10 things to watch when NFL free agency begins

Not many teams went bigger in 2014 free agency than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

So what did the spending spree buy the Bucs? A 2-14 record and the top overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Free agency is a real-time testimonial in the buyer beware approach to NFL business.

“We went out and got a lot of pieces,” Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said. “Nonetheless, we spent a lot of money on free agents and some didn’t work out and it was very disappointing. It is further proof that free agency is not the safest way to build your team. We’re not hiding from the mistakes.”

While the Buccaneers were loading up to fill needs with contracts valued at more than $135 million — for offensive tackle Anthony Collins, pass rusher Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and quarterback Josh McCown before later trading for guard Logan Mankins — to make up for crash-and-burn drafts that left first-year coach Lovie Smith with less talent than after hours at karaoke night, the most successful franchises were watching their wallets.

Or using their cash to keep their own stock.

Seattle kept defensive lineman Michael Bennett and signed Pro Bowl defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.

New England went big for cornerback Darrelle Revis, then went on a dollar store binge for polished but non-priority guys like defensive tackle Alan Branch, cornerback Brandon Browner and wide receiver Brandon LaFell, castoffs who helped the Patriots win the Super Bowl.

Here are 10 things to watch when free agency begins Tuesday.

1. Oakland is ready to spend. This offseason could be a resume-changer for GM Reggie McKenzie. No. 1-ranked free agent Ndamukong Suh is attainable because the Raiders have been stashing cash for three years and are enrolled in the Russell Wilson QB Savings Plan with Derek Carr scheduled to make just $664,00 in 2015 — or half of what Jay Cutler is scheduled to make per game. Keep an eye on the Raiders for a player McKenzie pushed for in Green Bay — wide receiver Randall Cobb.

2. Nothing to see here if you need a quarterback. Unless a team fell in love with Ryan Mallett over his two starts in Houston before a torn pec or appreciated the average — to high-risk — stuff Brian Hoyer put on film for the Browns, a towering collection of backups is all QB-needy teams can find on the open market.

3. Broncos tight end Julius Thomas could get $50 million. A seven year, $49 million deal or something in that range is attainable for Thomas. Peyton Manning Effect or not, consider his production stacks up with the Jimmy Grahams and Rob Gronkowskis, and it’s plain to see the math.

4. Pass rushers will be at a premium. Jerry Hughes had 10.5 sacks and only one season with top production with the Bills. The former first-round pick of the Colts could be in line for $8 million-plus per season.

5. Franchised pass rusher Justin Houston, who had 22 sacks for the Chiefs last season, could be a trade candidate. It’s not that Kansas City doesn’t want to keep him, but a dire cap situation makes it feasible that a team could structure a deal that’s next to impossible for the Chiefs to match. This wouldn’t be the first time the Chiefs parted with a franchise or franchised player — Jared Allen to Minnesota in 2008; acquired quarterback Matt Cassel, franchised by the Patriots — and they scored running back Jamaal Charles and Pro Bowl left tackle Brandon Albert in the Allen deal.

6. Second-wave shoppers embrace bargain bin. The hike in the salary cap to $143.2 million hiked the budget of even the most spendthrift general managers in the league. Top players will get more, middle-tier guys, too. That leads to a larger drop-off in talent on the second tier of free agency, which might be thinner than it has been in recent years.

7. Will the market develop for Adrian Peterson? Because the Buffalo Bills parted with a very good linebacker and absorbed LeSean McCoy’s $10 million salary in 2015, it’s feasible a team will dive for the Minnesota Vikings’ star. His case isn’t a carbon copy of McCoy’s. Off-field issues notwithstanding, Peterson enters his age-30 NFL season after not playing or practice since September and a current contract that calls for $12.75 million in 2015. The Vikings would like him back — at their price. That changes if a suitor knocks with young game-ready talent or a fistful of picks in hand.

8. What’s a runner worth? Fascinating negotiations are sure to be had with Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. He had 511 total touches and rushed for over 1,800 yards behind a great offensive line. Where is his market? Given the recent trend of dime-store valuations for running backs, he might be surprised. The Cowboys reportedly offered a four-year, $16 million deal that “insulted” Murray. The 2015 draft class is strong at running back and cheaper alternatives in free agency — Mark Ingram (Saints), Ryan Mathews (Chargers), C.J. Spiller (Bills) might bring better value. Last year’s top back in free agency was not of Murray’s caliber. Still Ben Tate, signed a three-year, $6.5 million contract with the Browns. He was released in November and played for three teams (Browns, Vikings, Steelers).

9. Setting the second tier. Tight end Jordan Cameron would have been a top five free agent if not for a season clouded by concussion concerns. Greg Hardy was franchised in 2014 and made $13 million on the Commissioner’s Exempt List last season because of domestic violence charges. Jeremy Maclin was productive in Chip Kelly’s offense but has a history of injuries that will raise caution. But at their best, any of these players — and the likes of Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, Dolphins defensive tackle Jared Odrick and 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree — could yield great return on investment.

10. Free agency shifts draft needs, landscape. If the Cleveland Browns reel in a No. 1-caliber receiver, someone text GM Ray Farmer and let him know the team doesn’t need one at No. 12 or No. 19. The same would be true of the Raiders — projected by NFLDraftScout.com to start a first-round run on receivers with either West Virginia’s Kevin White or Alabama’s Amari Cooper — if Cobb heads to the Bay Area. Or if the Colts sign running back DeMarco Murray. Or if the Jaguars bring in safety Devin McCourty. You get the drift. Key signings will bring into focus draft plans for some teams if you read the tea leaves properly.

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