The free agency period begins next week, but the top tier of the market took shape Monday, when the deadline for teams to apply the franchise tag came and went. And this free agency period promises to be a potentially frenzied one, with two key cogs from two premier defenses likely available for hire, and with teams flush with cash, working under a salary cap that has risen by $20 million in the last two years and goaded by the minimum spending requirement of the collective bargaining agreement. That is usually a formula for eye-popping contracts.
Below are the most interesting teams and players to watch when the permitted tampering period begins this weekend and the contracts get settled on Tuesday:
New England Patriots
Still-celebrating Patriots fans felt their first shivers of anxiety about 2015 when the reigning Super Bowl champions elected to use their franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, thus allowing free safety Devin McCourtyto hit the open market -- unless they can work out a deal before next Tuesday. This represents a significant risk for New England. There is no disrespect intended toward Gostkowski -- he is arguably the best kicker in the NFL, and he is in good franchise-tag company: the Patriots tagged Adam Vinatieri twice when he was in New England. The team made clear in a statement Monday afternoon that it wants to work out a long-term contract with Gostkowski. But the kicker surely was tagged because doing so will cost $4.56 million, versus the $9.62 million it would have cost to tag McCourty.
Though the veteran defender is a Bill Belichick favorite and one of the team's leaders, the Patriots' financial discipline could keep them from making the top offer for McCourty. If he hits the open market, he'll attract significant interest, because he certainly will be the best free-agent safety available in a year that also has a thin draft class at the position. Would McCourty take a hometown discount to remain with the Patriots? Or could someone like Denver Broncos general manager John Elway, who last year admitted he was in an arms race with New England, try to lure him west? Ryan Grigson, the Indianapolis Colts' aggressive GM, would probably want to be at the front of the line for McCourty, too, because acquiring him would have a dual benefit: it would strengthen Indy's shaky secondary and seriously ding one of the few AFC teams at the Colts' level.
Patriots fans have their fingers crossed, because they are also breathing into brown bags about cornerback Darrelle Revis, the big acquisition from last year's free-agent class. Revis' impact on the defense in 2014 can't be overstated. As he did with the Jets, he was able to essentially remove an opponent's top receiver from the game, or he could move around the field throughout. That ability gave the Patriots tremendous flexibility. Of course, Revis' two-year contract carries a $20 million team option and $25 million salary-cap figure for 2015, which New England certainly would rather not absorb. Thus, the Patriots likely won't keep him unless they can negotiate a new -- and more team-friendly -- deal.
Last year, Revis took less up-front money from New England because, according to his mentor -- and former Patriot -- Ty Law, Revis wanted to win a championship. Now that he's done that, he has another decision to make. Does he want to get top dollar, as he has in earlier contract negotiations (some of which damaged his relationship with the Jets), out of what will likely be his last big contract? Or does he want to remain in New England? Until last year, Revis had the reputation of being a mercenary, and if he wants to maximize his market again, the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins -- all teams very familiar with his prowess -- will be in the race. Losing Revis and McCourty would be a gut-punch for the Patriots. Keeping them both, while also retaining Gostkowski, would mean most of the key pieces of their championship-winning squad will remain intact.
One of the market's savviest players, New England rarely goes wild in free agency. The Pats will be one of the most intriguing teams to follow in the coming days -- but the "In Bill we trust" credo of their fans may be tested.
The Detroit Lions were maybe the final victims of the huge rookie deals allowed under the old collective bargaining agreement. Because the Lions were so bad a few years ago, they had many high draft picks. Receiver Calvin Johnson (selected second overall, 2007), quarterback Matthew Stafford (first overall, 2009) and Suh (second overall, 2010) changed the fortunes of the franchise -- but they also cost a lot of money, and Detroit has repeatedly had to push that money back to manage the cap. The bill appears to have come due. Because of earlier restructurings, Suh's franchise-tag number would have been close to $27 million for 2015, a whopping -- and untenable -- figure. The Lions swallowed hard and did the right thing, choosing not to apply the franchise tag to the defensive tackle, but Suh is now on track to become the best defensive lineman to hit free agency since Reggie White. It is that rare for a player of this caliber to reach the open market.
Now what? The Lions expressed confidence last year that they would get a long-term contract done with Suh, but letting him get this close to free agency makes that unlikely. Suh almost certainly will look to become the top-paid defensive player in the league, one who should draw a $100 million deal. The Lions probably just said goodbye to their best player, one who enters free agency in a perfect storm for a player to get a huge payday.
That, of course, is very good news for a few teams that have plenty of money to spend and a need for someone of Suh's caliber. The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Oakland Raiders come to mind. Those teams, aside from having considerable cap space, also have to be active because they are well below the minimum spending levels mandated by the CBA, which requires teams to spend 89 percent of the salary cap from 2013 to 2016 in cash.
But those are just two possibilities. The Colts could use Suh, too. So could a whole bunch of other teams. His reputation for dirty play aside, Suh is a transcendent force, a defensive game changer, the kind of player who rarely comes on the market in his prime. And there aren't many teams that wouldn't at least take a cursory pass at gauging his interest in them.
The pass-catcher market
Following his second consecutive 12-touchdown season in Denver, Julius Thomas promises to be the top tight end available. Peyton Manning had great chemistry with him. Yes, health has been Thomas' undoing throughout his career, with a sprained ankle that cost him three games in 2014 being the latest example. He'll attract plenty of attention, though.
It's hard to imagine that the Eagles won't be able to work out a long-term deal with Maclin, who stepped into the No. 1 receiver role and put up 1,318 yards and 10 scores after Philadelphia released DeSean Jackson last year and overpaid Riley Cooper. Maclin also has said he wants to remain with the Eagles. If he hits the market, though, look out for Andy Reid, the former Eagles coach who drafted Maclin in the first round in 2009 and whose Kansas City Chiefs desperately need receivers after going the entire 2014 season without a touchdown reception from one of them.
That leaves Cobb as the potential big winner. His career-best season in Green Bay last year (1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns) would make him a No. 1 on almost any other team -- that is, any other team that didn't also have Jordy Nelson on the field. Instead, he's been used as a slot receiver, and slot receivers are typically paid less than those who line up outside.
That Cobb wasn't tagged by the Packers is not much of a surprise -- they rarely use the tag -- even though they could easily have absorbed the cap hit. Cobb could certainly still be retained by Green Bay, which went down to the wire with cornerback Sam Shields last year, getting a long-term deal done in the opening hours of the legal tampering period. But if Cobb hits the open market, he'll draw plenty of interest, because he doesn't turn 25 until just before the season begins and would be the best receiver available. The Jaguars and Raiders -- yes, them again -- could be suitors. Both have young quarterbacks who need reliable targets.