Two of the biggest players were playoff teams in 2012 -- they will help shape this year's free agency period.
Free agency in the NFL begins in a little over a month. March 12 is the date teams need to get under the salary cap, and starting at 4 p.m. ET, they can start negotiating with unrestricted free agents. Organizations will try to build their rosters not only for the upcoming season, but their future. This year's free agency has an unusual situation, one where two of the teams primed to spend the most money made the playoffs in 2012. This could mean the biggest players are landing in already established, winning franchises -- potentially giving teams their final pieces to the puzzle.
The salary cap is reported to be set at $121.5 million for the 2013 season; an incremental increase over last year. Teams are still waiting for the large jump in the salary cap as a by-product of the NFL's new TV deal. That will come following the 2014 season, and it's a case of teams who managed the 2010 season best who are now the league's "haves." Forward-thinking organizations used the cap-free year to shed bad contracts and get their finances prepared for the following five years. Other teams, however, weren't so smart. The Carolina Panthers, for example, found themselves with a league-high in cap space following the 2010 season, only to go on a spending spree the following year -- in an effort to retain their meager talent. The Panthers now find themselves with one of the NFL's worst salary cap situations -- $11.8 million over the cap, and a 7-9 record to show for it.
Joining the Panthers are the New York Jets (-$19.4), Dallas Cowboys (-$18.2), and New Orleans Saints (-$14.8). These teams will be hard pressed to do anything in free agency this year. Instead, they have begun their cost-cutting, jettisoning established veterans with high salaries in an effort to get in the black.
Conversely, there are some teams who saw the 2010 season as a chance to rebuild. With an NFL-high $55.1 million in cap space, the Cincinnati Bengals find themselves in the driver's seat of free agency. Benefiting from the rookie salary cap, their skill positions are stocked with low-cost contracts, and impact players. The Bengals need to make decisions on offensive tackle Andre Smith and defensive end Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks in 2012), but even if Cincinnati decide to retain both players, there will still be room to add a premier free agent.
In a similar boat, the Indianapolis Colts find themselves sitting in third with $46 million in open space. Just as the Bengals saved money by trading Carson Palmer and moving forward with Andy Dalton, so too the Indianapolis Colts took a step forward by shedding money through releasing Peyton Manning. With Andrew Luck as their franchise quarterback, and Chuck Pagano having a playoff team -- there aren't many needs for the Colts. Long-standing veteran Dwight Freeney is in need of a new deal, but at 33 years old, Indianapolis could go in any direction with his contract, and still come out in front.
Sandwiched between two playoff teams, the perennial cellar-dwelling Cleveland Browns round out the top three. With $48.9 million in space, there's plenty of room for the Browns' new front office, and head coach Rob Chudzinski to make their mark on free agency. Offense will be the focus, as was Chudzinski's in 2011 with the Carolina Panthers. He's a coach who likes the deep ball offense -- a good desire with this free agent class.
Headlining free agency will be three wide receivers -- all of whom were franchise tagged during the 2012 season. Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace and Wes Welker are all very close to leaving their respective teams. There's a chance the Chiefs and Patriots could tag their players a second time, but this would eat up the majority of their free cap space. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, are sure to part ways with Wallace; out of cap room, and at an impasse -- the Steelers' loss could be one of these three team's gain.
As if by providence, these three receivers fit each of the teams with cap space like a glove. The Bengals are in need of a weapon to take the focus off A.J. Green, and Welker fits the mold perfectly. He's not a receiver who needs stellar arm strength from a quarterback. The respect that opposing defenses need to give his YAC potential will be the perfect compliment to Green on the outside, and tight end Jermaine Gresham -- who likes to stretch the field. Welker isn't a long-term option, but as a 2-3 year option, he would perfectly bridge the cap while the organization builds up a future second receiver.
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No rookie quarterback was asked to throw deep more often than Luck. Asked to manage the game well beyond his years, the Colts seem to have struck gold by pairing him with rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton. However, they could become an overwhelming passing team by giving Luck a big target. Enter Bowe. The addition of the Chiefs' wide receiver to form an effective trio with Hilton and Reggie Wayne would allow Indianapolis to give their second-year quarterback a perfect option in the passing game. At 28-years-old, there's plenty of years ahead of him -- and could have the same effect on the offense that Vincent Jackson had in Tampa Bay. The Colts didn't need a lot of offensive help, but Bowe could take them over the top.
Finally, there's Wallace, who was built for a Chudzinski offense. A disciple of the Air Coryell, Chudzinski believes in using a stable of tight ends to attack the center of the field, while using wide receivers on the outside for big plays. This is what he did in Carolina with Steve Smith, who had a renaissance with Chudzinski as offensive coordinator. The Browns invested a second-round pick in big-play receiver Josh Gordon last year, and Greg Little is still developing -- but in adding Wallace the Browns would round out their receiving corps with a variety of weapons for Brandon Weeden. The 2012 rookie QB will be evaluated by the organization, but a solid group of receivers would be the ultimate litmus test.
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While the receivers will likely garner the most attention, the three largest names in free agency should all be retained. Joe Flacco is negotiating with the Baltimore Ravens, the Denver Broncos must retain offensive tackle Ryan Clady if they hope to keep Manning upright, and in Buffalo, the Bills are now realizing what they have at safety with All-Pro Jairus Byrd. However, should talks break down with any of these three free agents, it busts open the entire free agent class. Cleveland would likely fall over themselves for Flacco, and the Colts for Clady.
Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Cleveland are the focus of free agency because they can call the shots. Typically it's easy to write off the biggest players by justifying that veteran players wouldn't want to languish on losing teams -- though more often than not this is a logical fallacy, with players going where the money is. When it comes to Cincinnati and Indianapolis, they offer both the big money, and a successful franchise.
A lot can change in the next month. With every team in the league needing to get under the salary cap the complexion of free agency could be completely different by early March. The New York Giants have already made significant moves to reduce their cap figure, while they will soon be joined by the rest of the league. Much like Tampa Bay next year, the league will wait to see what these three teams do -- and begin fighting over their scraps.