0 of 6
AJ Mast/Associated Press
The NFL arms race known as free agency should create more fireworks this offseason thanks to a combination of big names and teams with an abundance of cap space.
As it stands now, some of the teams with the most cap space project as massive spenders on the open market. Whether it is a franchise rebuilding from the ground up and willing to overpay to pad out its foundation or a contender looking to woo elite players, the teams ready to make big additions likely have checkbooks at the ready.
The impressiveness of the free-agent class encourages the impending bidding wars too. Top-market guys like DeMarcus Lawrence, Earl Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu, Jadeveon Clowney and more mean another round of gigantic contracts pushing the boundaries of positional spending and possibly reshaping the league’s balance.
Below are the teams that both have the most money to spend and are the likeliest to spend. Teams that have lots of cash but are tied up in needing to re-sign their own won’t be considered as likely big spenders willing to throw their weight around on the market in search of new additions.
1 of 6
D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press
Cap Space: $63.8 million
The San Francisco 49ers are in an interesting place heading into the offseason.
On paper, they already have a franchise quarterback locked down with Jimmy Garoppolo. Their top four salaries in terms of cap hit are all premium, critical positions with Garoppolo, left tackle Joe Staley, cornerback Richard Sherman and pass-rusher Arik Armstead.
The 49ers don’t have much in the way of players they must retain before heading to the open market with droves of free cap space, so the front office could use the cap wiggle room to address some serious needs while freeing up the team to take a best-player-available approach in the top five of the upcoming draft.
Free agents who can create pressure, for example, could be a target after the team generated just 37 sacks last year. Lawrence, Clowney, Ezekiel Ansah, Brandon Graham, Frank Clark and Dee Ford are some of the major names in play.
Surrounding Garoppolo with more talent at the skill positions could be a priority as well after a tight end, George Kittle, led the team in receiving last year. Wideout is especially deep with Donte Moncrief, Golden Tate, Adam Humphries and Tyrell Williams on their way to market.
No matter what the 49ers decide to do, the large amount of cap space should keep them competitive in any bidding war they enter—and it could be more than one.
2 of 6
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Cap Space: $69.8 million
With the focus on where the Oakland Raiders might play next season headlining affairs, it can be easy to forget the regime has a goldmine of free space to work with this offseason.
And with coach Jon Gruden at the helm and throwing down surprises like the Khalil Mack trade, the sense anything can happen is truly potent.
Granted, the Raiders likely have a few guys they would like to keep under team control, such as tight end Jared Cook. But for the most part, the Raiders figure to give the 49ers some competition in key areas.
Wideout is a big red flag on the roster, as Jordy Nelson, who turns 34 in May, is the team’s top player at the position. No matter how the franchise feels about Derek Carr under center, a top free-agency candidate like Golden Tate would provide a boon for the offense in the interim.
After trading away Mack, the Raiders struggled their way to 13 sacks…in 16 games. Impressively bad, really, and while the team could use the fourth pick to help in this area, one name isn’t going to be enough to fix this issue unless they stumble upon Mack 2.0.
Again, Gruden running things means it could get wild, too. With so much space and so many needs, the team throwing a massive one-year deal at someone like Earl Thomas isn’t out of the question. While they might not rank first here, odds seem strong the Raiders will be the most entertaining team in free agency.
3 of 6
Steven Senne/Associated Press
Cap Space: $78.6 million
Cap space or not, the Buffalo Bills have it rougher than most in free agency this offseason.
These Bills are stuck in a big rebuild and don’t have the most appealing locale to sell players on—not to mention the division itself, where a guy named Tom Brady just reeled in another Lombardi Trophy.
As it stands now, Buffalo’s three highest cap hits next season are defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, defensive end Jerry Hughes and running back LeSean McCoy. That combination of age and mostly non-premium status speaks to the troubles in Buffalo quite well. The front office, at least, doesn’t have to look too hard at its own impending free agents.
But the Bills seem to need a little bit of everything, starting in the trenches. Center and the edges of the offensive line seem like problems, and generating pressure (notice a trend with low-pressure teams and cap space?) on defense is a priority. It’s never a great free-agent class for offensive tackles anymore, and those aforementioned edge-rushers are going to be costly, if not overpaid.
Elsewhere, the Bills should want to kick things into overdrive when it comes to surrounding quarterback Josh Allen with talent at the skill positions. This could mean going after a player like Golden Tate or taking a one-year risk on an asset like tight end Tyler Eifert.
Luckily for the Bills, they have enough space to attack multiple items and, should they so choose, emerge as one of free agency’s big winners. If done correctly, it could accelerate the rebuild in a hurry.
4 of 6
Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Cap Space: $79 million
It’s only fitting a team coming off a Hard Knocks appearance, the Hue Jackson saga and starting Baker Mayfield under center would make a few splashes in free agency, right?
On one hand, the Cleveland Browns seem to have enough in the way of draft assets they wouldn’t need to entertain the idea of bidding wars in free agency. But on the other, there isn’t much of a reason to sit on top-three cap space with talent heading to market and not too much to worry about in terms of their own free agents.
Of course, the Browns made their big splash last offseason with the trade for Jarvis Landry. This time, they might not involve other teams though, as some of their needs happen to be positions with plenty of depth in free agency.
Think, defensive line. Ndamukong Suh, Allen Bailey and others headline a deep class there. Wideout, which has been touched on a few times now, has intriguing options like Tyrell Williams.
But thinking bigger, it all comes back to pressure. Cleveland generated 37 sacks a year ago, but 13.5 of those came from Myles Garrett. The Browns could consider it wise to go all out on someone like Dee Ford, opening up the possibilities with a top-20 pick on draft day.
And with the money Cleveland has available, it can pretty much have whatever free agent it wants, provided the player is willing to come to town.
5 of 6
Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Cap Space: $95 million
On paper, the New York Jets are in one of the most coveted positions of all. Quarterback Sam Darnold, still on his rookie deal, gives the Jets plenty of cap freedom to go out and build a contending roster around him for a few years.
And this year’s free-agent class is a good place to start.
General manager Mike Maccagnan seems to know as much. When discussing the Jets offense, he told ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini, “With the maturation of Sam [Darnold], it’s definitely an area we’re going to focus a lot of our attention in the offseason.”
Granted, the Jets have almost 40 names heading to free agency. They figure to want back contributors like cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive lineman Henry Anderson, but it shouldn’t put too much of a dent in cap space considering they’re flirting with the $100 million mark.
One of the most blatant big splashes the Jets could make is going after an offensive superstar like running back Le’Veon Bell to assist Darnold. If Bell wants to play in New York, almost no team can match them in the financial department.
But the help for Darnold doesn’t have to be limited to his side of the football. Coming off a season in which they ranked 29th in scoring defense with 27.6 points allowed per game, the Jets might end up breaking the bank on a disruptor like Frank Clark or even gunning for a high-profile secondary member like Earl Thomas to go along with Jamal Adams.
For the Jets, money isn’t a limiting factor, and some of the bigger splashes, if done well, could fuel a quick return to prominence.
6 of 6
AJ Mast/Associated Press
Cap Space: $107.6 million
The Indianapolis Colts have something the other teams on this list don’t have: a bona fide superstar quarterback.
Really, no other team has this absurd amount of cap space, either.
Andrew Luck, a ton of cash and a playoff appearance last season translates into a positive outlook for the Colts this offseason, to say the least.
Outside of these factors is the fact the Colts could use a little bit of everything. Le’Veon Bell would look good in the attack. He’s a luxury item, maybe, but a potent one. Wideouts like Golden Tate could complement T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron well.
Defensively, an interior disruptor like Grady Jarrett could change the unit. Versatile defensive players like Trey Flowers or Za’Darius Smith would give offensive coordinators nightmares. Even a defensive back like safety Landon Collins instantly patches a hole in what was already a playoff team.
Few teams can afford the luxury of grabbing multiple guaranteed starters in free agency, not to mention picking from the best of the very best. The only thing stopping the Colts from winning free agency is themselves.
Salary cap info courtesy of Spotrac.