News & Analysis

Fantasy Football Salary Cap Allocation Breakdown Ahead of NFL Free Agency

Dec 19, 2020; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

NFL free agency is one of the most exciting times of the offseason. We’ll see some teams look to overhaul entire position groups, while others try to add that one missing ingredient. Perhaps a few will show signs of admitting defeat in 2021 before a single snap is even played.

Today’s goal is to get an idea of which teams are outliers when it comes to spending at a specific offensive position. Money talks: Looking at which teams have the most and least amount of 2021 dollars devoted to various spots will help highlight which free agent landing spots are realistic and which are more of a pipe dream when discussing our favorite possibilities.

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Feel free to check out PFF’s ranking of the NFL’s top 200 free agents as well as my breakdown of every team’s top-three team needs. Finally, listen to The PFF Fantasy Football Podcast for a 32-for-32 series of episodes breaking down every individual offseason with team-specific reporters ahead of NFL free agency.

2021 NFL Offensive Spending

Thanks to the fine folks at OverTheCap.com for the following salary cap information. The following table denotes every team’s total 2021 dollars allocated to each offensive position.

Conditional formatting is provided to identify which teams aren’t spending much money on a particular spot (blue) vs. those that are breaking the bank for a specific position (red) relative to the rest of the league. Note that the following table does not include dead money at the position (cc: Eagles’ QB room). Plenty of teams that aren’t discussed could certainly still decide to invest in a position they already have plenty of resources allocated to; this is more of a look at the ones that seemingly have to add talent at a specific spot due to its present barren state.

We’ll start things off with a look at the ever-important QB position.

Quarterback

  • Teams spending fewer than 10 figures at quarterback that have a projected starter on their rookie deal include the: Giants, Eagles, Bengals, Chargers, Bills, Broncos, Dolphins and Ravens.
  • It’s fair to say that the Eagles, Broncos and maybe even the Dolphins wouldn’t mind upgrading from their respective young signal-callers. It’ll be especially important to watch how things play out for the Eagles, as Jalen Hurts has the look of 2021’s prime late-round QB option if we can confidently project him to start 16 games.
  • Additionally, the Broncos would be an incredibly fun team for a high-end QB (like that Deshaun Watson guy) to join thanks to their plethora of skill-position resources. Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, Noah Fant; this group could be scary with the right man under center.
  • This leaves us with the Cowboys, Bears, Patriots and Jaguars as the low spenders at the position. All signs point toward Dak Prescott landing another franchise tag if a long-term deal doesn’t unfold, and the Jaguars are fully expected to draft Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick come April.
  • The Bears and Patriots stand out as the top two teams that *should* be actively in the market for an upgrade under center. Neither is spending much money on its overall offense, although the respective rankings in 2021 dollars allocated to the defense clearly demonstrates that the Patriots (No. 18 in defense spending) have a bit more cash to throw around than the Bears (No. 1).
  • Reports indicate that Patriots coach Bill Belichick “has done nothing but rave” about Newton this offseason. While things didn’t go all that smoothly in 2020, some slack should be given to Newton for 1) having to deal with COVID, 2) learning a new offense without a traditional offseason, and 3) the reality that he was working alongside arguably the single worst group of skill-position talent in the league.
  • The Bears could reportedly be in the Alex Smith business. Someone will have to put up numbers in this passing game, but it might not be pretty if Allen Robinson takes his talents elsewhere. This is still an incredibly talented defense, and a game-manager under center might just be the key to earning Chicago its first playoff win since 2010; just realize this passing game isn’t expected to be of the fantasy-friendly variety barring a huge move at the game’s most-important position.

Running back

Morning, noon or night: My employer loves to bring up the idea that running backs don’t matter. I argue that this is more of a reflection on the nature of a salary cap league. Obviously a position that touches the ball upwards of 30 times per game “matters” — it’s just easier and cheaper to find league-average talent at the position as opposed to pretty much anywhere else across the field.

Ultimately, the following 12 teams might have a bit stronger urge to sign one of the top backs in this upcoming free agency class due to the reality that they presently have less than $5 million allocated to the position.

  • New RB might just take over: The Steelers fielded the league’s worst rushing attack last season and are in need of more juice. The same is true for the Jets, who *knocks on wood* seemingly won’t be set on force feeding Frank Gore in the year 2021. One could argue no free agent back will be better positioned than whoever winds up with the Falcons, as new head coach/ex-Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith knows a thing or two about enabling a prolific rusher
  • Could add a RB to complement starter on rookie deal: It remains to be seen if the Buccaneers will bring back the artist known as playoff Lenny. Either way, further bodies are needed to complement one-trick-pony Ronald Jones (baw God, that’s James White’s music!). It certainly seems like the Rams are ready to feature Cam Akers as their full-time starter; just realize another body could be added to the group if Malcolm Brown takes his talents elsewhere. Ideally D’Andre Swift will be the three-down back for the Lions, but the absence of an AP-style early-down plodder would be appreciated. The Eagles figure to continue to give Miles Sanders plenty of work, although the new regime and potential addition of another quality back could complicate things. We (me) all want J.K. Dobbins to be freed; just keep an eye on if the Ravens 1) bring back Gus Edwards, and/or 2) add another back to the mix
  • Unclear situation that might get messy with another RB: There’s a chance that A.J. Dillon is the Packers’ lead back if both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams walk, although that seems particularly unlikely for the latter back, and it’s possible another party is added to the mix. It’s fair to say that Myles Gaskin isn’t the most cemented starting back in the league; just realize he’s good enough on all three downs to make life annoying for any higher-end back the Dolphins may decide to bring in. Having Josh Allen under center is great for the Bills offense, but his tendency to 1) take off himself inside the 10-yard line, and 2) not check the ball down, has made for a not-so-fantasy-friendly life for his running backs. It remains to be seen if the Cardinals will bring back Kenyan Drake; either way don’t be surprised if Chase Edmonds and/or someone else siphon away plenty of touches.

Wide receiver

It’s far more rare to see teams largely decline to spend up at receiver in today’s NFL. Still, that hasn’t prevented a handful of teams from entering the 2021 offseason in rough shape when it comes to current assets allocated to the position.

All in all, 15 teams have fewer than $20 million in 2021 spending devoted to their wide receivers. Several have a collection of rookie talents that make a major offseason investment unlikely, but others might just be in the market for one of the position’s free agent talents.

  • Each of the Jaguars, Vikings, 49ers, Bengals, Steelers and Broncos stand out as teams with multiple young receivers that have already flashed enough upside to warrant inclusion in two-WR sets for the future. This isn’t to say these teams won’t add to the position in free agency; just don’t expect any newcomers to be force fed targets in these already-crowded passing games.
  • Like we saw at quarterback, the Bears and Patriots stand out as the two teams that could (and should) seriously invest at this position. Of course, Allen Robinson’s impending decision will have a huge influence on Chicago’s plans, but either way both of these offenses are several wide receivers away from having anyone’s idea of an above-average group.
  • The Raiders are a bit unique due to the reality that TE Darren Waller is the offense’s No. 1 pass-game option. They also already spent plenty of draft capital on the position last year by selecting Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards. Expect more of a complementary receiver here than somebody resembling a true alpha No. 1 WR.
  • The common discourse surrounding the Ravens is the idea that no receiver would want to play with Lamar Jackson. Well, money talks, and we shouldn’t dismiss the idea that Jackson could take his passing ability to another level with a better group of pass-catchers at his disposal. The likes of Josh Allen (Stefon Diggs), Baker Mayfield (Odell Beckham) and Kyler Murray (DeAndre Hopkins) were all gifted high-end receivers in an attempt to elevate their young signal-callers; let’s see what Jackson can do with a non-bottom-three group of wide receivers before writing off his ability to function with a bit more consistency as a pure passer.
  • The Jets stand out as a team that could add a free agent receiver capable of immediately seeing triple-digit targets in 2021. We’ll see what Denzel Mims is made of, but regardless both Breshad Perriman and (maybe) Jamison Crowder could be playing elsewhere. Don’t underestimate the ability for professional athletes to ball the hell out once freed from the shackles of Adam Gase.
  • The Football Team already has one baller wide receiver in Terry McLaurin, but elsewhere they’re largely devoid of proven talent. It remains to be seen who will be under center for this offense in 2021; just realize adding something resembling another high-end receiver would greatly enhance everyone’s life. There’s plenty of opportunity available for McLaurin to keep on keeping on *and* for a new signee to be happy.
  • We’ll see if the Colts bring back longtime veteran T.Y. Hilton. They’ll also need to deal with restricted free agent Zach Pascal. Throw in the reality that Parris Campbell’s health is anything but a given, and we see that there really isn’t much else here besides rising second-year talent Michael Pittman. The return of Hilton and/or Pascal could crowd things in this run-first offense, but there’s potential for Campbell or somebody new to see plenty of opportunities if the Colts move on from their pair of incumbent starters.
  • It’s always AJB WR1 szn for the Titans. Still, Adam Humphries is no longer with the squad, and it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to bring back Corey Davis. Obviously the bulk of opportunities in this offense will go to Derrick Henry and Brown. However, Ryan Tannehill proved capable of enabling *two* fantasy-relevant wide receivers in 2020; don’t be shocked if he does so again in 2021 with the right second option.
  • The Lions are currently set to pay the following wide receivers money to play football in 2021: Geronimo AllisonQuintez CephusVictor Bolden and Tom Kennedy. Sheesh. Even the decision to franchise tag Kenny Golladay wouldn’t exactly solve the issue; both Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola will likely need to be replaced. Say what you will about Jared Goff: The man has proven capable of enabling multiple highly productive receivers. The reality that this defense will likely suck again in 2021 makes this a low-key enticing situation to watch in terms of which free agent wide receivers could immediately see the most opportunity.

Tight end

It’s always tough to count on veteran tight ends switching teams due to the position being more sensitive than running back or wide receiver when it comes to overall target share in a scheme and/or with a specific quarterback.

With that said: Nine teams have fewer than $5 million devoted to the position ahead of 2021.

  • Hopefully the Titans pay up to re-sign Jonnu Smith, but his departure could make the likely return of restricted free agent Anthony Firkser key in fantasyland. This offense has the fourth-most available targets ahead of next season; somebody other than AJB will eat.
  • Don’t expect anything too crazy from the Falcons, Panthers, Packers or Bills, as the likes of Hayden Hurst, Ian Thomas, restricted free agent Robert Tonyan and Dawson Knox are fully expected to again lead their respective squads.
  • The Chargers might have a bidding war on their hands to retain Hunter Henry, meaning Donald Parham (who played basketball before!) could emerge as Justin Herbert’s new favorite tight end. Just keep true three-down expectations in check for Parham due to his low blocking floor.
  • Each of the Seahawks, Jaguars and Cardinals could feasibly add a high-end player at the position capable of taking over in a hurry. Each team has some incumbent veteran competition, but nothing is exactly locked in. Throw in the reality that there should be some pretty great talents slinging the ball in each of these systems, and we should all be keeping an eye on which free agent tight ends wide up in Seattle, Jacksonville and Arizona.

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