NFL Nation: 2013 AFC free-agency primer
Cap Status: The Ravens are a projected $3 million to $4 million under the cap, which is why they're asking wide receiver Anquan Boldin to take a pay cut.
Strategy: The Ravens' focus early in free agency has always been retaining their key players. This year is no different. The priority is re-signing Dannell Ellerbe because inside linebacker is the team's biggest need. If the Ravens are able to do that, they'll turn their attention to safety Ed Reed. When it comes to signing other teams' free agents, the Ravens' strategy is patience. Baltimore has rarely been declared the winner in March, but it always finds a way to win in the playoffs. Last offseason, no one was applauding the Ravens for signing receiver-returner Jacoby Jones and cornerback Corey Graham. But they were both key members of the Super Bowl team. Outside of inside linebacker, look for the Ravens to bring in a young defensive tackle. The Ravens were disappointed with nose tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody.
Cap Status: The Bengals are among the top three teams in terms of cap space.
Strategy: The Bengals' reputation is not making a big splash in free agency, and that shouldn't change this year. Cincinnati has been active already, re-signing three special-teams players (kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris) and backup defensive end Wallace Gilberry. The Bengals' priority has to be finding a right tackle, outside linebackers and a strong safety. They will look to re-sign Andre Smith, but they have plenty of options at right tackle (Detroit's Gosder Cherilus and Minnesota's Phil Loadholt) if they fail to do so. The Bengals also need to address outside linebacker because starters Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson are free agents. With Vontaze Burfict expected to move to the middle, there's a possibility that Cincinnati could bring back Rey Maualuga and shift him to the outside. The Bengals could address the situation in free agency, but they may not be willing to overspend on someone like Dashon Goldson, even though he would be a great fit. It's a position they can fill in the draft as well.
Cap Status: Like the Bengals, the Browns rank among the top three teams in cap room.
Strategy: Based on reports, the Browns have been very active during the three-day negotiating period, and they should be. Cleveland has a lot of holes on its team and has a lot of money to spend. Finding a pass-rusher ranks very high on the Browns' list. Cleveland has been linked to Detroit's Cliff Avril and could get in a bidding war with the Colts over Baltimore's Paul Kruger. It's also possible the Browns could pursue Steelers linebacker James Harrison. The Browns aren't expected to bring back Sheldon Brown and need to find another starting cornerback. Three potential targets are: Pittsburgh's Keenan Lewis, San Diego's Antoine Cason and Arizona's Greg Toler. On offense, the Browns are looking to replace Ben Watson, another free agent who isn't expected to return. Tennessee's Jared Cook is reportedly high on the Browns' list.
Cap Status: The Steelers were approximately $3.4 million under before re-signing guard Ramon Foster.
Strategy: The Steelers are entering free agency with very little cap room, especially after re-signing Foster. So, don't expect the Steelers to be active in free agency. That isn't a newsflash because the Steelers have never been major players in March. Remember last year, when it took Pittsburgh 28 days to sign a free agent, and it was only backup tight end Leonard Pope? If the Steelers had more cap room, this would be the year when they would have been more of a factor in free agency. The Steelers have holes at running back and outside linebacker. Pittsburgh can't have confidence in Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman to carry the ground game. The same goes for Jason Worilds and Chris Carter, who will be hard-pressed to fill the void left by the release of Harrison. The Steelers will have to wait for the draft to address these needs.
Cap status: Pretty tight, with just over $9 million in cushion. But the Texans can gain room with a cut (receiver Kevin Walter is the prime candidate) and have lots of room for restructures with receiver Andre Johnson and/or cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Strategy: Lay back. They are most concerned with their own guys, and safety Glover Quin and outside linebacker Connor Barwin head that list. Lose them and they could be shoppers for replacements, but we're talking midlevel to low-level guys, not the high-priced, top-tier guys getting all of the hype as free agency opens. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has an affinity for guys who've played in his system before, so keep an eye on safety Gerald Sensabaugh and, if he's released, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. They could patch in some guys later, but anything big early would amount to a big surprise.
Cap status: The Colts have just under $40 million of room. They pledge not to behave like it's burning a hole in their pocket.
Strategy: They will look to strike the right deals with some key new people who can fill holes and add production and leadership. It's easy to draw lines that connect Pagano to guys he's coached in Baltimore such as outside linebacker Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams. They are still looking to fill out the roster with people who can play in Pagano's 3-4 front. The scheme requires at least one more cornerback who can play a lot of man-to-man coverage. Maximizing Andrew Luck's chances for success is a priority, and a couple of linemen are necessary to stay on that mission. Another receiver could be a target, too. But Grigson won't force free-agent moves and hopes to have another impact draft that will have a big bearing on how this team fares, too.
Cap status: They've got more than $26 million in cap room, but they also have a couple of empty spots on the depth chart, such as strong safety, right tackle and left guard.
Strategy: All indications are the Jaguars will slow-play free agency. They are unlikely to jump out and sign a guy or two to big contracts, as some bloated free-agent contracts are one of the issues Caldwell inherits. But Tier 2 guys who the team thinks can be pillars of a new program and lead the way for young players will be the core of the franchise moving forward. They have two guys heading into the market in linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerback Derek Cox. They won't overpay, but losing them will create more holes. And this team is super thin at cornerback already.
Cap status: Over $16 million of room with easily makeable cuts that will save more as the team needs the room and finds guys to add to the roster.
Strategy: More aggressive than usual, in both willingness to spend and number of people they will bring in. This team needs an infusion of talent and leadership. Their top free agents -- tight end Jared Cook and defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks -- are expected to leave. Look for one big signing, perhaps Buffalo guard Andy Levitre, and several more with a lower price tag. Positions that could be addressed include guard, defensive tackle, tight end, cornerback and safety. They may be waiting on their pass-rusher until the draft. This is a huge time for Webster and Munchak, who will really be putting their stamp on the roster with guys they need to lift the team to a better level of play if they want to hold on to their jobs.
Cap Status: The Bills do not have a ton of cap space compared to last year. But they have some flexibility and can still make a run at several players. Buffalo recently re-signed cornerback Leodis McKelvin and placed the franchise tag on safety Jairus Byrd, and those contracts will somewhat limit what the team can do this week. The Bills were among the biggest players in free agency in 2012 and spent a large chunk of their cap on $100 million defensive end Mario Williams.
Strategy: The Bills are very much a team in transition. They have a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator and potentially a new quarterback. Buffalo most likely will not look to free agency to find another quarterback. The Bills already have two veterans on the roster, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tarvaris Jackson. Adding a drafted rookie to the group makes more sense. Expect Buffalo to use its free-agent dollars at linebacker and wide receiver. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is installing a 3-4 scheme in Buffalo that relies heavily on solid, tough linebacker play. The Bills were 31st in run defense last year and the linebackers were pushed around too often. Buffalo also needs a No. 2 receiver to pair with Steve Johnson. The Bills let receivers David Nelson and Donald Jones walk in free agency and lack depth at the position. Buffalo continues to negotiate with starting guard Andy Levitre, but he could get interest from several teams in free agency and create a bidding war.
Cap Status: The Dolphins have the most cap room in the AFC East. They began the offseason with more than $40 million available. However, recent signings of three in-house players -- receiver Brian Hartline, quarterback Matt Moore and defensive tackle Randy Starks -- have reduced that number.
Strategy: Miami still has plenty of room to make a splash this week. The Dolphins are the favorite to land former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, who could command about $12 million per season. The speedy Wallace could be the missing piece to a Dolphins passing game ranked 26th in the NFL last season. Miami also needs to address its situation at cornerback, tight end, safety and left tackle. The Dolphins are not expected to re-sign former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long. That leaves a big hole to fill at left tackle. The Dolphins could play 2012 second-round pick Jonathan Martin on the left side if they cannot find a better option in free agency. No. 1 cornerback and free agent Sean Smith also could leave Miami, which would create another major hole. Keep in mind the Dolphins also have nine draft picks, including five in the first three rounds. Whatever holes they cannot plug in free agency will be addressed in April's draft.
Cap Status: The Patriots are in decent shape. Quarterback Tom Brady recently provided a big assist by signing a three-year, $27 million contract extension. The move reportedly freed up an additional $15 million in cap room over the next two years to keep New England in position to contend.
Strategy: The Patriots will not be the biggest players in free agency, but they have enough room to go after a few desired targets. Definitely keep an eye on New England's secondary. The Patriots need help at both cornerback and safety. They have already been linked to Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, who has a desire to stay with a contender. Belichick has an immense respect for Reed and the way he plays the game. New England also must address its in-house free agents, such as receiver Wes Welker, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and corner Aqib Talib. The Patriots do not get sentimental with their own players and are not afraid to let them test the market. New England runs the risk of losing all three players. But the Patriots refuse to overpay and are prepared to go to Plan B and Plan C for each scenario.* The Patriots do not have a general manager by title, but Belichick has the final say on all personnel matters in New England. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio shares some of the GM duties with Belichick.
Cap Status: The Jets have a very tight cap. Former general manager Mike Tannenbaum significantly mismanaged the roster the past couple of seasons by overpaying veterans and poorly restructuring contracts. This is the year the Jets pay for those mistakes.
Strategy: The Jets have a lot of needs but few resources to work with. The team already cut veterans Bart Scott, Calvin Pace and Eric Smith just to get under the cap. New York is not expected to re-sign Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry, 1,000-yard tailback Shonn Greene and starting tight end Dustin Keller because they will be too expensive. Idzik says he will field a competitive team in his first year, but that's an extremely tough task. The Jets have no choice but to look for bargain-bin options in free agency. New York's biggest needs are on offense. The Jets need help at quarterback but can afford only cheap options like David Garrard. They also need to add talented skill players at wide receiver, tight end and running back to support the quarterback. Don't expect the Jets to make much noise in free agency. New York's best option to improve this year is through the draft.
Cap Status: The Broncos are in decent position to make some additions. They do have to account for $9.7 million for the franchise tag of left tackle Ryan Clady. Denver will also get more cap room if it cuts defensive end Elvis Dumervil. He is due $12 million this season and the team is trying to pare down his contract. Linebacker D.J. Williams also is expected to be cut.
Strategy: I expect the Broncos to be fairly busy in free agency. There has been some speculation Denver could be big players in free agency and get a high-profile player such as New England receiver Wes Welker. The team reportedly has interest in trading for Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. But Denver has a lot of wants, so it may be reluctant to spend too much in one place. Denver may look to add at defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback, safety, the offensive line, receiver and running back. So there is a chance we'll see a lot of midlevel-type players. Among the players already connected to Denver are Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall and Colts pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, if Dumervil is cut.
Cap Status: The Chiefs have done a lot of spending already. They still have some room and will get more with the expected cut of quarterback Matt Cassel.
Strategy: No NFL team has been busier than the Chiefs thus far. The new regime found a way to keep three key free agents: receiver Dwayne Bowe, punter Dustin Colquitt and left tackle Branden Albert. But the Chiefs also kept defensive end Tyson Jackson with a much more manageable contract, traded for quarterback Alex Smith and signed cornerback Dunta Robinson. The team is also reportedly close to keeping defensive end Glenn Dorsey. So the new brass is clearly interested in keeping the core of this team while adding at key positions such as quarterback and cornerback. I expect the Chiefs to strike a couple of more times on the open market. But there is no doubt the heavy lifting has already been done.
Cap Status: The Raiders have about $8 million in cap room. More can come with the expected cut of defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. Quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey could also be cut if they don't take pay reductions in the coming days.
Strategy: The Raiders are in a tough spot. They have massive holes throughout the roster. They don't have a ton of cap room, but they also have an impatient owner in Mark Davis. He wants to see the team improve. But the Raiders have been in salary-cap jail for years. There is light at the end of the tunnel for next year. But Oakland has to be smart. McKenzie restructured the deal of safety Tyvon Branch (that McKenzie did last year) just to get some immediate relief. But there is now dead money in future years. Oakland cannot repeat its vicious cycle. But it does have to get some things done now. The good news for Oakland is that this is a deep free-agent class and not a lot of teams are going to spend much. There could be some decent bargains out there. I expect Oakland to pick up a few solid players. Cornerback is certainly a strong position that Oakland will try to improve at.
Cap Status: The Chargers should have about $17 million to spend after the expected cut of defensive tackle Antonio Garay.
Strategy: The Chargers will be interesting to watch. This is a new brass, and thus far, it's been awfully quiet. But things should change once the open market starts. Truth be told, San Diego has to get a lot of work done. It has major holes on the offensive line and at cornerback. Between those two areas, the team may need to add up to five players. But the needs don't stop there. The Chargers also can use a safety, an inside linebacker, a running back and a receiver. Telesco has a strong reputation for being a talent evaluator. We will quickly get a look at how he can add pieces to his new team.