While most teams would naturally prefer to build through the draft, one of the quickest ways for teams to improve is through free agency. When push comes to shove, the money involved during free agency can scare away some General Managers. But at the end of the day, the best available players in free agency have all already proven that they can play at a high level in the NFL, which takes away a great deal of risk.
As usual, there will be several big-name players who get to test free agency in 2017. With that being said, these 15 teams will have the most salary cap space at their disposal this offseason.
15. Los Angeles Rams
2017 Salary Cap Space: $44,116,822
Thanks to their trade for Jared Goff last offseason, the Rams will be without a first round pick (and possibly a third round pick) in the 2017 NFL Draft. As a result, they are going to have to spend wisely during free agency.
The No. 1 priority for the Rams has to be setting aside enough money to sign All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald to a long-term contract extension sometime in the next 12 to 18 months. After that, their only in-house free agent that will command big money is cornerback Trumaine Johnson. But when it comes down to it, the Rams may be willing to let Johnson walk to ensure they have enough money to rebuild their roster on the offensive side of the ball.
14. Oakland Raiders
2017 Salary Cap Space: $44,599,820
The Raiders may have slightly over $44 million in cap space, but don’t expect them to be active players during free agency this offseason. The bulk of their cap space is going to be used over the next year to work out long-term extensions for quarterback Derek Carr, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers
2017 Salary Cap Space: $45,960,352
Despite their success on the field, the Steelers are projected to have quite a bit of cap space in 2017. That will all change, though, when the team locks up All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell. Brown is likely going to land a record-breaking contract this offseason, and Bell is expected to receive Pittsburgh’s franchise tag, which was valued at $11.5 million in 2016.
With their remaining cap space, we are expecting the Steelers to address their needs on the defensive side of the ball.
12. Detroit Lions
2017 Salary Cap Space: $46,488,543
The Lions were one of the biggest surprises of the 2016 NFL season. And with over $46 million in available salary cap space at their disposal this offseason, the 2017 season could be even better. Granted, a large portion of that money needs to be reserved for a long-term contract extension for quarterback Matthew Stafford (who had a career year in 2016). But they should still have plenty of cap space to address some of the weaker parts (defensive line, cornerback, linebacker, and offensive line) on their roster.
11. Cincinnati Bengals
2017 Salary Cap Space: $46,784,910
This offseason, the Bengals will be focused on rebounding from a disastrous 2016 season. And after assessing their roster, it is clear that Cincinnati is a far better team than their 6-9-1 record in 2016 would suggest.
Fortunately for the Bengals, they have their core group of players locked up through the 2017 season, which means that they can use their $46.7 million in cap space to aggressively pursue some of the best available players during free agency. If they are successful, the Bengals have a talented enough roster to compete in the AFC in 2017.
10. Indianapolis Colts
2017 Salary Cap Space: $59,562,149
Simply put, the Colts have done a terrible job in recent years of building a strong supporting cast for quarterback Andrew Luck. And while they won’t be able to build a Super Bowl caliber roster in one offseason, they do have the cap space to make several improvements to their roster over the next six months.
First and foremost, the Colts need to do a much better job of protecting Luck. After that, their defense could use a complete overhaul at every level.
9. Chicago Bears
2017 Salary Cap Space: $62,505,908
It’s no secret that the Bears are in the midst of a massive rebuilding project. They currently are projected to have just over $62.5 million in cap space, and will free up another $14 million when/if they officially decided to release quarterback Jay Cutler. And when it comes down to it, the Bears need to improve at literally every position other than running back (Jordan Howard is a rising star), interior offensive line (center Cody Whitehair and guards Josh Sitton and Kyle Long form a borderline elite trio), and linebacker (Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan are both Pro Bowl caliber players).
8. Carolina Panthers
2017 Salary Cap Space: $62,741,833
In 2015, the Panthers were nearly unbeatable. In 2016, they were a below-average football team. And one of the biggest reasons for their drastic drop-off was their head-scratching decision to remove their franchise tag and part ways with All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman.
The Panthers will face a similar situation this offseason with defensive tackle Kawann Short. However, this time we fully expect them to bite the bullet and sign their All-Pro defender to a long-term deal.
After sorting out Short’s contract situation, the Panthers desperately need to improve their offensive line and secondary. And with $62.7 million in cap space, they should be able to add multiple impact players during free agency.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars
2017 Salary Cap Space: $67,237,896
The Jaguars will once again have the cap space to be heavy spenders during the 2017 offseason. And they can add even more space ($8.5 million to be exact) if they decide against exercising offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum’s contract option. The Jags likely won’t make a decision on the future of quarterback Blake Bortles until next offseason, which leads us to believe that they will not hesitate to spend aggressively during free agency. If he hits the open market, don’t be surprised if the Jaguars throw a boatload of money at safety Eric Berry.
6. Washington Redskins
2017 Salary Cap Space: $67,298,581
Bottom line: The Redskins’s plans this offseason are going to revolve around what they choose to do with quarterback Kirk Cousins. There is a chance that they could use their franchise tag on the 28-year-old signal caller for the second year in a row (which would carry a fully guaranteed value of $23.94 million), but the more likely scenario is for the two sides to work out a long-term deal.
After they figure out the Cousins situation, the Redskins also have to make decisions on a handful of in-house free agents (mainly wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, and defensive end Chris Baker). With $67.3 million in cap space, the Redskins conceivably have enough money to bring all three back (in addition to Cousins), and add an impact player or two during free agency.
5. New England Patriots
2017 Salary Cap Space: $71,532,154
Seeing the Patriots with this much salary cap space has to be a scary sight for the 31 other franchises around the league. They already have guys like Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Devin McCourty under contract, and only a handful of free agents that need to be re-signed.
We are expecting them to lock up in-house free agents such as tight end Martellus Bennett, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, running back LeGarrette Blount, and cornerback Logan Ryan. From there, the Pats will have the cap space to add multiple impact players during free agency.
4. Tennessee Titans
2017 Salary Cap Space: $74,179,270
This coming offseason has the potential to be a complete game-changer for the Titans. They already have one of the premier rushing attacks in the league, a potential franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota, and a defense that is close to being playoff caliber. With Mariota still two or three years away from landing a contract extension, the Titans can use the bulk of their $74.2 million in cap space during free agency to add a couple of explosive pass-catchers and strengthen up their defense. With a strong offseason, the Titans could very well be in the playoff mix in 2017.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2017 Salary Cap Space: $84,325,850
The Buccaneers are a young team that could be on the verge of something special. After years of searching for a franchise quarterback, the Bucs appear to have found their guy in Jameis Winston. And the 23-year-old signal caller has a pair of excellent targets in wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate. On the other side of the ball, Tampa Bay has a handful of talented young players led by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.
The Bucs have at least two years before they’ll have to give either Winston or Evans a long-term contract extension, which means that they will be able to spend the bulk of their $84.3 million in cap space during free agency this offseason (if they so choose).
2. San Francisco 49ers
2017 Salary Cap Space: $87,635,939
It’s hard to believe how far the 49ers have fallen in the last couple of years. In February of 2013, they were playing in Super Bowl XLVII (which they lost to the Baltimore Ravens), and now they are one of the two biggest laughingstocks in the National Football League. Luckily, their rebuilding project, which will be guided by their third head coach in three seasons and a new General Manager, will be aided by the fact that they are currently projected to have $87.6 million in cap space in 2017. And when they officially part ways with controversial quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the Niners will free up another $14.4 million in cap space for the coming offseason. Expect to see the 49ers throw big money at several players during free agency.
1. Cleveland Browns
2017 Salary Cap Space: $107,880,589
It should really come as no surprise that the Browns are projected to have by far the most salary cap space in the league in 2017. They fielded one of the worst teams in NFL history in 2016, and as of now they only have a handful of impact players under contract for next year.
We are expecting the Browns to kick off the offseason by throwing big money at wide receiver Terrelle Pryor and linebacker Jamie Collins, who are both in-house free agents. From there, the Browns will likely target several players during free agency, but don’t expect them to severely overpay for anybody. Cleveland’s current front office has made it clear that the Browns intend to build their roster through the Draft.