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Free agency: Bears, Browns primed to spend big

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Giants general manager Jerry Reese got the last laugh. His free agent spending spree last March inspired raised eyebrows and widespread criticism from writers prone to pointing out that offseason championships rarely translate to the field.

The 2016 Giants proved to be an exception. Reese's four big pieces in free agency -- cornerback Janoris Jenkins, end Olivier Vernon, tackle Damon Harrison and end Jason Pierre-Paul -- keyed a dramatic Giants turnaround on defense. The massive dollars paid out don't look so crazy now with exorbitant cap space all over the league and few great free agents to spend it on. Any one of the Giants' big signings from a year ago would today rank among the top five free agents about to become available.

So which teams are in contention to be this year's Giants as the biggest spenders?

The dark horse

New England Patriots: The Patriots have eight players in our Top 101 list and $61.9 million in cap space with which to replace those snaps, according to Over The Cap. Bill Belichick trades with abandon and could be active as a buyer (Brandin Cooks?) and as a seller, with Jimmy Garoppolo.

The Patriots are known for going after Phase 2 free agents, but the team isn't afraid to spend big dollars occasionally on players who catch Belichick's eye, Rosevelt Colvin, Adalius Thomas and Rodney Harrison included. Belichick is still more likely to hold tight in the first hours of free agency before diving in with a large swath of moves this season, hoping to find value. The team has too many vacancies and too much confidence orchestrating trades to stay quiet this month.

The contenders

Jacksonville Jaguars: The organization has spent heavily in free agency since owner Shad Khan arrived in 2011, with little tangible progress to show for it in the standings. GM Dave Caldwell stressed at the combine that the team can't be "careless" with its money, but he is under pressure to win now or lose his job later. That heat and a surplus of cap space ($71 million) could lead to a busy month.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans know they need to get more receiving help around quarterback Marcus Mariota and have been connected to big names like Alshon Jeffery and Brandin Cooks. The secondary needs a huge overhaul, and the team has more than $60 million in cap room. GM Jon Robinson showed last season with his draft trades and acquisition of veteran running back DeMarco Murray in a swap with the Eagles that he's not afraid to be aggressive.

San Francisco 49ers: This grand experiment pairing coach Kyle Shanahan and newbie GM John Lynch could get weird fast. Lynch said it was "somewhat liberating" to have no quarterbacks on the roster, which must make perusing the rest of this barren lineup feel like running naked through a field of sunflowers. But Lynch and Shanahan expressed enviable confidence and honesty in front of the cameras and said behind the scenes they would be fine.

"Don't worry. We are going to acquire one," the 49ers have told teams about their quarterback hunt, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.

I asked Lynch where he felt the 49ers were strongest. He cited their lines on both sides of the ball, especially after picking up early free agent defensive tackle Earl Mitchell. This roster needs essentially everything else, except for a starting running back. The Niners have $93 million in cap space, so don't expect Lynch and Shanahan's six-year contracts to make them slow-jam this rebuild.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bucs GM Jason Licht and coach Dirk Koetter haven't hidden their desire for offensive upgrades. DeSean Jackson-to-Tampa is one of the most persistent pre-free agency rumors, and the Bucs also could make sense as a destination for Adrian Peterson. The feeling that this roster is on the cusp is almost entirely due to the presence of quarterback Jameis Winston and receiver Mike Evans. Look deeper, and this team has just as many depth-chart holes as when Raheem Morris was roaming the sidelines. I suspect Licht knows he needs help and will be ready to spend.

(Monday's expensive five-year deal for run-stuffing defensive end William Gholston was a sign of things to come.)

Cleveland Browns: The Browns have the most cap space (over $100 million), the most needs and one win under this current front office. It's no surprise, then, that buzz in Indianapolis had the Browns showing some level of interest in a ton of free agents. Perhaps VP Sashi Brown was just investigating the market with the knowledge that the Browns could fit any player into their pay structure. Even if they wind up spending big money on a quarterback like Tyrod Taylor (presuming Taylor and the Bills part ways), the Browns will have enough left over to sign starters at multiple positions.

And the winner will be ...

Chicago Bears: This is Year 3 of the Ryan Pace-John Fox marriage in Chicago, and they need to show quick progress after a 3-13 season. Their biggest needs (cornerback and wide receiver) match up well with the depth of this market, and they will have plenty of cap room to spend. The Bears have over $50 million in space, and that's before saving over $12 million when they inevitably release quarterback Jay Cutler.

The Chicago Tribune reports the Bears are interested in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and right tackle Rick Wagner, two players who could set the market at their respective positions. The Bears clearly won't be afraid to get into the deep end of the pool after striking out in pursuit of defensive tackle Malik Jackson last year.

The Bears' expected flirtation with Mike Glennon is what vaults them to No. 1 on this list, as landing a starting quarterback, Gilmore and Wagner would require a significant investment of funds. This is how a general manager puts his livelihood on the line: spend huge money on a handful of position players and sign an untested starting quarterback.

Going big paid off for the Giants last offseason. Pace and his Chicago Bears are primed to take the same approach this time around.

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