Now that we’re to the final 8 of the NFL playoffs, we could very well have a clearer picture of the free agent market. If the 2010 league year is uncapped, which looks likely as a new CBA is highly unlikely to be settled by the beginning of March, then the final 8 finishers will be all but out of the free agent market. They won’t be able to sign an unrestricted free agent until they lose one, and that one-to-one ratio will persist throughout the offseason.
So we thought we would compare the other 24 NFL teams to see which look to be the best free-agent destinations. Remember that an uncapped year takes off all the restraints of salary-cap figures and that pure cash costs will be the far more important calculation. We’re comparing these teams on a 10-point scale, with 10 marking the most attractive destinations and 1 signifying wastelands to avoid.
10 – Washington Redskins – Daniel Snyder wants to win, and he has big revenue streams and a big checkbook. Given the depth of Washington’s needs – pretty much everything but linebacker could afford an upgrade – and the excitement of a new regime, it will be no surprise to see the Redskins win the first day of free agency as they did last year with Albert Haynesworth and have done so many years before.
9 – Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants – Both the Falcons and the Giants have talent, and both have been unafraid to spend lately. Atlanta has specific needs on the defensive line and in the secondary, while the Giants need a talent infusion on their offensive line and depth at safety. It would be no surprise to see these teams strike quickly with precision to attack their specific needs – and if they target players, players will come.
8 – Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles – The Panthers basically sat out the free agent market last year because they were pushed against the cap by the re-signings of Jordan Gross and Richard Marshall and the franchise tag on Julius Peppers. With no salary cap causing that patience this year, Carolina (which has traditionally been aggressive in free agency) might go after a No. 2 receiver or even a quarterback. The franchise normally draws rave reviews from players, so an aggressive approach could pay off. Denver spent on many mid-level free agents last year and could do so again this year. The fan base and franchise are attractive, even with Josh McDaniels’ autocratic style. The Eagles typically don’t go whole hog in free agency, preferring to develop from within, but if they chase a player they have an attractive situation to offer. The Patriots haven’t had a ton of success with veteran free agents recently, which might make them a little gun-shy about being big spenders, but the franchise stability and revenues allow them to present a great option to players on the market.
7 – Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans – Green Bay isn’t necessarily a prime place to live, and that might be part of the reason the Packers have gone to a build-from-within strategy more than just about any other franchise recently. But this is an up-and-coming team, so if a player wants to win and Green Bay calls, he’ll answer. Likewise, Houston has enough other talent to offer a potential winning situation. Tennessee can present a similar appeal, and the Titans are usually surprisingly aggressive on the market. The Dolphins are another mid-level team that has nice pieces in place, and proximity to South Beach doesn’t hurt the recruiting process.
6 – Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks – The Bears are in a big market, and they need a talent infusion this offseason that will have to come without high draft picks. But while Chicago is willing to be competitive in free agency, they rarely overpay players to make sure they finish a signing. Seattle doesn’t have a ton of talent, but new head coach Pete Carroll is a quality recruiting, and owner Paul Allen has deep pockets. That could turn out to be a potent combination. San Francisco has overpaid players in the past (e.g. Michael Lewis and Nate Clements), but now that the 49ers have gotten the arrow pointed up, they may be in the running for players even without the outsized check.
5 – Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Rams – The Steelers aren’t usually big shoppers in free agency, and they don’t have a reputation as the place for players to get the most money, but it is attractive to go into a winning situation and play for a respected head coach like Mike Tomlin. Organizational stability is a plus too. The Rams are down right now, but with Steve Spagnuolo in place, there is a modicum of stability, and the chance to play right away works too. And if you’re going to play in a Midwestern city, playing indoors doesn’t hurt.
4 – Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The Bengals have a cheapskate reputation, but that has changed for the better over the past decade. While they still aren’t big spenders, they are at least willing to pay market value. The franchise’s amenities, once the worst in the league, are average as well, and so now that the Bengals are coming off a division title, they may actually be a positive destination. Tampa Bay didn’t spend much at all in free agency last year, and so you have to wonder if they’ll spend this year. But the no state income tax appeal of Florida and the warm weather of Tampa are appeals that might outweigh the questions about the coaching staff going forward with the Bucs.
3 – Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs – At one point this season, it looked like the Browns would be the worst possible destination for free agents, given Eric Mangini’s demanding and even unfair ways and the bad weather. But Mike Holmgren can help with that – remember, he helped lure Reggie White to Green Bay, of all places. Jacksonville may not have big cash reserves given the ticket-selling problems they’ve had, and the Jags have had problems getting deals done with first-round draft picks recently, but the Jaguars do have good weather and no income tax as bargaining chips. The Chiefs need help, and Arrowhead at its best is a great home stadium, but given where the franchise is right now the Chiefs will likely have to settle for quantity of mid-level guys instead of chasing the best on the market.
2 – Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions – Buffalo isn’t a big destination, given the weather and the franchise’s small market, but Ralph Wilson wants to win and may be willing to overspend to do so. They did so with Terrell Owens last year, as an example. The Lions are also building, and last year they showed they wanted to add some players with winning pedigrees to help the rebuilding process along. So Detroit might actually become a nice landing spot for some vets, like it was for Jon Jansen and Larry Foote last year.
1 – Oakland Raiders – Oakland is full of organizational chaos and uncertainty about how long even big-money players will stay. DeAngelo Hall and Gibril Wilson, for example, got big deals and then got cut within a year. That may lead to some hesitation about players going there, which means the Raiders will have to break out the checkbook to even be competitive signing players. When a player signs with Oakland, it is basically about the money.