by Brian McIntyre
Football Outsiders is taking a division-by-division look at the salary cap situations of all 32 NFL teams. We're reviewing estimated cap spaces –- 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. Last week, we hit on the teams in the AFC.
This week, our trip around the NFL moves to the NFC and continues with the NFC South.
Estimated Cap Space: $20-$25 million
Unrestricted Free Agents (17): John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, Kirk Chambers, Thomas DeCoud, Harry Douglas, Brent Grimes, Kelvin Hayden, Reggie Kelly, Curtis Lofton, Todd McClure, Mike Peterson, Chris Redman, Brett Romberg, James Sanders, Jason Snelling, Eric Weems, Joe Zelenka
Restricted Free Agents (1): Vance Walker
Walker has 32 tackles and a pair of sacks as a rotational tackle for the Falcons over the past three seasons. That role will likely continue, either with a one- or multi-year extension, or an original round tender worth $1.26 million in non-guaranteed base salary.
Franchise Tag Candidate: Cornerback Brent Grimes and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton are the Falcons' top candidates for the franchise tender. Grimes had five interceptions and 23 passes defensed in a Pro Bowl season as an exclusive rights free agent in 2010. In 2011, he picked off just one pass as his season was shortened by injury on a restricted free agent tender. Lofton has led the Falcons in tackles in three of the last four seasons and using the franchise tag on him would cost $8.8 million in guaranteed base salary, nearly $2 million less than the cornerback tender of $10.4 million.
Potential Cap Casualties/Restructures: Fullback Ovie Mughelli finished 2011 on injured reserve with a knee injury and is entering the final year of his contract. The 31-year-old is due $3 million in base salary, which would come off the team's salary cap if he were released.
Estimated Cap Space: $4-$5 million over
Restricted Free Agents (1): Geoff Schwartz
Schwartz started 16 games in 2010 before missing all of 2011 with a hip injury. The 2008 seventh-round pick out of Oregon State could be back on an original tender worth $1.26 million in non-guaranteed base salary.
Franchise Tag Candidate: The Panthers lack the cap space and key candidate to use the franchise tag this off-season.
Potential Cap Casualties/Restructures: Linebacker Thomas Davis signed a four-year, $33.2 million contract extension last July. Six weeks later, Davis tore the ACL in his right knee for the third time. While Davis is attempting a comeback, the Panthers are unlikely to exercise an $8 million option bonus that is due on the first or second day of the 2012 league year. If released outright, Davis would clear only $300,000 from the Panthers' salary cap, so a restructure is the more likely path to reduce his $5.9 million cap number. Wide receiver Steve Smith is entering the final year of his contract and is due $7.75 million in base salary with a cap number of $10.713 million that could be reduced via an extension.
New Orleans Saints
Estimated Cap Space: $20-$25 million
Unrestricted Free Agents (16): Drew Brees, Jeff Charleston, Marques Colston, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Aubrayo Franklin, John Gilmore, Tory Humphrey, John Kasay, Turk McBride, Pat McQuistan, Robert Meachem, Carl Nicks, Tracy Porter, Courtney Roby, Shaun Rogers, Leigh Torrence
After missing the 2010 season with a foot injury, Casillas started five of 13 games in 2011, totaling 43 tackles and three sacks. With Jo-Lonn Dunbar an unrestricted free agent, an original round tender ($1.26 million) on Casillas can be expected. Daniel has been the No. 2 quarterback behind Brees the last two seasons and will certainly be back, perhaps at a second- ($1.927 million) or first-round ($2.742 million) tender.
Franchise Tag Candidate: Drew Brees, Marques Colston and Carl Nicks would all warrant the franchise tender, but only one of them can receive it. Brees ranked first in DYAR and second in DVOA in passing for 46 touchdowns and an NFL single-season record 5,476 yards. Given his offensive production and importance to the community, he's not going anywhere. A multi-year extension worth $18 million per year –- the same average per year Peyton Manning and Tom Brady received on their latest contracts -– would certainly be warranted, but there's always the issue of guaranteed money. The quarterback tender would be worth around $14.374 million in 2012. Two seasons ago, the Saints signed Jahri Evans to a seven-year, $56.7 million contract extension. Nicks has been to back-to-back Pro Bowls and will be looking for over $8 million per year on a long-term extension this offseason. Nicks' tender would be worth nearly $9.5 million. Colston ranked in the top 10 in DYAR and DVOA for the second time in the last three seasons and, despite never once making a Pro Bowl, has been one of the most productive receivers in the NFL over the last six seasons. Like the offensive line tender, the cost of using the franchise tag on a wide receiver is worth around $9.5 million.
Potential Cap Casualties/Restructures: The Saints could clear up space by restructuring the contracts of Will Smith ($7.15 million total compensation, $9.15 million cap number), Jonathan Vilma ($5.5 million total compensation, $7.6325 million cap number) and Sedrick Ellis, who added $1.5 million to his base salary and is scheduled to earn $6.066 million with a $7.566 million cap number in the final year of his contract.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Estimated Cap Space: $60-$65 million
Originally signed by the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M, Bennett joined the Buccaneers off the waiver wire midway through the 2009 season. The 6-foot-4, 271-pound defensive end has started 12 of 34 games and picked up six sacks, including a career-high four in a 2011 season where the Buccaneers used first- and second-round picks on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. Bennett can expect at least an original-round tender worth $1.26 million in non-guaranteed base salary. Dotson returned from a knee injury in 2010 to start two of 13 games in 2011 and can be expected back on the low tender in 2012.
Franchise Tag Candidate: Though flush with salary cap space, the Buccaneers do not have a candidate for the franchise tag this off-season.
Potential Cap Casualties/Restructures: Cap space is not an issue for the Buccaneers, who already cleared $7.2 million in cap space with the release of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. The team could save some more cash and cap space by releasing a pair of veteran offensive linemen. Center Jeff Faine ($5.925 million) and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood ($5.25 million) could be released with no cap implications, a savings of $11.175 million in cash and cap space.