SportsPulse: Antonio Brown is now a Raider. Our NFL insider Mike Jones breaks down how Oakland was able to pull off the massive trade and what’s next for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After weeks of speculation about potential moves across the NFL, the action will at last commence.
Starting on Monday, teams can officially begin negotiations with prospective players, and at 4 p.m., Wednesday, contract signings can take place.
There’s not a team in the league without needs, but not every squad uses free agency to dramatically upgrade its roster. Some certainly would like to, but lack the financial flexibility. Others prefer to take a conservative approach — executing a key acquisition or two for their most significant holes — and from there will rely more on the draft to build their rosters. Other teams will primarily use their resources to re-sign their own players, maintaining continuity.
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But several teams enter this week in prime position to make a cluster of impactful signings that could significantly change the complexion of their rosters for the better.
Among them: Indianapolis, New York Jets, Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Oakland and San Francisco. They have the most salary cap space, which means, they have the most money to play with during the first wave of the league’s shopping period.
As of Sunday, Indianapolis has roughly $101 million, the Jets $91 million, Buffalo $73 million, Houston and Cleveland had close to $70 million in cap space, and Oakland had close to $60 million while the San Francisco had $55 million.
Other teams could work feverishly to restructure deals or dump salaries before the start of the league year so they too can join the prime talent sweepstakes.
It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of approach the Colts take. They have a solid roster. With Andrew Luck back, Indianapolis returned to the playoffs and now has a chance to build on that success. Colts general manager Chris Ballard traditionally practices restraint when it comes to free agency. (This approach is part of the reason why Indianapolis finds itself in such good financial shape this year.) But the Colts want to do more than just make playoff appearances, and because of that, they’ll likely make some key signings in free agency.
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“If we see a player — even if we have a good player at the position — if we think this guy is the one who will put us over the top, we’ll make the move,” Ballard said at the recent combine.
Look for the Colts to try to add an impact wide receiver to line up opposite T.Y. Hilton. It’s also not out of the question that they make a run at Le’Veon Bell. Indianapolis’ defense could also benefit from a disruptive force along the line, and help at defensive back.
Meanwhile, the Jets and Browns could each attack free agency more aggressively than any team.
Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan had no problem declaring his team will be “very active” in free agency. He found quarterback Sam Darnold in last year’s draft. But now the Jets must improve his supporting cast. Darnold needs more playmakers, particularly at running back and wide receiver, and his bosses also need to upgrade his offensive line. Meanwhile, on defense, the Jets could use an elite-level edge rusher.
Aggressive certainly best describes the approach Cleveland general manager John Dorsey has taken since beginning his rebuild in the last year-plus. Trades for veterans, free-agent signings and smart draft picks translated into a 7-9 campaign for a Browns squad that had won a combined four games from 2015-17.
But Dorsey certainly isn’t satisfied. He helped his defense by trading for linebacker Olivier Vernon, who should complement young edge rusher Myles Garrett nicely, and he is rolling the dice on versatile running back Kareem Hunt, although it’s unknown what kind of suspension he receive after video surfaced of him shoving and kicking a woman last offseason.
The Browns still are expected to try to add a piece or two to the offensive line, while giving quarterback Baker Mayfield another pass-catching option or two. They also could use additional help in their secondary.
Buffalo made a run at Antonio Brown, but failed in that pursuit, but Bills brass is well aware they need impact play-makers to ease the load on second-year quarterback Josh Allen.
The Texans have to find a way to better protect Deshaun Watson, who was the most-sacked quarterback in the league last season, and they also would do well to give him additional weapons. Meanwhile, their defensive needs include safety with Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson, both unsigned.
The Raiders just made a splash by trading for Antonio Brown and awarding him a contract that features more than $30 million in guaranteed money. But despite the fact that Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock have declared intentions of building primarily through the draft, and although they still possess three first-round picks, the Raiders still might make some moves this week. Defensive end, linebacker, running back, safety and offensive line help top their needs list.
And the 49ers also could spend big to fill holes at pass-rusher, defensive back, receiver and guard.
League insiders say we also should keep an eye on two other teams in particular once free agency gets underway. Denver and Green Bay.
Neither currently rank among the top 10 with the most cap room in the league. But both are highly motivated to improve their situations this offseason.
John Elway knows he must surround new quarterback Joe Flacco with more talent. His offensive line needs help; the wide receiver unit could use more potency, and the defense needs linebackers and cornerbacks.
The Packers aren’t generally known for free agency splashes. They traditionally rely primarily on the draft. However, the franchise appears set to change its ways in general manager Brian Gutekunst’s second offseason.
The Packers need to fortify the roster that they have turned over to first-year head coach Matt LaFleur. And although Gutekunst said at the combine that the team will always use the draft as its primary mode for roster building, he did add, “I think you try to be in every conversation and then when the right opportunities present themselves we’ll be ready to go.”
And the Packers apparently have done just that.
Coming out of the combine, multiple agents told USA TODAY Sports the Packers ranked among the busiest teams of the week when it came to setting up exploratory meetings while indicating that they too aim to take part in busy and competitive free agency period.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.