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.