by Rivers McCown
Cap Space as of February 10th: A little under $12 million. (All monetary figures courtesy of Over The Cap.)
Unrestricted Free Agents (14, UFAs and RFAs culled via NFL.com): Bernard Scott, Jacoby Jones, Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark, Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta, Eugene Monroe, Michael Oher, Arthur Jones, Terrence Cody, Daryl Smith, James Ihedigbo, Jeromy Miles, Corey Graham
Restricted Free Agents (2): Tandon Doss, Albert McClellan. Doss split time with Jacoby Jones on punt returns, and returned one to the house against the Texans. How Baltimore feels about tendering him probably depends a lot on how much money they'll have to spend on special teams, though it should be noted that he was passed on the receiver depth chart by undrafted free agent Marlon Brown.
McClellan is in the same predicament. The Ravens could find themselves up against the cap a little bit, and he's a core special teamer rather than someone who plays on defense. Original round tenders aren't out of the question for either of these guys.
Franchise Tag Candidates: I guess if I really wanted to play Devil's Advocate here we could talk about Dennis Pitta getting tagged. Tight ends are only projected to receive about $6.7 million on tags this season. For a player who has been a solid pass-catcher, but not at all dynamic, that's a stretch. Especially considering how much of last year Pitta missed with his hip dislocation.
As for Leach, let's make a ridiculous strawman argument that he's still the best blocking fullback in the game. How much did that matter last year? Gary Kubiak's entrance could keep him on the roster, but probably not at this price.
Flexibility: Some. The Ravens have three stars with two or fewer years left on their deals: Terrell Suggs (one year, $12.4 million cap number), Marshal Yanda (two years, $8.45 million cap number), and Haloti Ngata (two years, $16 million cap number). An extension for Suggs would be a good start on creating cap space, while Yanda and Ngata could also free up some room with re-negotiations.
Lardarius Webb could convert most of his $7.5 million base salary to a signing bonus. Then there's the elephant in the room: the Ray Rice contract. A team shouldn't want to punish a guy for playing hurt behind a bad offensive line, but an $8.75 million cap figure for a running back who played that poorly last season is not optimal.
Overview: Welcome to the Joe Flacco's Contract Era, everybody! Last season was a brief respite at a $1 million base salary. This year it shoots up to $6 million with a total cap figure of $14.8 million.
Cian Fahey's AFC North Four Downs focused on Baltimore's offensive line, but another issue is tight end: all but 65 snaps at tight end came from free agents Pitta, Dickson, and Clark. Somehow this team also needs to find cap space to fix wide receiver (with Jones likely moving on, and Doss potentially doing so as well) and re-sign or make up for a few key defenders that could defect.
Guess who finished third in pass defeats last season, behind only Thomas Davis and Lavonte David? A fully healthy Daryl Smith, that's who. And the Ravens have decisions to make on him, Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo, and Arthur Jones. You might not think of Ihedigbo as a good safety -- neither do I -- but he had more snaps than any Ravens defender last season. It's going to take a delicate Ozzie Newsome juggling act to bring back everyone of importance, especially if the offensive tackles draw a bit more interest than you'd expect due to their youth.
Cap Space as of February 10th: A little under $24 million.
Restricted Free Agents (3): Andrew Hawkins, Dane Sanzenbacher, Vincent Rey. Both Rey and Hawkins have played well enough to get tendered. Hawkins is at best the fourth receiver in Cincinnati, and the Bengals seem fond of Rey Maualuga even if he's barely scratching replacement level. A crafty team might sign one of them at the original-round level, so perhaps the Bengals should play it safe and go with the second-round level. (Both of them are undrafted.)
Franchise Tag Candidates: What to do with Michael Johnson? After getting designated with the tag last offseason, his sack total went from 11 in 2012 to 3.5 in 2013, but per our game charting project he still recorded plenty of pressures. The Bengals have already paid Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap on the defensive line, and they've also got second-rounder Margus Hunt waiting in the wings as a possible replacement.
So while the Bengals, in theory, have the money to bring Johnson back, they probably won't. A second franchise tag is projected to cost them about $13.3 million with the repeater bonus, and even though this franchise is in good fiscal shape, it's not as if they need Johnson to have a good defense. The Cincinnati Enquirer gives Johnson just a 20 percent chance to be back with the Bengals.
Release/Restructure Candidates: BenJarvus Green-Ellis ($2,500,000)
The Bengals have mostly avoided bad contracts, so the worst we can find is a usable power situations back making about double what he should. Green-Ellis finished 37th of 46 qualifying backs in rushing DVOA. Giovani Bernard is a much more explosive and aesthetically pleasing back, but Bernard also had a fairly pedestrian -4.6% rushing DVOA. (The explosiveness shows up in his 28.8% receiving DVOA, fourth among running backs with at least 50 pass targets.)
Cincinnati could do better for the cap space, but $3 million for a situational back is hardly a killer.
Flexibility: In addition to their cap space, the Bengals could earn extra room by converting most of the base salaries of Leon Hall ($6.8 million) and Andrew Whitworth ($5 million) to signing bonuses.
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Overview: The real main event for Cincinnati this offseason should be feeding their own: A.J. Green is finally up for an extension and the Bengals should do all they can to make it happen. Andy Dalton could also be renegotia -- ha ha, sorry, couldn't type that one with a straight face.
Elsewhere, expect Anthony Collins to walk -- starting him at left tackle and Andrew Whitworth inside was their best option last year, but it's not a smart use of resources and the Bengals are nothing if not prudent. None of their other free agents are priority re-signs, so Cincinnati can focus on bigger roster issues: youth at cornerback and what they're going to do about Dalton and Jermaine Gresham. Both Dalton and Gresham are set to be free agents after 2014, and high-round pedigree aside, neither has shown much of a reason to believe in them as building blocks.
Cap Space as of February 10th: A little over $45 million.
Restricted Free Agents (0): Although really, in Jimmy Haslam's world, we're all restricted free agents.
Franchise Tag Candidates: There are two of them: safety T.J. Ward and center Alex Mack. The offensive line tag is projected to be at about $11.1 million, while the safety tag is going to be around $8 million. Mack is more durable than Ward, but Ward plays a position where you'd be hard-pressed to find another player of his talent on the free agent market. This is an actual, honest-to-goodness, football debate. I'm not sure there is a wrong answer outside of letting them both walk, to be honest with you.
But for me personally, I'd tag Ward due to the price difference. The best centers in the game aren't really compensated like the best offensive tackles in normal circumstances. I don't think it's entirely fair to blame Mack for the problems the Browns had running the ball last year (the Browns were 18th in ALY, 30th and 32nd on Second-Level and Open-Field Yards, respectively) because I wasn't a fan of either of their guards, but if I'm paying anyone $11 million they better be able to dominate their area of the game without much additional help.
(And, given Ward's propensity to miss games -- 10 in the two seasons before 2013 -- I'd rather him be on the short-term deal.)
Release/Restructure Candidates: Jason Campbell ($3,250,000)
Campbell was overlapped by Brian Hoyer in the "not Brandon Weeden" sweepstakes this year before Hoyer got hurt. The Browns would take a cap hit to keep Weeden, and would gain more money by releasing Campbell. For whatever Weeden's faults are -- and there are a lot of them -- he's not so much worse than Campbell that the Browns need to eat the money.
Of course, they could just get rid of both of them and draft a real quarterback to be backed up by Hoyer. That'd be ideal.
Flexibility: Plenty! Like the Dolphins, the Browns predominantly have their players making base salary rather than signing bonuses. In the unlikely scenario that the enormous amount of cap space Cleveland has isn't enough to follow through with their plans, they can create some new room by converting base salary into a bonus for Joe Thomas ($10.9 million). Joe Haden ($6.6 million base, $8.9 million cap number) and Ahtyba Rubin ($6.6 million base, $8.1 million cap number) are in the last seasons of their contracts, and both could get extended. Extending Haden, in particular, seems to be priority one for the Browns this offseason.
Overview: Cleveland is going to have to remake the interior of their offensive line with or without Mack. They could also be shopping for a No. 2 cornerback to bump Buster Skrine down the depth chart, and a No. 2 wide receiver to slot next to Josh Gordon. They are commonly linked with Eric Decker. Guard is a little bit harder to fill, but players like Jon Asamoah, Willie Colon, and Zane Beadles are out there if the Browns don't want to try their luck on the Incognito baggage train.
So, to recap, the Browns have a veritable Red Wedding of coach and general manager blood on their hands, and new general manager Ray Farmer has All Of The Cap Space to work with. It's going to take a real upset for someone to beat them in the Overpay Sweepstakes -- Jeff Ireland is no longer employed to do this sort of thing.
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Cap Space as of February 10th: About minus-$12.5 million.
Unrestricted Free Agents (21): Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Plaxico Burress, Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, David Johnson, Michael Palmer, Rashad Butler, Guy Whimper, Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Al Woods, Jamaal Westerman, Jason Worilds, Stevenson Sylvester, Will Allen, Ryan Clark, Mat McBriar, Rod Woodson, Stealy McBeam, everyone else on the roster, you.
Restricted Free Agents (0):
Franchise Tag Candidates: Not that they could afford it, but no, none of these free agents are worthy of the tag.
Levi Brown has as much chance of seeing out his non-guaranteed $6.25 million contract as you or I do.
With the life-long Steelers, it's a little more complicated. Taylor and Polamalu are each in the last year of their contracts. It would be nice to give them extensions, but they've both noticeably declined from their prime years, and while Polamalu still has the instincts to be a good safety, he no longer has the range to be the game-changing thumper he once was. The charting project had Taylor inthe bottom ten among 85 qualifying cornerbacks in both Success Rate and Yards per Pass allowed. My basic conclusion is that Polamalu is a salvageable extension candidate as long as it's cheap, but that it's probably time for Taylor to leave.
(LaMarr Woodley? He can't be cut right away, but the case for him as a Post-June 1 cut is well-founded.)
Flexibility: Little. Possible extensions for Ben Roethlisberger (two years, $18.8 million cap number) and Heath Miller (one year, $9.4 million cap number) would help. Antonio Brown could convert most of his base salary ($6 million) into a signing bonus. Pittsburgh may need some of those things to happen just to pay their draft picks.
Overview: Inevitably, every successful franchise faces the same salary cap conundrum: there are only so many players you can extend for so long before the economics blow up in your face. Woodley's extension has been an enormous bust and Pittsburgh wasn't able to rush the passer competently in 2013 because of that and a series of failed draft picks.
This is an offseason where that combination, among other things, comes to roost. The Steelers are probably going to lose Sanders (which makes you wonder why they didn't just take the third-round pick they would've received for him last year), and they're probably going to watch Jason Worilds leave as well.
On the bright side, a lot of these contracts will be forgotten after this coming season. But for now, they are paying the price for their mistakes.