NFL Free Agency 2020: How the seven teams with the worst salary cap situations will approach the offseason


While the rest of the sports world has come to a screeching halt over the past 48 hours due to the spread of coronavirus, the NFL has announced that despite its annual meeting being canceled, it will still open the new league year next week, as planned, at least that’s the plan for now. That means the beginning of the 2020 free agency period is less than 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. 

We began by 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. On Wednesday we covered the next tier of teams, each of whom has $45-60 million in cap room. On Thursday, we continued with the seven teams that have a moderate amount of space, ranging from $20-45 million. 

Below, we’ll finish up by exploring what’s on tap for the teams in a serious cap crunch. We’ll also include the Green Bay Packers, who jumped over the $20 million bar by releasing Jimmy Graham. Note that in almost all situations, any of the “restructure” suggestions for creating cap space in the below sections are going to be a bad idea because restructuring contracts only kicks the can down the road when it comes to cap trouble. 

*All salary cap numbers are courtesy of Spotrac.com.*

Green Bay Packers ($26 million)

Key Free Agents: Bryan Bulaga, Blake Martinez, Kyler Fackrell, Jimmy Graham, Allen Lazard, Geronimo Allison, Jason Spriggs, Tyler Lancaster, Chandon Sullivan, Marcedes Lewis

Pressing Needs: WR, IDL

Minor Needs: OL, LB

Potential Cap Maneuvers: Restructure Davante Adams, Restructure David Bakhtiari, Extend Kenny Clark

The Packers are in an unenviable situation this offseason. They have at least one must-re-sign free agent hitting the market in right tackle Bryan Bulaga, but they also have a desperate need to upgrade the pass-catching corps around Aaron Rodgers in order to reverse the downturn in offensive efficiency and explosiveness the team has experienced the past two seasons. 

Cutting ties with Jimmy Graham helped them open up a little bit more operating room under the cap, but the Packers still don’t have a lot to work with after they went on defense-focused spending sprees the past two offseasons. Green Bay has been rumored to have interest in Falcons tight end Austin Hooper, who would be a strong replacement for Graham. If they can land him and then address wide receiver in the draft, that would make a good deal of sense. (The free-agent wide receiver crop is not particularly strong.) 

Given Green Bay’s extreme struggles to stopthe run last season, the Packers could also stand to give Kenny Clark some help on the interior. Waiting out the first wave of free agency and seeing which veterans are unable to land big-money deals is a strategy to which they should give serious consideration. If someone like Mike Pennel or Michael Pierce slips through the cracks early on, the Packers could benefit from waiting it out. 

Kansas City Chiefs ($19 million)

Key Free Agents: Chris Jones, Bashaud Breeland, Kendall Fuller, Stefen Wisniewski, Mike Pennel, Emmanuel Ogbah, Reggie Ragland, Anthony Sherman, Terrell Suggs, Andrew Wylie, Demarcus Robinson, Cameron Erving

Pressing Needs: OL, EDGE

Minor Needs: RB, LB, DB

Potential Cap Maneuvers: Extend Patrick Mahomes, Tag/Sign or Tag/Trade Chris Jones, Release/Pay Cut for Sammy Watkins, Release Damien Wilson

The first order of business is figuring out the contract for the best quarterback in football. Mahomes is incredibly likely to break the bank and become the highest-paid player in league history, but the Chiefs can structure the contract in a way that gives them some more breathing room. 

Right behind the Mahomes extension on the priority list is what to do with Chris Jones. The Chiefs have publicly maintained that they want to keep him at all costs, which means the franchise tag is coming. Agreeing to a long-term deal would allow them to artificially lower his cap hit for the 2020 season, but they could also elect to tag-and-trade him as they did with Dee Ford last offseason. 

Other potential cost-saving measures include cutting ties with Sammy Watkins, but he has expressed a desire to remain in Kansas City and could be open to a pay cut. The Chiefs may not want to let Watkins leave if Demarcus Robinson gets a sizable deal elsewhere, though, because that would leave them with a very inexperienced wide receiver corps beyond Tyreek Hill. Releasing Damien Wilson would help the Chiefs as well, but they already have Reggie Ragland hitting free agency and may not want to deplete their linebacker depth. 

Whatever cap space they do open up, they probably need to use it on solidifying the offensive line, which nearly fell apart last season amidst several injuries. Guards Stefen Wisniewski and Andrew Wylie are both free agents, and the Chiefs will likely retain only one of them. Finding a backup for the interior of the line is a definite need, as is a swing tackle to replace Cameron Erving, who struggled when pressed into action last season. Kansas City should also be interested in a low-cost veteran to help rush the passer. Terrell Suggs may want to stick around, but if he doesn’t, then they should go looking to find another late-career vet who wants a chance to compete for the Super Bowl. 

San Francisco 49ers ($17 million)

Key Free Agents: Arik Armstead, Emmanuel Sanders, Matt Breida, Jimmie Ward, Ben Garland, Anthony Zettel, Ronald Blair, Kendrick Bourne

Pressing Needs: WR

Minor Needs: IDL, DB

Potential Cap Maneuvers: Release Jimmy Garoppolo, Extend DeForest Buckner, Restructure Dee Ford, Release Jerick McKinnon

The 49ers also have several important free agents hitting the market and not much room to re-sign them. Armstead seems like a candidate for the franchise tag, but with the Niners spending so much money on other pieces of the defensive line, he might also become part of the ever-growing tag-and-trade crop. San Francisco could weather his absence with its defensive line depth, but his contributions as an edge-setter went underrated last season while more attention was paid to Buckner, Nick Bosa, and Dee Ford. 

Sanders stated earlier this week that he has not been in contact with the 49ers about a new contract, which leads one to believe they might be looking elsewhere for wide receiver help. With depth wideout Kendrick Bourne also hitting free agency, the Niners need to find at least one more wideout to play opposite breakout rookie Deebo Samuel. It’s not a particularly inspiring free-agent class, so they may turn to the draft for that help. 

That would make Matt Breida and Jimmie Ward next up on the team’s priority list. Given Kyle Shanahan’s ability to turn almost any running back into a quality player, San Francisco should not be rushing to pay big money for Breida. He’s a restricted free agent, though, so his market could be somewhat limited, allowing the Niners to retain him at a below-market cost. Ward is coming off arguably his best season and was a key part of the surprisingly excellent San Francisco secondary in 2019, but he may just be priced out at this point given the team’s cap constraints. 

New Orleans Saints ($12 million)

Key Free Agents: Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Vonn Bell, Taysom Hill, A.J. Klein, Andrus Peat, David Onyemata, Eli Apple, P.J. Williams

Pressing Needs: WR, DB

Minor Needs: OL, IDL

Potential Cap Maneuvers: Sign Brees, Release Janoris Jenkins, Release Kiko Alonso, Extent Sheldon Rankins, Restructure Terron Armstead

The Saints always seem to be in cap trouble and yet always seem to have the requisite cap space to sign whoever they want. They have a couple of obvious moves that can help them create a pretty decent chunk of cap room this offseason, as releasing Jenkins and Alonso would open up nearly $20 million for them to spend. They can also sign Brees to a new deal similar to the last several he has inked, artificially deflating his cap hit for next season. 

All that space would allow for the possibility of retaining Peat on an affordable deal and laying out some money to bring in reinforcements at receiver and corner. Michael Thomas might very well be the best wideout in the NFL but having only Ted Ginn and Tre’Quan Smith behind him isn’t tenable anymore. Emmanuel Sanders, if he’s willing to take a slight discount, would be about as perfect an option as possible. If not, the Saints may need to take a flier on someone like Phillip Dorsett, who flashed early in the season but seemed to fall out of Tom Brady’s favor later on. And with Bell, Apple, and Williams hitting the market for sure and Jenkins potentially doing so as well, the Saints will need to add depth in the defensive backfield. 

Atlanta Falcons ($4 million)

Key Free Agents: Austin Hooper, Vic Beasley, De’Vondre Campbell, Adrian Clayborn, Wes Schweitzer, Jack Crawford, Ra’Shede Hageman

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

Minor Needs: IDL, LB

Potential Cap Maneuvers: Release Desmond Trufant Post-June 1, Release/Restructure/Extend Alex Mack, Restructure Matt Ryan, Restructure Julio Jones, Extend Jake Matthews, Extend Keanu Neal, Release Allen Bailey, Release Luke Stocker

Honestly, I have no idea what the Falcons are going to do here. Just about all of their cost-saving measures except for releasing Trufant seems like a bad idea. And they have needs all over the field. This could get weird. 

Minnesota Vikings (< $1 million)

Key Free Agents: Everson Griffen, Anthony Harris, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Andrew Sendejo, Jayron Kearse, Laquon Treadwell

Pressing Needs: OL, DB

Minor Needs: WR, EDGE

Potential Cap Maneuvers: Release Xavier Rhodes, Restructure Danielle Hunter, Restructure Anthony Barr, Extend Kirk Cousins, Release/Restructure Riley Reiff, Release/Restructure Linval Joseph

The Vikings cutting ties with Rhodes might be the most obvious move of the entire offseason. His game fell off badly last year, and they can move on from him with minimal cap damage. But the Vikes have to make sure to not let their cornerback depth be decimated by allowing both Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander to leave as well. The smart money is on only one of them being retained. Then, they will shift their focus at the position to the draft.

The same is true at safety, where they probably will have to let Anthony Harris leave but should try to re-sign Jayron Kearse if they can. Money might be too tight for that, though, assuming they prioritize bringing Everson Griffen back instead. Minnesota could kick the can down the road with any number of quality veterans in order to create the requisite space to give Griffen a sizable deal and/or upgrade the offensive line, which was better but still not good quite enough last year. 

Pittsburgh Steelers (-$2 million)

Key Free Agents: Bud Dupree, Javon Hargrave, Artie Burns, Sean Davis

Pressing Needs: EDGE, DB

Minor Needs: WR, IDL

Potential Cap Maneuvers: Extend Cameron Heyward, Release Mark Barron, Restructure/Extend Stephon Tuitt, Restructure/Extend David DeCastro, Decline Option on Vance McDonald, Release Anthony Chickillo

The Steelers will almost surely only be able to retain one of Dupree and Hargrave. Dupree is considered a likely candidate for the franchise tag and as a 3-4 edge rusher is probably the more impactful player if he maintains the level of play he displayed last season. But Hargrave is a really strong option on the inside, so if he leaves the Steelers will need to find a suitable replacement on the cheap. It won’t be easy. 





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