Tampa Bay enters the 2015 off-season with major holes to fill. 2-14 will do that to you. To say that last year's signing didn't go according to plan would be an understatement. The Bucs made some terrible signings last season, chief among them Anthony Collins who was inactive at the tail end of the season. They did have some success with Alterarun Verner and to a lesser extent Clinton McDonald, but all in all last year's free agency was bad.
This comes on top of the inherited missteps from the Mark Dominik era. Dead money ended up on the roster when Carl Nicks was forced to retire due to injury, along with the Dashon Goldson’s outsized contract (especially for someone PFF graded next-to-dead-last in terms of safety play this last season) and an overpaid punter who finished near the bottom of the league statistically.
We need to build through the draft, as the best teams in the league do: Green Bay, New England, Cincinnati, Arizona. However even teams that are good making draft picks complement them with free agency and trade. Our poor prior free agency experience isn't a reason to stay away, it’s a loud call just to do it better. This may be Jason Licht’s second foray into free agency, but it's worth noting that it’ll be his first with his hand-picked choice Scott Cohen as director of pro scouting. Typically the director of pro scouting is responsible for scoring available NFL free agents (as well as scouting Arena and Canadian leagues). Previously this position was held by Shelton Quarles who was moved to the more administratively tasked position of director of football operations.
So the first thing you have to know in free agency is are you a buyer or a seller? This year Tampa is a buyer. We don’t yet know what the NFL salary cap will be in 2015 but it is expected to rise sharply, most insiders are estimating the salary cap next season to be around $142 Million. Going current players under contract Tampa ranks 8th in cap space, per Over The Cap.
Something else to remember: teams will need about 4.5 million (give or take, based on position and number of picks) to sign their rookie draft class. Below are the 10 teams with the most cap space as well as those "near the felt", based on SportsTrac’s accounting of players currently under contract by team for the 2015 season along with my projections for the cap and subtracting a "rookie hold". So who are the buyers and who are the sellers:
Now teams can and will make changes (releasing players, renegotiating deals etc.) It is worth noting I’ve also omitted New England from the sellers list as their recent change in Tom Brady’s contract dramatically affects their cap status.
Where to start? Why not with the baker's dozen of "Big Names".
27 y/o, 6’4", 305lbs, DT, Detroit Lions
He’s a tremendous run-stuffer and fantastic pocket-collapser on passing downs. Suh won’t be franchised by the Lions this season due to the escalation that would cause and Suh seems likely to hit free agency. He’s possibly the NFL’s best defensive tackle and clearly among its top 3 or 4. Eight sacks and 37 hurries this past season only back this point up. His repeated violations of the league's on-field conduct policy (for dirty play) is really the only mark against him. The big issue is that Suh is reportedly seeking a contract in the range of what J.J. Watt got from Houston (6 years, $100 million); that is more than a little bit of cash.
Contract Prediction: I’d estimate Suh actually tops Watt but with fewer guarantees in overall contract value. I’d say six seasons, $17.5 million per year in total value, $25 million up front and 3 years guaranteed.
26 y/o, 6’2", 215lbs, WR, Dallas Cowboys
54 career touchdowns and a long list of big plays, he is a bit of a dramatic personality but that won’t keep some team from breaking the bank if the Cowboys can’t work out a deal with Bryant. Based on reporting it's likely Bryant at least test the free agency waters as he and Jerry Jones seem far apart on numbers.
Contract Prediction: The Cowboys are calling their offers "nice"; he wants really nice and with Oakland loaded with cap space I could see Bryant breaking the bank. Five years, $15 million per with 3 years guaranteed seems to be the top end of his range for 75 million total. I could see a 6th year "team option" that never gets exercised for an additional 20 million added on top just so Dez can report a big number.
29 y/o, 5’11", 189lbs, CB, New England Patriots
Revis island is more of a memory these days than a reality, but he’s still one of the top 5 cornerbacks in the game today and that comes with a premium paycheck. The difficulty with Revis is he’s never been in the market for long term contracts and even his deal with the Patriots which includes a ridiculous team option for next season won’t be picked up. If I were his agent I’d urge him to make a long term guaranteed deal given that he’ll start the season on the wrong side of 30 but Revis likely works a short deal with either the Patriots or wherever Rex lands as Head Coach.
Contract Prediction : 2 years $24 million.
26 y/o, 6’0", 198lbs, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Maclin took a huge risk betting on himself with just a one-year contract after a torn ACL in 2013, but i'ts paid off. He’s not Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas in terms of elite #1 receivers, but he’s still a clear #1 WR and should demand plenty of attention from other teams. He’s an effective every-down, every-play, every-situation player who knows how to get open and pick up yards after catch. Someone is going to pay for that. An inflation-adjusted contract similar to what the Bucs gave Vincent Jackson would seem highly likely.
Contract Prediction: 5 years, $60 million with the first three guaranteed.
26 y/o, 6’5", 250lbs, TE, Denver Broncos
Thomas’s status is interdependent with Demaryius Thomas’s as well as that of fellow free-agent-to-be Chris Harris Jr. The difficulty for Julius is his previous health issues: quite often Thomas has been unavailable since he was originally drafted out of Portland State. He missed his rookie year entirely and played just 5 games the next season followed by 14 in his breakout year last season and just 13 this season. Despite all that he’s a one on one matchup nightmare for a defense and that is going to cost someone millions health issues aside.
Contract Prediction: Four years, $36 million with two years guaranteed and a team option for a fifth season.
26 y/o, 6’5", 278lbs, DE, NY Giants
Pierre-Paul has had an up-and-down career as well as an up-and-down season thus far with the NY Giants. Sack numbers are always shifting but one would expect consistent pressure and JPP hasn’t had it. Over the course of his career he has become a better run-defender since he came out of South Florida five seasons ago, on the other hand he’s also lost some of his explosiveness. The variance is troubling, he’s either wreaking havoc on the offense or virtually non-existent. Even despite this and some durability issues, he still is just 26 years old with tremendous physical gifts, so someone will cut him a paycheck.
Contract Prediction: Hard to say what someone will do with Pierre-Paul, he’s likely looking at two very different numbers: a high number on a shorter deal or a more reasonably priced one with longer term security. Long term deals should be in the six-million-per-year range. If he wants top pass rusher money a team may be tempted to try it for two seasons taking the risk.
24 y/o, 5’10", 195lbs, WR/KR, Green Bay Packers
Cobb is likely going to be allowed to test free agency by the Packers. The Packers do have some cap space but not oodles. Cobb's career average is right below 14 yards per catch and this past season was his top TD performance with 12 and he’s missed 11 of 64(17%) games in his career due to injury (though he has been healthy this season). Durability is a moderate level of concern with Cobb but unlike some other big play WRs (I’m looking at you Mike Wallace and DeSean Jackson), Cobb seems to be a bit more of a team player in each of his 4 seasons out of Kentucky.
Contract Prediction: Five seasons, $45 million with $15 million up front and 2.5 years guaranteed.
27 y/o, 6’5", 331lbs, OG, San Francisco 49ers
Iupati seems destined to test the free agent market, with the confusion currently in San Francisco he’s likely to be a headed elsewhere. The question is what should teams pay and why. Iupati has been lethal in run defense, as he’s an old-fashioned road grader who brings good mobility and a nasty streak to the field. His techniques as a pass blocker are quite raw however and he’s inconsistent at best. Whichever team signs Iupati, they are likely to regret the check they cut in a few seasons.
Contract Prediction: Based on reputation it's likely Iupati draws near top guard money despite the poor pass blocking. I’d say five seasons, $42 million.
26 y/o, 6’0", 217lbs, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Murray just finished 2014 with 1,845 total rushing yards; Ian Rapoport reported back in November that the Cowboys had offered a deal worth more than any free agent running back made in 2014. That’s actually not great money:Chris Johnson got the top deal in 2014 with $4 million. Murray is likely looking for a deal similar to Shady McCoy’s even though he doesn’t have McCoy’s durability or pass catching skills. Everyone is still reporting they think a deal gets done here, I’m not so sure Dallas doesn’t reach out to Minnesota for Adrian Peterson in the off-season.
Contract Prediction: 3 years, $20 million and an unhappy Murray in 2014.
26 y/o, 6’2", 245lbs, OLB, Buffalo Bills
Hughes had a subpar career in Indianapolis but has excelled in two seasons in Buffalo. He’s posted 20 sacks over the past two seasons and improved in terms of overall pursuit ability. He’s more valuable to Buffalo than most other teams though so that somewhat limits his upside. Given the shelf-life of a pass rusher Hughes still needs to maximize his value.
Contract Prediction: 5 years, $32 million.
Likely to be franchise tagged
25y/o, 6’3", 258lbs, OLB (3-4 Scheme), Kansas City Chiefs
22 Sacks? This man knows how to enter free agency with a bang. This season's results may be a little inflated but that’s after two back-to-back seasons with double-digit sacks after contributing 5 as a rookie. To go along with being a terrific pass rusher, Houston is actually above average at defending the run and not bad in pass coverage. He’s young, athletic and dangerous. The Chiefs have to be kicking themselves for not re-signing Houston last season. Outlook: He’s going to be franchise tagged, the tag will cost about $12 million, but this will place an even greater strain on the Chiefs' cap space.
27 y/o, 6’3", 222lbs, WR, Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning’s #1 target will stay put even if the Broncos have to tag him. Keep an eye on his contract status though, because if the Broncos are forced to tag Thomas for leverage on a long-term deal, another Thomas (Julius) is likely to be testing the market.
Wild Card Situation
26 y/o, 6’4", 272lbs, DE, Carolina Panthers
Hardy played only 1 game last season before ending up on the commissioner's exempt list. He earned $13,116,000 plus playoff bonuses due to his special status. A key factor in his contract situation will be his upcoming jury trial. If convicted in addition to whatever prison sentence he may receive (likely 30 days), he would almost certainly face a harsh suspension from the league. Even if he is acquitted nothing stops the league from imposing a suspension based on his earlier conviction below the superior court level (nuance in North Carolina law). His contract and pay will be entirely determined based on the length of that suspension.