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Monday, March 11, 2013
NFC West free-agency primer

By Mike Sando

» NFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arizona Cardinals
GENERAL MANAGER: Steve Keim
HEAD COACH: Bruce Arians

Cap Status: The Cardinals emerged from the weekend with moderate flexibility under the cap and a chance to gain additional room. Kevin Kolb's contract is counting $13.5 million against the cap, but Arizona could reduce that number significantly by releasing the quarterback or reworking his contract. Releasing Kolb would reduce his cap charge to $6 million. The team could lower the 2013 hit to $2 million after June 1 under NFL rules, but the remaining $4 million would hit the 2014 cap.

Strategy: Teams with first-year head coaches are sometimes more aggressive when taking over teams deficient in talent. That was the case for St. Louis in free agency last offseason. That was the case for Seattle in the trade market back in 2010, when new leadership took over the Seahawks. Arians and Keim seem to feel better about their talent than the leadership of those other teams felt about theirs initially. The Cardinals figure to make a few targeted strikes, but the list of available veterans isn't an impressive one. Keim and Arians have talked about relying more heavily on younger players, but Arizona needs upgrades, too.

St. Louis Rams
GENERAL MANAGER: Les Snead
HEAD COACH: Jeff Fisher

Cap Status: The Rams have more than $15 million in salary-cap space after Steven Jackson, Wayne Hunter and Quintin Mikell left the roster. They also have a league-low 44 players, so there's work to be done. But if St. Louis needed additional room, the team has other options. For example, James Laurinaitis and Cortland Finnegan are scheduled to earn $16 million in roster bonuses this offseason. Converting those into signing bonuses pushes most of the cap charges into the future.

Strategy: The Rams added 11 unrestricted free agents from other teams last offseason, tied with New England for most in the NFL. They signed Finnegan and Scott Wells to lucrative contracts. I would expect a slightly less aggressive approach to the market this offseason in part because the Rams' roster is in better shape. However, the freshly created cap room sets up St. Louis to go after a front-line player. The team could use another weapon on offense, for sure. And Kevin Demoff, the Rams' chief operating officer, has suggested teams are more interested in using their free-agent budgets for a smaller number of high-impact players, leading to fewer players signed for what passes as middle-class contracts worth $3 million to $4 million per year.

San Francisco 49ers
GENERAL MANAGER: Trent Baalke
HEAD COACH: Jim Harbaugh

Cap Status: The 49ers have been tight against the cap recently, but they'll gain breathing room when the Alex Smith trade becomes official. Smith had been scheduled to earn a $1 million bonus and $7.5 million in salary. The team has found creative ways to comply with the cap, including when it packed into its 2013 budget more than $17 million in charges for Patrick Willis, lessening the hits in other years. Willis' contract is scheduled to count only slightly more than that $17.7 million over the next three seasons combined. The 49ers took a similar tack in 2009, when contracts for Justin Smith and Joe Staley combined to use more than $30 million in cap space.

Strategy: The 49ers haven't been big spenders in free agency over the past several seasons. That trend should continue. San Francisco will have a league-high 12 draft choices once the Alex Smith trade is processed. The team's conservative approach to the market last offseason should net additional choices when the NFL hands out compensatory selections for teams suffering net losses in free agency a year ago. The 49ers have already identified and paid most of their core players. Now is the time for them to restock with cheaper labor through the draft, right?

Seattle Seahawks
GENERAL MANAGER: John Schneider
HEAD COACH: Pete Carroll

Cap Status: It was fair to wonder whether the team would carry $20.7 million in combined cap charges for tight end Zach Miller ($11 million) and receiver Sidney Rice ($9.7 million). There are no indications Seattle plans to re-work those deals for cap purposes, however. The team had enough flexibility to acquire and pay Percy Harvin on a long-term contract. The number for Miller drops next season, putting the Seahawks in position to ride out the contract if he remains productive. The numbers aren't yet in on Harvin, but Seattle presumably still has cap flexibility this year.

Strategy: Matt Flynn, Jason Jones, Barrett Ruud and Deuce Lutui were the only unrestricted free agents Seattle signed last offseason. The team appears likely to add a veteran or two for a few million per season, perhaps on one-year deals similar to the one Jones signed a year ago. That seems to be the team's strategy in free agency recently. Young stars such as Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor continue to play under their rookie deals. Paying top dollar for a free agent from another team could throw off the natural order of things for Seattle on defense. The 49ers have gone through a similar phase, rewarding their own players and staying away from big-ticket free agents. However, the Harvin deal shows Seattle will make an aggressive move for a young, dynamic player.