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How the 5 NFL teams with the most cap space can spend all that money this offseason

The Dolphins and Cowboys both have tons of cap space, but they’ll likely take opposite approaches to the offseason.

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The NFL offseason is a fun time for teams with plenty of space under the salary cap. While teams like the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars will have to focus their efforts on saving money, most have cash to spend.`

For some of them, a headfirst dive into the free agency market could be on the horizon. For others, much of that cap space will disappear when players already on roster are given extensions.

Here are the five teams entering the 2020 offseason with the most salary cap space, and what they may end up doing with all that room (all cap figures as of Feb. 20, courtesy of Over The Cap):

Dallas Cowboys ($77.3 million in cap space)

It’s easy to be way under the salary cap when you’re not ponying up at the most expensive position. The only Cowboys quarterback currently under contract in 2020 is Clayton Thorson, a 2019 fifth-round pick. A significant amount of the cap space will disappear when Dak Prescott is inevitably brought back into the fold.

Three ways to spend that money

  1. Franchise and/or re-sign quarterback Dak Prescott: With free agency rapidly approaching, Dallas will probably have to use the franchise tag to retain its quarterback. That will guarantee Prescott about $27 million and eat over one-third of the team’s cap space. An extension could still happen in the next few months to change that number, but Prescott’s not going to settle for a cheap deal. Still, it’s better that than recreating Washington’s lengthy Kirk Cousins divorce.
  2. Re-sign receiver Amari Cooper: If Prescott receives the franchise tag, the Cowboys will have to move quickly to keep Cooper. They gave up a first-round pick for the receiver in 2018 and certainly don’t want to let him walk as a free agent. But that could mean bending to Cooper’s demands, no matter how lofty. Even Julio Jones’ receiver-leading $22 million per year contract could get eclipsed.
  3. Re-sign defensive end Robert Quinn: Byron Jones is expected to test the open market, so finding a cornerback in free agency could be a priority. However, keeping Quinn in Dallas is even more important. The 29-year-old defensive end was the only Cowboys player with more than five sacks in 2019.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($79.9 million in cap space)

Like the Cowboys, the Buccaneers currently don’t have an experienced quarterback under contract for the 2020 season. Both Jameis Winston and Blaine Gabbert are set to become free agents in March, leaving only Ryan Griffin at the position. Solving that problem will eat a chunk of Tampa Bay’s space.

Three ways to spend that money

  1. Sign a starting quarterback: The answer could be re-signing Winston, going after a veteran starter like Philip Rivers, picking a quarterback early in the 2020 NFL Draft, or some combination of those strategies. Whatever the Buccaneers decide, it’ll cost a pretty penny.
  2. Re-sign defensive end Shaquil Barrett: Tampa Bay stumbled across the steal of the 2019 offseason when it signed Barrett to a one-year, $4 million deal. He finished the year as the league’s sack champion with 19.5 sacks, 13th-most in a single season. The Buccaneers defense — which was 29th in points allowed — can’t afford to lose Barrett’s impact, even if it costs way more than $4 million to keep him.
  3. Re-sign defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul: In his first season with the Buccaneers, Pierre-Paul had 12.5 sacks. He finished 2019 with 8.5 sacks, despite missing the first two months of the season due to injuries suffered in an offseason car accident. Tampa Bay should pay up to see what the Barrett and Pierre-Paul duo can do over the course of an entire season together.

Buffalo Bills ($82.2 million in cap space)

Unlike other teams on this list, the Bills actually have their starting quarterback, Josh Allen, under contract for two more years and have reason to feel good about his trajectory. Buffalo has so much cap space because: a) Allen is still on his rookie deal, and b) center Mitch Morse is the only player with a cap hit over $10 million. No other team in the NFL has fewer than three such players.

Three ways to spend that money

  1. Re-sign defensive end Shaq Lawson: The 2016 first-round pick is coming along slowly, but he is coming along. After four sacks in 2017 and again in 2018, he had 6.5 in 2019. That’s not much, but it’s progress and it means the price tag to retain Lawson shouldn’t be too high. With Ed Oliver and Star Lotulelei on the interior, Lawson is more important than keeping defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, another soon-to-be free agent.
  2. Re-sign cornerback Kevin Johnson: Buffalo took a chance on the Texans’ oft-injured castoff, and it worked out well. He rotated with Levi Wallace opposite Tre’Davious White, giving the Bills a solid trio of cornerbacks. The Patriots were the only team that allowed fewer passing touchdowns than Buffalo. A deal to keep Johnson on the depth chart would likely only cost the Bills $5-7 million per year.
  3. Sign tight end Hunter Henry or Eric Ebron: The Bills went after Greg Olsen, but came away empty-handed. It makes sense they’d want a tight end to help Allen in his growth as a young quarterback, however. Although Buffalo has 2019 draft picks Dawson Knox and Tommy Sweeney on the roster, a veteran could provide immediate help. Both Henry and Ebron come with injury concerns, but they’re the best potential free agents at the position now that Olsen is with the Seahawks.

Indianapolis Colts ($86.2 million in cap space)

The Colts were surprisingly thrifty in free agency last year for a team with a ton of cap space. While they gave Jacoby Brissett an extension shortly after the abrupt retirement of Andrew Luck, even that was a moderately sized deal for a starting quarterback. Brissett struggled in the latter half of the season, but the Colts seem likelier to groom a draft pick than cut bait and hunt for an upgrade in free agency. Keeping talent on the roster could be top priority instead.

Three ways to spend that money

  1. Re-sign offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo: The former first-round pick just played out the final year of a four-year, $43.8 million deal. The next contract will undoubtedly be even more expensive, but the Colts can’t afford to lose their franchise left tackle. He’s still one of the best in the league at his position and wouldn’t be easy to replace.
  2. Re-sign center Ryan Kelly: While they’re at it, the 2020 offseason would be a good time to extend Kelly, another key offensive lineman. The Colts are already paying him $10.35 million on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal. An extension likely wouldn’t up that number, but it would tack more years on to Kelly’s career in Indianapolis.
  3. Sign defensive end Arik Armstead: The 49ers will do their best to keep Armstead, but it’ll be tricky with so many high-priced players on the team. If Armstead hits the market, he could be the rare free agent that the Colts actually open up the pocketbooks to acquire. Indianapolis could use an infusion of talent on the defensive line, especially if Jabaal Sheard leaves in free agency.

Miami Dolphins ($89.4 million in cap space)

The Dolphins got here by tanking the 2019 season. Yes, their 5-11 record wasn’t too terrible and showed new coach Brian Flores can whip a team into shape. But those wins came in spite of the front office parting with almost every highly paid player on the roster. It’s tough to gauge if the Dolphins are done gutting the roster now. Either way, the team probably doesn’t plan on blowing through much of its savings this spring.

Three ways to spend that money

  1. Sign guard Joe Thuney: The best investments Miami can make would be in the trenches, and impending Patriots free agent Thuney would be a great fit. The durable 27-year-old lineman is one of the best guards in the NFL. Flores spent 15 seasons with the Patriots and would probably love to prune his now-division rival in free agency.
  2. Sign linebacker Kyle Van Noy: Another potential Patriots free agent is Van Noy, a six-year veteran who will turn 29 in March. Flores used to be the New England linebackers coach and is very familiar with the skills and versatility of Van Noy. The Dolphins desperately need more talent in the front seven, and Van Noy can provide help in every facet.
  3. Sign defensive end Dante Fowler Jr: Taco Charlton led the Dolphins in sacks with just five in the 10 games he played. While the team could afford to go after a player as expensive as Yannick Ngakoue — whose deal could easily eclipse $100 million — Miami probably doesn’t want to take on contracts quite that large. Fowler will be cheaper, even though he’s still just 25 and coming off a season with 11.5 sacks.