The NFL’s free agency market is set to open on Tuesday, and the buzz is really heating up.
With a salary cap of $133 million this offseason, plenty of teams will have the money and resources to go out and find top tier talent to complement what they already have.
Some teams will take this opportunity to procure what they need in order to forge ahead, and win now. For others, it’s a chance to rebuild from scratch.
Teams should still be smart about who they sign—for how much, and for how long these players are signed. It won’t be worth it for any team to sacrifice tomorrow’s cap space for what they’re looking for today.
Here’s a list of five teams that must think twice before doing just that when targeting potential free agents.
1. Oakland Raiders (cap room: $64.9 Million)
The $64.9 million in cap space would be a dream to any general manager, but it can also be a curse, especially with a franchise like Oakland which has gone through a prolonged post-season drought.
Part of the reason that Oakland has so much cap room is because of the woeful lack of talent they have had on their roster for the last two seasons. Oakland has spent those years attempting to build through the draft, while slowly letting veteran talent go.
As we’ve learned in the past (the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles and 2013 Miami Dolphins come to mind), this isn’t the best way to build a team, and could leave a franchise financially crippled two or three years down the road. Oakland’s best bet should be to spend the money retaining the talent they already have (left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston), than spend the money wisely by going after either cheap but young players with plenty to prove, or veterans looking for one-year “make-good” deals.
If I was in the Raiders front office and decided to splurge, I might sign a free agent quarterback like Chad Henne, Josh McCown, or Michael Vick to a one-year deal while grooming my quarterback of the future.
Other than that, I wouldn’t overdo it. Building through the draft is usually the best option.
2. Indianapolis Colts (cap room: $42.5 Million)
The following are the only quality offseason moves from the Colts since Ryan Grigson stepped in as GM just two seasons ago:
1. The majority of their 2012 draft class
2. Re-signing Reggie Wayne
There’s not a whole lot to like from the Colts’ decision makers, as the team seems to be awash in unproductive draft picks, free agent busts, and one horrendously awful trade that will leave them without a first-round draft pick in 2014 (this after the Vontae Davis trade, which left them without a 2013 second-rounder).
Because they lack a first-round pick, they won’t be able to address any of their main needs early (How much would Andrew Luck have loved to have Zack Martin as his left guard?), so they basically are forced to use their cap room to shore up their offensive line.
The good news is they shouldn’t have to overspend. They do have one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL in Luck, as well as a good head coach in Chuck Pagano and an organization that has only missed the playoffs twice since 1999. Those are big points that veterans look at when they sign.
The problem is sacrificing the future in order to win today. The Colts had the ninth oldest team in the NFL at the start of last season (per USA Today). That average age likely won’t go down this season, and it certainly isn’t helped with the signing of D’Qwell Jackson to a four year, $22 million deal (per ESPN).
Should a quarterback turning 25 at the start of the season be surrounded by the ninth oldest team in the NFL? This almost assures the Colts of some lean times ahead as they attempt to get younger. Luck-ily for them, lean times will still be somewhere between 9-7 and 11-5 due to how bad the AFC South has been historically, as well as how good Luck truly is.
Be careful, Colts. Try to go young when signing free agents, and in future seasons, remember that the draft is your friend, and that you likely would’ve been better off waiting for Carlos Hyde or Tre Mason in this year’s draft, instead of dealing the pick for Trent Richardson.
In the last 10 years, the #Colts have just one top-20 pick, the least in the league. Baltimore and New England are next with two.
— Kyle J. Rodriguez (@ColtsAuth_Kyle) March 7, 2014
3. Minnesota Vikings (cap room: $40.9 Million)
The Vikings have the look of a team that thinks they’re much closer to contending for a Super Bowl than they actually are.
A year after going to the playoffs, they finished the season at 5-10-1. However, you get the feeling that five of those losses (and their one tie) could’ve been W’s for the Vikes if they only had the right quarterback.
The right quarterback isn’t someone they will find in free agency. If they want to win now, they will need to strengthen their defense back to their 2012-levels (something that can be done under new head coach Mike Zimmer) and draft a quarterback that can step in and play.
With the eighth pick in the draft, they might have a hard time finding said quarterback unless one fortuitously drops to them (or if they can pull off a blockbuster trade with St. Louis, owners of the 2nd pick), which would explain why some of their money might go towards one of the retread quarterbacks available.
I’d rather take my chances with the draft here and possibly trading up with the Rams. The good news for the Vikings is they likely won’t have to give up a package similar to Washington’s Robert Griffin III package (which is how the Rams wound up picking second this year to begin with), but it will have to at least include two second-rounders to go along with the eighth pick.
As for spending in free agency, Minnesota should tread carefully there. Their free agency track record is nothing to write home about, and some of that money in the future would be better served locking up some of their young talent when that time comes.
4. Miami Dolphins (cap room: $30.6 Million)
Miami is entering a make-or-break season and with a good amount of cap space to spend. They will be too tempted to use it, and run the risk of crippling the team down the road.
Such is the story of the Miami Dolphins for the second season in a row, but the good news is they are under new-ish management (no Jeff Ireland) that has already spent some cap space on retaining an important player in Brent Grimes (via ESPN) for the next four years for $32 million (with $16 million guaranteed and a cap hit of $4 million in 2014).
The bad news is that there’s nothing more predictable than the Dolphins having to break the bank in order to sign left tackle Eugene Monroe and retain one of their defensive tackles. The good news is Monroe is still young and can be a cornerstone for the Dolphins offense for years to come while protecting Ryan Tannehill’s blind side. The bad news is both defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks are on the other side of 30, yet will demand long-term deals.
Even after Miami does this (assuming that they do), they will still have more holes along the offensive line, at linebacker and at safety, and the draft might not be enough to fill said holes.
More likely than not, you will see Miami appear on countless lists, labeled as ‘losers’ after the free agency period winds down. It would be better if Miami could find a way to go cheaper and younger in tackling said needs, but since we are talking about the Miami Dolphins, the sensible blueprint is probably not the one they’ll employ.
5. New York Jets (cap Room: $23.3 Million)
The good news for the Jets is that we’re in year two of the post-Mike Tannenbaum-era, since you just know that Tannenbaum would spend those $23.3 million in the dumbest way humanly possible.
The bad news is the Jets are like the Vikings in the sense that they think they’re closer to a Super Bowl title than they really are.
They have a great defense in place (despite a suspect secondary), which means resources will be spent on offense.
And remember, Geno Smith is their quarterback, and at one point during last season he was replaced by Matt Simms. That should tell you that the Jets aren’t as close as they think.
The good news for the Jets is they have a smart general manager in tow with John Idzik, so I can’t see the Jets spending money stupidly this season. The focus will likely be on cheap but good offensive weapons, such as former Seahawk Golden Tate. I would probably even consider bringing Dustin Keller back with a one-year “make-good” contract, then find a relatively inexpensive quarterback that could start and do well on a team with a great defense and a good running game. In a weak AFC, that alone could help the Jets get back into the post-season in 2014, but the spending must be done intelligently.
Idzik should take a look at this offseason, and ask himself: “What wouldTannenbaum do?” And whatever that is, he needs to do the opposite, if the Jets want to continue rebuilding in the right direction.
All salary cap figures provided by Spotrac.com.
Thomas Galicia covers the NFL as a staff writer for The Sports Daily, while also covering the Miami Dolphins on Bleacher Report and Cover 32. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasGalicia.