybe there is something else up his sleeve on the quarterback front. Either way, Payton is not going to let some arbitrary set of financial guidelines keep him out of the dance.