2012 NFL Free Agency: What can the Buccaneers do with $48.3 million in cap space?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have $44.3 million in cap space right now. PFT reported yesterday that the Bucs had $42.7 million in cap space, and the team can add $1.6 million to that number because of salary cap infractions by the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, which saw cap space redistributed across the league. And the team might be able to add an additional $3,925,000 to that by cutting Jeff Faine, which seems increasingly likely. If they do that, the Bucs will have about $48.3 million in cap space. Which is a lot.

Wait, so what happened to the earlier reported $67 million in cap space the Bucs supposedly had? Contracts did. The Bucs signed four players to restricted free agent tenders, hit Connor Barth with a franchise tag and saw a number of players hit certain requirements, triggering salary escalators - which ate up a lot of cap space pretty quickly.

Now that we know why the Bucs' cap number is what it is, how could the team spend that money? I'd advise reading DraftPhantom's excellent piece on salary cap space, which gives a somewhat negative view of the amount of cap space the Bucs have to actually spend. I'm a little more positive on how much they could actually spend, for a number of reasons. Hit the jump to find out the details.

There are three reasons why I'm more optimistic on how much the Bucs could spend this season, and the next. The first is the amount of cap space the team has available in 2013. While the team will likely have some $48.3 million in cap space this season, they currently have just $75 million committed to the 2013 salary cap. Subtract Jeff Faine's $9 million 2013 cap figure, and you're left with just $66 million in cap space committed to 2013. With a $120.6 million salary cap this season, let's assume the league will have a similar cap number in 2013. That would leave the Bucs with $54 million in cap space in 2013. While the team will need to eat into that to get to a 53-man roster, it's clear that the 2013 cap number should not be a huge obstacle in pursuing free agents this season.

The second reason is the likely salary cap in 2014 and beyond, which will be much higher than it currently is. That's when the NFL's new TV deals will go into effect. The NFL currently receives some $1.93 billion annually from CBS, Fox and NBC. In 2014, that number jumps to $3.1 billion - a massive increase. Overall, the total media income could jump from $4.3 billion per year now, to some $7 billion per year. All those numbers come from USA Today. Since the salary cap is based on income from deals such as this, you can expect a major jump in the salary cap in 2014 and beyond.

A third reason why the Bucs could spend liberally this offseason: they frontload contracts and tend to make it easy to get out of future contracts. This is something I talked about last season, when the Bucs handed big contracts to Quincy Black and Davin Joseph with no signing bonuses. This essentially means that the Bucs can cut disappointing free agents after two or three years (depending on the exact size of the deal and guarantee) without big cap implications. That's also why those contract numbers look so big: if players don't perform, they will miss out on most of that money.

So, the Bucs have a lot of cap space in 2012 and in 2013, the salary cap will go up significantly in 2014, and the team tries to structure contracts in a way to alleviate cap hits in later years. That's an excellent combination to spend on a couple of big free agents.

So, who could the Bucs actually target?

The team has a lot of different needs, and while they have plenty of room, they cannot sign premium free agents at every position. The Bucs must add a cornerback, a linebacker, a guard (assuming they cut Jeff Faine), a third-down back and preferably a number one receiver. Looking at the depth at each position, the available players, and the Bucs' needs there are two positions where they could immediately sign premium free agents, while reinforcing the team with second-tier free agents at other positions.

Those two positions are cornerback and receiver, and Vincent Jackson and Cortland Finnegan have been repeatedly linked to the Bucs as their top targets in free agency. The team could quite comfortably afford to sign both to expensive long-term contracts. Paying those two players $22 million per year combined in both 2012 and 2013 would fit easily under the Bucs' salary cap, leaving some $24 million in 2012 and an unknown amount in 2013.

Why would the Bucs sign those players, and not, say, Curtis Lofton, LaRon Landry or Carl Nicks? Mostly because linebackers, safeties and guards are relatively easy to find for much smaller amounts of money. While those players would all represent an upgrade, it's easy to find competent (but not star) players at each of those positions for small amounts. The same cannot be said for receivers and cornerbacks, where finding a true number one receiver or a versatile cornerback costs a premium contract.

Signing second-tier free agents at linebacker, guard, and linebacker should be fairly easy. For instance, David Hawthorne could step right in at middle linebacker or one of the outside linebacker positions, while he should come relatively cheaply. Similarly, Reggie Nelson or O.J. Atogwe could be added to the team at safety, while their per-year salary figures should not exceed $5 million. Any of the second-tier guards should come in at less than that, while the Bucs could sign a third-down back for at most $3 million per year. All of those are very manageable numbers.

Let's not forget that the draft has yet to happen, and the Bucs will undoubtedly try to fill a number of positions in the draft. Which positions they'll try to fill will be determined by the needs they can address in free agency. Any prominent needs still to be filled after free agency will undoubtedly see some draft-day attention.

Free agency starts tomorrow, and the Bucs have the cap space to spend on a number of quality free agents. Starting at 4PM tomorrow, we'll see which free agents will want to come to Tampa - and which free agents the Bucs are actually interested in.

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