Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
24 Feb 2014
by Rivers McCown
Editor's note: Past editions of Under the Cap were compiled with the idea that the NFL would have a salary cap of roughly $126.5 million next year. Recent reports have indicated that the number will instead be closer to $130-$132 million. Most of the analysis remains roughly the same -- this would just be a tiny little bump for each team -- but keep that in mind when revisiting these articles. From this article on, we will use the rumored $130 million mark. -- RM
Cap Space as of February 17th: A little under $8 million. (All monetary figures courtesy of Over The Cap.)
Unrestricted Free Agents (21, UFAs and RFAs culled via NFL.com): Josh McCown, Jordan Palmer, Devin Hester, Dante Rosario, Jonathan Scott, Eben Britton, Roberto Garza, Corey Wootton, Landon Cohen, Nate Collins, Henry Melton, Jay Ratliff, James Anderson, Blake Costanzo, D.J. Williams, Zack Bowman, Kelvin Hayden, Sherrick McManis, Charles Tillman, Craig Steltz, Major Wright
Restricted Free Agents (0):
Franchise Tag Candidates: As much as the Bears would like to bring back Henry Melton, he probably isn't a legitimate target for the franchise tag a second time around. $8.45 million with the 20 percent repeater's tax is a lot for a team that has already locked down the free agents it considered essential early in the offseason, especially since Melton missed most of last season with a torn ACL. The Chicago Tribune doesn't expect a tag for Melton, and after him, the pool dries up pretty quickly. It seems likely the Bears will avoid using the tag this season.
The Chicago endorsement of Julius Peppers goes something like "he was an 8-8 player last year." The subtext: he wasn't a special pass rusher like he was in 2012, and it was one of many problems that the Bears had to deal with as their defense came crashing down to earth. Chicago doesn't necessarily have to release him -- he could be restructured, or he could just take a plain ol' paycut -- but they can't carry him at a $18.18 million cap number.
Earl Bennett managed just a -5.6% DVOA and 25 DYAR despite Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall drawing most of the attention. Bennett's hands should keep him in the league -- he had a 74 percent catch rate last year -- but he's not a special receiver and could see Marquess Wilson nipping at his heels for snaps.
Meanwhile, Michael Bush hit the wall with a sickening thud. Playing on a Bears offense that was actually good, and with an offensive line that actually blocked well, he compiled -56 DYAR on 83 carries. The Bears could find many backs on the street who could do that without the added cost, even if Bush has a dead cat bounce in him.
Flexibility: The Bears have a few maneuvers in their arsenal. Though the team hasn't made it a priority yet, signing Brandon Marshall ($9.1 million cap figure) to an extension in the last year of his deal could provide space. Matt Forte, Jermon Bushrod, Lance Briggs, and Martellus Bennett all have base salaries in the $4.8-$5.9 million range, and each could be re-negotiated into a signing bonus to find extra cap space.
Overview: If there's one thing you can definitely say about Phil Emery, it's that he moves with conviction. He didn't care that his head coach wasn't a name candidate, and he took care of most of the offseason re-signings before the official offseason even started, signing up Jay Cutler, Tim Jennings, and Matt Slauson and eating up most of Chicago's cap room in the process.
So, what's left to do? Well they could use a solid third rece -- okay, okay, I think we all know this one. Defense, defense, defense. If Peppers is released, the Bears could 3/4ths of their starting 2012 line in free agency, and outside of Jennings it's hard to point to anyone on that side of the ball and be sure that they're a difference maker at this point. Depending on what happens with Peppers, the Bears could have enough salary cap room to make a splashy signing. It's probably more likely that they see this as a situation that isn't getting repaired overnight, and act as such -- though it should be noted that's exactly what most people thought about their offensive line coming into 2013.
Cap Space as of February 17th: A little under $8 million.
Unrestricted Free Agents (23): Shaun Hill, Kevin Ogletree, Micheal Spurlock, Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, Jason Fox, Dylan Gandy, Israel Idonije, Willie Young, Andre Fluellen, Rocky McIntosh, Rashean Mathis, John Wendling, David Akers
Restricted Free Agents (1): Joique Bell
Interesting player. The Lions already have quite a bit committed to Reggie Bush ($4.5 million cap number), but Bell was statistically better both in the ground game and as a receiving back. (Of course, Bush was used in totally different ways, and defenses accounted for him more often, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's better.) Since he went undrafted, an original round tender would allow a team to steal him without compensation. Instead, Detroit's website is speculating he'd be a target for a second-round tender. At a $130 million cap estimate, that's roughly a quarter of Detroit's cap space.
Franchise Tag Candidates: Between the uninspiring candidates -- Rashean Mathis might be the best free agent Detroit has on the market -- and the cap situation that they can't really escape, the Lions might be the least-likely team to use the franchise tag this year.
Release/Restructure Candidates: Jason Jones ($2,016,666)
Jones was a Jim Schwartz favorite from his days in Tennessee, but the Lions would probably use him as a reserve alongside Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor. Jones was dinged up and had just 85 snaps last year with Schwartz. The Lions would probably be better off bringing back some of their other defensive depth on the cheap than going with Jones.
Flexibility: Oh, about that. The Lions don't have that.
Detroit has three players with a cap figure over $5 million: Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, and Matthew Stafford. Stafford and Johnson already have low base salaries, and re-negotiating a new deal out of Suh's old contract, because it was a legacy top-ten pick deal from the time before rookie slotting, really doesn't help much at all. In fact, there's probably an argument to be made that letting Suh walk would be the best thing for the Lions financially, as ludicrous as that sounds on its face. Suh has all of the leverage in any contract standoff with Detroit.
Overview: Marvin Mayhew has had this exact same offseason before -- it's the one where he tries in vain to create chicken salad out of less than $10 million in free cap space. By releasing Nate Burleson and Louis Delmas, he began the process of finding his way under the cap. Now the big decision is on Brandon Pettigrew -- a good all-around tight end that the Detroit front office wants to catch 80 balls a season. The flaw in that logic is that Pettigrew has awful hands -- he's had more drops than any receiver not named Welker or Marshall over the past three seasons despite having many fewer balls thrown at him. Hopefully this is the year they can quit him, because if they can't, the cap space grows even slimmer.
As a result of a lot of ineffective second-to-mid-round picks over the past few years, the Lions will probably be targeting the same positions they have for most of the 2010's: cornerback, safety, and wide receiver. Or, continuing the trope theme, they could hope that this is the year that Ryan Broyles' legs stay under him long enough for him to make a difference, that Darius Slay grows up quick, and that Don Carey -- wait, why is Don Carey on this roster still?
The Lions will approach free agency by making a little wave, then being extremely quiet for six months. So, you can see why Jim Caldwell appealed to them.
Cap Space as of February 17th: A little over $32 million.
Unrestricted Free Agents (16): Matt Flynn, Kahlil Bell, James Starks, John Kuhn, James Jones, Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Marshall Newhouse, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson, Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Rob Francois, Sam Shields
If this were purely a meritocracy, we would approach M.D. Jennings' restricted free agency by asking how much money we think he owed the Packers for how he played last year. However, he's still young, he wasn't quite that bad in 2012, and the Packers could use him as cheap depth if he wants to stay aboard. I don't expect either of these players to garner an actual tender, though.
Franchise Tag Candidates: In a way, the Packers have two franchise candidates. In another, more accurate way, they have zero.
Two years ago, the idea of giving up on B.J. Raji would've caused audible scoffing, but here we are. Raji has shown us what he's got, and it's not much. Being a focal point in the high-profile failure against the 49ers in the 2013 playoffs was revealing. If Green Bay really believed in the talent, they have the cap space to drop the tag on Raji and see what happens. However, if they really believed in the talent, he probably would've already had an extension signed prior to the 2013 season.
Jermichael Finley is still around -- there've been so many twists and turns to his career that it's hard to figure which side that is a sarcastic poke at. His doctors say that he is "99.9%" to resume playing after a scary neck injury that ended his 2013 season. The tight end tag is, as you may have known by following the Jimmy Graham saga, a ridiculously cheap amount for the right to block a player's free agency, projected at just about $7 million. When healthy last season, Finley had a 26.5% DVOA -- fifth among qualifying tight ends. It feels like we have this standoff every year, but who could they replace him with that is anywhere near his talent level?
Release/Restructure Candidates: Tramon Williams ($7,500,000)
Williams is still a fine player, but he's coming off a down season and it's hard to carry a $9.5 million cap figure for what he brings to the table at this point. He did have a very nice Success Rate in our charting project, but he was mediocre in yards per pass allowed. Williams is more of a re-structure candidate than a straight release candidate, though, because the Packers have plenty of cap room.
Flexibility: Green Bay has pretty much the optimal amount of cap room you can have when you have two stars on gigantic deals like Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. It's possible they could clear up a tiny smidgen of cap space by getting a new deal together for Jordy Nelson, but he probably wouldn't be the first receiver on the last year of his contract that Green Bay would approach. (That'd be Randall Cobb.) Yeah, they could reduce Josh Sitton's $4.5 million base salary by converting most of it into a signing bonus, but that's about it.
Overview: So, what will the Packers do with their bevy of cap space? They're still talking to Shields about a return, though that sort of depends on the market. I could see them as a fit for some flexible defensive pieces on the defensive line -- guys like Randy Starks, maybe an Arthur Jones -- and they'd probably love to find a safety sitting in their laps in the first round, assuming that the franchise tag takes care of the top ones in the free-agent market.
The only other player I think they would have a problem doing better on is Dietrich-Smith, barring a play for Alex Mack that goes pretty far against Ted Thompson's typical offseason plans. The defense should be a top priority, and the Packers are, as always, littered with productive pieces that could break out or could just break. Has a team ever spent its cap space on medical specialists?
Cap Space as of February 17th: A little under $29 million
Unrestricted Free Agents (17): Matt Cassel, Josh Freeman, Toby Gerhart, Jerome Simpson, Joe Webb, J'Marcus Webb, Spud Webb, Charlie Johnson, Seth Olsen, Joe Berger, Jared Allen, Everson Griffen, Fred Evans, Kevin Williams, Marvin Mitchell, Desmond Bishop, Erin Henderson, Chris Cook
Two core special teamers. Sherels saw more defensive action than usual this year because the Vikings defensive back situation had no alibi for it's ugliness. Two more guys we're not likely to see get an actual tender amount on, though both are certainly roster-worthy.
Franchise Tag Candidates: It's the end of the Williams Wall as we know it. And Minnesota feels fine, because despite the flashes of old skill, they didn't have the same Kevin Williams and Jared Allen we're all used to seeing this year. Because the Vikings have so many defensive linemen up for free agency (and, spoiler, may want to cut Letroy Guion as well), there is a line of thought introduced by The Minneapolis Star-Tribune to place the franchise tag on backup lineman Everson Griffen.
We're big fans of Griffen, don't get us wrong. He was our No. 1 prospect in FOA 2013. We think very highly of his ability to rush the passer. But to guarantee him around $13 million for one season because everyone else is leaving too would be the height of lunacy. The Vikings should definitely try to bring him back, but not on those terms.
Guion had a fine year in 2012, but a $4.3 million cap number for a rotation defensive tackle may be hard to swallow. Then again, as outlined above, maybe Minnesota will need him around so they can remember someone's name in the building in May.
I think the question with John Carlson is: why now? Why not three years ago?
Greenway may seem like a reach on reputation, but he's turning 31, doesn't tackle like he did three years ago, and is relying mostly on intelligence. There's a good chance the Vikings keep him, but releasing him is at least a worthwhile discussion to have at this point.
Flexibility: Little. The Vikings only have two players with $6 million or more in base salary: Adrian Peterson and Greenway. The truth is that 2012's playoff run, stirred by the phenomenal Peterson season, a superlative performance by Antoine Winfield, and the last good year of Jared Allen, masked what was a very young team that still hadn't finished coming together yet. So while the Vikings don't have much in the way of flexible salary, it's more because they just don't have many big contracts to deal with at this point.
Overview: Minnesota is in no man's land right now. The young and talented core of the team can't play quarterback, and the Vikings are so far back -- and don't have the trading chips of a Cleveland -- to really get in the conversation on the draft's top three quarterbacks. Which, if you'll remember, is exactly how this whole Christian Ponder thing started in the first place.
Free agency-wise, I think priority one is Griffen. I'd expect the Vikings to let most of the older players walk without a fuss, and from there they probably target Griffen-esque assets: players that have clear warts, but could be solid role players in two or three seasons when the Vikings are likely to be serious contenders again. I'd also expect them to chase younger top free agents like Michael Johnson, Alterraun Verner, and Lamarr Houston, assuming they avoid being franchise tagged.
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