Potential Targets Broncos Could Exploit from Cap-Strapped NFL Teams
When NFL free agency officially gets underway, it won't just be those players who are set to become unrestricted free agents whom the Denver Broncos could pursue. Street free agents and trades are other ways the Broncos could acquire players.
Street free agents are those players who are released before they have completed their contracts. They aren't factored into the compensatory pick formula, meaning teams may sign as many as they like without having to worry about losing out on potential comp picks.
The end of the loophole for team options means that players whose team options are declined may be signed by other teams, too, without worries over losing a potential comp pick.
Trades do result in a team giving up a current year pick in most cases, but teams can always trade down in drafts to get additional picks in the current year, plus those players don't affect potential comp picks down the road.
In both cases, these players often become available because teams need to gain cap space to extend players with expiring contracts, to have space for draft-pick contracts or simply because they are over the projected cap. There are, of course, cases in which a player has declined or no longer wants to be with the team. But should a team need cap space, chances are a player who is a cut candidate is worth signing.
There are multiple teams that are projected to be limited in cap space and, thus, will be cutting players to gain additional space. The Chicago Bears are a good example of this.
The Bears were projected to be $5.5 million under the cap going into the offseason. They gained space after cutting CB Prince Amukamara and WR Taylor Gabriel and now have $18M in space, and will gain an additional $8.1M once OG Kyle Long officially files for retirement.
Long's decision to retire means he won't be an option for the Broncos to consider, but Amukamara and Gabriel should both be on Denver's radar, provided they come at the right price for players of their skill level.
They aren't the only ones, though. Let's examine other teams who will need to make moves to gain cap space and how the Broncos might capitalize on finding players who can help out in 2020. All team cap figures are based on a projected league-wide base cap of $200M.
Going into the weekend, the Vikings were projected to be $11.2M over the cap, but then DE Everson Griffen declined the player option in his contract, which gained $10M in cap space for the Vikings, but at the cost of losing a productive player.
Griffen will likely be looking for a starting job elsewhere and won't be on the Broncos' radar. However, the Vikings aren't done with cap matters — they need $8.2M for their draft picks, barring any trades, and need to clear more room. On top of that, they will likely want to retain S Anthony Harris, but the franchise tag will be about $12M.
They are almost certain to cut CB Xavier Rhodes and free $8.1M in cap space, but that alone won't be enough to keep Harris and sign draft picks. DT Linval Joseph could be a cap casualty and the Vikings might have their hand forced when it comes to WR Stefon Diggs — trading him wouldn't gain a lot of space, but they have to ask if keeping him is worth possibly losing Harris in free agency.
The only other option is to extend QB Kirk Cousins to lower his cap number, but it's possible he'll want to wait to see how much other quarterbacks get in free agency and use that as a negotiating point.
How the Broncos might capitalize: Rhodes is coming off a down year, but a one-year "prove it" deal might make sense. Joseph is aging and probably not the best scheme fit, but he won't be in a position to demand big money. And if the Vikings think they have no choice but to trade Diggs, the Broncos need to at least be thinking about acquiring him.
With Griffen becoming a free agent, the Jaguars are the only team projected to be above the cap at this time — $3.4M, to be exact.
I'm sure the Jaguars would love for somebody to take QB Nick Foles off their hands, but a trade would only free $3M in space, even if the CBA gets extended. (Keep in mind cap hits for trades are immediate and there's no post-June 1 designation for them.) So the Jags will have to cut other players to get under the cap.
This is where DE Calais Campbell gets brought up. His release would free $15M in cap space. An alternative would be to decline the team option for DE Marcel Dareus, which frees $20M in space. The Jags could also part ways with CB A.J. Bouye to free $11.4M in space and even C Brandon Linder to free $8M in space.
How the Broncos might capitalize: Where couldn't they? Broncos fans have talked a lot about Campbell coming to Denver, should he be cut. However, if the Jags opt to move on from Dareus, I wouldn't say no to him.
I'm not counting on Linder being cut, but if that did happen, you have to put him high on your list. And while Bouye is coming off a down season, he's certainly worth a look, too. Bear in mind that Linder and Bouye are both 28, so they are still in the prime of their careers.
The Steelers often utilize extensions and restructures to keep players around, but that comes at a price — more dead money and less cap space to work with in future seasons. And they are projected to be just $1.5M under the cap.
Though the Steelers are seldom active in free agency, they need $5.1M in space for draft picks, so they'll have to make some moves. OG David DeCastro and DE Cameron Heyward could be cut to gain cap space, but I suspect the Steelers don't want to lose either player, so I'm not counting on them being released.
But at least a couple of players will have to be cut. ILB Mark Barron's release would clear $5.25M, OG Ramon Foster's release would clear $4M, OLB Anthony Chickillo's release would clear $5M and DT Tyson Alualu's release would clear $2.75M.
How the Broncos might capitalize: Foster would hold some intrigue if he became available, but he would be a short-term solution. Alualu would be a fine rotational player, but his cap number is small and there's no guarantee he'll be cut. I suspect Barron is the most likely cut, but he isn't that good of a player and the Broncos can do better.
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The Falcons have been trying too hard to keep everyone together and now they are in a cap bind, with a projected $4.3M in space. They've already indicated they don't plan to use the franchise tag on TE Austin Hooper, but that's not a player the Broncos should be pursuing.
But the Falcons still need to release players or find other ways to clear cap space, because they need $7.8M in space for draft picks. Potential cap cuts are C Alex Mack ($8M freed), RB Devonta Freeman ($3.5M freed) and DE Allen Bailey ($4.4M freed).
How the Broncos might capitalize: Mack is an obvious choice — he would be the perfect veteran to serve as a bridge for a younger player the Broncos develop. Bailey could draw some interest as a rotational player. And I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss Freeman — at the right price, he could be the perfect back to pair with Phillip Lindsay.
New Orleans Saints
With just $9.3M in projected cap space and an extension looming for QB Drew Brees — one that will have to use creative structures that kick cap hits down the road — the Saints are going to have to move certain players.
There's one easy choice; CB Janoris Jenkins. Claimed off waivers from the New York Giants last season, Jenkins' release would free $11.25M in cap space. Other cut candidates are OLB Kiko Alonso ($7.85M freed) and OG Larry Warford ($8.5M freed), though I think the former is more likely than the latter.
Barring that, the Saints could also gain some cap space by extending Sheldon Rankins — though because his current cap hit is just $7.69M, an extension won't gain that much money. Therefore, expect the Saints to cut at least a couple of players.
How the Broncos might capitalize: Again, I don't think it's likely that Warford is cut — but if the Saints surprise me, he definitely needs to be on the Broncos' radar. Jenkins should get consideration, but you don't want to pay top dollar for him.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners aren't in a bad position, with $12.1M in cap space and only $4.9M needed for draft picks. But if they want to keep or add free agents for another Super Bowl run, they will have to make some cuts.
CB Richard Sherman and OT Joe Staley could both safely be cut, but the chances of either being cut are non-existent. It's more likely the Niners move on from two running backs, Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman, and go with cheaper options. An extension for DeForest Buckner could also help.
How the Broncos might capitalize: McKinnon's health is a major question mark, but perhaps he's worth a cheap one-year deal. The same might be said for Coleman. I do think there are better options if you want a veteran, but at least you know neither would be in a position to demand much money.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are projected to be $13.6M under the cap, need $5.1M for draft picks and we all know they need to get QB Patrick Mahomes extended. That leads everyone to believe that DE Chris Jones is going to the open market and the Broncos better pursue him.
I'm not convinced Jones hits free agency, though. The Chiefs can put the tag on him and gain space by cutting WR Sammy Watkins, whose $21M cap charge is too high. Kansas City would only gain $14M in cap space, but that would be enough to accommodate Jones.
Kansas City could also extend TE Travis Kelce to gain some space, decline the team option for OT Cameron Erving ($4.6M is a steep cap hit for a swing tackle) or cut OLB Damien Wilson.
How the Broncos might capitalize: Watkins could be considered if he's cut, but I wonder if he'll try to get big money, using his playoff performance to justify it. That brings me to Erving, who makes a lot of sense if the Chiefs move on from him.
Signing him would give the Broncos peace of mind at offensive tackle and, because declined team options no longer let teams get comp picks for a player, the Broncos wouldn't have to worry about losing a potential comp pick.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are projected to be $14.7M under the cap and will gain $4.25M more once S Eric Weddle formally files for retirement.
The Rams have a couple of pending free agents who they might want to retain, meaning they would need additional wiggle room to do that. The easiest way to gain space is to extend CB Jalen Ramsey. There aren't a lot of cuts the Rams can make from a practical standpoint, though one they could consider cutting is CB Nickell Robey-Coleman.
How the Broncos might capitalize: There's not much to see here, unless Robey-Coleman is released. He would be a player the Broncos could put on their list.
There are a few other players who could be cut, though they would be from teams that don't need the space and simply want to move on from an underperforming player. We saw that with the Washington Redskins, with the releases of CB Josh Norman, WR Paul Richardson and TE Jordan Reed.
Richardson has been connected to the Broncos, but has to come at the right price. I wouldn't rule Norman out entirely, but you absolutely don't pay him top money.
We also know about the potential trade for CB Darius Slay from the Detroit Lions, and the Broncos have been mentioned as a favorite. However, Slay may not be the only player the Broncos consider trading for. You never know who could become a trade candidate and is worth pursuing.
Regardless, don't fixate too much on players with expiring contracts as the players you want the Broncos to acquire. There can be value in the right street free agent and you could find the same in a player trade. All you have to do is ask yourself if the price is right.