Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How The Broncos Could Possibly Approach the 2015 Offseason

Denver Broncos fans have been used to John Elway making headlines with his moves in free agency. In past seasons, he has brought in the likes of Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, all high-profile names.

The chances that it happens again this offseason are slim, not because cap space is tight or because the Broncos spent so much money in past years, but because the priority will be to get pending free agents re-signed.

There is concern among some fans that the Broncos might lose a lot of players in free agency, especially because teams such as the Jets, the Raiders and the Jaguars will enter the 2015 offseason with a lot of cap space. Per estimates from Over the Cap, with a projected cap of about $140 million for 2015, the Raiders will have $54.8 million in space, the Jags will have $44 million and the Jets $41.1 million.

The Broncos are not in a tight cap situation, though, as Over the Cap estimates the team's space to be $32 million. That's actually plenty of space to get a few players re-signed, while still allowing the Broncos to add a low-cost free agent or two, then sign their draft players and a few rookie free agents.

To get an idea about what the Broncos can do to retain their top free agents, you can visit Over the Cap's salary cap calculator and play around with it. Keep in mind that in order to keep the players you want to retain, you must consider the following:

* Which players to cut to free up cap space.
* Which players to restructure deals, converting base salary and roster bonuses into signing bonuses, giving you more cap room to work with now, while pushing some of the hit down the road.
* Which players are the priority to re-sign and how to structure their deals.
* Which player, if any, you should place the franchise tag on, with the possibility of signing that player to an extension.

I put together a list of moves that the Broncos can make to gain additional cap space, then determined which players were the priority to extend and which player to franchise, then went from there to determine what needs are to be filled in free agency elsewhere or in the draft. For players who are given extensions, I provided the breakdowns of their contracts, to give everyone the idea about how to structure a contract to make it cap friendly.

Start with the Broncos having $32 million in cap space.

Cut Britton Colquitt to save $2.25 million in cap space.
This is an obvious move to make. Colquitt would be due a $3 million base salary, which is way too much considering how much he has underachieved the past two seasons. He will turn 30 next year, so it's not likely the Broncos would re-sign him for less money, even if he is willing to take it.
The cap space rises from $32 million to $34.2 million.

Cut Andre Caldwell, saving $1.35 million in cap space.
It should be safe to cut Caldwell, even though the Broncos have two wide receivers who will be free agents. They drafted Cody Latimer and will get Jordan Norwood back, and Norwood comes at a lower salary. Plus the Broncos could find a wide receiver who can play special teams through free agency and likely get him for less money than Caldwell would cost.
The cap space rises from $34.2 million to $35.6 million.

Cut Manny Ramirez to save $2.3 million in cap space.
Ramirez turns 32 next year, has regressed this season and is not worth a $2.4 million cap hit at this point. The Broncos could find better options in free agency, or perhaps Ben Garland will be ready to take over as a starter.
The cap space rises from $35.6 million to $37.9 million.

Restructure Ryan Clady's contract, by converting his $1.5 million roster bonus and $5 million of his base salary into a $6.5 million signing bonus. Clady would still receive a $3.5 million base salary, fully guaranteed.
When you restructure a contract, you are not cutting the player's salary, but converting base salary and any roster bonuses into a signing bonus, which you can then spread out over the remaining years of the contract. The player benefits because he is given a lump sum of fully guaranteed money, and the team benefits by gaining cap space.
Clady would still get his money in full for 2015, with the only difference being how much is in the form of a signing bonus, so there should not be any issues with getting him to agree to restructure. If Clady doesn't agree to this restructure, he is very likely to be cut, so it would make more sense for Clady to agree to restructure, ensuring he gets the $10 million in money he is set to make. If he were cut, it's highly unlikely another team will give him $10 million for the 2015 season.
The cap space rises from $37.9 million to $42.2 million.

Restructure/extend Louis Vasquez's contract, by converting $4 million of his $5 million base salary into a signing bonus, and giving him an additional year on his contract into 2017 for $5.5 million (not guaranteed).
A restructure with a one-year extension would benefit Vasquez, because the $5 million in base salary is not fully guaranteed, but converting much of that into a signing bonus gives him fully guaranteed money for the 2015 season. Because he has been one of Denver's better linemen, and will still be in the prime of his career, it makes sense to add a year to his deal, at the same amount he is set to make in 2016. The Broncos, meanwhile, benefit from additional cap relief.
The cap space rises from $42.2 million to $44.9 million.

No tenders will be extended to Tony Carter or John Youboty.
It's clear that Carter is not going to be with the Broncos next season. As for Youboty, the Broncos are in good shape at defensive end, so they don't absolutely need to keep Youboty. They can always find undrafted rookies they could sign to provide competition for training camp.

Original round RFA tenders and/or ERFA tenders to Ben Garland, Paul Cornick, Brandon Marshall, Steven Johnson and Aaron Brewer.
First of all, I am hearing different stories regarding LB Brandon Marshall, with some saying that he is a restricted free agent, while others say he is an exclusive rights free agent. Regardless, it's clear the Broncos need to tender him. Assuming he is an RFA, an original round tender is $1.33 million.
As for the others, Garland and Cornick are ERFAs, while Johnson and Brewer are RFAs. I think the Broncos will want to keep Garland and Cornick because of their familiarity with what the Broncos do. Johnson is a quality depth and special teams player who is worth an original round tender, and Brewer has been a good long snapper. I doubt either player will be highly coveted by other teams, so an original round tender for both makes sense.
The tenders reduce the cap space from $44.9 million to $39.9 million.

Here I will focus on the  players who the Broncos should re-sign. These are the players in which the Broncos will need to do a good job of structuring contracts and signing bonuses to make them cap friendly, while still rewarding each player with a pay increase worthy of their overall play.

Re-sign Chris Harris to a five-year, $65 million contract. The contract would include an $11 million signing bonus (fully guaranteed) and a fully guaranteed base salary of $1.5 million. He would have 2016 and 2017 salaries of $11 million and $12 million, guaranteed for injury only, becoming fully guaranteed if he's on the roster on a certain date.
I examined the contracts for Joe Haden, Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson to get an idea about how the Broncos can structure Harris' contract. Here's what the structure would look like.

Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $1.5M                   $2.2M                   $3.7M   $12.5M                 ($8.8M)
2016       $11M                     $2.2M                   $13.2M $8.8M                   $4.4M
2017       $12M                     $2.2M                   $14.2M $6.6M                   $7.6M
2018       $14.5M                 $2.2M                   $16.7M $4.4M                   $12.3M
2019       $15M                     $2.2M                   $17.2M $2.2M                   $15M

As you can see, the years in which Harris' contract would take the greatest hit are pushed down the road when the cap is expected to rise further. Harris benefits by getting $12.5 million in fully guaranteed money, and in the next two seasons, he can ensure himself that money by continuing to perform at the high level he has shown. In 2018, the Broncos can decide whether or not to restructure/extend his deal to get cap relief and reward him again with fully guaranteed money.
This contact reduces the cap space from $39.9 million to $36.2 million.

Re-sign Demaryius Thomas to a five-year, $70 million contract. The contract would include a $14 million signing bonus (fully guaranteed) and a fully guaranteed base salary of $1 million. He would have 2016 and 2017 salaries of $13 million each year, guaranteed for injury only, becoming fully guaranteed if he's on the roster on a certain date.
I used the contracts that Mike Wallace and Percy Harvin recently signed as baselines, but took into account that Thomas is deserving of more money than either of those receivers. I figure that an average salary per year of $14 million is what he will command, as that would put him among the top five salaries for wide receivers. Here is the contract structure.

Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $1M                       $2.8M                   $3.8M   $15M                     ($11.2M)
2016       $13M                     $2.8M                   $15.8M $11.2M                 $4.6M
2017       $13M                     $2.8M                   $15.8M $8.4M                   $7.4M
2018       $14M                     $2.8M                   $16.8M $5.6M                   $11.2M
2019       $15M                     $2.8M                   $17.8M $2.8M                   $15M

Again, the largest figures in the contract are pushed down to the final two years, plus Thomas can ensure himself a large portion of the contract by continuing to perform at a high level. As with Harris, the Broncos can decide what to do with Thomas in 2018.
This contract extension reduces the cap space from $36.2 million to $32.4 million.

Re-sign Orlando Franklin to a four-year, $21 million contract. The contract would include a $4 million signing bonus (fully guaranteed) and a fully guaranteed base salary of $1 million. His 2016 salary of $5 million is guaranteed for injury only, becoming fully guaranteed if he's on the roster on a certain date.
I looked at Louis Vasquez, who got a similar deal, only with slightly more total money ($23 million). Franklin might have to take less money, but such a contract would still reward him well, especially because he has never made more than $1 million in a single season. Here is the structure for this contract. 

Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $1M                       $1M                       $2M       $5M                       ($3M)
2016       $5M                       $1M                       $6M       $3M                       $3M
2017       $5M                       $1M                       $6M       $2M                       $4M
2018       $6M                       $1M                       $7M       $1M                       $6M
This contract extension reduces the cap space from $32.4 million to $30.4 million.

Re-sign Terrance Knighton to a three-year, $18 million contract. The contract would include a $5 million signing bonus (fully guaranteed) and a fully guaranteed base salary of $1 million. In 2016, he would receive a $1.5 million roster bonus, along with a $3.5 million base salary, if he is on the roster on a certain date.
Certainly the Broncos will want to reward Knighton for his play, but he's not likely to get as much as some may think, because his quality of play has been tied so much to the presence of Jack Del Rio. Additionally, he will turn 29 next season, so you have to be careful how much money you commit to him.
I believe a three-year deal that will guarantee Knighton $6 million for 2015, and the incentive to earn an additional $5 million in 2016, will be worth it to Knighton, given that he was paid just $4 million in the past two seasons. Here is the contract structure.

Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $1M                       $1.66M                 $2.66M $6M                       ($3.33M)
2016       $3.5M ($1.5M B) $1.66M               $6.66M $3.33M                 $3.33M
2017       $7M                       $1.66M                 $8.66M $1.66M                 $7M
This contract extension reduces the cap space from $30.4 million to $27.7 million.

Re-sign Virgil Green to a three-year, $4.5 million contract. The contract would include a $1.2 million signing bonus.
Green has been invaluable as a blocking tight end and special teams player. I used David Bruton's contract as the guideline, because Bruton has also been a quality special teams player and has similar value to Green. Here is the contract structure.
Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $800K                    $400K                    $1.2M   $1.2M                   $0
2016       $1.25M                 $400K                    $1.65M $800K                    $850K
2017       $1.25M                 $400K                    $1.65M $400K                    $1.25M
This contract extension reduces the cap space from $27.7 million to $26.5 million.

Place the franchise tag on Julius Thomas, which is roughly $8 million. Given that Thomas is not a good blocking tight end, it doesn't make sense to extend him right away. Players such as Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are not only top pass-catching tight ends, but they are very good at blocking. Better to put the tag on Thomas for the 2015 season and then re-evaluate. Using the tag on Julius Thomas reduces the cap space to $18.5 million.

As for what to do with the remainder of free agents and other areas of focus, here is what I would do.

* Possibly re-sign: Will Montgomery could be brought back to be the center if a better option cannot be found. Nate Irving and Rahim Moore might be worth retaining, but both would have to take low-cost deals for not more than two years and I would not give them a lot of guaranteed money.

* Don't re-sign: Wes Welker is aging and declining, so he is not worth keeping. Quinton Carter is good in coverage but a poor tackler and the Broncos should consider other options. Mitch Unrein and Jacob Tamme have been good for depth and special teams, but the Broncos should be able to fill those spots with younger players through other means.

* Priorities elsewhere in free agency: A center if one can be found (or bring back Montgomery), a wide receiver who can play special teams, a free safety if Moore is not brought back.

* Priorities in the draft: The offensive line, with particular attention to guard and left tackle, plus linebacker, safety and tight end.

As far as what would need to be done in 2016, it is true the moves this season would reduce the Broncos' available cap space for that season to $19 million. But the Broncos might get space freed up if Peyton Manning decides to retire after the 2015 season, which would free up $19 million in cap space by itself. Even if he doesn't, the Broncos would likely release Aqib Talib, especially if Bradley Roby continues improving, which would free up $7 million in cap space. DeMarcus Ware would likely be released as well, given that the Broncos could be ready to put Quanterrus Smith into the starting lineup, along with re-signing Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. Cutting Ware frees $10 million in cap space. Finally, if Ryan Clady doesn't improve in 2015, he could be cut after that season, freeing up $6.7 million in space.

Releasing Talib, Ware and Clady would increase the Broncos' cap space in 2016 from $19 million to $43.3 million, even if Peyton Manning decides to return for 2016. That cap space is more than enough to re-sign Von Miller, Danny Trevathan, Wolfe and Jackson to new deals, and would allow the Broncos a chance to pursue other free agents.

So it really isn't that difficult for the Broncos to get their top free agents re-signed. It just requires a wise usage of signing bonuses and contract restructures, all which can give players a lot of money up front, while giving the Broncos cap flexibility.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Broncos Need A WR Change, But Maybe Not The One You Think

Along with the issues the Broncos have on the offensive line, there is a debate as to whether or not Andre Caldwell should continue to return kicks for the Broncos and whether or not they would be better served by letting Cody Latimer see more time on the playing field.

There is some merit to the argument, but the argument might also need to include another player who has not been performing well this season: Wes Welker.

Before people start asking what Welker has to do with Caldwell and Latimer, let's go back to the preseason. The Broncos were trying to determine who would return punts and kicks, with Caldwell, Jordan Norwood and Isaiah Burse the leading candidates. Norwood was leading the race to be the return man, but he was lost for the season to a knee injury. Had Norwood not been injured, he likely would have taken on the return duties and we might not be having the discussion about Caldwell.

Let's now take a look at Latimer. The Broncos drafted him because Welker and Demaryius Thomas were both free agents after this season, so they needed to have a receiver who could be ready to enter the starting lineup by the 2015 season. The Broncos would certainly like to re-sign Thomas, but they were likely preparing to part ways with Welker after this season. And given they have more free agents to consider resigning than just Demaryius Thomas, signing a well-known wide receiver in free agency isn't likely to happen, unless they allow Demaryius to depart.

Thus, it makes sense that the Broncos view Latimer as the receiver who is ultimately going to enter the starting lineup and not be utilized on special teams, as is currently the case with Caldwell and Burse. They probably would like to get him some special teams work, but they haven't done so in most games.

I suspect they have a valid reason, and it's less likely to have anything to do with the Broncos liking Caldwell better, and more likely to do with Latimer struggling with special teams during practice and the preseason. I don't have access to preseason game film to make that determination, but it is an area that can be overlooked when we concentrate so much on what a receiver does on the offense and as a return man. If Latimer is struggling with special teams play in general, then it doesn't make sense to replace Caldwell with Latimer on special teams.

But given that Latimer is expected to take over as one of the top three receivers next year, it might make more sense to have him replace Wes Welker.

Let's be honest when it comes to assessing Welker's performance -- he is not an elite receiver. Throughout his career, Welker has had issues with dropped passes, and that has not been corrected since he came to the Broncos. In fact, one only needs to go back to last season, when Welker's stat line shows he played well, but there were multiple instances of him dropping catchable balls.

During the preseason, Welker had a concussion, his third in two seasons. He also was suspended for a couple of games for violating the substance abuse policy. The suspension was later reduced when the policy was modified, but ever since Welker has returned to the field, he has been ineffective. He has just 30 catches in eight games for 264 yards. Based on current averages of 3.8 receptions and 33 yards per game, he will finish with just 53 receptions for 462 yards.

His lack of production can't be entirely explained by the presence of Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Last season, when Eric Decker was in the lineup, Welker had 778 yards on 73 receptions in 13 games, for averages of 5.6 receptions and 59.8 yards per game. Over a 16-game season, those averages would amount to nearly 90 receptions and 957 yards. This season. Welker's averages in 16 games would amount to 61 receptions and 528 yards. Thus, it's clear that Welker is in decline.

I do agree that it's time to get Latimer more involved with the team on game days, and this week's game against Miami is a good time to try him out, especially if Emmanuel Sanders isn't cleared to play because of the concussion he suffered against St. Louis.

However, the player Latimer should ultimately replace in the lineup is not Caldwell, but Welker. Given that the Broncos intended for Latimer to replace one of their pending free agent wide receivers, it makes sense to get Latimer into the lineup to see if he can be more effective than Welker has been.

This does not mean the Broncos should not get Welker involved for any reason for the rest of the season. Instead, it may be time to utilize Welker more often on special teams, similarly to how they have been utilizing Jacob Tamme this and last season, after Tamme saw much time with the offense. It is true that Welker will be paid a lot of money this season, but you have to set that aside at this stage of the season, given Welker's ineffectiveness.

By utilizing Welker on special teams and as the veteran receiver who is available if necessary, it allows the Broncos to then deactivate Caldwell on game days in which they do not wish to keep six receivers active. The Broncos could utilize Omar Bolden on kick returns, which they tried for one game, but stopped doing after he missed a game with a concussion.

If the Broncos are worried about utilizing anybody on special teams after they get a concussion, they need to not be that way. They certainly need to follow the proper protocols, but once players are cleared to return to the lineup, they need to be utilized where they will do the most benefit, not where they are most likely to avoid further injury.

There are valid criticisms regarding Caldwell, but that does not mean Latimer is qualified to take on those special teams duties that normally fall on Caldwell. But given what the Broncos would like Latimer to become, it does make sense to get him involved on offense, and that needs to come about by replacing Welker as much as possible, given that Welker is struggling just as much as Caldwell has.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Examining The Broncos Offensive Line Issues

Today's Denver Bronco game against the St. Louis Rams was a perfect exercise about why it has become important for the Broncos to establish the running game early, and why the Broncos have been juggling around the offensive linemen to find a combination that works.

I won't get too deeply into today's game, except to say that that the offensive line was not the sole reason, or necessarily the main reason, the Broncos lost today. But the offensive line tends to get overlooked when figuring out why the Broncos are having some difficulties against certain teams.

It's easy to look at the defense, which made the headlines because of the money given to players such as DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, but that really isn't the reason the Broncos are having issues against teams whose strong point is having a quality defensive line -- something the Rams have, as well as the Seahawks (before the injury to Brandon Mebane, anyway) and the Jets, both teams the Broncos have played, and the Dolphins, the next team on Denver's schedule.

The issue goes back in part to Peyton Manning, who normally excels against attacking blitzes, but is now becoming too concerned with not taking hits and sacks, and so he tends to force some throws he shouldn't make. This especially became a problem today, when Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas left the game with injuries, and Peyton became too focused on threading the ball to Jacob Tamme, which led to one of his two interceptions and several incompletions. But one reason why he seems to be doing this is because he seems to not trust his offensive line like he should.

And that brings me to the offensive line. Last season, as every Bronco fan will recall, Chris Clark did a good job as left tackle when Ryan Clady was lost for the season to an injury, Manny Ramirez proved to be a capable center, Orlando Franklin was emerging as a top right tackle and Louis Vasquez had an All-Pro season. Then there was Zane Beadles, who excelled as a run blocker but was poor in pass protection.

The offensive line struggled in last season's Super Bowl, in large part because the Seattle Seahawks had multiple players they could rotate and move around on the defensive line, allowing them to contain the running game and generate pressure from different spots. The Broncos, in recognizing this, opted to let Beadles depart in free agency, then move Franklin to guard and put Clark at right tackle, in hopes of improving both the run blocking and pass protection.

In the first half of the season, the pass protection was generally good but the run blocking was not. Franklin has actually been good at left guard, but Ramirez has not looked comfortable playing alongside him, and Clark struggled with run blocking. Because the run blocking wasn't there, this allowed teams to play more often against the pass, particularly when they had a defensive line that could get a push up front. This, in turn, has affected Peyton and what he is able to do well.

The Broncos have since tried Paul Cornick at right tackle, but an injury during practice took him out of the lineup. They have since moved Vasquez to right tackle, Ramirez to right guard, and inserted Will Montgomery at center. Montgomery has been adequate, but Ramirez continues to struggle. So this has prompted the Broncos to work out Richie Incognito, which in turn has drawn concerns about whether or not he's the right guy to bring into the Broncos' locker room.

Getting back to what the Broncos did this past offseason, I believe they had the right idea in giving Clark a shot at starting at right tackle, but his performance has shown he just isn't comfortable in that spot. One can use hindsight bias to say that Franklin should have remained at right tackle and the Broncos should have signed a low-priced veteran to play left guard (along with the signing of Montgomery). But it would make sense to move Franklin back to right tackle, where he was very effective last season, and slide Vasquez back to right guard. Montgomery should remain the starting center, and that leaves the left guard spot. It might be worth one more shot with Ramirez to see if he fits better there.

If not, then the Broncos may have to bite the bullet and bring in Incognito. I am well aware of his reputation and that it goes far beyond the bullying incident with Jonathan Martin last season. But given that the Broncos are intent on getting to the Super Bowl this season, they may have to make the move in order to get better up front.

Let me be clear that I do have mixed feelings about signing Incognito. On one hand, I am concerned about the potential distraction he could bring to the team. There would certainly be a lot of pundits talking about whether or not it's a good idea to have him in the locker room and that it shows the Broncos are overly desperate to win a Super Bowl. Points will be raised that Incognito has never shown he can elevate the play of his teammates, as some might argue when the Broncos had Bill Romanowski in the locker room back in the late 1990s.

On the other hand, I believe the Broncos now have a locker room environment that should allow them to nip such issues in the bud. We all know about the list of how many times Bronco players have been arrested for off-field incidents, but it's worth noting the bulk of those occurred under Mike Shanahan. One of the problems with Shanahan was that it seemed he had no problem bringing any player into the locker room, so long as his teams were a playoff contender, and he paid little mind to those off-field incidents.

This does not appear to be the case with John Fox, who has several players in the locker room who do not tolerate serious issues that could disrupt the locker room. Peyton Manning, Terrance Knighton, DeMarcus Ware and Chris Harris are all players who lead the locker room and expect that their teammates be good to each other and not allow incidents to become a distraction. Knighton and Harris in particular have been vocal about how players need to conduct themselves properly. I would suspect they would be two of the first players to remind Incognito that the actions he has perpetrated in the past are not to be tolerated.

Regardless of what the Broncos decide to do about Incognito, though, they do need to move Franklin back to right tackle, Vasquez back to right guard, and find somebody else to play left guard, whether that is Ramirez, Ben Garland, or somebody else they sign. Then, in the offseason, they need to re-sign Franklin and keep him at right tackle, get Clady to restructure his contract to free up cap space, then consider their options at center and left guard. They will definitely need to take one early in the 2015 draft, while deciding what low priced free agents may need to be brought in. I would suspect the Broncos will part ways with Ramirez, and they may do the same with Clark if they are convinced that Michael Schofield is ready to step up as the new backup tackle behind Clady.

But the lesson to be learned is that sometimes linemen aren't going to be comfortable in a certain position, as definitely has been the case with Clark at right tackle, and that it sometimes works better to just replace a departing player with someone who can comfortably play the open position on the line.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Teams With The Biggest Cap Issues in 2015

As we pass the midway point of the season, the speculation begins not only about what teams are most likely going to reach the playoffs, but what teams may need to do in preparation for next season.

One of the issues each team must consider when making offseason moves is how much salary cap space is available. The NFL has not officially set the cap for the 2015 season, but new deals for the rights to air NFL games are expected to put the cap at $140 million.

It's likely the actual cap will be slightly higher, but there are several teams that will have to make some tough decisions in the offseason to free up cap space, with some of them having to make equally tough decisions about which pending free agents they will be able to retain.

Here's a brief look at four teams which have the biggest cap issues and what they may be forced to do. All cap figures are based on the projected cap of $140 million.

New Orleans: The Saints  are in a tough spot, as they will be $19.5 million over the cap and must make several cuts and contract restructures to get under the cap. That's tough for a team that has some issues on defense and its offensive line, yet has the expectation that it will be a division contender, and with that comes the expectation of reaching the Super Bowl.

The Saints are likely to approach Drew Brees about restructuring his deal, which could include extending his current deal into 2017 and converting much of his $18.75 million base salary in 2015 into a signing bonus. They will likely do the same with Marques Colston -- cutting him is an option, but they may prefer to keep him around one more year while their younger receivers continue developing.

New Orleans will have to cut a few players, though, and it's likely offensive guard Jahri Evans would be one of them, as he will turn 32 next year and will count for $11 million against the cap. Brodrick Bunkley, Pierre Thoms and Ben Watson are also likely gone.  From there, the Saints will have to focus on the draft and free agent bargains to fill needs. It's possible they could extend Mark Ingram, but if they do, they would be wise to not overpay.

49ers: Another team with a "win now" mindset, the Niners will be $9.5 million over the cap. The Niners are likely to approach Patrick Willis about a contract restructure, which could include an extension that converts much of his $7 million base salary in 2015 into a signing bonus. A two-year extension might make sense, given that he has been a valued member of the defense.

A surprise release could be Justin Smith, who is a popular player, but turns 36 and whose production could be replaced by a younger player. Phil Dawson, who would count for $4.1 million against the cap, is also likely gone. Vernon Davis and Stevie Johnson are both likely cuts, but they could be brought back under new deals that would help the Niners' short-term cap situation.

That leaves free agents, in which Mike Iupati is the only high-profile player the Niners are likely to extend. The franchise tag is a possibility, but an extension would make more sense to ensure the Niners have the cap space they need to sign any low-cost free agents they want, along with their draft picks.

Arizona: The Cardinals are on the heels of giving Carson Palmer an extension, and now sit at $8.8 million over the cap with Palmer out for the season with a torn ACL. Given how well the Cardinals have played under Bruce Arians, they will definitely enter 2015 with the expectation to contend for the playoffs again.

The biggest question will be what to do with Darnell Dockett, who turns 33 and enters the final year of his contract. Cutting him would save $6.8 million in cap space, but the Cardinals will have to wait to see if he is fully recovered from his ACL injury, lest they have to pay him an injury settlement.

It's likely the Cardinals will approach Larry Fitzgerald about restructuring his deal again, converting the $8 million roster bonus he is due into a signing bonus. Calais Campbell could be asked to do the same, and it would make sense to extend his deal two years and convert much of his $9 million base salary into a signing bonus. The only pending free agent the Cardinals may want to re-sign is Antonio Cromartie, but they may prefer to stick with Jerraud Powers, who is several years younger.

Miami: The Dolphins will enter 2015 slightly over the projected cap, coming in $1.4 million above, and will certainly expect to be a playoff contender. The obvious question will center on Mike Wallace, who isn't worth the contract he signed, but cutting him in 2015 won't help the Dolphins that much. It's more likely he will be asked to restructure his deal.

Cutting Cameron Wake is an option, but he's one of the Dolphins' better defenders, so an extension that converts some of his $8.2 million base salary into a signing bonus would make more sense. I imagine the Dolphins would prefer to part ways with Darnell Ellerbee, but that may mean an injury settlement would be due. One likely cut will be Cortland Finnegan, who hasn't lived up to expectations.

The main reason Miami will have to make some cap moves is because Jared Odrick is a pending free agent, as is Louis Delmas, who proved to be a bargain but isn't going to accept a mere $2.25 million salary again. An extension for Odrick would be better than a franchise tag as far as cap space goes. Otherwise, Miami doesn't have any pending free agents it really needs to retain.