Christmas comes early for a number of teams under the increased salary cap of $143 million.
March 10 begins the free-agent frenzy, and with as many as seven teams (Eagles, Jets, Titans, Browns, Raiders, and Jaguars) enjoying as much as $44 million in cap space, the 4 p.m. EST commencement should be fun to watch.
The Jags lead the way with a whopping $68.47 million under the raised cap, but that doesn’t mean every A-plus star will flock to Florida, as a contender like the Eagles ($44.766 million) will also have the ability to steal away a few big names.
Here’s a look at the five most likely sought-after targets during the whirlwind:
1. Darrelle Revis, Cornerback: OK, technically Revis won’t be off the Patriots’ island until March 9 – unless the team picks up his $20-million option. That’s highly unlikely, so that allows Revis to leapfrog to the top of the pending free-agent class. When he becomes available, the Patriots’ best defensive player becomes the leader in the clubhouse of any free-agent list – especially now that Ndamukong Suh was taken off the market when the Miami Dolphins agreed in principal to a deal. Revis is every bit the impact player, as during his only year in New England, he held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 74.7 and helped the defense match the excellence of their offensive brethren. Cornerbacks the caliber of Revis rarely hit the open market, so he’ll definitely receive his fair share of calls. Likely landing spots: Patriots, Jets
2. DeMarco Murray, Running Back: The Cowboys chose to franchise tag wideout Dez Bryant instead of arguably the league’s best running back, but don’t cry poverty for Murray, who will most definitely cash in somewhere – whether it be Dallas or someplace else. Many thought the star back would head back to Dallas after it seemed like the running back market would dry up even before it started, but then the Bills threw a wrench into that thinking when they traded for LeSean McCoy and then reportedly offered a five-year extension that included $26.5 million in guarantees. Murray’s agency team will likely use McCoy’s offering as leverage, especially since he’s had back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, including 13 rushing touchdowns and nearly 2,000 rushing yards last season. Likely landing spots: Cowboys, Jaguars
3. Julius Thomas, Tight End: The guy who made the phrase “too easy” famous will not make it easy for the Denver Broncos to re-sign him, which means Thomas will likely take his talents elsewhere. Thomas, who caught 24 touchdown passes the previous two seasons, is reportedly in talks with the Jaguars, but nothing has been agreed to in principle and nothing can be signed anyway until 4 p.m. EST, Tuesday. The Broncos are the longshot, as they never really reached out to discuss a contract with him this offseason, and the tight end has publicly said a “hometown discount” is unlikely. Thomas, who grew up in California and was reportedly a “big-time Raiders fan” growing up, will be a highly sought prospect as long as the Jaguars can’t close the deal. Likely landing spots: Jaguars, Seahawks, Raiders, Broncos
4. Devin McCourty, Safety: McCourty is drawing serious interest from a couple of NFC East teams, the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles, each of whom is serious about spending big money to sign the top safety on this year's free-agent market. New England also has a slight chance of getting the former Rutgers’ star, as he just came off a Super Bowl-winning season with the team. The Patriots aren’t known for shelling big bucks to free agents, and if McCourty garners anywhere between $9-$10-million annually, as expected, that will likely be too rich for the Patriots’ blood. The Eagles have freed up a ton of cap room over the past few weeks by trading McCoy and releasing veterans such as cornerback Cary Williams, guard Todd Herremans, and linebacker Trent Cole. And the Giants have a huge need at safety, as they’ll likely lose all three safeties from last season’s roster (Antrel Rolle, Stevie Brown, and Quintin Demps). Brown may be close to re-signing, but if McCourty, a former St. Joseph’s Montvale star, wants to come back to New Jersey, Big Blue will definitely have to listen. Likely landing spots: Patriots (Reports surfaced Monday morning that McCourty will be back in Foxboro)
5. Jerry Hughes, Defensive End/Linebacker: The Kansas City Chiefs franchise-tagged Justin Houston and the Giants did likewise with Jason Pierre-Paul, so that makes Hughes the best remaining defensive end on the open market. Hughes, however, is no lame consolation prize as he’s one of the best two-way defensive ends in the league. Once considered a bust following three non-descript seasons in Indianapolis after he was selected in the first round – the same draft as Suh and Pierre-Paul – Hughes has come into his own during the last two seasons in Buffalo, registering 10 sacks in each campaign. There could be some buyer’s beware since Hughes was able to excel with a surrounding cast that included Mario Williams, Marcel Dareus, and Kyle Williams, but his hybrid excellence as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, plus his Pro Football Focus top-eight ranking against the run, adds even more value to his resume. Likely landing spots: Bills (reports surfaced Monday that Hughes will be back in Orchard Park).
Honorable Mention Free Agents: CJ Spiller, Running Back; and Greg Hardy, Defensive End.
- Spiller immediately became an ex-Buffalo Bill once they traded for McCoy. He’s an explosive, albeit injury-prone difference maker, who would give a contending team a huge boost.
- Hardy is an intriguing case, as he’s still currently on the Commissioner’s exempt list for legal troubles surrounding his 2013 domestic violence case. The 26-year old missed all but one game last season because of the league's response to the incident, but that just means he’s had a full year to save his legs and not endure any wear and tear. He had 15 sacks in 2013 before signing the franchise tag, and contributed 11 sacks in 2012. Hardy also ranked in the top five in pass-rush productivity, according to Pro Football Focus in his last two full seasons, which means his high-motor and on-field aggression would give a boost to any team looking to ramp up its pass rush.