Here are this week’s Not So Scientific Rankings. As always, they average the following:
1. Arizona 3 1 3 3 3 – 2.6
2. New England 2 5 1 4 2 – 2.8
3. Carolina 1 7 2 6 1 – 3.4
4. Seattle 6 3 4 1 5 – 3.8
5. Cincinnati 4 2 8 2 4 – 4
6. Kansas City 12 4 5 5 7 – 6.6
7. Pittsburgh 7 6 7 7 8 – 7
8. Green Bay 5 8 6 9 9 – 7.4
9. Denver 8 9 9 8 6 – 8
10. Minnesota 9 10 10 11 10 – 10
11. New York Jets 15 11 11 10 11 – 11.6
12. Oakland 10 13 23 12 12 – 14
13. Houston 13 18 12 23 15 – 14.2
14. Buffalo 14 12 15 13 17 – 14.2
15. New York Giants 28 14 13 16 14 – 17
16. Washington 22 19 19 15 13 – 17.6
17. Philadelphia 16 22 14 21 16 – 17.8
18. Atlanta 11 23 17 24 18 – 18.6
19. St. Louis 20 16 22 17 19 – 18.8
20. Detroit 27 17 16 14 22 – 19.2
21. Chicago 19 15 25 19 23 – 20.2
22. Baltimore 17 21 20 18 27 – 20.6
23. Dallas 21 25 18 26 25 – 23
24. Indianapolis 23 27 21 27 20 – 23.8
25. Tampa Bay 25 28 28 20 21 – 24.4
26. Jacksonville 24 24 30 22 24 – 24.8
27. New Orleans 18 30 26 28 26 – 25.6
28. San Diego 32 20 24 25 28 – 25.8
29. Miami 26 31 29 29 30 – 29
30. San Francisco 31 26 27 32 29 – 29
31. Cleveland 29 29 31 31 31 – 30.2
32. Tennessee 30 32 32 30 32 – 31.2
Because it’s the holiday season and I fly out tomorrow to join family for the holidays, I ,may not be around here as much for a few days. So I’ll toss some other thoughts here.
As the playoffs approach, there will be the talk about which teams should rest starters before the playoffs. Let’s look at the teams who are currently in the driver’s seat for playoff spots and what could happen.
New England: If the Patriots beat the Jets and the Broncos beat the Bengals, the Pats secure the No. 1 seed. If that happens, I believe they will rest starters against Miami, particularly because they have so many players who are hurt or injured.
Carolina: A win this week secures the No. 1 seed. But because the Panthers might want to go 16-0, it’s possible they play their starters against Tampa Bay. I could see them wanting to get starters out of the game as early as possible, though.
Arizona: If the Cardinals win, they get at least the No. 2 seed in the NFC. A Carolina win means the Cardinals can’t improve their position, and in that case, I bet they rest starters.
Cincinnati: If the Bengals win, they get the No. 2 seed and clinch the AFC North. So they would rest starters if they win.
Denver: The Broncos need to win the next two games to clinch the division and claim the No. 2 seed. They aren’t resting starters, but if they can get up by a large margin against San Diego after three quarters, I’m betting Gary Kubiak starts resting some players.
Green Bay/Minnesota: Whether or not the Packers rest starters depends on what happens this week. A Packers win and a Vikings loss gives Green Bay the NFC North and the No. 3 seed, meaning the Packers could rest starters in Week 17. I don’t see any scenario in which Minnesota will rest starters, though.
Kansas City/Pittsburgh: Because the Chiefs will remain in the AFC West hunt until Week 17, they won’t be resting starters.
Pittsburgh: If they win this week, the Bengals win and the Jets lose, they get a wild card berth. That’s the only scenario in which they might consider resting starters in Week 17. Otherwise, they won’t.
Seattle: The Seahawks will clinch a wild card berth with a win over the Rams. Whether or not they rest starters in Week 17 depends on what happens with Green Bay and Minnesota. If Seattle is locked in as the fifth seed, they may rest starters.
AFC North: If Houston wins and Indy loses this week, Houston will win the AFC North and rest starters in Week 17.
NFC East: Washington can win the division with a win over Philly this week and a Giants loss. If that happens, they’ll likely rest starters.
Also, there’s the question about which Week 17 NBC will want for Sunday Night Football. Here are your candidates.
Green Bay vs. Minnesota: If the NFC North is on the line, NBC will definitely want this game.
Philadelphia vs. New York Giants: If the Eagles beat Washington and the Giants win this week, this game becomes a candidate because of its implications for the NFC East.
Tampa Bay vs. Carolina: If neither of the above games have any division implications, NBC would pick this one if Carolina is positioned to go 16-0.
As for the rest of the games, they only get considered if none of the other three mentioned hold any meaning. But I suspect at least one of the above games will generate enough interest for NBC to take the game.
Finally, as a primer to offseason planning, let’s go over the teams who are in the best position to make runs in free agency and which teams will have cap issues to address. When I go over these lists, keep in mind that Over the Cap currently projects the cap to be $150M next season, so cap space is based on that number. Also, when I talk about players under contract, I refer to those whose contracts continue through 2016 and beyond.
First, the teams in best position to go after the free agents they want.
Oakland: Assuming a $150M salary cap (and that number will likely be a little higher), the Raiders will have $61.6M in cap space. They only have 34 players under contract, but of the pending free agents they need to retain, most of them won’t cost much. They should be able to pursue the most notable names.
Chicago: The Bears have $56.2M in space and 41 players under contract. They have plenty of space to put the franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery and extend a couple of their own free agents, focusing on those who won’t cost much. That allows the Bears to pursue top names if they want.
Regarding both teams: Broncos fans better be prepared, because Denver’s most prized free agents are players who Jack Del Rio and John Fox know all too well. I fully expect one Broncos defensive free agent to join the Raiders and one to join the Bears next season.
Tampa Bay: With $46.9M in expected space and 42 players under contract, the Buccaneers can extend the low-cost free agents they want to keep and focus on what makes sense in free agency. Given that Doug Martin had a good season, they could put the franchise tag on him if they want.
Jacksonville: Because the Jaguars have $44.1M in expected space with 51 players under contract, I can understand why they aren’t planning to make changes to the regime. The Jaguars can release a couple of players they no longer need to gain additional space and pursue big names in free agency, seeing them as the final pieces of the puzzle.
San Francisco: The Niners will have $40M in cap space and 52 players under contract. Again, the Niners can release a couple of players they no longer need and make a play for the big names. The Niners could be a team that pursues the top offensive linemen and defensive players, both areas that took a hit last year after so many players left.
Now for the teams that are in the tightest cap situations and what they may have to do to clear space.
Washington: With $5.6M in expected space and 46 players under contract, Washington will need to cut some players. Robert Griffin III is an easy choice, as cutting him before the 2016 NFL calendar year begins will free up $16.1M in space. Washington could also cut Pierre Garcon, freeing up $8M in cap space. That gives them more than enough room to extend Kirk Cousins and any free agents they want to retain.
Baltimore: The Ravens have $5.4M in expected space with 46 players under contract. Before anyone suggests it, Baltimore cannot cut Terrell Suggs as it would cost them space. It’s more likely they approach Joe Flacco about restructuring his contract and cut some lower-cost players. The players who the Ravens may have to let go include Daryl Smith ($2.6M in cap space cleared), Steve Smith ($3M), Justin Forsett ($2.3M) and Chris Canty ($2.15M). They’ll have to be careful how much of Flacco’s base salary they restructure, though, because his cap numbers will only get higher in future seasons. The four cuts I mentioned give the Ravens space to put the franchise tag on Justin Tucker, but they will need to figure the best way to restructure Flacco’s deal, or perhaps other players, to get space for draft picks and players signed to future contracts.
Pittsburgh: The Steelers have been pushing up against the cap limit for several seasons and 2016 will be no different. With $4.4M in expected space and just 41 players under contract, the Steelers will have to make some decisions, even if the cap goes higher than $150M. Lawrence Timmons continues to play well, so the Steelers may extend him to lower his $15.1M cap number. Heath Miller will likely be extended for a couple more seasons, although he’s not getting any younger. I also believe the Steelers will work to extend David DeCastro, who enters the fifth year of his rookie deal. A few inexpensive players will be cut, though. Jacoby Jones is an easy choice and so is Shaun Suisham, even though the Steelers won’t gain that much space by letting Suisham go. And they will need to figure out if it’s worth extending DeAngelo Williams for another season and if it’s a good idea to keep James Harrison around for one more year, or those two could be cut.
New England: The Patriots are projected to have $1.8M in cap space, but they have 50 players under contract. They will still need to clear cap space, though, so extensions for a couple of players are almost certainly coming and they will definitely have to cut some players. An easy choice for an extension is Chandler Jones, who I suspect the Patriots will focus on first. It’s possible they talk to Donta Hightower as well. Jabaal Sheard was a good free agent pickup during the offseason, and because he has one year left with a $7M cap number, I expect the Patriots to add another year or two to lower his cap number. As for cuts, Jerod Mayo is the top candidate because he is no longer worth an $11.4M cap hit. Danny Amendola might have been a candidate given his $6.8M cap number, but he has played well this season and I expect the Patriots to cut Brandon LaFell instead. LaFell may have a lower cap number at $3.8M, but he hasn’t been that good since returning from injury.
Now we come to three teams who are, simply put, in big trouble.
Buffalo: With 48 players under contract, the Bills are projected to be $2.8M over the cap. They are at least in a good position to clear out a player, that being Mario Williams, whose release would free up $12.9M in space. But with some players who the Bills might want to retain, they will need to do more work. Their decision to sign Charles Clay away from Miami backfired, and they will very likely ask Clay to restructure his $10M roster bonus into a signing bonus to get his cap number down. It’s even possible the Bills will have to cut Kyle Williams to gain additional space (his release frees up $5M in space).
New Orleans: I’ve pounded the drum so many times about how terrible the Saints’ front office has done with managing the cap. The evidence is this: The Saints are projected to be $4.1M over the cap and have just 41 players under contract. The approach that they are just a few players away from a Super Bowl has to stop. It’s likely Drew Brees will be traded, a move that will free up $20M in cap space. The Saints can also cut some lower-priced players who are at the end of their careers, such as Marques Colston ($3.2M in freed space), David Hawthorne ($2.25M) and CJ Spiller (just $750,000 and proof of what a bad signing he was). It’s going to take time for the Saints to get into a better position and the ownership needs to be aware of that fact.
Miami: Let’s make one thing clear: The Dolphins’ decision to sign Ndamukong Suh wasn’t a bad one because Suh’s play has gone in the tank — he’s actually played well the season. No, the decision was bad because the Dolphins could not give him the money he sought without derailing their cap situation for the years to come. And here they are, entering 2016 with 39 players under contract and expected to be $5.2M over the cap. Even if the cap goes higher than $150M, the Dolphins are, in a word, screwed. They will likely have no choice but to have Suh restructure his deal to push more of his $28.6M cap hit down the road. The players they are almost certain to cut include Brent Grimes, Jordan Cameron, Greg Jennings and Quinton Coples. They also must carefully consider what to do with Branden Albert and Cameron Jordan. We’ll see if Stephen Ross has learned a lesson that the worst thing you can do is go “all in” on a prized free agent when you don’t have the cap space to make it work over time. If he fails to learn that lesson, the Dolphins will stay in the category of “historically bad franchise” no matters who is the coach or general manager.