And so we arrive at the end of a trip around the league prior to free agency, landing in the AFC West where the Raiders have a ridiculous sum of salary cap dough (the most), and the Broncos are about to sigh and shrug while saying so long to Eric Decker.
Estimated cap room: $24.7
Draft slot: 31st
End game: The Broncos aren’t willing to spend nearly half of their available cap space to retain Eric Decker, because they see him for what he is and always will be forevermore. He’s a great secondary option in a great offense, and although he was indeed a fine fit for said offense, general manager Brian Xanders is wisely looking ahead to a year from now when the contracts of both Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas expire.
Demaryius and Julius — Thomas squared? — can’t be replaced as easily. In fact, they can’t really be replaced at all, as Thomas the wide receiver is surprisingly fast for someone with his large build (6’3″, 229 pounds), and that rare ability gels perfectly with a quarterback in Peyton Manning whose arm strength is quickly fading. Thomas is often the target of short screen passes that he turns into long gains, and the tight end Thomas is used similarly while also being a large-bodied red-zone option.
Decker doesn’t create as much separation, and he was often the beneficiary of coverage that focussed elsewhere. He’s a fine receiver, though, especially with his leaping ability that brings down contested balls. He’s just not worth $9 million annually, or maybe more as the marquee name at wide receiver, and arguably the 2014 free agent market overall.
Golden Tate can be had for a far lower fee, and he would fit well with Manning’s weakening arm, as gaining chunks after the catch is what he does. This past season Tate had 451 yards after the catch, which represented half of his overall receiving yardage. Hakeem Nicks is another option, though a more expensive one.
With two defensive ends also hitting the market (Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips) the Broncos will use their cap space to pursue a solution there too. But the most pressing need is at corner, where Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is set to be free. Retaining him is where the bulking of Denver’s cash will go because cornerback is a position of weakness with Chris Harris recovering from his torn ACL.
That won’t be a cheap investment either after Sam Shields and Brent Grimes set the market. At 27 years old, DRC should at the very least be seeking a contract similar to the one signed by the 26-year-old Shields that gave him $9.75 million annually.
Kansas City Chiefs
Estimated cap room: $9 million
Draft slot: 23th
End game: Say what you will about the Chiefs’ 2013 schedule and the quarterbacks they shredded. But they don’t control that, and instead they focussed on the scoreboard. Those standings said their win total improved by nine over the previous season, and when Andy Reid’s Kool-Aid powder wore off his Chiefs dealt with the sorrow of becoming only the second team in league history to drop a playoff game they once led by 28 points or more.
What now? Brandon Albert is what. As I write this the opening of free agency is less than two hours away, which is also the time Albert has remaining in his Chiefs employment. Albert signing with the Dolphins is unofficially official. Sure, this exact scenario is why Eric Fisher was selected with the first overall pick a year ago, and he can now slide over from right tackle. But there’s also the matter of Geoff Schwartz, another almost certain free agent departure along the offensive line who can play both guard spots and left tackle. He’s best suited at guard, where he’s Rotoworld’s top rated free agent.
Keeping Schwartz likely isn’t happening with that minimal cap room, and it gets worse. Left guard Jon Asamoah is fleeing for richer pastures too, making the offensive line a clear and pressing priority either during the second and cheaper wave of free agency, or during the draft. But not immediately in the first round, where guards aren’t valued. Instead the Chiefs will join the clog of teams pecking away at the first-round wide receivers, finding a running mate for Dwayne Bowe.
San Diego Chargers
Estimated cap room: $8.6 million
Draft slot: 25th
End game: The Chargers’ top priority was re-signing inside linebacker Donald Butler, who’s had at least 80 tackles in two of his three NFL seasons. Achievement unlocked, as the emerging 25-year-old signed a seven-year deal that’s really a three-year deal last week for $19.8 million.
With that done the attention can now turn to using every possible dollar and draft pick to fix a secondary that was simply atrocious in 2013 while allowing an average of 8.0 yards per pass attempt, and 258.7 per game. Making a serious dent in that problem won’t happen through free agency with the Chargers’ lack of Benjamins, though tossing a suspension discount feeler to Brandon Browner would be wise.
May 8 is when the cornerback problem will maybe, probably be solved, with Kyle Fuller firmly in the crosshairs of general manager Tom Telesco.
Estimated cap room: $60.8 million
Draft slot: 5th
End game: It’s easy to see that cap figure, note that the Raiders have all the money, and then assume they can buy anyone and everyone. But when you do that, you’re ignoring a crucial fact: no one wants to play in Oakland. The Raiders can afford to re-sign all of their impending free agents, because they can afford to buy a small
country continent. But the most important among them will likely leave, because as much as they enjoy money, they also like winning. Having both requires playing anywhere but Oakland.
That’s what general manager Reggie McKenzie is fighting during this offseason when he’s been gifted the most cap room in the league, making it an offseason that will re-define the franchise (dear god hopefully), or sink him forever. But if he doesn’t retain Jared Veldheer and LaMarr Houston — easily the Raiders’ best players regardless of position — or get at worst their equal on the open market, then it’s difficult to determine what exactly is in the mind of this man McKenzie. The Raiders are also set to lose two running backs (Rashad Jennings and Darren McFadden), and five defensive starters. In total they have 14 free agents.
If we assume in the draft McKenzie sprints to select the best remaining quarterback if one of the top three fall to No. 6, wide receiver becomes the major free agency need. That puts the Raiders in line to overpay for either Decker or Nicks, and they’ll both laugh heartily while taking less elsewhere. Another money dump will be directed at the best available defensive end if Houston leaves, and then yet another at Ben Tate if both McFadden and Jennings run far, far away.
The Raiders have the potential to be this year’s Miami, and a shining example of why championship teams are built through the draft, and money is then invested in keeping the talent you developed on your roster. Throwing money because there’s money to throw usually ends in tears.