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Why major cap space doesn't always yield improvement

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Clayton: Cap room not necessarily a benefit (1:17)

ESPN NFL senior writer John Clayton explains why excess cap room heading into free agency doesn't also equate to success but lists a few recent teams that have been able to capitalize. (1:17)

Being salary-cap rich usually points to the poor state of a football franchise.

Since the new collective bargaining agreement was implemented in 2011, teams with the most salary-cap room often don't make significant gains in the standings. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have ranked in the top five for salary-cap room in five of the past six years. The Cleveland Browns have been in the top five four times.

The Jaguars have been 19-61 and the Bucs and Browns have been 23-57 during that stretch. Money doesn't always buy success, proving the long existing reality that NFL teams can't buy championships.

Sure, there are success stories. Jim Harbaugh took over the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. They ranked fifth in cap room that year with $30.05 million available heading into the month of August. After the lockout, the 49ers made three smart signings -- cornerback Carlos Rogers, safety Donte Whitner and center Jonathan Goodwin. All three played well enough to earn Pro Bowl or Pro Bowl alternate honors.

Last season, the New York Jets improved to 10-6 by taking advantage of being fourth in salary-cap room. Starting with $51.95 million of cap room, the Jets upgraded the secondary with Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist, and they helped the offense with the additions of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall and James Carpenter.

Of course, the Jets' roster wasn't horrible. Rex Ryan, before losing his job, had the Jets' defense ranked sixth in fewest yards allowed in 2014. General manager Mike Maccagnan went for the short-term fix by adding older players to give first-year coach Todd Bowles a chance at making the playoffs.

Denver Broncos GM John Elway rolled over $27.8 million of his 2011 cap into 2012 and had $45.9 million of cap room, third best in the league. He spent $19 million a year to get Peyton Manning, setting up a four-year run in which the Broncos went to the Super Bowl twice. Manning was the only expensive acquisition that year, but he was worth it. He elevated the Broncos into the 13-win range.

What's clear, though, is that teams can't go from the bottom of the league to the top just because they have plenty of cap room. The smart GMs and owners acknowledge teams are built through the draft.

Look at the Jaguars. Their most successful signings since 2011 were linebacker Paul Posluszny and guard Zane Beadles. The list of free-agent failures include Clint Session, Jason Spitz, Dawan Landry, Laurent Robinson, Chad Henne, Aaron Ross, Ziggy Hood, Dekoda Watson and Red Bryant. None could change the Jaguars' on-the-field fortunes.

Draft failures in the days before GM Dave Caldwell, who joined the Jaguars in 2013, put the team in an even tougher position. The drafts prior to 2013 didn't give Caldwell many choices to sign to second contracts. Without many re-signings, a team can't eat up cap room or build a core, and, as result, the team is forced to go into free agency because there is so much unspent cap dollars.

The Jaguars invested $146 million of contracts last year for six players. By the end of the season, the Jaguars still had $32 million of cap room to roll into 2016. They enter this offseason with the most cap space in the league, approximately $73 million. (Cap space isn't official until the league begins its new year on March 9, so these numbers are estimates. The cap is projected to be approximately $155 million.)

They went from being a three-win team to winning five games, but their progress can be attributed to drafting quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receiver Allen Robinson, as well as hitting on undrafted wide receiver Allen Hurns.

This year, the Jaguars, Oakland Raiders ($73 million), Chicago Bears ($59 million) and New York Giants ($58 million) sit atop the list of the teams with the most cap room because there aren't many draft choices worth getting second contracts. Fortunately, each team has a quarterback. Eli Manning has two Super Bowl titles. Jay Cutler convinced John Fox he's worth keeping. Bortles and Derek Carr show the potential of being future stars.

Each team has the luxury of getting four to six starters out of free agency to build around the quarterbacks and fix up the defenses. But if these teams don't draft well, they will be back in the top five for cap room years from now.

The key to being in the top five of cap room is having the right plan. In 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals had the most cap room at $41.9 million. They rolled over $10.4 million of cap room into 2012 and entered that offseason at No. 2 at $48.3 million.

The Bengals had a plan. They drafted well in getting players such as Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. They never spent big on free agency. In the three years they were in the top five from 2011 to 2013, their most expensive free agent was cornerback Nate Clements in 2011 at two years, $10.5 million.

Their plan was to draft well and use the cap room on their own players. As a result, the Bengals have been in the playoffs for five consecutive years.

The Indianapolis Colts were in the top five in 2013 and 2014 because they drafted Andrew Luck, whose rookie contract was relatively inexpensive. GM Ryan Grigson hit free agency hard in 2013 to get his 11-win team over the top. Unfortunately, they had more free-agent failures than successes.

Though the Colts made it to the AFC Championship Game in 2014, a string of draft failures caught up to them, and they missed the playoffs in 2015.

It's great to have the cap room to venture into free agency, but it's better to have players on the roster who merit contract extensions. Cap room is better spent for guys who are in a team's meeting room.