NFL bettors would be wise to mark March 10th on their calendars, as Free Agency begins in the NFL. The league’s 32 clubs can apply Franchise Tags as early as February 16.
A month from now on March 10—at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT—the new year for Free Agency begins in the NFL and starting on that day, unrestricted Free Agents from the league’s 32 teams can sign with any other team. And despite it being just the second week in the Offseason for teams, all of them are definitely focusing on whom to put that valuable Franchise Tag on, so a decent number of NFL players presently listed as Free Agents who may be mentally being coveted by other teams right now will never really get to have their current perceived values in the Open Market tested after their current teams slap that ole Franchise Tag on them. And that’s what it’s there for. Anyway, here are eight NFL teams which may be affected the most by Free Agency and the players on their teams most valuable to them either staying the way they are or progressing as a team. Losing any of the players listed below would certainly be a detriment to that team unless equal or greater talent steps in, or is acquired to replace the Free Agent leaving. Teams can put Franchise (or Transition) Tags on players on February 16 and are allowed to start contacting Free Agents on March 7. All NFL teams need to be under the 2015 Salary Cap when the league officially begins its year at 4 p.m. ET on March 10.
The Baltimore Ravens path to Super Bowl XLIX was interrupted by the eventual new NFL champions, the New England Patriots, and Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh and The Tackling Edgar Allan Poes have a number of crucial players on the unrestricted Free Agent list, including NT Terrence Cody, RB Justin Forsett and TE Owen Daniels—but the two Big Guns the Ravens are really worried about losing are LB Pernell McPhee and WR Torrey Smith. One nice thing Baltimore has always had going for it of late—besides not being scared of playing anyone in the league—is its nice balance on Offense and Defense, and losing the 26-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch, 280-pound McPhee would be a big blow for that Defense. And losing Smith at WR could hurt the Ravens even more, as he and Steve Smith Sr. have given QB Joe Flacco one of the best receiving duos in the league to throw the football to both short and long. Playing in the rugged AFC North with the Steelers, Bengals and Browns, the Ravens (25/1 to win Super Bowl 50, Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook) definitely can’t afford to regress and really need to try to find a way to keep both McPhee and the perpetually underrated Torrey Smith, by Hook or by Crook.
The Buffalo Bills (50/1 NFL odds to win Super Bowl) showed signs of improvement in the 2014 NFL season, but to keep hold of that hopeful #2 slot in the AFC East, the Bills will have to deal with either resigning or losing some LBs—Brandon Spikes, Stevenson Sylvester, Larry Dean—but the two players Buffalo is probably worrying about keeping in camp the most are RB CJ Spiller and DE Jerry Hughes. Like the Ravens, Buffalo benefitted from balance and keeping the young and dynamic RB out of Clemson (Spiller) in this Offense (along with QB EJ Manuel and WR Sammy Watkins) as well as the 26-year-old defender who starred at TCU (Hughes), and, honestly, the Bills just can’t afford to lose either player from this young and evolving team which really has the potential to be pretty good in the future.
Like so many of the teams in this piece, the Dallas Cowboys (12/1 to win Super Bowl) have two big players scheduled to become Free Agents in the spring. But unlike some of the other teams, the potential price-tags to keep both WR Dez Bryant and RB Demarco Murray will probably have America’s Team flirting with a Salary Cap Code Red, potentially hampering any ability in the future to keep its improved OL and DL intact. Both Cowboys players are still pretty young and are coming off incredible statistical seasons, where Oklahoma-product Murray broke Emmitt Smith’s franchise Rushing record while Oklahoma State-product Bryant (88 receptions, 1,320 yards, 16 TDs) emerged as one of the Top 5 receivers in the league. Many people have opined that Dallas should put the Franchise Tag on RB Murray and reward WR Bryant with a long-term contract, but maybe doing just the opposite would actually be a better idea in the long run, although RBs having consistently long careers and productive back-to-back-to-back seasons by RBs in the NFL has become way too rare this millennium. No doubt eccentric Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones wants to somehow keep both Bryant and Murray and has possibly been ordering NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pizzas since Super Bowl XLIX ended. And I believe it was either Socrates or Bubby Brister who once said that “There is no better way to bribe a brother than with Cheese.” It’s all about The Cheddar and the invisible things Salary Caps and Agents end up doing to NFL football teams these crazy days.
Like the Ravens, the Denver Broncos (12/1 to win Super Bowl) have two receivers with the same last name whom they’d like, and really need to keep together. For Denver, that last name is Thomas, and it’s WR Demaryius Thomas (111 receptions, 1,619 yards, 11 TDs) and TE Julius Thomas (43 receptions, 489 yards, 12 TDs) that this contending team needs to try to somehow both lock down this offseason. And with veteran and future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning mulling coming back for another season in the Mile High City, the Broncos organization will likely do everything in its power to keep and improve Uncle Peyton’s list of receiving targets. Waterbug WR Wes Welker, S Quinton Carter and S Rahim Moore are also scheduled to become Free Agents, but besides the Two Not Doubting Thomases, Denver also needs to find a way to resign talented DT Terrance Knighton or run the risk of possibly losing him. In my mind, the smartest thing that the Broncos organization can do is to put the Franchise Tag on the 6-foot-3 inch, 229-pound Georgia Tech-product Demaryius Thomas at WR, fight to sign the 26-year-old Julius Thomas at TE and DT Knighton and somehow also try to retain the valuable possession WR Welker on the cheap. The Offseason will be a very busy and important one for the Denver Broncos and Head Coach Gary Kubiak and General Manager John Elway, and it probably starts with Manning saying he’s coming back for one more season. Without him, the 2015 season could be a very hollow one for the Broncos.
Maybe no team has its two big potential Free Agents at the same position (DT) like the Detroit Lions (25/1 to win Super Bowl) do. The Lions played incredible defense in 2014, thanks in great part to still somewhat young DTs Ndamukong Suh—who many think is the biggest potential name that may be in this year’s Free Agent marketplace—and Nick Fairley. The 27-year-old Suh made $12.6 million last year, but the University of Nebraska product has said that his goal is to become the highest-paid Defensive player in the NFL (Houston’s JJ Watt signed a 6-year, $100+ million contract last year, the current high for a defender in the league). This team has built its Future around the middle of its thick and nasty DL and losing either Suh or powerful Auburn-product Fairley would be a big blow. If the Lions do happen to lose either player, at least they would have a young and solid one at that position to build around. But as talented as he is, Suh should probably come with some kind of Warning Label as he has gained a reputation as a dirty player in the league and his presence could be cancerous to any future NFL clubhouses, although the Lions say he’s absolutely great in theirs and that his teammates love him. Quite often, the best in certain professions are absolutely Bat-Guano Crazy. Suh may be one of those.
Green Bay Packers
Probably the most valuable potential Free Agent in my mind—but then again I’m a huge fan of the former University of Kentucky QB—is Green Bay Packers WR Randall Cobb (2014 Salary: $812,648), who had the kind of season (91 receptions, 1,287 yards, 12 TDs) one dreams of having when playing in that much-ballyhooed Contract Year (the last year before a current contract expires). Along with dependable WR Jordy Nelson (98 receptions, 1,519 yards, 13 TDs), Green Bay and legendary QB Aaron Rodgers now have the best WR duo in the NFL and the Packers and Head Coach Mike McCarthy—who on Monday hinted at handing over the Offensive play-calling duties this coming season—need to do everything in their power—including maybe Bake Sales—to try to keep the 5-foot-1o-inch, 192-pound Cobb catching pigskins at Lambeau Field. Like Baltimore’s Torrey Smith, the 24-year-old Cobb may be a bit overshadowed by his WR partner and he has quickly emerged into one of the best—yes, one of the best—WRs in the NFL with his 2014 season really displaying his talents. Green Bay (7/1 to win Super Bowl) also has valuable OT Bryan Bulaga, DT BJ Raji, CB Tramon Williams, crowd favorite FB John Kuhn and backup QBs Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien up for possible Free Agency in March, but the biggest thing for the Packers will be finding a way to keep the productive, clutch and deceptively strong Cobb.
The Philadelphia Eagles (20/1 to win Super Bowl) need to figure out what they are going to at QB in 2015, where the now much-traveled Mark Sanchez could become a Free Agent, but this NFC East contender also really needs to try to lock up deep threat WR Jeremy Maclin and LB Brandon Graham. If Head Coach Chip Kelly can somehow solve his problem at QB, build around bullworker RB LeSean McCoy and somehow keep University of Missouri-product Maclin and Graham in the City of Brotherly Love, then this Eagles team can possibly win the NFC East and maybe even make it all the way to the NFC Championship game if everything goes right. Talons crossed.
San Francisco 49ers
The list of potential Free Agents for the San Francisco 49ers (25/1 to win Super Bowl) is very long and no doubt a number of now-Niners will be plying their wares elsewhere in the NFL this coming 2015 season—or maybe not even playing in the league anymore. QBs Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson; RBs Alfonso Smith and and Phillip Tanner; CBs Perrish Cox and Chris Cook; and, WRs Kassim Osgood and Brandon Lloyd sort of fit this bill and San Francisco’s roster may look very different in 2015 than it did in 2014. Three potential Free Agents that the 49ers seem to need to keep are WR Michael Crabtree, RB Frank Gore and LG Mike Iupati, the latter probably the player this team—which lost Head Coach Jim Harbaugh to his alma mater, the University of Michigan immediately after the Niners season ended—needs to either making signing a priority or pop the Franchise Tag on, though probably a remote possibility. Iupati may be that important to this San Francisco OL and some seemingly little other things like resigning WR Lloyd, starting CB Chris Culliver and even backup QB Gabbert may also end up ultimately being the difference for this team quickly becoming a contender again in the suddenly rough-and-tumble NFC West.
Some Other Teams
The NFC champion Seattle Seahawks (5/1 to win Super Bowl 50) have assembled one of the best defenses in NFL history, thanks in great part to its fearsome and athletic secondary. But one of those starters, 26-year-old Byron Maxwell is up for Free Agency and reportedly excited to test his value in the marketplace. So, Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll and the team will have a decision to make and Seattle has to try to keep some Cap Room open for next season (2016) when LB Bobby Wagner becomes a Free Agent. And although not really a Free Agent problem but more of a contractual one, the 2013 Super Bowl champs also may have a potential issue brewing with mercurial star RB Marshawn Lynch—who has already reportedly been offered $10 million to stay in the Emerald City next season—rumbling about sitting out next season in hopes of attracting that Life-changing Payday. But Logic dictates that this current posture from Lynch is just the 28-year-old University of California product’s semi-unique way of trying to get as much money out of a team which Lynch would really probably prefer to stay with in The Football Future and maybe forever.
Another very underrated player whose team, the Kansas City Chiefs (30/1 to win super Bowl), would be very wise to either sign to a big, long-term contract or slap that oft-dreaded Franchise Tag on in February is 25-year-old OLB Justin Houston (2014 salary: $1.4 million). And that also might be a good idea for the New York Giants (30/1 to win Super Bowl) to think about doing with DE Jason Pierre-Paul (2014 Salary: $3.16 million). The fading G-Men really need the electric Pierre-Paul—whose rookie contract was voided by the team on on Friday—to lead the Defense, but if not offered the proper salary and a nice, long-term deal, the 6-foot-5-inch, 278-pound University of South Florida product may choose to bolt for proverbial Greener Pastures and a potential better chance at playing some postseason football. It’s not always about The Money with all of these guys, but Giants General Manager Jerry Reese could very well decide to sign Pierre-Paul to that aforementioned, lucrative, long-term deal in the coming three-day window teams have to sign players before the new league year begins on March 10. And with just $16 million in Cap Space left reportedly, NFC New York, GM Reese and Head Coach Tom Coughlin have a really big decision to make coming up with the extremely talented and valuable Pierre-Paul. It will definitely be very interesting to see if the organization decides to let the 26-year-old Pierre-Paul test the Free Agent waters on March 7. If they do and he ends up signing with another lucky team, the Giants 2015 season may be doomed before it even gets started.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (20/1 to win Super Bowl) are looking at LB Jason Worilds becoming a Free Agent on March 10, as are the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (5/1 to win Super Bowl) with S Devin McCourty. And with less potential relative Free Agent problems than some other teams, both of these defenders may resign with their current AFC teams. The player the Miami Dolphins (30/1 to win Super Bowl) probably need to try and lock down the most is DT Jared Odrick. And the somehow sub-.500 NFC South champion Carolina Panthers (40/1 to win Super Bowl) have told ESPN.com they likely won’t try to keep unrestricred Free Agent DE Greg Hardy, who had domestic violence charges dismissed on Monday. Hardy, a 2013 Pro Bowl selection, was designated with the club’s Franchise Tag last season where he played just 1 game and received $13.1 million from Carolina.
The San Diego Chargers (30/1 to win Super Bowl) always seem like they’re in Rebuilding Mode, but to hang with the Broncos and upstart Chiefs in the AFC West, San Diego will have to try to resign talented CB Brandon Flowers. And, the Washington Redskins (100/1 to win Super Bowl) will be looking to resign defender LB Brian Orakpo while the Cleveland Browns (80/1 to win Super Bowl) will hope to come to terms with TE Jordan Cameron. There will be an awful lot of business and faces in new places before the 2015 NFL season kicks off at Gillette Stadium in New England on Thursday, Sept. 10.
Although action in the NFL offseason in the Free Agent marketplace seldom moves individual teams’ Future Book odds that much, occasionally an acquisition can shorten a team’s odds to either win its Division, Conference or even the Super Bowl itself. And the loss of a player, say like a Suh to the Lions, a Houston to the Chiefs, a Cobb to the Packers or a Bryant and/or a Murray to the Cowboys, could actually lengthen the odds on those individual teams. And, other teams in the NFL not mentioned here will obviously also be affected by Free Agency, offseason moves, the NFL Draft (April 30-May 2), injuries and various other things, but all of the teams above discussed really seemed to stick out, with the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions looking like they could all potentially be hurt the most by any big-name Free Agency losses. Something about the D’s this year. Time to lube up the ole checkbook again, Jerry.