by Rivers McCown
Cap Space as of February 10th: A little under $3 million. (All monetary figures courtesy of Over The Cap.)
Unrestricted Free Agents (15, UFAs and RFAs culled via NFL.com): Ray Graham, Jonathan Grimes, Deji Karim, Chad Spann, Ben Tate, Greg Jones, Garrett Graham, Andrew Gardner, Ryan Harris, Wade Smith, Antonio Smith, Earl Mitchell, Joe Mays, Darryl Sharpton, Elbert Mack
None of these guys are particularly important to the Texans. Braman is a core special teamer who I could see coming back at the original-round tender, but remember that he's not a pet project of the current coaching staff anymore. Jean is a Texans training camp Hall of Famer. McClain simply a cast-off.
Franchise Tag Candidates: None of the free agents on this team have the trade value or talent to merit it.
Daniels and Manning are the two most intriguing calls on this roster. Daniels has been a good — not great — tight end for a long time. Houston also has very little to offer in the way of established talent at the tight end spot right now outside of Ryan Griffin, since Graham is a free agent. But Daniels just can’t stay healthy — he’s missed games in each of the past five seasons, and he has finished exactly one of the last four seasons with a DVOA over 0.6%. Manning will turn 32 before camp starts, missed most of last season with a fractured fibula, and didn’t exactly set the world on fire when he was healthy last season. The argument for keeping him goes something along the lines of "look at the current safety depth chart and despair." He's one of the two credible safeties the Texans have ever employed, but I think you can argue the window is closing on that era.
Matt Schaub is only a candidate because it hasn’t happened yet. What Gary Kubiak did with him last year has made him toxic to the franchise and, arguably, the city.
Flexibility: Little. The Texans have already converted bonuses to cap savings for Andre Johnson and Johnathan Joseph twice, and to do so again would leave them with a time bomb on the cap. Joseph is a candidate for restructure since he was perceived to play poorly last season. (The reality? We have him in the top 10 in both yards per pass allowed and success rate, despite playing in front of awful safeties all season.) Arian Foster's 2013 form is not worthy of his salary, but there's not much to re-negotiate from there, either. A new deal for Chris Myers could be a possiblity, as he has two years left and a $7 million cap number.
Overview: I think the Texans are in for another offseason of austerity.
Even if they do free up money from the Daniels/Manning/Schaub triumvirate, they just have too many holes to fill to make a splashy signing. Quarterback, tight end, left guard, right tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, nickelback, safety. It’s a pretty daunting list even before you realize they’ll have to clear up the money to sign J.J. Watt long-term at some point in the near future. Johnathan Joseph, Chris Myers, and Arian Foster are definitely not locked in past this season — and I wouldn’t even be totally surprised to see Joseph cut this offseason, though I wouldn’t do it. The Brian Cushing contract is probably here for the long haul, as it provides actual cap hits rather than savings until 2016. Duane Brown is going to be here for awhile, and there’s no use in predicting decline for Andre Johnson because Andre Johnson will keep being Andre Johnson for all of his remaining days.
The rest of this roster feels totally up for grabs. And the worst part about that is that outside of Watt and (maaaybe) Kareem Jackson, nobody has really stepped up and proven themselves worthy of any sort of extension at this point. The Texans have not gotten much out of their last few drafts, and it's showing.
Cap Space as of February 10th: A little under $33 million.
Unrestricted Free Agents (23): Justin Anderson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Donald Brown, Tashard Choice, Tauren Poole, Deion Branch, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Josh Lenz, Jeff Linkenbach, Mike Johnson, Mike McGlynn, Ricardo Mathews, Lawrence Sidbury, Aubrayo Franklin, Fili Moala, Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner, Vontae Davis, Cassius Vaughn, Antoine Bethea, Sergio Brown, Adam Vinatieri, Pat McAfee
Restricted Free Agents (2): Josh Gordy, Joe Reitz. Gordy was forced into action when injuries struck. Reitz was forced into action by the act of being a breathing Indianapolis interior lineman that might conceivably be better than the rest of them. Neither of these guys earned a raise, and I suspect that if they do come back, it won’t be on any sort of tender.
Franchise Tag Candidates: The best player here is Vontae Davis, who finally had the season scouts had been telling us he’d have for about three years now. He finished very highly in the Football Outsiders charting metrics, though as we went over in Four Downs: AFC South, he still allowed a few too many big plays to be a real lockdown corner. Indianapolis has the cap space to play whatever sort of game they’d like with him. The fact that this is a pretty deep cornerback market helps them, but they still may want to use the franchise tag just to be safe. (Or because they may want him to play like this two seasons in a row before committing long term.) The corner tag is projected to be at $11.2 million.
As sick as it is to say, Pat McAfee or Adam Vinatieri would fit traditional NFL patterns of franchise tags, where teams pay to make sure nobody can take their good player at the two most replaceable positions in the NFL. McAfee handles kickoffs and does a damn good job of it, so you can craft an argument that he’s worth the tag. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I don’t want him to hit me and take my lunch money.
You may remember most of these guys from last offseason, when they were a part of the best free agent class in the history of Erik Walden’s agent.
None of them actually are in a precarious position to be cut. Thomas played just 70 snaps this year after tearing his quadriceps early in the season, so he’d probably be the No. 1 candidate, but the reason he was signed in the first place was because the rest of the Colts interior line was so bad. And hey, there’s Samson Satele, and his cap number is even worse! Greg Toler may actually deserve a medal for the difference between him and Cassius Vaughn, no matter how poorly he fared against the Chiefs in his oft-aborted comeback from a groin injury.
But, likely, the fact that the Colts are so far under the cap will save any of these guys from scrutiny they might otherwise face on a team that had more incentive to make tough decisions.
Flexibility: The Colts don't really need much extra flexibility, and while they have a lot of smaller components that could be strong-armed into taking paycuts (See: Landry, LaRon), the likelihood of them actually needing that cap room is very low.
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Overview: Assuming a healthy Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen are able to replicate their 2012 seasons, the Colts come into the offseason with all the skill tools they need to create a good pass offense, two adequate tackles, and Robert Mathis. In theory, the Colts have a lot of money to spend to fix this problem, but the question will be how and where it gets spent. You don’t have to set the market to find good NFL free agents anymore, but you also have to take some risks if you’re not going to hand out a $25 million signing bonus.
Last offseason, armed with gobs of cap money, the Colts sat on their hands and brought in a bunch of middle tier guys that they liked. Those players are now a year older and have been, top to bottom, basically ineffective. By all rights, Indianapolis has the keys to the AFC South already on the roster with Andrew Luck … but is their only ambition to reach that point, or are they actually aiming for more? Wayne and Mathis are nearing the point where most star players fall off, and it would not be surprising if Mathis regressed a bit after his standout season. The current state of the roster reflects poorly on the late-era Polian Colts more than it does the Grigson Colts, but in a league where you are only as good as your last draft, Indianapolis got just about nothing from the 2013 class: a few pass-rush downs out of Bjoern Werner and some cromulent-at-best guard play from Hugh Thornton. The team that went 2-14 in 2011, greasing the wheels for Luck to join the Colts, was one of the least-talented teams in the NFL.
The 2012 draft was a great start, but if Indianapolis leaves the last two drafts with little but Vontae Davis on a big contract and Trent Richardson to show for it, this team will continue to embody a World’s Strongest Man skit. Luck is pulling the rest of the team (the gigantic bus) through the rope in his mouth. It’s spectacularly entertaining to watch as a non-fan, but the Colts probably need to use the scope of free agency to search for "good" rather than "undervalued" this time around if they have any aspirations to be a contender rather than a fun watch.
Cap Space as of February 10th: A little under $50 million.
Restricted Free Agents (1): Cameron Bradfield. Bradfield might actually be a little tricky since he's an undrafted free agent. Competent tackle play is hard to find. That said, I expect him to be tendered an offer, and I'd be a little surprised if it was a second-round tender based on his play, so...
Franchise Tag Candidates: None of the free agents on this team have the trade value or talent to merit it.
Here’s the fun part about the Jaguars: almost all of their good talent is already cost-controlled. These four players make up nearly half of the players on their roster with a cap figure north of $4,000,000 for next season. And frankly, if we were just doling out releases on the status of "is this guy worth it?" Posluszny would be the only real threat to stay on the roster. But, because the Jaguars have an insane amount of cap space already, they don’t actually need to make decisions on any of these guys this season if they would prefer to defer on them and save some future cap hits.
Posluszny is a player where the entire package is a little more underwhelming than his talent, partially because of his injury history — he’s missed one game in three years, but suffered a torn labrum in the final game of the 2011 season and missed games in three of his four years in Buffalo — and partially because he’s a linebacker built for the 1990′s. He’s just not that fast. He does make up for this with instincts and guile, and I’ve seen him adjust to routes that were being run over the course of the game, but he has some limits. He’s a good player, but he’s not a cornerstone.
Lewis was overpaid when he signed his contract off the franchise tag in 2011, and missed five games last year. When he’s been on the field, he was the worst tight end in the league by far in 2011, and was about league-average the last two seasons. Babin has played, but clearly isn’t the same player he was in Philadelphia or Tennessee. Nwaneri had been a fairly promising guard for the Jaguars until they signed him long-term, he was struck down by injuries (meniscus tear, torn cartilage, other knee procedures) and was clearly bad this season.
Flexibility: See above. The Jaguars could legitimately have $70 million in cap space to spend if they wanted to.
Overview: The Jaguars head into this offseason as a total blank slate. They have more money to spend than any team but the Raiders. If they wanted to get rid of Babin, Lewis, Nwaneri, and Posluszny, they could easily overtake them.
So, how Jacksonville handles this — and how the market handles them — will be fascinating. They could punt again this season, bringing in even more young players and just trying to hit the NFL’s minimum cap spending. One thing working against them is that we’ve seen time-and-time again that players will take less money from teams that are regarded as contenders, and what happens is a team that is a bottom feeder sort of has to spend their way past expectations to land a player to re-establish "credibility." Think Pudge Rodriguez with the Tigers after their 2003 team nearly lost 120 games. I’m interested to see how that shakes out in the sense that I don’t think Jacksonville is going to step to that game. The analytics department is a big part of what their ownership believes in, and what happens when that group finds a player that they really want is more expensive than he should be?
So I could see this offseason going in any number of paths, from a big spending spree on Alex Mack and some new defenders, to a Seattle Seahawks-esque offseason where they pick up market-neglected pieces on one-year deals and see how things work out, to another year of rebuilding slowly with youth. I suspect they’ll be spending, but I think there are arguments to be made in any of the three directions.
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Cap Space as of February 10th: A little under $7 million.
Unrestricted Free Agents (17): Rusty Smith, Jackie Battle, Leon Washington, Greg Jones, Kenny Britt, Marc Mariani, Kevin Walter, Damian Williams, Mike Otto, Kevin Matthews, Chris Spencer, Rob Turner, Antonio Johnson, Ropati Pitoitua, Zac Diles, Alterraun Verner, Bernard Pollard
Restricted Free Agents (1): Herb Donaldson. I cover football for a living and I’d never heard of this guy. He’s apparently spent the last four years on practice squads in New Orleans, Dallas, and Tennessee. My guess is he probably won’t be tendered.
Franchise Tag Candidates: The priority free agent in this class is Alterraun Verner. Verner was the darling of tape analysts this season, even making a Deadspin appearance, which is kind of funny since all the smoke coming out of OTAs would lead one to believe his job was up for grabs. Tommie Campbell and Coty Sensabaugh were held off, and Verner had his best season. While Verner certainly had an off-year in 2012, he was hardly so bad that his job should’ve been in jeopardy. I’m a little curious to see how he’ll feel about that lack of faith in free agency, if it comes down to the Titans and a different team.
(For us, Verner finished with an above-average success rate and middle-of-the-pack on yards per pass. So, good, but maybe not quite as good as he finished elsewhere.)
The Titans would have to make some moves to use the projected $11.2 million franchise tag on Verner, and The Tennessean doesn't believe they will.
I’ve turned around a bit on Chris Johnson over the years. I no longer think of him as a bad, arrogant running back. I think of him as an average one. In 2014, an average back can’t have a $10,000,000 cap number unless there are monster bargains elsewhere on the roster. So, though I do think this move may actually weaken Tennessee a bit, it’s probably time to let him go.
David Stewart has long been a red-ass player, but his pass blocking has significantly declined and leg injuries have sapped him of some short-area speed. He’s missed four games in each of the last two seasons. Cutting Michael Roos would save just about the same amount of money, but Roos has been the much better player over the past few seasons.
Nate Washington has continued to be a real find for the Titans, and he managed a 6.6% DVOA, putting him 28th among 90 qualifying receivers. I hesitated a bit to put him on this list, but given Justin Hunter’s role expansion I think the Titans may continue to bleed that position and bring in some outside talent, or at least try and get him to agree to a cheaper deal.
The Titans have been below average on kickoffs and field goals/extra points in Football Outsiders numbers for two straight seasons. Bironas was one of the best kickers in the game at one point, but the decline phase looks to be here to stay, and it’d save quite a bit of money to let him go.
Wimbley started one game, and had one sack. His release doesn’t generate all the cap room you’d like given how big of a bust his contract wound up being, but it’s something. I could see them keeping him on the notion that he has 3-4 experience as an outside linebacker, but as a non-starter on a team that really needed pass rush last year, the mental heuristics don’t add up for me.
Flexibility: Some. Michael Griffin and Andy Levitre are base salary-to-signing bonus convert candidates. (Griffin has an $6.2 million base, Levitre $6.5 million.) Most of the players listed as potential cuts above make very little guaranteed money, so giving them paycuts rather than outright releasing them is one way to go about things. The Titans also have a large number of acceptable veterans at reasonable prices they could axe if need be, such as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Sammie Hill.
Overview: While the Titans are barely under the cap as it stands, the amount of money they can save in releases and/or restructures could enable them to be players in free agency should they so choose. The thing is, outside of finding perfect schematic fits for Ray Horton’s new defense and retaining Verner, they don’t really have a whole lot of festering wounds. Instead, they have positions where talented players have underachieved their perceived skill: quarterback, offensive guard, linebacker, and safety (despite Michael Griffin’s decent season, his track record makes me lack trust in him.) Assuming the Titans get the whole gang back together, I expect them to add a defensive line piece and an inside linebacker. Maybe a combo of Randy Starks and Jon Beason, or something along those lines.
The kicker is that they’ll probably keep some money free to deal with a potential Jake Locker breakout season, which would cause some cap chaos for them. So even if they did want to spend wildly and bring in a top outside linebacker (hi, Brian Orakpo!) that would mean the team would have a lot of cap gymnastics to do in 2014 to keep Locker.
So, instead, I think you’ll see mostly austerity, with a few stabs at defensive pieces to help Horton out.