NFL Power Rankings: The most interesting teams to watch in free agency, from 32 to 1

Remember when $35 million in salary-cap room was a fortune in the NFL? Now, that’s below average.

Get ready for some free agents to get significantly overpaid. Free agency begins on Thursday afternoon, and many teams are bringing a stuffed wallet to the proceedings. There are some players to like in free agency (here’s our lists of top 20 overall, top 10 quarterbacks, top 20 skill-position players, top 25 defensive players and top 10 offensive linemen) but there aren’t enough to go around, with this many teams looking to spend. Get ready for some craziness as the NFL’s “legal tampering period,” when teams can contact free agents, starts Tuesday.

And somehow, the New England Patriots could be at the forefront of this madness. The defending champions have managed the cap so well that they have $62 million in cap room, which is the fifth-most in the NFL. The Patriots went 14-2, won a Super Bowl, and they have the ability to spend like they’re a 4-12 rebuilding team looking to win over the fan base again. It’s just not fair. However, they’re not the team we’re most interested to watch this month.

Here’s our ranking of the most interesting teams to watch in free agency, based on cap room, needs and the chances they make the biggest headlines as the spending spree reaches a fever pitch (listed next to the team name is available cap room, based on the NFLPA’s report on Tuesday morning):

Bill Belichick and the Patriots have a lot of cap space. (AP)
Bill Belichick and the Patriots have a lot of cap space. (AP)

32. Los Angeles Chargers ($5.1 million)

Biggest need: Offensive tackle

The Chargers had to franchise-tag Melvin Ingram, a talented young pass rusher. However, that was pretty much their big free-agent move. Everyone in the league seems to have cap room to burn, but the Chargers will have to mostly wait for bargains.

31. Kansas City Chiefs ($4.8 million)

Biggest need: Inside linebacker

How can the Chiefs break through? They’re a good team, but still have no playoff success to show for it. Many will say they need an upgrade at quarterback, but it’s hard to find someone immediately better than Alex Smith. Improving at inside linebacker would help the run defense, but there’s not a ton of cap space available.

30. Atlanta Falcons ($15.3 million)

Biggest need: Guard

The Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl wasn’t a fluke. The roster is set up very well, with stars on offense and a good, young core on defense. Anything Atlanta does in free agency will probably be low-key. There’s no reason for a huge signing.

29. Arizona Cardinals ($17 million)

Biggest need: Cornerback

The Cardinals franchise-tagged Chandler Jones, which was the right move. It affects their ability to make free-agent moves, however. They still need a cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson and a quarterback who can replace Carson Palmer someday, but those needs could be addressed in the draft.

28. New York Giants ($13.1 million)

Biggest need: Running back

When people say free agency in the NFL doesn’t work, first tell them they’re wrong. Then point to the 2016 Giants. They spent big last year, improved a ton on defense and made the playoffs. They won’t be able to spend big again, but maybe they can find a piece or two to help a horrendous running game.

27. Pittsburgh Steelers ($18.7 million)

Biggest need: Cornerback

It’s not like the Steelers need a lot of offense. There are questions to be answered at linebacker, but cornerback is still the biggest issue. The Steelers have invested draft assets into the position, but could look at a veteran free agent there.

26. Baltimore Ravens ($13.8 million)

Biggest need: Pass rusher

The Ravens are not a young team, and losing leading tackler Zach Orr to surprise retirement doesn’t help. The pass rush in particular slipped last season. Cornerback is a priority as well.

25. Dallas Cowboys ($3.3 million)

Biggest need: Cornerback

That cap space number will rise when Tony Romo is off the roster. Still, there won’t be a lot of money to spend on the secondary, which wasn’t great and has Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Barry Church set to hit free agency.

24. Buffalo Bills ($15.6 million)

Biggest need: Quarterback (?)

The Tyrod Taylor issue looms. If Taylor’s option isn’t picked up, the Bills will have to scramble at quarterback. It’s a tough spot to be in. If he is retained, then perhaps the Bills can try to improve at receiver. Sammy Watkins is rarely healthy and there’s very little behind him.

23. Philadelphia Eagles ($8.5 million)

Biggest need: Receiver

The Eagles spent a ton of draft capital to get Carson Wentz, and don’t have a lot of cap space either. They’ll have to get creative, and the opportunity is there to be an NFC East contender this season. To compete for a division title, the Eagles have to significantly upgrade their skill-position talent. Their receivers are bad and they need a reliable running back too. We’ll see how they solve those issues.

22. Cincinnati Bengals ($41.8 million)

Biggest need: Defensive end

The Bengals are rarely a big player in free agency, though they have the cap space to be one this season. We’ll see. Getting an edge rusher would be nice, and there are holes to fill at linebacker too. The interior of the line might need some help if guard Kevin Zeitler leaves (and it seems like he will, because he’s poised to get paid well). A running back to supplant Jeremy Hill’s average production wouldn’t be bad either, but it’s hard to believe the Bengals are going to be that active in one offseason.

21. Houston Texans ($23.5 million)

Biggest need: Quarterback

Hey, remember when the Texans made perhaps the biggest splash in free agency last year, signing quarterback Brock Osweiler? Yeah, well, look at their biggest need. They probably won’t sign another quarterback (that would be a tough conversation to have with team owner Bob McNair) but can add a offensive lineman and maybe a good coverage linebacker. Though, maybe they’ll end up making a huge push for Romo.

20. New York Jets ($24.4 million)

Biggest need: Quarterback

The Jets had four quarterbacks on the roster last year, and they still need one. Christian Hackenberg is a major project, Bryce Petty didn’t show he can be a starter, Geno Smith is a free agent and Ryan Fitzpatrick will be gone after an awful 2016. They’ll be in play for every veteran looking for a home. In the meantime, they could use a young receiver and some offensive line help.

19. Detroit Lions ($31.1 million)

Biggest need: Defensive line

There are a lot of needs for a playoff team. Defensive line, linebacker, cornerback, offensive tackle and running back could have all fit the “biggest need” answer. It’s not a roster devoid of talent, but depth or upgrades are needed at a few key spots.

18. Los Angeles Rams ($19.9 million)

Biggest need: Receiver

Kenny Britt wasn’t a great No. 1 receiver, but he was by far their best option … and now he’s a free agent. Jared Goff had major struggles as a rookie, and it won’t get better without an investment in the rest of the offense (including the line). New coach Sean McVay has an offensive background, and he’ll want some talent to run his scheme.

17. Carolina Panthers ($32.7 million)

Biggest need: Running back

The best way to keep Cam Newton healthy for the long term might be to make sure he’s not the best running back on the roster. This run-first team has rarely invested big at running back under general manager Dave Gettleman, but maybe it’s time. The offensive line could use some work, too.

16. Seattle Seahawks ($26 million)

Biggest need: Offensive line

The Seahawks have built a great roster, but the glaring weakness is the offensive line. It’s hard to see them winning another Super Bowl unless the line improves significantly. Russell Wilson would appreciate some protection, for sure.

15. Minnesota Vikings ($37.7 million)

Biggest need: Offensive line

Let’s put it this way: The running game isn’t better off without Adrian Peterson. Fixing it has to start up front. The Vikings had a terrible line in 2016. They couldn’t run the ball and Sam Bradford’s desire to check down all the time was at least in part due to protection issues. The Vikings need a running back too (maybe Peterson returns?) but they have to figure out how to upgrade the line first.

14. Chicago Bears ($51.3 million)

Biggest need: Quarterback

Yes, Mike Glennon is going to get overpaid. But it’s hard to find a quarterback in the NFL, and the Bears are a good fit. The Bears could also consider using the third pick of the draft on a quarterback, and use the cap room for other issues like cornerback and receiver. This isn’t a quick rebuild; there are a lot of serious holes.

13. New Orleans Saints ($27.4 million)

Biggest need: Secondary

The past few years, the Saints have made moves to cobble together a little bit of cap space, then blew it all on a large, needless signing (Coby Fleener anyone?). Now the Saints have some significant cap space. Agents of this year’s free-agent class must be happy about that.

12. Miami Dolphins ($41.1 million)

Biggest need: Defensive end

The Dolphins are one of those teams that always seems to enjoy making big free-agent headlines. The front seven is the biggest area of need. With Mario Williams gone and Cam Wake entering his age-35 season, a stout end would be a big boost.

11. Washington Redskins ($34.4 million)

Biggest need: Defensive line

The Kirk Cousins issue is still there, because they need to figure out a long-term solution. But Cousins is under the exclusive franchise tag, so the team can focus on adding pieces around Cousins. Receiver is an issue because DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are free agents, but Washington will have to hope 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson is ready to step up. The defense could use help at defensive line, linebacker and safety, so pick your top priority among those and start spending.

10. Oakland Raiders ($41.4 million)

Biggest need: Pass rusher

The Raiders can and should still be in buy mode. They’ve done a good job the past couple years finding players who can help in free agency. The one disappointment is that the pass rush is still horrible, even with defensive player of the year Khalil Mack. Free-agent addition Bruce Irvin didn’t help enough, Aldon Smith can’t stay out of trouble and the Raiders need to keep searching for someone to disrupt the quarterback other than Mack.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars ($67.6 million)

Biggest need: Offensive line

The Jaguars are a weird case. They were a bad football team last season but don’t have a ton of glaring needs. Their continued failure is in large part due to poor coaching, and they changed head coaches. Some of it is because of quarterback Blake Bortles’ poor play, but the Jaguars probably can’t move on from him yet. And the Jaguars still have a lot of cap room to be a big player in free agency again. Maybe they’ll help the offensive line, which in turn could help Bortles.

8. Indianapolis Colts ($52.9 million)

Biggest need: Linebacker

We’ll look back on the past few years of Colts moves and shake our heads at how they missed so many opportunities with a young (and cheap) Andrew Luck. The “biggest need” category here could have been “everything but quarterback and receiver.” Linebacker gets the top spot because they could use help inside and outside, but cornerback, running back and offensive line still are issues. The good news is the NFL turns over quickly and the Colts aren’t stuck with a bad cap situation, so there’s a chance to improve rapidly. The new front office can’t afford more mistakes.

7. Denver Broncos ($42.1 million)

Biggest need: Offensive line

John Elway has a reputation now. The competitiveness from his playing days has carried over to his front-office career, so he seems to be in constant “win now” mode. And that has worked out very well for him and Denver. The Broncos go into free agency with enough cap space to make a splash, but where will it be? The biggest need is on the offensive line, and this isn’t the right year to find a ton of help there in free agency. Get ready for a lot of Tony Romo speculation.

6. San Francisco 49ers ($90.6 million)

Biggest need: Quarterback

Considering the 49ers had no quarterback on the roster at the beginning of March, you’d have to put that atop a list of needs. The problem is, it’s a long list for San Francisco. Last year the 49ers had a ton of cap room and spent almost none of it. New general manager John Lynch hinted that won’t be the case again, and it better not be. The 49ers have to use every available option to improve a roster that is shockingly low on blue-chip talent. We’ll get a chance to see what Lynch’s philosophy as a GM will be.

5. Green Bay Packers ($40.1 million)

Biggest need: Cornerback

Usually, the Packers would rank No. 32 in this category. General manager Ted Thompson has a strange and now well-documented aversion to free agency. But this year seems different. The Packers fell short in the NFC championship game, and it seems like they’re close to winning another Super Bowl with a few smart additions. Whether the Packers will finally wade into the deep end of the free-agency pool is one of the most fascinating story lines of the offseason.

4. Tennessee Titans ($61.5 million)

Biggest need: Receiver

The Titans are in a great spot. Their rebuilding project took a huge step forward last year. They have a ton of cap space and thanks to the Jared Goff trade with the Rams last season, they’re stocked with picks again. There’s a ton of flexibility here. The Titans can be aggressive in free agency and not really upset their long-term building plan. The top priority has to be to get some weapons for Marcus Mariota. Maybe a Brandin Cooks trade will be a part of that. Cornerback has to be really high on the priority list too. The good news is the Titans have the resources to fill all their needs.

3. Cleveland Browns ($104.1 million)

Biggest need: Quarterback

Just look at that number. It’s amazing how much cap room the Browns have. The Browns could sign the five most expensive free agents and still have plenty of cap room left over … which is why it was strange they didn’t franchise-tag receiver Terrelle Pryor. Is this going to play out like the 2014 Oakland Raiders? That year, the Raiders had a record amount of cap room and landed almost nobody of value, in part because the team seemed like a dead end (the Khalil Mack-Derek Carr draft changed that in a hurry). Will players want to come play for the 1-15 Browns? The Browns could make a push for any free agent they want, so how will they approach free agency and who can they land? It’s an intriguing experiment.

2. New England Patriots ($62 million)

Biggest need: Pass rusher

The defending champions can pretty much fill any hole they feel they have. The Patriots aren’t typically too aggressive with big-money signings, though Darrelle Revis’ large one-year deal worked out well in 2014. The Patriots could make a big splash this year if they want. The money is there. Only four teams can outspend the Patriots: Cleveland, San Francisco, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. And perhaps the Patriots feel like it’s time to make some big moves, with Tom Brady turning 40. He won’t play at an MVP level forever. And just think: Good players are often willing to take less in New England for the chance to win.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($66.1 million)

Biggest need: Receiver

Here’s what will happen: The Buccaneers are going to make a couple of huge free-agent signings (Alshon Jeffery? DeSean Jackson? Adrian Peterson?) and you’ll hear for the next few months how they’re everyone’s favorite 2017 sleeper. Those people won’t be wrong, either. There’s a good core here with enough cap space to add a couple of impact players. With the right additions around Jameis Winston, there’s no reason the Bucs can’t get a playoff spot.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!