NFL Free Agency 2020: How teams with the most salary cap space will approach the offseason

The start of the 2020 free agency period is about a week away. There are a whole bunch of stars and even more solid starters potentially hitting the market this offseason, which could lead to a huge amount of change for the league. With that in mind, we’re going to spend this week walking through the types of moves each and every team can make. But rather than go by division or conference, we’re going through the list in order of potential spending power. 

Below, we’re digging into the teams with $60 million in cap space or more, allowing them to be the most active squads when the market opens next week.

*All salary cap numbers are courtesy of*

Miami Dolphins ($94 million)

Key Free Agents: N/A

Pressing Needs: QB, RB, TE, OL, EDGE, DB

Minor Needs: WR, IDL

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to our Dolphins offseason tracker: 

All that cap space gives the Dolphins the option of splashing the pot for priority free agents, and perhaps even front-loading contracts to give players money up front and not weigh down the books in the future. With so many other teams concentrated on the explosive quarterback market and Miami likely sitting that derby out, the Dolphins can move aggressively for players at other positions. 

Of course, they could also elect to largely sit out the free-agent derby for another year, rolling the cap space over to next offseason while continuing to stockpile picks and young players. 

Tearing the roster down to the studs while hoarding cap space and picks ensured that the Dolphins have more player-acquisition capital than any team in the NFL. Nothing is off the table for them this offseason, which makes them the most interesting team in the league to watch over the next several weeks. 

All of that remains true. How the Dolphins elect to approach things will probably have a lot to do with how confident they are that they can land their preferred quarterback in the draft, and how ready that player is to play right away. Whether it’s Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert (or Jordan Love, I suppose), it’s unlikely that time will be next year, so even though the Dolphins have the most cap room in the league, they may not be quite as aggressive and you’d think. They’re aware that their rebuild is a multi-year process, and presumably will not want to vaporize all of their future cap space to get better in a season where it’s likely that their quarterback of the future will either play very little or not even be on the team yet. 

That said, there are some players that appear to be excellent fits. Patriots guard Joe Thuney, for example, would help upgrade the offensive line, and obviously has the New England connection with Brian Flores. The same is true of Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins, and Kyle Van Noy, who could become available if the Pats decide they have to spend their money on upgrading their offensive skill positions to make things more comfortable for Tom Brady. If they can’t land any of those players, I’d expect the Dolphins to focus heavily on the offensive and defensive lines, as well as the defensive backfield, which was a disaster for much of last season. They seem a likely trade suitor for Trent Williams as well, as long as the draft-compensation price tag isn’t too high. 

Indianapolis Colts ($86 million)

Key Free Agents: Anthony Castonzo, Eric Ebron, Jabaal Sheard, Clayton Geathers

Pressing Needs: WR, EDGE, IDL, DB

Minor Needs: QB

The cap space hoarding plan described above is the one the Colts have enacted for the past few years. Chris Ballard has been extremely patient building the roster, though of course, nobody could have predicted that the foundational piece of the roster (Andrew Luck) would suddenly retire. 

He’s lucky to have protected that cap space now because there are a ton of potential options for the Colts at quarterback if they decide Jacoby Brissett is not their guy (Philip Rivers makes sense from a schematic standpoint, given his experience with Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni), as well as deep crops of talent at positions of need like receiver (A.J. Green, if he’s not franchise-tagged, as well as Robby Anderson would be excellent fits) and defensive line (Chris Jones, Jadeveon Clowney, and Yannick Ngakoue). They also have enough space to bring back Castonzo, as well as rotational defenders like Sheard and Geathers. If they want to stick with their dual-tight end offense they might make Ebron a priority re-sign, but he’s not the most consistent or reliable player and is likely to be overpaid relative to his usefulness, so they could probably land a lower-cost option to pair with Jack Doyle. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($85 million)

Key Free Agents: Jameis Winston, Shaquil Barrett, Breshad Perriman, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Demar Dotson, Carl Nassib, Earl Watford

Pressing Needs: QB, RB, OL, EDGE, DB

Minor Needs: TE

The Bucs have been pretty open about their desire to see what else is out there at quarterback. If they were sold on Jameis Winston, that wouldn’t be happening. They are considered more likely to use the franchise tag on Barrett, who had a breakout season rushing the passer. With the wealth of quarterback options potentially on the market, that strategy makes sense, though they could get shut out on Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, then be left paying Winston more than they want to. They’re one of the teams that would benefit most from the CBA not passing before the start of the league year (along with the Cowboys and Titans), which would allow them to use the transition tag on Winston and reserve the right to match any offer he receives. 

With some of their other edge guys up for free agency this offseason as well, dipping into the market to find a better (or even just younger) complement for Barrett is an idea that has some merit. Perhaps they want to try to go the same route they did with Barrett last year and sign a recent high draft pick who has been a bit of an under-performer, like Vic Beasley. They have a probable need at offensive tackle whether Demar Dotson walks or not, and they could definitely use more depth on the interior of the offensive line as well. 

The running back spot was also an outright disaster for the Bucs last season, and though it would not be the best use of resources to see them spend significant dollars at the position this offseason, it seems somewhat likely that they will do so. Is there a single team that seems like a more logical destination for Melvin Gordon? 

Buffalo Bills ($83 million)

Key Free Agents: Lorenzo Alexander, Shaq Lawson, Jordan Phillips, Levi Wallace, Quinton Spain

Pressing Needs: TE, OL, EDGE

Minor Needs: RB, WR, LB

The Bills probably had the most successful 2019 free-agency period of any team in the NFL. In particular, the investments they made in John Brown, Cole Beasley, Mitch Morse, and Frank Gore paid off and helped lift their offense from the bottom of the league to something closer to “slightly below average,” which in turn helped the team make a run to the playoffs. 

Buffalo has a bit more to worry about in terms of in-house free agents this time around, but general manager Brandon Beane, head coach Sean McDermott, and co. still have significant resources to add talent on both sides of the ball and continue taking advantage of Josh Allen’s relatively low cap hit for a starting quarterback. The team likes Dawson Knox but still tried to add to the tight end position with Tyler Kroft last offseason. Perhaps they could be a fit for someone like Austin Hooper, who could give Allen a reliable target over the middle who can also stretch the field and help open things up for Beasley underneath. Continuing to add to the offensive line and thus keep Allen well-protected would also be a good investment. 

Buffalo had one of the NFL’s best defenses last season and has already added Josh Norman to play across from Tre’Davious White, but needs to get younger on the edges. Alexander is still a good player but he’ll also be 37 years old this offseason. Lawson is coming off a career-high 6.5 sacks but has not turned into the player Buffalo envisioned when selecting him at No. 19 overall in 2016. There’s plenty of edge talent available to choose from, whether on the high end with players like Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, or Dante Fowler, or in the mid-range or lower tier if they’d rather use their free-agent dollars elsewhere. 

Dallas Cowboys ($74 million)

Key Free Agents: Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, Robert Quinn, Randall Cobb, Sean Lee, Michael Bennett, Jason Witten, Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown, Blake Jarwin, Antwaun Woods

Pressing Needs: EDGE, IDL, DB

Minor Needs: TE, LB

The Cowboys have a lot to take care of with their in-house free agents. Prescott will either be signed to a long-term deal or franchise-tagged, but the statuses of everyone else are up in the air. Cooper is the highest priority re-sign, while Jones seems incredibly likely to leave. (As our Patrik Walker has written, the current sticking point in Prescott and Cooper negotiation appears to be the length of the deals.) If the new CBA does not pass prior to the start of the new league year, it’s a near-guarantee that Cooper gets transition-tagged. 

Head coach Mike McCarthy has expressed a desire to bring Cobb back into the fold, while the Cowboys placed a second-round tender on Jarwin, which almost guarantees his return. Meanwhile, there have been rumblings that Witten might be moving on even though team owner Jerry Jones has said he would not want to see Witten play in another uniform. Depending on how many (and which) of Quinn, Cobb, Lee, Bennett, Brown, and Woods, the Cowboys might see some positions become greater needs than others.

Given the way they have approached things over the past several years and the financial commitments they are likely to make to Prescott and/or Cooper, we should not expect Dallas to go big-game hunting when signing free agents away from other teams. Chris Jones is a perfect fit for their needs along the defensive front, but they’d likely have to pay too much to sign him. Instead, they’ll look for lower-cost options to fill roster holes so that they can be free to draft the best player available in April. Look for them to be interested in former Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels, for example, as well as players at positions of need who were released by their former teams and thus would not count against the compensatory pick formula from which the Cowboys are extremely likely to benefit in 2021. (Prince Amukamara and Tony Jefferson come to mind as strong potential fits.)

New York Giants ($73 million)

Key Free Agents: Leonard Williams, Markus Golden, Jon Halapio, Alec Ogletree, David Mayo

Pressing Needs: OL, EDGE, DB

Minor Needs: TE, LB

The Giants are reportedly not close to an agreement with Williams, for whom they traded a third-round pick last season. Because Dave Gettleman loves nothing more than stacking talent at non-premium positions, the Giants are considering using the franchise tag on Williams even though they drafted Dexter Lawrence last year and also still have Dalvin Tomlinson. So, that’s great. 

The rest of the free-agent market actually sets up pretty well for the Giants, with a lot of depth at their positions of greatest need. Their top target should probably be Titans tackle Jack Conklin, who may wind up behind Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill (or Tom Brady) on the team’s priority list and thus be gettable in the early hours of the legal tampering window. The Giants also desperately need help on the edge, even if they re-sign Golden, and could go any number of directions there. Do they try to steal young players with big-money deals or go cheaper for options like Vinny Curry or Mario Addison, as they did with Golden last offseason? It’s unlikely Chase Young makes it to their slot at No. 4 in the draft, so they might look to prioritize that spot in March instead. 

New York is also reportedly open to trading Evan Engram, which would open up a need at tight end. Daniel Jones showed some playmaking ability last season, but surrounding him with top-quality talent up front and at the skill positions is going to be important for his continued development. 

Houston Texans ($63 million)

Key Free Agents: DJ Reader, Johnathan Joseph, Bradley Roby, Jahleel Addae, Darren Fells, Carlos Hyde

Pressing Needs: OL, DB

Minor Needs: WR, TE, EDGE

Please, for the love of God, sign some offensive linemen and protect Deshaun Watson. (Start with Laremy Tunsil, but don’t stop there.) And then try to find at least one defensive back who can passably cover No. 1 receivers on the perimeter. Unless and until the Texans do those two things, they’re not advancing beyond where they’ve gone these past couple years. It doesn’t help that they’ve traded approximately 6,712 draft picks that could have been used to fill these holes on the cheap, so they’ll likely have to go the free agency route and pay a premium to do it. 

Washington ($62 million)

Key Free Agents: Brandon Scherff, Donald Penn, Ereck Flowers, Jon Bostic

Pressing Needs: RB, WR, TE, OL, DB

Minor Needs: LB

Washington would likely quibble with the idea that running back is a need given the presence of Derrius Guice and potentially Adrian Peterson again, but neither of those is a solid plan given Guice’s injury history and AD’s age. Whomever they settle on in the backfield is going to need somebody to block for them, though, and that’s really Washington’s biggest issue. Re-signing Scherff should be job No. 1 this offseason, but they need a lot of help on the rest of the line — especially if Trent Williams is traded. “Place calls to every available offensive lineman and see who’s interested” is a completely serious plan of attack that should be in the cards here.

If the team wants Dwayne Haskins (or Tua Tagovailoa, if the reported interest is real) to have any degree of success in the future, upgrading the weaponry at wide receiver and tight end is a must. Terry McLaurin can’t do it all himself. Jordan Reed is snakebitten with concussion issues. Paul Richardson and Josh Doctson never worked out here; it’s time to take another swing at finding the guys who will. 

Landon Collins and Quinton Dunbar is a decent start for the secondary, but the rest of the unit needs an infusion of talent. 

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