One of the important parts of the 2011 NFL collective bargaining agreement was a provision called the "minimum spend."
The minimum spend mandates that each team must spend 89 percent of the salary cap from 2013 to 2016 in cash. League-wide, the NFL's 32 teams must spend a combined 95 percent of the salary cap over those four years.
While the league as a whole is spending at the 95 percent level at the midway point of the minimum spend period, 10 teams are under the 89 percent threshold: Oakland, Jacksonville, Carolina, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Washington, New Orleans, New England and both New York teams.
The question heading into the 2015 free-agency period is how the minimum spend provision, in its third year, will affect spending. For the Raiders and Jaguars, the impact could be huge.
The system pretty much mandates the Jaguars and Raiders to be the biggest players in free agency. After two years of the minimum spend period, the Raiders are at 80.19 percent of the 2011 and 2012 caps. The Jaguars are at 82.19 percent. Currently, the Jaguars are $66.8 million under the cap for 2015. The Raiders will be at $56.5 million under once the termination of safety Tyvon Branch's contract becomes official.
Don't be surprised if the Raiders make moves on four or five high-priced unrestricted free agents. The Jaguars could move on three or four big names. You could see tight end Julius Thomas and cornerback Byron Maxwell heading to Jacksonville, while the Raiders could go for defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, center Rodney Hudson, tight end Jordan Cameron and a top receiver who doesn't get franchised.
The biggest spenders in free agency usually don't succeed. Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent more than $143 million on unrestricted free-agent contracts and ended up at the top of the draft after a 2-14 season.
But it's not out of the question that the right deals could move the rebuilding processes in Jacksonville and Oakland up by a year or two. Last year, both franchises appeared to make the right moves with the quarterbacks they drafted. The Raiders are optimistic about Derek Carr. Jacksonville's Blake Bortles struggled through his first season because he was asked to pass too much, but he has the look of a quarterback with a great future.
If the teams can surround their young quarterbacks with good talent, their records might improve. But they have to get it right. One of the reasons both teams are so far under the minimum spend level is that they don't have enough good, young players on the roster who are deserving of contract extensions. Under the current rules, a team can't give a draft choice an extension until his fourth year. The Raiders and Jaguars can't talk about extensions with Carr and Bortles until 2017, which doesn't help for the current minimum spend period.
With quarterbacks making between $16 million and $22 million a year, teams with franchise quarterbacks have little problem hitting the minimum spend. The Panthers, for example, underpaid the first two years, but they have to pay Cam Newton, so they won't have any problem catching up.
It might be surprising to see the Cowboys and Redskins on the list, but that can be attributed in part to the salary-cap penalties they were given for revamping contracts in the uncapped year of 2010. Dallas lost $10 million in cap space and Washington lost $36 million over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, which cut into their ability to spend in the first year of the minimum spend period.
Most of the teams under the 89 percent mark shouldn't have any problem reaching the minimum spend by 2016, but it could encourage them to be a little busier in free agency this year.
The stage is set for the Jaguars and Raiders to spend, spend, spend. Currently, the Raiders' cash payroll is at $78.7 million and the Jaguars' is at $86.4 million. Each team needs to spend $50 million to $65 million of additional cash to catch up to the rest of the league, which should make free agency fascinating.
From the inbox
Q: There's been all this back and forth about whether Adrian Peterson will be back with the Vikings. If the Vikings truly do want him back, and all this talk about wanting him back is legit and not just posturing, doesn't he have to play for them? He's under contract, and it's not like he can afford to sit out another year. Obviously you want to have a good relationship with your workhorse and future Hall of Famer, but at some point don't they just need to say, "We want you here and you will be here," and trust Zimmer enough to handle his players?
Adam in Spicer, Minnesota
A: The Vikings started the process at the scouting combine by saying the organization wants him back. What's needed is putting Mike Zimmer in a room with Peterson to try to make him feel comfortable about staying with the Vikings. You can understand Peterson was emotionally hurt last year. The Vikings didn't seem to have his back. Sure, they negotiated a deal in which Peterson lost no money, but the Vikings didn't push to get him back on the field after his case was resolved. The two things the Vikings probably can't do are make ultimatums or try to get him to take a pay cut. If they say, "You will be here," he could push for a trade. If they ask him to take a pay cut, he could say no. Peterson is smart and will be open to friendly conversations.
Q: What is so special about Jameis Winston? I do not see anything special. What I do see is a headache for whatever team decides to draft him. He has not been punished severely for any of his transgressions. Florida State whitewashed all of his problems to chase national championships. The ACC did not punish him for shoving a referee in the Boston College game, and neither did the NCAA.
Russell in Irvine, California
A: At the combine, Winston did apologize for his off-the-field mistakes. While that might not be enough, it's a start. What the Buccaneers are looking at is a talented quarterback with a strong arm and a great ability to grasp offenses. The Bucs would be giving him a fresh start if they make him the first pick in the draft. It's a quarterback-driven league. To win, teams need to take chances on quarterbacks. I get the feeling Lovie Smith is willing to take that chance.
Q: Given that there are not enough good QBs to go around. Should a losing team without a quarterback consider building a running offense? If I were Jacksonville (I'm over Blake Bortles) or Cleveland with a streak of terrible losing seasons I'd consider snagging Tim Tebow out of retirement or drafting a running QB and having a run offense perhaps similar to some college offenses. Having a passing offense with a bad QB is worse than having a running offense with a QB who can't throw right. This running offense may be difficult for defenses to adjust to (as it's out of the norm), resulting in more winning. If this theoretical franchise gets a shot at an Andrew Luck, it can scrap the offense overnight. In the meantime it should be more competitive.
From Skippy in Los Angeles
A: I do believe teams without good quarterbacks are planning to build around their running game and defense. You may have noticed that six of the seven new head coaches came from the defensive side of the ball. But going to just a running quarterback isn't the answer. A quarterback who can run but can't throw accurately will lose. And let's move on from the Tebow idea. He wasn't accurate enough as a quarterback to be a long-term success. You are on the right track thinking about managing a team until it can get a franchise quarterback.
Q: Is it more likely for free agents to stay within the same division when signing with a new team? I tried to do some quick research for stats to support this theory but came up empty. From just a blind observation it seems true, and I would think familiarity plays into that, but was just wondering your thoughts on this matter. Does the same apply for coaching staffs?
Charlie in Chicago
A: What you propose makes sense, but it is hard to support the idea with data. There is no question a new head coach might look to sign a couple of free agents from his most recent team. Let's see if Jack Del Rio pulls some former Denver players to the Raiders. It's also true that a team knows the skills of the other players in its division and might be more willing to sign them. The reason it is hard to quantify is some divisions have teams with limited cap room that might not have the ability to grab many free agents. Plus, free agents will go to where the money is as opposed to just staying in a division.
Q: Why don't tailback-needy teams try to offer middle-round picks for other teams' starting-caliber backup running backs? Do we, the average fans, just not hear about these potential deals, or do teams just prefer the draft?
Jordan in Las Vegas
A: Since 2011, it's more important for teams to keep draft choices and develop them as future starters. Last year, for example, no player netted better than a fourth-round choice in a trade. So when you talk about a middle-round choice, you are talking more about a fifth- or sixth-rounder in a trade for a running back. Under those circumstances, teams with an extra running back or two may be more inclined to keep the back rather than give him up in a trade. It's hard to keep a running back healthy for 16 games. Teams prefer the draft, but they also need to keep depth.
Q: Given that the Broncos are unlikely to re-sign TE Julius Thomas, DT Terrance Knighton, safety Rahim Moore and OT Orlando Franklin, what are the chances of the Bears, with new head coach John Fox, going after any or all of them?
Tim in Denver
A: The only name of those four I could see the Bears going for is Moore. The Bears have Martellus Bennett at tight end, so they don't need Thomas, and they aren't going to pay more than $7 million a year for Knighton. The Bears are good enough at guard that they wouldn't have to pay for Franklin. Safety is a position of need, and the draft is thin on safeties. Moore might be the one option.