Football’s March Madness opens

  • By BARRY WILNER
  • Wednesday, March 9, 2016 1:06am
  • News

With another major spike in the NFL’s salary cap, up about $12 million to $155.27 million, the spending spree that is free agency begins today.

Some teams that open up their vaults have prospered recently, most notably the Broncos. Denver won its third Super Bowl thanks to massive boosts from DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders and Owen Daniels. Oh, and that quarterback, Peyton Manning.

All were acquired through free agency.

Of course, the Broncos spent wisely. Other teams have traveled down the road to ruin for giving the big bucks to the wrong players. Such 2015 big-time free agents Ndamukong Suh, DeMarco Murray and Julius Thomas hardly made a positive impact on their new clubs.

Some things to look for in this version of March Madness:

Where do the All-Pros land?

How about where they started? Three of the four 2016 All-Pros got franchise tags: Denver linebacker Von Miller, the Super Bowl MVP; Carolina cornerback Josh Norman; and Kansas City safety Eric Berry.

The one All-Pro seemingly headed for the marketplace is Buccaneers running back Doug Martin, who has sandwiched two injury-shortened seasons with a sensational rookie year and a 1,400-yard, six-touchdown performance in 2015.

Running backs present a dilemma to teams when their contracts run out. No position is marred by sharper and earlier fall-offs, and any RB with an injury history is extra worrisome.

Still, Martin is only 27, dynamic and a good fit with quarterback Jameis Winston.

“I know he wants to be a Buc and I know that we want him to be a Buc,” Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht said at the scouting combine. “I’m sure there will be some obstacles — there always are in negotiations — but we’ll prepare for either way. I’m optimistic and we’ll continue talking with him.”

In other words, the money talks.

Who are the big spenders?

Speaking of money talking, by carrying over huge amounts of salary cap space from last year — not to mention flopping on the field in 2015 — the Jaguars ($32.77 million), Titans ($20.78 million) and Browns ($20.73 million) can outspend pretty much anyone. That’s in addition to the bump in the cap number, and other contracts moves they’ve made.

Other teams with millions upon millions to hand out in free agency include: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Cleveland and Tennessee.

Remember, though, that having a vault full of cap space doesn’t mean splurging for the likes of safety Eric Weddle.

“We’re pretty healthy with our cap situation right now,” Giants general manager Jerry Reese says. New York has about $60 million in cap space. “We have to wait and see who’s going to hit the market. We’ll definitely look in the market and see if there’s players available for us to recruit. Hopefully we will be able to land some guys if some guys are available.”

Manning the trenches

If NFL teams learned anything from the playoffs, it’s that mediocre or worse pass protection is a prescription for failure. And one of the most difficult chores with rookies nowadays is teaching them to pass block in a pro-style offense when so many colleges are running the spread and variations of it.

So veteran behemoths on the offensive line become a prized commodity. The most coveted might be tackles Russell Okung, Mitchell Schwartz, Cordy Glenn, Kelvin Beachum and Jermon Bushrod; guards Jahri Evans, Kelechi Osemele, and Alex Boone; and center Ben Jones.

Where are the bargains?

They are everywhere. The trick is finding them, as Denver did with Daniels, Darian Stewart and Antonio Smith, all contributors to a championship.

Carolina got plenty of mileage out of Ted Ginn Jr., and Kurt Coleman. Anyone think Dion Lewis wasn’t a terrific signing for New England? Or Terence Newman for Minnesota?

This year, guys who might not make many headlines when they sign, but who could make key contributions next season range from a few of the offensive linemen above to cornerback Casey Hayward, safety Rodney McLeod, DE Cedric Thornton, linebacker Mike Neal, running back Bilal Powell and receiver Marvin Jones.

Anyone interested?

Every year, there are blue chippers carrying red flags. This season, the marketplace has Incognito, Greg Hardy, Aldon Smith, Adam Jones, Andre Smith, Nick Fairley, Percy Harvin and Junior Galette. Lots of talent there, but plenty of locker room and off-field concerns, too.

“We all go through adversity,” Eagles vice president Howie Roseman says. “It’s how you react to those things and how you handle those things. You’ve got to be careful about taking guys off your board because they went through something when they were young, and kind of not giving them the chance to show how they’ve changed their lives.

“At the same time, there are deal breakers for your organization, and you’ve got to sit down as an organization and discuss those things and come up with a criteria that’s probably more objective than subjective.”

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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