Most NFL teams — like the Cardinals — have plenty of salary cap room to spend when free agency begins tonight. But the players they can sign aren’t exactly going to send owners scurrying to open their checkbooks.
The majority of the top players whose contracts are running out won’t even be available, thanks to teams using their franchise tag.
What’s left is arguably the weakest free-agent crop ever.
“We start out and there are all of these great marquee players and as you go along you see all the marquee players disappear,” Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. “Everybody kind of has visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads and ... all of a sudden a lot of the difference makers aren’t there.”
For a few years now the Cardinals have been taken to task for having excess salary cap room heading into each season.
The reality of today’s NFL may be that many teams will be lugging around unused cap space.
The cap is now at $109 million, up $7 million from 2006. The Cardinals have more than $30 million in cap room, as does San Francisco and Buffalo. Twenty-one teams have at least $10 million in cap space.
Almost every team will see their cap room shrink before any free agent is signed. The new league year begins Friday, and various incentive clauses and bonuses will kick into players’ contracts and eat up space.
Still, there will be plenty of leeway for teams to overpay what are mostly average free agents — but that doesn’t mean it will happen.
“That’s the talk right now,” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “It was said last year, that it was going to happen that way and then it didn’t happen.
“That first two, three days, yes it could probably happen where some players could probably exceed their value in the market. ... But as I was talking to a lot of other GMs, 'Oh my goodness. Where is this market going?’ Then after two or three days, the market settled down.”
Other than linebacker Adalius Thomas, who will get a big deal leaving Baltimore, and perhaps Buffalo cornerback Nate Clements, Cincinnati guard Eric Steinbach or Buffalo linebacker London Fletcher-Baker, there aren’t many players that would seem to generate big contracts.
Besides, even with cap space, some teams will already be paying out enough in actual dollars this season that they don’t want to spend much more.
“There is clearly a difference between cap room and committed cash,” Colts president Bill Polian said.
The Cardinals will end up with cap space, even if they load up with four or five free agents to fill some holes.
None of the players the Cards are expected to chase will remind anyone of the marquee signing of Edgerrin James — think more of the reaction to signing Milford Brown and Kendrick Clancy last season.
Vice president of football operations Rod Graves said he wants to use free agency to fill in holes so the draft can be used for the best players available. So the Cards should chase after a fullback, a blocking tight end, linemen on both sides of the ball and a cornerback.
“There are always opportunities out there,” Graves said.
Even if that means teams won’t be spending up to the cap.
EXTRA POINTS: The Cardinals will be in the market for at least one quarterback with the team not expecting to tender an offer to restricted free agent John Navarre. The team still has Shane Boyd to play behind Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner, although the Cards will bring in a fourth QB. ...
The agent for center Nick Leckey, another restricted free agent, said he expected to be tendered the second-round offer of $1.3 million, which means it would cost another team a second-round draft pick if they signed Leckey away. Center Alex Stepanovich is expected to get the $850,000 tender, which means the Cards would get a fourth-round draft pick if he was signed by another team.
FOR THE BIRDS?
Free agency begins today at 10 p.m. (Arizona time), and with the Cardinals having both money to spend and holes to fill, here’s a look at some possible free agent targets — with the knowledge the team is not expected to go after any big names, like it did last season with Edgerrin James:
Mike Alstott (Tampa Bay)
Justin Griffith (Atlanta)
Ovie Mughelli (Baltimore)
Kyle Brady (Jacksonville)
Daniel Graham (New England)
Reggie Kelly (Cincinnati)
C Al Johnson (Dallas)
C Shaun O’Hara (NYG)
T Mike Gandy (Buffalo)
T Tony Pashos (Baltimore)
T Jordan Black (Kansas City)
T Jon Stinchcomb (New Orleans)
Robaire Smith (Tennessee)
Ian Scott (Chicago)
Cato June (Indianapolis)
Tully Banta-Cain (New England)
Travis Fisher (St. Louis)
Nick Harper (Indianapolis)
Roderick Hood (Philadelphia)
Ken Hamlin (Seattle)
Terrence Holt (Detroit)