While over 100 million U.S. viewers will watch the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks clash during Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, a huge swath of NFL fans has very little riding on the game’s outcome.
The majority of fans are looking towards May’s NFL Draft, but well before that free agency for the 2015 season begins in March. According to Spotrac, the Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts have more than $20 million in salary cap space to land a high-profile free agent at a number of positions, and be well ahead of the rest of the league when the draft comes around.
The cap is expected to jump to $141 million, according to USA Today. It's a sharp jump from $133 million in 2014.
When free agency begins on March 7, the market will be flooded with defensive players, especially on the defensive line. Some top skill position players will also be available, but quarterbacks will be underrepresented as most teams lockdown an elite passer well before they’re available to hit the open market.
Here are 13 players NFL teams should and will chase come the start of free agency. All contract figures all based off numbers compiled by Spotrac.
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Perhaps no one will garner as huge a deal as Bryant. He’s more than outplayed his rookie contract with three-straight 1,000-yard seasons and 41 touchdowns since 2012. The off-the-field issues seem to be well behind the 26-year-old, and while Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said it might be difficult to pay both Bryant and DeMarco Murray, its likely both stay in Big D.
Louis Delmas, S, Miami Dolphins
In 2014, Delmas took a major risk and signed a one-year deal with Miami after hitting the open market. The 27-year-old largely avoided injury and was a major contributor to Miami’s No. 6-ranked secondary. Delmas, New England’s Devin McCourty, and Philadelphia’s Nate Allen might be the most desirable safeties in the offseason. Delmas made $3.5 million this year, and a big pay day might be coming.
Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Houston missed five games in 2011, and roared back this season with a whopping 22.0 sacks, nearly half of the Chiefs 46.0 sacks as a team. He’s a ferocious pass rusher and the Chiefs will need to restructure a couple of deals to keep Houston. They already have $150.3 million devoted to player salaries in 2015.
Mike Iupati, G, San Francisco 49ers
There’s a number of high-paid offensive lineman available, but Iupati has the right mix of age, 27, and experience with one of the best rushing teams in the last five years. He and Green Bay right tackle Bryan Bulaga, 25, might be the best young offensive lineman available in the offseason.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Sitting out all of 2013 due to injury, Maclin exploded for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first season under head coach Chip Kelly. But the Eagles already have $141.2 million devoted to contracts next season, which figures to be just over what the salary cap will be next season. They’ll have to restructure some deals in order to keep Maclin.
Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers
The running back market could be very intriguing this year, as a number of highly talented but injury prone guys like Mathews are available (C.J. Spiller, Knowshon Moreno, Mark Ingram, Darren McFadden). Mathews has played a full season once in five years, and he gained 1,255 yards and six touchdowns in 2014, and averaged 41 receptions between 2011 and 2013. He’s a versatile back that won’t get a huge contract, but could be a steal at the right price.
Byron Maxwell, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas get most of the credit, and Kam Chancellor’s starting to get more shine too. But Maxwell covers the other half of the field, and he’s arguably just as important as Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor. Seahawks general manager John Schneider said that re-signing Maxwell is “one of our first priorities,” but how exactly can Seattle keep him with $113.7 million already devoted to Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor over the next four years? It will be very interesting to see how Seattle keeps unquestionably the best secondary in the game intact, and pays quarterback Russell Wilson.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Murray posted an incredible MVP-level year with new career highs in total rushing yards (1,845), rushing touchdowns (13) and yards per game (115.3), and once again the question will come up: Why was he suddenly the best rusher in the NFL when his contract is about to expire? One answer is health. Murray missed nine games his first two years in the league, and in 2013 in missed another two but still rushed for 1,121 yards and nine scores. He played his first full season in 2014 and look what happened. Jones and the Cowboys won’t let him go, especially with how stacked their offensive line is.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
Pierre-Paul is arguably the premier pass rusher available in a group that also includes such top veterans as Carolina’s Greg Hardy, Indy’s Cory Redding and Green Bay’s B.J. Raji. A behemoth for offensive lines to handle, Pierre-Paul came up with 12.5 sacks this past season, more than the 8.5 he tallied in 2012 and 2013 combined. The Giants may be wary that he played so well during a contract year, but there’s no arguing that when he’s healthy and prepared Pierre-Paul can be one of the best in the league.
Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots
Revis might not even hit the open market, with Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole citing sources that say New England could even pick up his $20 million option. At 29, Revis is still one of the best corners in the NFL, but teams might hesitate to sign him to a long-term deal. Another go round with the Patriots might be in the works.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions
Often in trouble with the league office for his dirty play, Suh is still one of the most dangerous and coveted defensive tackles in the NFL and figures to get a lucrative contract like the one Buffalo gave to Mario Williams. The New York Giants and Jets could be landing spots, but the Lions will likely pull out all the stops to keep him part of a defense that was No. 2 in the league in 2014.
Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos
As the Broncos No. 1 receiver for the last few years, Thomas is one of the best at his position and figures to get a deal worth far more than the $4.9 million in total compensation he received for 2014. Again, Denver will likely try to clear the cap space for him but Thomas’s future in Mile High might greatly depend on quarterback Peyton Manning’s. Denver also has to worry about retaining top tight end Julius Thomas.
Jason Worilds, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers defense was far from its heyday in the 2000s this season, but not because of Worilds. He totaled 7.5 sacks, 61 total tackles, two passes defended, and an interception and fumble recovery. He’s capable of helping out in nearly every facet of the defense in and around the defensive line, and with a ton of aging linebackers hitting the market (Lance Briggs, Osi Umenyiora, Dwight Freeney, John Abraham) Worilds should clean up.