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Free agency's big spenders, pretenders, surprises

Free agency.

Two words that bring hope to the very least of the NFL's 32 teams.

It's a chance for talent-poor clubs to open their pocketbooks for blockbuster signings aimed at shifting the balance of power. Free agency also paves the road for bloated, big-money blunders as desperate front offices overpay in hopes of a quick fix.

So who's going to dish out the greenbacks come March 11? Who's staying stingy? And who's about to surprise us?

Let's take a look:

Big spenders


Oakland Raiders: Owner Mark Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle that this offseason is what "we've been building toward the last few years." Armed with more salary cap space than any team in the league -- over $66 million -- the Raiders have enough dough to purchase a low-level metropolis. Reggie McKenzie is a solid bet to pay for veteran talent on both sides of the ball after Davis -- sounding plenty like his father -- said his general manager has "no built-in excuses anymore." McKenzie is under pressure to add players in waves; Raiders fans can only hope he does so wisely.

Cleveland Browns: After pitching "plenty of cap room" as a tractor beam to lure coaching candidates, the Browns sound willing to spend. They'll be forced to overpay for talent, but look for Cleveland to go hard after players who fit Mike Pettine's multiple-look defensive scheme. Jairus Byrd (if he's not given the franchise tag by the Buffalo Bills) and (strangely) Bart Scott have been cited as targets. The Browns also need plenty of help in the backfield -- Ben Tate, anyone?

New York Jets: With ample spending room, the Jets have been linked to everyone from Michael Vick at quarterback to receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Whether or not Gang Green sticks with Geno Smith under center, New York desperately needs help all over the place on offense.

Baltimore Ravens: General manager Ozzie Newsome promised he'll be active on the open market, but if the Ravens spend, they'll do it with care. Torrey Smith wants Baltimore to add a "move-the-chains guy" at wide receiver. Makes sense, but after re-upping with tight end Dennis Pitta on Friday, we expect the team to tag left tackle Eugene Monroe and make a run at linebacker Daryl Smith before looking elsewhere. With 14 of their own players set to hit the open market -- and just four draft picks -- the Ravens have holes to fill.

Indianapolis Colts: Without a first-round pick in the draft, general manager Ryan Grigson must tap the open market to add depth to a defense that struggled down the stretch. The Colts have plenty of cap space and Grigson has been one of the league's more active roster-churners over the past two seasons. We wouldn't be surprised to see Indy go after Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker and add bodies to a defense that bled points down the stretch.

Washington Redskins: "We're gonna have some room to do some things," general manager Bruce Allen said last month. It starts at home, where the Redskins have opened contract talks with pass rusher Brian Orakpo after re-signing cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Linebacker Perry Riley makes sense as another possible re-signing, but he's one of 20 unrestricted free agents in Washington. Most of them aren't worth bringing back, so look for the 'Skins to go shopping to fill holes.

Pretenders


Pittsburgh Steelers: They're over the cap and traditionally a snoozefest in free agency. Nothing to see here.

Carolina Panthers: One of the combine's few straight talkers, general manager Dave Gettleman repeatedly used the term "cap-strapped" in Indy, opining on Carolina's struggle to affordably re-sign its own players while figuring out how to keep ascendant pass rusher Greg Hardy, who was franchise-tagged on Friday. Amid hints that wide receiver Steve Smith might be released, this team is in the mood to purge.

Detroit Lions: Without much wiggle room, we don't expect the Lions to race around for big-name free agents. Lowering Ndamukong Suh's $22.4 million cap figure would help the cause, but we anticipate a quiet March in Detroit.

San Diego Chargers: Hugged up against the cap, it's hard to imagine San Diego dipping liberally into free agency. If they do go shopping, look for the Bolts to mine for value, an approach they used last season to add the overachieving Danny Woodhead.

Potential surprises


Dallas Cowboys: Sitting roughly $20.9 million over the cap, Dallas has plenty of tough decisions to make. That's one reason owner Jerry Jones acknowledged that releasing DeMarcus Ware remains a possibility. The Cowboys still see themselves as Super Bowl contenders and Dallas always finds a way to make noise. Stay tuned.

Philadelphia Eagles: With the "Dream Team" debacle deep in the rearview mirror, general manager Howie Roseman might be willing to pull the trigger to help Chip Kelly add more Kelly-esque athletes. More than $20 million under the cap, Philly remains one of the NFL's more intriguing outposts from a team-building perspective.

Green Bay Packers: Free agency has long been an alien concept to this front office, but NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport was told that Green Bay might sign as many as five players. They haven't done that since 2006. The focus is believed to be on defense, where more athletic and versatile linemen are coveted -- and needed.

The latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast" discusses the top 101 free agents and forecasts the offseasons of the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs.

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