Under the Cap: AFC West
by Rivers McCown
Cap Space as of February 17th: A little under $13 million. (All monetary figures courtesy of Over The Cap.)
Unrestricted Free Agents (17, UFAs and RFAs culled via NFL.com): Knowshon Moreno, Andre Caldwell, Eric Decker, Winston Justice, Zane Beadles, Dan Koppen, Steve Vallos, Robert Ayers, Jeremy Mincey, Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Paris Lenon, Wesley Woodyard, Quentin Jammer, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Mike Adams, Michael Huff
Harris will undoubtedly get at least a second-round tender. Both Carter and Unrein have been steady cogs in this defense, and both of them also went undrafted. They should be wanted back here, but I don't think draft-pick compensation will come into play.
Franchise Tag Candidates: The two potential targets for this tag are Eric Decker and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Cornerbacks are projected to be at about $11.2 million, and wide receivers at $11.5 million. Despite being quite good statistically -- Decker finished fourth in DYAR and Rodgers-Cromartie had a top-ten Success Rate among qualifying cornerbacks -- neither of them have really been linked to the tag. Denver definitely has a lot of maneuvering to do if they want to keep either of these guys, let alone tag them. The tea leaves seem to point towards Decker getting No. 1 wideout money elsewhere and Rodgers-Cromartie being more likely to stay.
Bailey will almost certainly be let go or restructured to the bare minimum after finally becoming a non-factor for the Broncos last season while he dealt with foot injuries. He's even considering becoming a safety to try to keep playing, so he knows just as well as anyone that he lost a few steps last season.
Kuper struggled in very limited action for the Broncos last season, though he did it at tackle. His ankle was gruesomely broken in 2011, and he couldn't keep it healthy throughout 2012. Denver is likely going to have to choose between Kuper and re-signing Zane Beadles, and even if Beadles isn't that great, he doesn't come with the same injury baggage Kuper does.
Tamme and Dreessen are fine complementary parts that run into the problem where Julius Thomas has generally made them obsolete.
Flexibility: Some. Ryan Clady's contract is practically built for re-structuring base salary into signing bonuses. Clady carries a $8 million base salary for next season with only $600,000 in bonuses. The Broncos could also ask Peyton Manning to restructure his $15 million base salary down.
Overview: As you'd expect from the AFC's Super Bowl representative, the Broncos have a lot of talent to deal with. Knowshon Moreno had a post-hype breakout, Decker is a statistically dominant wideout when paired with Manning, and both Harris and Rodgers-Cromartie played very well at corner last season. This is before we even get into re-signing Phillips, who led them in sacks last season, or think about rewarding Demaryius Thomas or Julius Thomas with extensions.
So it's going to be an interesting free agency period in Denver. My guess is that the defensive players are retained, Decker and Moreno are allowed to walk (though Moreno could come back if he only finds a weak market awaiting him), and that the Broncos get at least one Thomas signed to a long-term deal.
Kansas City Chiefs
Cap Space as of February 17th: A little over $3 million.
Unrestricted Free Agents (15): Terrance Copper, Chad Hall, Jerrell Jackson, Dexter McCluster, Kyle Williams, Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah, Geoff Schwartz, Tyson Jackson, Frank Zombo, Akeem Jordan, Dunta Robinson, Husain Abdullah, Quintin Demps, Kendrick Lewis
Restricted Free Agents (1): Jerrell Powe
Powe has played 11 games in three seasons, and is more likely to be brought back on a regular deal than a tender.
Franchise Tag Candidates: The only player that would really qualify as worthy of the tag is Branden Albert, but since the Chiefs would pay a 20 percent repeaters tax on a projected $11.1 million tag and selected a left tackle with the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft, that seems highly implausible. Donald Stephenson will likely take over for Albert in 2014 -- just as he would have in 2013 had the Chiefs been able to trade Albert.
Release/Restructure Candidates: None, really.
For a team riding up against the cap so closely, the Chiefs don't really have much flotsam to release. Chase Daniel ($1.4 million) and Donnie Avery ($1.3 million) could free up a little room, but most Chiefs players have cap numbers that are either fairly aligned with reality or not negotiable yet. (Hey there, Eric Fisher!)
Flexibility: The two Chiefs that are most likely to grab extensions are Eric Berry and Alex Smith. Smith is in the last year of his deal and has a cap number of $7.5 million with almost no guaranteed money. Berry has two years left at cap numbers of $11.6 and $8.3 million, and either a base salary-to-signing bonus trick or a brand-new deal could lower his cap number and give Kansas City some options for 2014. Dwayne Bowe ($8.75 million base salary) could also free up some cap room, though the end of his contract is already looking a little dangerous.
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Overview: The Chiefs are mostly losing depth guys, and that's a good thing, because they aren't likely to free up much cap space this season. 11 separate Chiefs have cap numbers over $4.3 million, and none of them are named Dontari Poe or Justin Houston, so this is going to be a real interesting situation to watch over the next few seasons. The defense will remain stacked, but it's hard to see Kansas City doing much in the way of upgrading Smith's receiving corps with this little cap room. Prepare to dream hard on Travis Kelce, Chiefs fans.
Tom Gower picked the offensive line as the weak link on this team in Four Downs, but the only real decision to be made there is whether to retain Geoff Schwartz or Jon Asamoah. Fisher isn't going anywhere. KC will also have to decide on bringing back Kendrick Lewis and Tyson Jackson, neither of whom seem like necessary pieces on this defense. Safety looks like a draft target for sure.
Cap Space as of February 17th: A little over $60 million.
Unrestricted Free Agents (18): Rashad Jennings, Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford, Jeron Mastrud, Khalif Barnes, Tony Pashos, Jared Veldheer, Andre Gurode, Lamarr Houston, Jason Hunter, Daniel Muir, Pat Sims, Vance Walker, Phillip Adams, Mike Jenkins, Tracy Porter, Charles Woodson, Usama Young
Restricted Free Agents (1): Chimdi Chekwa
Chekwa would cost another team a fourth-rounder on an original round tender, and given that the Raiders have an awful lot of free agent defensive backs, perhaps retaining him is a possibility. But he's started two games in three years, didn't really see much of the field in 2013 until injuries forced Oakland's hand late in the year, and reminds me of the song "One Week" by the Barenaked Ladies. So, in that sense, maybe we should all forget he ever played.
Franchise Tag Candidates: The Raiders have two real options here: Jared Veldheer would get the same tag amount listed above for Albert: $11.2 million. Tagging Lamarr Houston would cost about $12.5 million. Oakland has been talking long-term deal with Veldheer, who actually wants to stay. (Or, perhaps more accurately, does not want to be tagged.) Veldheer missed 11 games in 2013, which has to be a little concerning.
After the season, Houston immediately said he expected the Raiders to let him move on. And while he has definitely been productive, six sacks doesn't really scream "franchise player." Nonetheless, if the Raiders wrap up something with Veldheer before the tag deadline, they definitely have the money to keep Houston if they want.
Release/Restructure Candidates: None, really.
The Raiders have a grand total of three players with cap numbers over $4 million in 2014. Cutting Kevin Burnett would free up $3.5 million, but he's played fairly well for the price. Tyvon Branch's contract is ridiculous, but the Raiders don't really get anything for releasing him -- they'd take cap hits to do so at this point.
Flexibility: Oakland's roster doesn't have the ability to generate more flexibility, because at this point, the entire purpose of their roster is pure flexibility. Not A player on the roster has a base salary above $4 million.
Overview: Reggie McKenzie, welcome to your life!
We all glossed over the last few years of Oakland previews while the Raiders chomped their way out of the dead money excesses of the last years of the Al Davis era and the brief ridiculousness of Hue Jackson's reign as head coach, general manager, and small-sample size decision maker.
All that is over now. The Raiders have just $9 million in dead cap in 2014, and some of that (about $3 million) is at the hands of failed McKenzie quarterback bargain bin solutions Tyler Wilson and Matt Flynn. We generally haven't had much to judge McKenzie on due to the lack of cap space and draft picks, though he did at least manage to trade down in last year's first round and pick up some extra picks.
So, here we are. Reggie actually gets to build a football team now. This roster is a blank canvas, and just about every free agent on the market that doesn't play wideout or linebacker could help in some way. To expect the Raiders to go on the spending bender to end all spending benders would be naive -- they know as well as anyone that they're not three good players away -- but this is their chance to do something a little more significant than add a third-tier linebacker and call it an offseason. I'd like to say I have an educated guess, but I think you can legitimately argue that we don't even know enough about what McKenzie wants his football team to be like to have one.
San Diego Chargers
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Cap Space as of February 17th: Over the cap by about $1-2 million.
Unrestricted Free Agents (12): Charlie Whitehurst, Ronnie Brown, Seyi Ajirotutu, Danario Alexander, Lavelle Hawkins, Rich Ohrnberger, Chad Rinehart, Cam Thomas, Reggie Walker, Donald Butler, Richard Marshall, Darrell Stuckey
Restricted Free Agents (0):
Franchise Tag Candidates: The only player that's even close to a must-keep on San Diego's free agent list is linebacker Donald Butler. The projected linebacker franchise tag is about $11.8 million, and unless they are using it to extend the negotiation period towards a real deal, they're not in the salary cap situation that would make using the tag beneficial. Butler and the Chargers are still talking about a deal, reports ESPN's Chargers blogger Eric Williams.
Release/Restructure Candidates: Jeromey Clary ($4.55 million), Eddie Royal ($4.5 million), Nick Hardwick ($4.4 million), Dwight Freeney ($3.5 million), Le'Ron McClain ($2.5 million), Derek Cox ($1.65 million)
Are the Chargers willing to turn over the entire interior of their line? It's a possibility they could look into. Clary's play is certainly not worthy of his A.J. Smith-granted extension at this point, and he's an obvious candidate for release. Harwick was name-dropped by Jason La Canfora, but I personally don't see that one as likely.
Royal had a pretty remarkable season -- No. 4 in DVOA among wideouts and not in a small sample size -- but there's plenty of skepticism about his long-term value and that was by far the best season he's ever had. Normally a player like this wouldn't be on a possible cut list, but the Chargers are pretty close to the cap.
Freeney only played four games before hitting injured reserve last season, but there's reason to believe in his burst -- we counted him with 10 hurries in those games even if he only notched half of a sack.
As a fullback, McClain is a replaceable player on a team that needs his cap space.
Cox's release doesn't save much money, but he was so awful last season that he actually managed to stand out enough from the rest of San Diego's secondary and was benched on multiple occasions. That's definitely impressive, though not in a good way.
Flexibility: A lot, potentially. San Diego is on the penultimate year of three enormous contracts: Philip Rivers ($16.6 million cap number), Eric Weddle ($10.1 million), and Antonio Gates ($7.3 million). Gates hasn't been the dominant tight end that he was in earlier seasons -- he has DVOA's of 4.6% and 0.9% the last two seasons after starting his career by finishing in the top ten in tight end DYAR for nine consecutive years. Rivers won Comeback Player of the Year and Weddle continues to be an excellent safety -- both could be rewarded with new deals, or both could convert some of their base salaries into signing bonuses as Rivers did in 2013.
Overview: For a team that made the playoffs, the Chargers have an awful lot of weak areas that could be improved this offseason. Four Downs focused on how bad the secondary was, but defensive tackle and guard could also use reinforcements. There's also not much depth at a lot of positions, especially wide receiver and linebacker.
However, barring a drastic change in modus operandi, the Chargers will probably be content to carve up the space to get Donald Butler back in the fold, maybe pursue a guard after releasing Clary, and let Tom Telesco's rebuilding project continue cheaply. They're not going to clear the cap space to bring in a splashy player without a lot of tinkering, and as long as you accept the premise that King Dunlap can continue to be an adequate tackle and the Chargers will get better pass rush with a full year of Melvin Ingram, the only real strength of the market that could fill an immediate need is cornerback. Would they be willing to spend enough to lure a top guy away? Probably not. Could they get in on some No. 2 cornerbacks, and make a run at someone like Sam Shields? Probably.