With all the talk about the Redskins possibly letting OLB Brian Orakpo test free agency, the question becomes where could Orakpo end up. If Orakpo is an unrestricted free agent, he would represent the best free agent on the market and could interest just about any team given his versatility. While a number of high cap room teams like the Raiders, Jaguars, and Colts could be interested, the Redskins could get some serious competition among their three division rivals. Here is why each team might be interested and how it would work.
Dallas is desperate for defensive line help as both Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher are set to be free agents. DeMarcus Ware is still under contract, but the Cowboys may need to cut Ware if they can’t work out a deal to reduce his salary cap hit. If the Cowboys are forced to cut Ware, their desperation, goes to extreme levels making Orakpo an even more likely target (and it frees up additional money for him). Assuming they keep Ware, the Cowboys could still decide that bringing Orakpo back to the state of Texas is a priority, despite the salary cap hurdles. Dallas’s competitive window is pretty small right now with three of their top players, Ware, Tony Romo and Jason Witten are near the end of their playing careers. If Dallas has any hope of getting back to the Super Bowl it likely needs to happen with those players still playing. If the Cowboys play it safe with the cap, they can make the prudent choices and get themselves out of Cap Hell sooner rather than later, but it also means they aren’t going to be any better than a .500 team during this window. Another factor to consider is Owner/G.M. Jerry Jones. Jones has not been one to make prudent decisions in the past, and he could be looking at his window of time. Jones will be 72 this season, and he could be getting desperate for one more shot at the Lombardi Trophy before he has to give up the reins of the team.
Now I know what everyone is saying, “the Cowboys are in Cap Hell, there is no way they can afford Brian Orakpo”. While it is true the Cowboys currently have the most money over the cap at just over $17 million, their cap outlook is better than people give them credit for. The Salary Cap was expected to rise to $126.4 million, but now that figure stands at $133 million. That cut the Cowboys cap overage from $24 million to $17 million, making it far more manageable. On top of that the outlook for the next two seasons is a cap that could be north of $140 million in 2015 and at least $150 million in 2016. Before it looked like the cap for those years would be in the low $130 millions. This allows the Cowboys to restructure some of their bigger contracts without risking their cap in future years. Before any decision needs to be made on DeMarcus Ware, Dallas can make some moves to get under the cap. The Cowboys can make a couple small cuts in Phil Costa (whom they already cut), Jeremy Parnell and Justin Durant, to get them around $14.5 million over the cap. Then after restructures to the deals of Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Brandon Carr, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick the Cowboys would end up being $10 million under the salary cap.
The downside of restructuring deals is it of course pushes money forward, but the the Cap expected to rise so much the next couple of years the Cowboys new cap commitments for 2015 and 2016 would be $137 million and $109 million respectively, under the current cap projections for those years. The Cowboys could get another windfall with designating Miles Austin a post June 1st cut. It would shave $5 million more off their bill this season, and would drop their future liabilities to $132 million and $96 million over the next two seasons. Now by cutting him like that, Dallas won’t be able to use that $5 million now as free agency starts, but they would know they have it coming as well as the future flexibility. It would allow the Cowboys some extra money to fill out their roster with some solid stop gaps this summer, or the Cowboys could even decide to roll the money over to their cap the next season.
The Cowboys could free up even more money if they get DeMarcus Ware (or any other player) to agree to a salary reduction. Ware may not want to do that, but he could also see the writing on the wall coming off a down season. Depending on how work the reduction and any possible restructure, the Cowboys cap space could rise between $4-9 million reasonably. It’s tough to speculate exactly what it will be, but it’s likely that Ware will be creating cap space one way or another.
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Though $10 million isn’t a lot of cap space to sign a player of Orakpo’s caliber, the Cowboys have shown no issues with back-loading deals. This would be just one more that they have to push the money forward. It might not be the most responsible move, but with the extra future cap room they can easily justify it. Also it is very likely the Cowboys do workout something with Ware to free up additional room. Dallas wouldn’t be able to sign any other big money guys, but they will lock up their biggest need while hurting their top division rival, I definitely think that is enough reason to put them in the mix.
The Giants are a team that has won the Super Bowl twice with a proven formula where they do one thing extremely well, and that is getting after the quarterback. In 2007 the Giants had 52 sacks, and their top three edge rushers Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Michael Strahan combined for 32 sacks and were an incredible force throughout the postseason. In 2011 the Giants had 48 sacks and their top three pass rushers, Umenyiora, Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for 30.5 sacks. Well Umenyiora left last season, and Justin Tuck is a free agent this year and is expected to test the market. That leaves the Giants with just Jason Pierre-Paul, who has combined for just 8.5 sacks these past two seasons and dealt with injuries this past year. New York still has former 1st rounder Mathias Kiwanuka who was second on the team last year with 6 sacks (behind Tuck), but he’s been a streaky player and has never lived up to his potential. The Giants need pass rushers desperately, and the draft might not be the best way for them to find any replacements. New York has a lot of key needs, and there might not be a defensive end worth the Giants pick in the first round. That leaves free agency as the Giants option to fix their pass rush, and if they get the shot at the best pass rusher on the market they could take it.
New York hasn’t gone after many top free agents in their past, but they’ve never been afraid to spend money on the market. Also the situation could be a bit different for the Giants as they could see this as a small window of time to really contend. Yes New York is coming off a 7-9 season, but they’ve been .500 or better every year since 2005. They should feel confident about being in the playoff mix with Eli Manning at the helm and Tom Coughlin on the side lines. The clock is running on both Coughlin’s and Manning’s time in New York so this is another case of a window closing. Though the team has plenty of other needs to fix, they can’t hope to contend if they don’t have the pass rush and they could make a splash to try to get back to the postseason.
The Giants currently sit at $19 million under the salary cap,which is about middle of the pack overall. While they need to spend some money to fix some other positions, some of that $19 million was going to be targeted to the defensive line. Whether it was to re-sign Tuck, or sign a free agent like Michael Johnson or Everson Griffin, they are planning on spending quite a bit on getting another pass rusher in there. Orakpo may be more than then they originally hoped to spend, but if you are going to spend money you mine as well be getting the best player. The Giants also are set to have plenty of cap room in the 2015 and 2016 seasons and those numbers are now even higher with the projected cap figures skyrocketing. New York doesn’t have to make it as backloaded of a deal as say the Cowboys, but they clearly have the future flexibility to do so.
Now unlike the Cowboys the Giants do need to use their money to fill a couple additional holes, so they do need to show some more responsibility, but they are also in a position to free up some cap room if need be. Eli Manning and Victor Cruz can be restructured if need be. That could save up to $11 million if they need to, and given how healthy their future cap is they would still be looking at $45 million (at least) in cap room in 2015. Chris Snee could be cut saving them almost $7 million, or what’s more likely is they work out a reduced contract for him saving them a similar amount of money. Also players like David Baas and Kiwanuka could be either cut for small savings now, or set as June 1st cuts to create a windfall at that point in time. Regardless how it’s done it is clear that the Giants have the cap space and flexibility to make a big splash if need be.
The Eagles won the NFC East last year mainly do to the strength of their offense. Their defense had some strengths (particularly turnovers), but really it was their offense that got them to the postseason. The good news for the Eagles is that their offense is pretty much entirely set for 2014. They have their QB, top 2 RB’s, entire starting offensive line, top 2 TE’s (they may cut Celek), top 4 WR’s (they may cut Avant) all under contract before free agency even hits. Even with having their offense entirely set, the Eagles are $26 million under the cap (just behind the Redskins). So they have money to spend on defense.
While some of that money will be targeted to fixing Philly’s secondary, the Eagles are in the market for a young talented pass rusher. Currently outside they have veteran Trent Cole, who led the team with 8 sacks last year, and 2013 FA pick-up Conner Barwin who had 5 sacks last year. Cole is still a good player adjusting to his new position, but he’s getting up there in age and should be more of a situational rusher. Barwin had a nice all-around season, but he’s not an impact rusher. Philadelphia wants to add a premium guy to mix into a rotation with Cole and Barwin either through free agency or the first round of the draft. If they go with Orakpo he will start with Barwin and Cole will either replace Barwin or be added in Philly’s version of the Nascar package.
Orakpo would be highly interesting to the Eagles and a pass rush that included him, Cole and defensive end Fletcher Cox, could cause a lot of problems for opposing offenses. Orakpo is the best pass rusher in general on the open market, and is even better for Philly given his proven ability to succeed in the 3-4.
With $26 million to spend before any cuts the Eagles have all the money they need to to lock up Orakpo and bring in a couple other key free agents. Though the Eagles have less money than the Redskins, they are actually in a better position since they don’t need as much (and they of course have a first round pick). Though Philadelphia doesn’t need to make cuts, they could look to make a few to really help their cap out (both this year and going forward). TE James Casey barely played last year, and he has a $4 million cap number. The Eagles can save $2 million this year and $4 million next year by cutting him. Wide Receiver Jason Avant has been a solid receiver for the Eagles, but with Philadelphia investing in both Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to pay Avant $3.25 million to be the 4th receiver. Tight End Brent Celek is another one who could be released with Zach Ertz taking over the primary TE duties. Celek would save the Eagles over $4 million both this year and next year by releasing him. Finally among bigger money guys, safety Patrick Chung could get the ax. The Eagles need to upgrade their safety spot and if they find some quality guys, Chung could be on his way out. They can save $3.25 million this year and nearly $4 million next year by releasing him.
Whether the Eagles make any or many of these moves remain to be seen, but it is clear they have the ability to free up plenty of additional money if they want to. They will have no problem signing Orakpo to a big money deal and landing multiple other quality defensive free agents. If Orakpo hits the market they should be expected to be very aggressive in pursuing him.