Where Will the Top 2014 Free Agent’s Land?

The start of NFL free agency is just over two weeks away.  On March 11th, all unrestricted free agents will be able to ink deals with the team of their choice.

But of course a team cannot sign a player unless they have the available salary cap space. So which teams will be the biggest spenders in 2014 free agency?

TeamAvailable Cap Space Cap Space Required to Sign Rookie ClassEffective Cap Space 

Note:  Chart assumes Tony Gonzalez will retire (he recently signed a deal to join CBS’s pre-game show).

Above I have included the Effective Cap Space of all 32 teams.  Since each team will be required to remain under the salary cap when they sign their newly drafted players to contracts, Effective Cap Space= (Current Available Salary Cap Space) – (Cap Space Required to Sign Incoming Rookie Class).

Obviously these numbers are not set in stone.  Not only will a team’s Year One Rookie Pool (the amount of salary cap space that each team will have to spend on their incoming rookies) change via the trading of draft picks and the awarding of compensatory picks, but there is also still time for teams to cut players.

For example, it’s likely that the Jets will cut or restructure the contracts of Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes and Mark Sanchez in the coming weeks. So while the Jets’ Effective Cap Space currently sits at $21.7 million, it is actually a lot more than that—cutting loose these 3 players would free up another $26 million in cap space.

The Jets are the most extreme example; not every team is going to free up cap space like this in the coming weeks (except for Dallas, whose current Effective Cap Space of -$22 million leaves them with no choice). However, there are other teams who can (and will) create cap space by making what they feel are smart football moves.

When dissecting the landing spots of the cream of the 2014 free agent class crop, other factors come into play as well. One major component is a team’s need to prepare for the future.  I’ll use the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks as an example.

Seattle’s current Effective Cap Space is now greater than $10 million with their recent release of Sidney Rice. They can free up 7.5 million more cap dollars by cutting the 32-year-old Chris Clemons, and another $5 million by releasing Zach Miller.  As neither Clemons nor Miller are major contributing pieces in Seattle, it’s possible (even probable) that they’ll be cut or forced to take a pay cut (cutting both would leave Seattle with around $22.5 million in Effective Cap Space.)

In theory, $22.5 million in cap space is more than enough to make a play for a top free agent. Yet the top free agent’s will be looking to strike multi-year deals with major guaranteed money—the type of deals that take up cap space not only in 2014 but in future years as well. Since the contracts of three of the Seahawks’ key contributors—QB Russell Wilson (signed through 2015), CB Richard Sherman (signed through 2014) and S Earl Thomas (signed through 2014)— are all set to expire, Seattle must take this into account when making their 2014 free agency decisions.  So even though Seattle will probably create the necessary cap space to sign some of 2014’s top free agents by making efficient roster moves, it’s unlikely that they’ll use this money on any top-tier free agent.

Lastly, remember that teams can use the franchise tag on any of their unrestricted free agent’s until March 3rd, meaning no player is officially on the open market until then.

Based on all of these factors, here are my projected destinations for the Top 10 Most Valuable 2014 Free Agents (ranked in descending order of how much money I believe each player would get if the franchise tag were not in play).

1) Jimmy Graham (TE, NO) Graham is the most talented UFA and would surely receive a king’s ransom if he were to hit the open market. But his situation is particularly interesting because of the franchise tag scenario.  If the Saints don’t lock him up by March 3rd, they’ll slap him with the franchise tag as a TE (projected to be around $7 million).  Graham’s camp (his agent is Jimmy Sexton of CAA) will then file a grievance to be tagged as a WR (which will net him around $12 million).

Prediction= Graham has made just $2.4 million in his first four years in the league, so he’ll want to sign a long-term deal where he’s financially secure for life. However, the Saints’ poor cap situation prevents them from giving him the money he’d make elsewhere. My guess is that if he wins his franchise tag grievance, he’ll take the $12 million for one season (about 6 times more than Graham has made in his first four years). A long-term deal won’t be reached under this scenario, and Graham will become a free agent again next year. But if Graham loses the grievance, the Saints will gain leverage in the talks and a long-term extension will be reached.

2) Brian Orakpo (OLB, WAS) A tremendous talent who’s been derailed by injuries in the past, Orakpo stayed healthy in 2013 and had an excellent year.  The Redskins have plenty of cap space and Dan Synder won’t be afraid to use it all.

Prediction=Regardless of whether or not he’s slapped with the franchise tag, I think Orakpo will ultimately sign a long-term deal to stay in Washington.

3) Greg Hardy (DE, CAR) Unfortunately for Carolina, they failed to resign Hardy to an extension when they had the chance last year.  It’s now probably too late. Franchising him is a possibility, but with Cam Newton in line to get a monster new contract (his deal expires after 2014), the financials simply don’t work out for Carolina.

Prediction= A Drew Rosenhaus client, I see Hardy following the money and landing in either JAX or OAK (both utilize a 4-3 defense).

4) Eric Decker (WR, DEN) The top free agent WR on the market, Decker should hit it big.

Prediction= I previously predicted that Decker would take his talents to Cleveland. My guess is that he’ll end up as either a Brown or a Jet.

5) Michael Johnson (DE, CIN) Franchise tagged by the Bengals last year, Johnson will hit the open market this year.  He turned just 27 earlier this month, and could collect $10 million annually as a UFA.

Prediction= The Falcons have some cap room to play with, and would clear up $3.5 million more by cutting Osi Umenyiora.  I could definitely see Johnson taking Osi’s place.

6) Jairus Byrd (S, BUF) Also slapped with the franchise tag last year, the Bills are reportedly willing to franchise him again.

Prediction= Whether or not Byrd is franchised, I ultimately see him signing a long-term deal with Buffalo.

7 & 8) T.J. Ward (S, CLE) & Alex Mack (C, CLE) As I’ve stated before, I don’t see the Browns letting either guy walk.

Prediction= Ultimately, I think one will be franchised (more likely Ward), but I see both guys signing long-term deals to stay in Cleveland.

9) Jason Worilds (OLB, PIT) Worilds had his most productive year in his contract year. Pittsburgh would surely like to keep them, but their cap situation won’t allow for it.

Prediction= Philadelphia not only has a legitimate amount of available cap space, but they could create more in the coming days.  LB Demeco Ryans would save them $6,900,000 (with no dead money) if he were released.  The Eagles would save $4,075,000 (also with no dead money) by cutting TE Brent Celek loose, and $3,250,000 with the release of WR Jason Avant. I see Philly using this money to sign Worilds, who’d be a nice fit in their new 3-4 scheme.

10) Dennis Pitta (TE, BAL) Pitta’s situation is similar to TE Jimmy Graham’s in that he’ll also attempt to be designated as a WR for franchise tag purposes. But Baltimore’s cap situation is much better than NO’s (and Pitta is an inferior talent to Graham).

Prediction= Whether or not Pitta is tagged, I think the sides will eventually agree to a long-term deal.

Andrew Cohen