by Brian McIntyre
Over the next two weeks, Football Outsiders will take a look a division-by-division look at the salary cap situations of all 32 NFL teams. We'll look at estimated cap space -– since cap situations are fluid and actual adjusted cap figures for 2012 remain unknown -– restricted free agents, unrestricted free agents, which players are candidates for the franchise tag and which players are headed towards the chopping block.
We start with the AFC East.
Estimated Cap Space: $30-$35 million
Unrestricted Free Agents (13): Demetrius Bell, Scott Chandler, Tashard Choice, Reggie Corner, Andra Davis, Derek Hagan, Steve Johnson, Ruvell Martin, Kirk Morrison, Roscoe Parrish, Dave Rayner, Bryan Scott, Reggie Torbor
Rinehart (12) and Urbik (13) combined to start 25 games in 2011. Unless they receive "upgraded tenders" to the first ($2.742 million) or second round ($1.927 million) level, both of these former third-round picks should receive an "original round" restricted free agent tenders worth $1.26 million.
Franchise Tag Candidate: Steve Johnson has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, scored 17 touchdowns and has ranked among the top-30 receivers in DYAR over the last two seasons. Johnson's production dipped slightly in 2011, and his celebratory antics may be growing tiresome to some in Western New York, but he's the closest the Bills have to a No. 1 receiver. After making a considerable financial investment in quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and with ample cap space, a marker projected to be worth nearly $9.5 million in 2012 may spur talks towards a long-term deal that works for both sides.
Potential Cap Casualties/Restructures: Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman produced one quarterback sack in five games before returning to his familiar place on injured reserve. Merriman is scheduled to earn $5.25 million in total compensation, including a $4 million base salary that has a $3 million guarantee on it for skill and cap. Cornerback Terrence McGee has the team's highest cap number, has missed 22 of 48 games over the last three seasons, two of which were finished on injured reserve and he turns 32 in October. Releasing him would clear $2.1 million of cap space.
Estimated Cap Space: Around $16 million
Unrestricted Free Agents (11): Ikaika Alama-Francis, Will Allen, Vernon Carey, Marc Colombo, Chad Henne, Kendall Langford, J.P. Losman, Marvin Mitchell, Steve Slaton, Paul Soliai, Jason Taylor (retired)
Merling was a second-round pick in 2008 who missed out an accrued season when he began 2010 on the "Non-Football Injury" list with an Achilles' injury. Had Merling been activated one week earlier that season, he would be eligible for unrestricted free agency. A "second round" tender would be worth $1.927 million in non-guaranteed base salary in 2012. Merling has started just five of the 47 games he's been active in the NFL, which could make the nearly $2 million price tag a bit steep. An "original round" tender would come with a $1.26 million base salary. Baker, Hilliard and Murtha are late-round picks or undrafted free agents who are unlikely to receive a tender offer higher than the "original round/right of first refusal" level.
Franchise Tag Candidate: The Dolphins used the franchise tag on nose tackle Paul Soliai in 2011, which was worth $12.476 million. The 2012 tender for defensive tackles is projected to be worth over $4 million less in 2012, but to franchise Soliai a second time would cost the Dolphins 120 percent of his 2011 salary, or $14.971 million in fully guaranteed base salary, absorbing nearly all of their available cap space. The Dolphins improved from 24th in run defense DVOA in 2009 to fourth in 2010 and 12th in 2011 and are reportedly transitioning to a hybrid 3-4/4-3 system under new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, making them unlikely to commit $15 million in 2012 to a nose tackle.
Potential Cap Casualties/Restructures: Left tackle Jake Long, wide receiver Brandon Marshall and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby are scheduled to earn over $9 million in cash compensation with cap numbers north of $11 million. A long-term extension for Long, and short-term restructures for Marshall and Dansby, could clear a few million dollars off the Dolphins' cap. Safety Yeremiah Bell lead the Dolphins in tackles in 2011, but is getting a bit long in the tooth. Bell will turn 34 on March 3 and is due $4.3 million in base salary in the final year of his contract. Bell's release would clear $4.35 million of cap space.
New England Patriots
Estimated Cap Space: Around $20 million
Unrestricted Free Agents (17): Mark Anderson, Deion Branch, Andre Carter, Dan Connolly, Shaun Ellis, Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Gary Guyton, James Ihedigbo, Nate Jones, Dan Koppen, Niko Koutouvides, Antwaun Molden, Matt Slater, Gerard Warren, Wes Welker, Tracy White
Undrafted out of Michigan State in 2009, Hoyer has spent the last three seasons as Tom Brady's understudy. Though Ryan Mallett was added in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, the Patriots are unlikely to let Hoyer get away for nothing. A "first round" tender worth $2.742 million in non-guaranteed base salary would not be surprising as the Patriots listen to trade offers.
Franchise Tag Candidate: Wes Welker led the NFL in receptions (122), ranked second in receiving yards (1,569) and ranked third in receiving DYAR (475) in 2011. Though he's on the wrong side of 30, it would be a stunning development if the Patriots allowed Welker to test the free agent market when using the franchise tag between February 20 and March 5 would cost a projected $9.5 million to retain negotiating rights through the off-season.
Potential Cap Casualties/Restructures: Cap space is not a pressing issue for the Patriots, but if the need were to arise to clear additional cap space -– perhaps to make a run at Mario Williams to improve the pass rush or Brandon Lloyd to give the offense a downfield receiving threat –- space could be found by restructuring the contract of Tom Brady, who is scheduled to receive $5.75 million in base salary and a $6 million roster bonus. Brady's 2012 cap number is $15.2 million next season, which could be reduced by $4 million if his roster bonus, which has already been deferred to February 15, 2013, were converted to a signing bonus and prorated over the remaining three seasons. The Patriots could reduce Brady's cap number even further, to as low as $6.54 million, by reducing his base salary to the league minimum ($925,000) and converting the remaining base salary and roster bonus into a signing bonus prorated over five seasons (tacking two seasons onto his contract). $1.4 million in additional cap space could be found by releasing Chad Ochocinco, who is due a $3 million base salary.
New York Jets
Estimated Cap Space: Less than $2 million
After two seasons establishing himself as the biggest bust in a 2009 NFL Draft full of first-round disappointments, the light above Aaron Maybin's head turned on in his first season with the Jets. Maybin led Gang Green with six quarterback sacks and four forced fumbles, while earning $432,352.94 in base salary (14 weeks at the league minimum rate of $525,000). Maybin, who won't turn 24 until April, figures to get a substantial increase, possibly even to the $2.742 million "first round" tender level. Also earning $525,000 last season was Westerman, a former undrafted free agent who has been a core special teams player. He flashed some pass rush ability as well with 3.5 quarterback sacks. Westerman will likely receive an "original round" tender worth $1.26 million in 2012.
Franchise Tag Candidate: Retaining nose tackle Sione Pouha is a top priority for the Jets, but even if they had the space to do so, the club is unlikely to use the franchise tender, which is projected to be worth around $8 million, on the 33-year-old.
Potential Cap Casualties/Restructures: Six Jets are scheduled to receive over $7 million in total compensation in 2012 with cap numbers over $8 million. Three of those six -– Mark Sanchez, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie -– have seven-figure roster bonuses that could be combined with leftover amounts of reduced base salaries and converted to signing bonuses that would clear several million in cap room. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson is signed through 2017 and is scheduled to receive a $9.985 million base salary, which is fully guaranteed. Reducing his base salary to $700,000 and converting the $9.285 million into a signing bonus prorated over five seasons would reduce his cap number to $4.223 million, a savings of $7.428 million. The downside to that drastic a restructure on Ferguson is that it would add $1.857 million to his 2013-16 cap figures which are already at $8.917 million (2013), $8.617 million (2014), $9.717 million (2015) and $11.225 million (2016).