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Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Controlled approach to big spending

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Free agency reached the 15-day mark Wednesday. The pace has been fast and furious compared to last year, when 80 unrestricted free agents signed with new teams in the first two weeks. Through early Wednesday, 110 unrestricted free agents had moved to new teams. As usual, most of the big deals were done in the first 72 hours.

If history holds true, 50 to 60 more unrestricted free agents will find jobs from now until the start of training camp, and most of the deals will be for about the NFL minimum. Decent deals, though, will be set aside for some of the best players left on the market, such as Andre Smith and Dwight Freeney.

Here are the five things we learned from the first 15 days of free agency.

Mike Wallace
Of this year's unrestricted free agents who have changed teams, Mike Wallace received the contract with the highest annual value.

1. Salary cap forcing their hands: Last year, 13 unrestricted free agents landed contracts worth at least $6 million a year to go to different teams. Through the first 110 deals this year, 15 unrestricted free agents reached the $6 million-a-year mark. What's clear, though, is teams are being more strategic with their spending. The tight salary cap is the reason. Mike Wallace was the only unrestricted free agent to get more than $10 million a year, with his five-year, $60 million contract from the Miami Dolphins. The 2012 free-agent contracts of Mario Williams, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan each topped $10 million per year. Remember, we're not including Peyton Manning's five-year, $96 million contract because he was a street free agent, not an unrestricted free agent, after the Indianapolis Colts cut him.

Offensive linemen are driving the 2013 market: Jake Long got a four-year, $34 million deal from the St. Louis Rams. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod ($7.193 million a year from the Chicago Bears) and right tackle Gosder Cherilus ($6.9 million a year from Indianapolis) played off two re-signings -- Will Beatty of the New York Giants at $7.5 million a year and Phil Loadholt of the Minnesota Vikings at $6.25 million -- to get their deals. Receiver Greg Jennings went to the Vikings on a five-year, $45 million contract. LaRon Landry (Indianapolis) topped the safety market at $6 million a year. Paul Kruger of the Cleveland Browns topped the linebacker market at five years, $40.5 million.

2. More space has been cleared compared to last year: To make room for free-agent acquisitions and to re-sign players, teams have been jettisoning contracts at an unprecedented pace. Last year, teams cleared more than $324 million of cap room by releasing players or voiding contracts. In a little more than a month this year, cuts have resulted in $398.5 million of cap savings.

Worried that the cap might not go up much above the $123 million level in the next two or three years, general managers are watching their spending. Even though about $323 million of cap room remains available, teams will start to pull back on their spending. That $323 million translates to an average of roughly $10 million a team. Teams have to set aside $5 million to $6 million for the draft and another $3 million to $4 million for injuries and the practice squad. This is why you will see a lot of one-year deals in the next three months.

3. Bargain shopping by rebuilding teams: The strategies of the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets and Oakland Raiders have been curious. Of the three teams, the Cardinals might have the most interesting list of signings. The only player they paid more than $3 million a year was cornerback Jerraud Powers, who received a four-year, $14 million contract. They picked up quarterback Drew Stanton, cornerback Antoine Cason, running back Rashard Mendenhall, linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Lorenzo Alexander, and defensive end Matt Shaughnessy for between $1 million and $2.733 million a year.

The Jets hope they hit on four starters, even though they paid them between $905,000 and $2 million a year. They brought in guard Willie Colon, linebacker Antwan Barnes, nose tackle Antonio Garay and halfback Mike Goodson.

The turnover in Oakland is immense. The Raiders lost arguably their two best defensive players from last year -- defensive end Desmond Bryant and linebacker Philip Wheeler. They might have three new starters at linebacker -- Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava -- at prices between $2 million and $3.25 million a year. Defensive tackle Pat Sims ($1.75 million) and defensive end Jason Hunter ($915,000) could get starting jobs in Oakland even though they signed one-year deals.

4. The big spenders: The Dolphins so far have added five unrestricted free agents for contracts worth a total of $135.03 million. General manager Jeff Ireland splurged on offense with wide receivers Wallace and Brandon Gibson and tight end Dustin Keller. He also added linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Wheeler. The Colts have signed eight players for a total of $131.03 million. The Philadelphia Eagles have invested in nine players for $95.71 million. If you are wondering how that compares to the Eagles' "dream team" spending, they handed out $125 million worth of contracts to 12 players in 2011.

5. Who is still shopping? Only 11 teams are left with more than $10 million of cap room. The Bengals have $29 million of remaining cap room, but they have limited plans for adding new players. Instead, they plan to re-sign right tackle Andre Smith and other players, then roll over $10 million of cap space into next year. The Green Bay Packers have $17 million of cap room left, but general manager Ted Thompson hates free agency, so don't expect much from them. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have $26.9 million of room, but they are saving up for a possible Darrelle Revis trade.

That leaves Arizona ($13 million), Cleveland ($28 million), Jacksonville ($26 million), Buffalo ($17 million), Philadelphia ($24 million), Miami ($15.9 million), the Jets ($12.5 million) and Tennessee ($11 million) as the main teams keeping the free-agent market active.