Over $1 billion dollars of available cap space among the 32 NFL teams will guarantee a frenzy of free-agent action.
But teams haven’t waited for March 14’s official free-agency opening before adding to their rosters. Deals are happening left and right.
The Los Angeles Rams traded for Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and dealt away linebacker Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants and edge-rusher Robert Quinn to the Miami Dolphins. The Philadelphia Eagles added another disruptive player to the defensive line by dealing for Michael Bennett. The Carolina Panthers gave Cam Newton a deep threat with a trade for Torrey Smith. The Cleveland Browns completed a trio of swaps during a wild Friday afternoon of wheeling and dealing.
Teams are becoming more aggressive in roster building. And with so much money expected to be available in free agency, the moves are far from over.
Here’s a look at the franchises and players with the most to gain this offseason, particularly during free agency.
Kirk Cousins played his cards perfectly over the last two seasons in Washington, and now he has as much leverage as any player entering free agency in recent memory. No single entity in professional football has more to gain than a franchise quarterback loaded with bargaining clout and headed for the open market.
In addition, Cousins could shape the entire offseason.
Will he chase a record-breaking deal from one of the NFL’s most quarterback-needy teams, using his leverage and all the available cash to secure a market-shattering average salary and unheard-of guarantees? Or will he prioritize winning, sacrificing a small percentage of cash to sign with one of the contenders searching for an answer at quarterback?
Cousins has those options. A team such as the New York Jets could make him a rich man. The Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals could be a franchise quarterback away from contention. The Minnesota Vikings might be the squad to beat in 2018 if they land Cousins.
After two years of playing under the franchise tag, he now has negotiating power and freedom of unrestricted free agency. No player has more to gain over the next few weeks.
Aaron Rodgers can sit back and enjoy the upcoming days. For the first time in his career, he’ll have a general manager who’s committed to being aggressive in free agency and a head coach emboldened with power within the organization—though coach Mike McCarthy is fighting for his job. The dynamic could create a period of roster building in Green Bay that Rodgers has never seen.
The Packers need to use free agency to add playmakers to a defense that’s being rebuilt under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. If new general manager Brian Gutekunst can snag a few veterans and Pettine can get the otherwise talented group to come together, Rodgers might have a defense capable of handling business.
Also, Rodgers and the Packers are negotiating a new contract. Cousins is about to reset the quarterback market, but his reign atop the salary hierarchy will be short-lived. Rodgers’ next deal is expected to be the most lucrative in NFL history, and it’ll likely get done this offseason.
The Cleveland Browns have already gained plenty this offseason, mostly via trade. New general manager John Dorsey and his all-star cast of personnel executives completed blockbuster trades for receiver Jarvis Landry from Miami, quarterback Tyrod Taylor from Buffalo and cornerback Damarious Randall from Green Bay, adding proven, veteran talent to the roster.
Now, Dorsey and the Browns get to dive head-first into free agency with the purchasing power—$81 million in cap space—to land any available player they want.
At the least, the Browns’ Friday trading frenzy ensured they won’t go into the draft empty-handed.
Speaking of the draft, the Browns still hold two picks in the top five and three second-round selections. Imagine if Dorsey signs two or three top free agents and then lands a franchise quarterback and a few other difference-makers in the draft. Cleveland could get good in a hurry. Really good.
The San Francisco 49ers have their leadership trinity in place: general manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. With the right people in those three positions, franchises can thrive.
Not surprisingly, the 49ers won their final five games with Garoppolo at the helm to close out the 2017 season—adding serious momentum to start an offseason that could turn San Francisco from a feel-good story into a legitimate 2018 NFC contender.
Lynch and Shanahan have to keep building around Garoppolo, and they have $70 million in cap space to do it.
The 49ers have pressing needs at running back, receiver, cornerback, edge-rusher and the offensive line. Free agency can’t fill all those holes, but there are good options at several positions. For instance, if Lynch can sign running back Dion Lewis, receiver Allen Robinson and either cornerback Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler, the 49ers would be well on their way to solidifying themselves as a growing power in the NFC.
Now is the time for Lynch and Shanahan to get aggressive.
Around this time last year, Case Keenum was a 29-year-old, unemployed quarterback who had to be wondering if his career was ending.
It took until the last day in March for the Minnesota Vikings to sign Keenum to a one-year deal worth $2 million. The move hardly made a ripple in the vast NFL free-agent pond.
Fast-forward a year, and Keenum is about to cash in on a career season that ended one game short of the Super Bowl.
While he isn’t the biggest quarterback prize in free agency, he is a prize, and that’s saying something for a player who struggled to find a backup offer last spring.
A 14-game starter for the Vikings in 2017, Keenum threw 22 touchdowns passes and seven interceptions, finishing second in the NFL in completion percentage (67.6) and seventh in passer rating (98.3). He’s looking at a potential deal worth eight to 10 times more than his previous pact, and he’ll get chance to start for one of the 32 teams.
Which one? Who knows. But Keenum will sign a contract no one could have predicted or expected 12 months ago.
The Chicago Bears have slowly but surely created extra cap space ($50.2 million total), giving general manager Ryan Pace an opportunity to rebuild his middling team.
The first step is always finding a franchise quarterback, preferably on a rookie deal, and then using every roster-building tool available to fill in talent around him. It appears Pace has found his franchise QB in Mitchell Trubisky. Now, the Bears need to do a better job of using available cash.
Recent swings at the free-agent plate—such as Mike Glennon, Pernell McPhee and any number of receivers—have come up mostly empty. But it only takes a few hits to turn things in the other direction. Signing a couple of difference-makers, especially in the offensive passing game, could speed up Trubisky’s development and make the Bears a 2018 dark-horse in the NFC North.
Quietly, Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard helped rebuild one of the NFL’s worst rosters during free agency last year, adding solid pieces such as defensive lineman Johnathan Hankins and linebacker Jabaal Sheard with under-the-radar deals that paid off.
The problem? Quarterback Andrew Luck missed the entire season, creating a 4-12 finish and causing big changes, most notably when Josh McDaniels Frank Reich took over for fired head coach Chuck Pagano.
Luck will return in 2018, and Ballard is sitting on $72.2 million in cap space he could use to continue adding veteran pieces around his talented quarterback.
Expect the Colts to be active in free agency. Adding help along the offensive line and in the secondary could set up Ballard to be aggressive in the draft, where he holds the No. 3 overall pick. The Colts have work to do to get back into AFC contention, but Ballard has the resources to make it happen. Quickly.
The Los Angeles Rams acted decisively and agreed to trades for Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, guaranteeing Trumaine Johnson won’t be back with the team in 2018. Leaving the NFC West champions won’t be easy, but the money Johnson will find in free agency should help.
It’s an undeniable NFL truth: Even second-tier cornerbacks who reach the open market get paid handsomely. Johnson fits the bill, and he has leverage.
A tall, physical cornerback, the 6’2″ Johnson made over $30 million while playing on the franchise tag over the last two seasons. The 28-year-old might not average $15 million per season on his next deal, but the numbers should be staggering. Too many teams have big needs at cornerback and money to spend.
Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl no-show and the Bears’ decision to put the transition tag on Kyle Fuller helped Johnson’s negotiating power as one of the market’s top corners. Expect him to use it.
The New York Jets won five games in 2017—including victories over two playoff teams (Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs)—despite fielding one of the NFL’s least talented rosters. Arguably no franchise can improve more in overall talent this offseason than the Jets, though even a strong free-agency effort might not be enough to make them into a legitimate 2018 contender.
However, finding the right quarterback can change everything—and the Jets have the cap space to make a serious run at Cousins, a quarterback capable of fast-tracking New York’s rebuilding effort. Signing the top player available could make the Jets the offseason’s instant winners.
Even if they don’t land Cousins, they need to use free agency to build the talent base around the quarterback position, so that when they find one, the roster will be ready to compete.
Both objectives are attainable. The Jets’ 2018 chances could look much different by March’s end.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter need a big year after a disappointing 2017 season. Another 5-11 finish won’t cut it. Nor should it.
Luckily, Licht and Koetter have the cap space necessary ($71.2 million) to add instant-impact reinforcements via free agency.
If the Buccaneers can get this offseason right, and free-agent additions help the team rebound in a big way in 2018, Tampa Bay’s top decision-makers will likely save their jobs. Anything less, and Licht and Koetter could be looking for new employment.
The Buccaneers have talent and a quarterback to build around. If they can use their buying power to improve and patch up a few holes (chiefly at cornerback, running back and along the defensive line), Tampa Bay could be a 2018 factor in the talented NFC South. There’s plenty to gain for a franchise whose arrow should be pointed up.
Neither Allen Robinson nor Sammy Watkins received the franchise tag. The Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, threw two talented but flawed receivers into a market flush with cash, and many of the teams with the most cap space—such as the Jets, Colts, 49ers and Titans—need a playmaker at receiver.
Robinson is coming off a lost season thanks to a torn ACL, but the 24-year-old is a proven big-play receiver entering his prime. Watkins’ overall production (39 catches and 593 yards) in Los Angeles was underwhelming, especially in head coach Sean McVay’s innovative offense, but he still averaged 15.2 yards per catch and hauled in eight touchdowns. He’s also immensely talented.
It won’t be surprising if teams with loads of cap space get into a bidding war for both receivers. Of course, that’s good news for Robinson and Watkins.
There’s too much cash about to be spent for two young, talented players to slip through the cracks without a huge payday. Robinson and the 24-year-old Watkins will reach the open market for differing reasons, but don’t expect a few minor red flags to slow teams with a need at receiver and money to burn.
The Minnesota Vikings fell one game short of becoming the first team to play a home Super Bowl in NFL history last season. While that failure stings, Minnesota has a ton to gain this offseason.
A deep, talented, Super Bowl-ready roster could add the final piece: a franchise quarterback.
Keenum provided a heroic 2017 effort, giving the Vikings an efficient, effective signal-caller who balanced the team after it lost starter Sam Bradford and stud rookie running back Dalvin Cook to knee injuries early in the year. That the Vikings won 13 games and got so close to playing in a Super Bowl was a testament to Keenum’s work and the roster’s quality.
But the Vikings can do better at quarterback. And if they do, watch out.
Cousins might not be the game’s best QB, but adding him could make the Vikings the new favorite to win it all in 2018. A scary team that will return Cook, its two top playmakers in the passing game (Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs) and the league’s top defense would only get more terrifying with quarterback stability.
Cousins, who has 81 touchdown passes and a 97.5 passer rating over the last three years, can provide it.
Salary-cap info provided by Over the Cap unless otherwise noted.