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Around the NFC West: Salary Cap Edition

A look at the four teams in the NFL's toughest division as free agency approaches

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The Seahawks have the most cap space in the NFC West heading into free agency.


Carson Palmer couldn't have been more casual when he told the media on Thursday he'd agreed to a restructured contract to give the Cardinals more cap space.

"Yeah, I did that about a month ago," the veteran quarterback said, causing a flurry of Tweets as he patiently waited for the next question.

It was such an afterthought to Palmer that he didn't even realize the move was just a contingency plan -- the Cards will only make it official if they need the money in free agency -- but while his reaction was nonchalance, it's a revealing tell into the mind of General Manager Steve Keim.

In the NFC West, the Seahawks are a behemoth, a finely-tuned machine which came one yard away from back-to-back Super Bowl titles. The scariest part? Seattle has aced its drafts so well the last few years that its vaunted core can be kept intact for the foreseeable future.

If the Cardinals, 49ers and Rams hope to knock the Seahawks off their perch, there's no choice but to fight fire with fire. Here's a look at each team's situation as they gear up for free agency (cap space figures courtesy of OverTheCap.com):

SEAHAWKS

2014 record: 12-4, lost Super Bowl

Approximate cap space as of March 6: $24.9 million

Key free agents: CB Byron Maxwell; G James Carpenter; LB O'Brien Schofield; DT Kevin Williams; LB Malcolm Smith

Analysis: The midseason trade of Percy Harvin cleared up a large chunk of cap room, and while the Seahawks missed his dynamic play-making ability at wide receiver, clearly they were strong enough in other areas to make up for it. As a result, Seattle kept humming along

, and now has the maneuverability to add a wideout in free agency, a position which seems to be its biggest weakness. Quarterback Russell Wilson is in line for a mega contract extension – he's been the biggest bargain in football the past few years – but even then, the lack of onerous deals should keep Seattle among the NFL elite moving forward. Star cornerback Richard Sherman currently has the highest salary cap hit with $12.2 million, but no one else on the team is above $8.5 million. That should change when Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch get extensions, but the Seahawks are still in an enviable position.

"Having so much contributing talent on the cheap allows them to overpay a position like running back, which really has become the identity of the whole offense," Jason Fitzgerald, the salary cap guru at OverTheCap.com, said in an email. "In general, Seattle was able to accomplish the real 'Moneyball' that is possible in the NFL by finding their way into premier pay positions (QB, CB, LT, DE/LB) at a discounted value. From there they could pick and choose who to surround them with and at a cost that would not prevent them from re-signing their core talent."

The Seahawks have not only done well at the top of the draft, they have also hit home runs in lower rounds. While many of the key players are in line for or have received big raises, they've proven themselves to be top-notch players, so Seattle knows its core will remain strong unless injuries or regression hits hard.

49ERS

2014 record: 8-8, missed playoffs

Approximate cap space as of March 6: $7.1 million

Key free agents: G Mike Iupati; WR Michael Crabtree; RB Frank Gore; CB Chris Culliver; CB Perrish Cox; LB Dan Skuta; WR Brandon Lloyd

Analysis: A tumultuous season resulted in a .500 campaign in 2014, as San Francisco's three-year run of reaching the NFC championship

game was halted. Jim Harbaugh has moved on to the University of Michigan, and new coach Jim Tomsula is not expected to have the same outstanding depth as Harbaugh had at his disposal. San Francisco can release Steve Johnson to add more than $6 million in cap space, but the money is still tight, and that leaves an even bigger void at wide receiver. Iupati is a Pro Bowl guard who may be too expensive to keep. While Crabtree had a down year, he could still be pursued by multiple teams and may not return. If the 49ers can bounce back next year, it will likely be due to progression from quarterback Colin Kaepernick, or the return to form of injured linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

The 49ers signed Darnell Dockett to a two-year deal on Thursday, but don't otherwise figure to be in the hunt for many other big names. The biggest chore will be keeping around their own free agents with limited cap space. "I think San Francisco's window likely closed on them this past season," Fitzgerald said. "It was an incredibly impressive run to be that good for so many years in a row with a veteran-type team that really had no superstars at a premier position. They are not in great position to add to the team, and may have to cut a few guys to keep things OK for the season."

RAMS

2014 record: 6-10, missed playoffs

Approximate cap space as of March 6: $11 million

Key free agents: OT Joe Barksdale; WR Kenny Britt; G Davin Joseph; S Rodney McLeod; TE Lance Kendricks; DT Kendall Langford; QB Austin Davis; QB Shaun Hill

Analysis: The Rams don't have too many big-name free agents, and they actually have quite a bit more cap room than shown, as

quarterback Sam Bradford isn't expected to make close to the $13 million in base salary currently on the books. St. Louis would like to keep him, and the additional money on a renegotiated contract can go to finding more options for an offense which has been below average for several years. The Rams are in a pretty good cap situation, as much of their menacing defense is locked up for 2015. In their case, the biggest question mark is the quarterback position.

Bradford is slated to return after missing 25 of the past 32 games with consecutive torn ACLs, and St. Louis could also bring in a signal-caller to compete for the starting job. The Rams don't have to blow up their core because of financial concerns, but it remains to be seen if this group can challenge for supremacy in a stacked division. "The team has a terrific defense but the offense leaves too much to be desired," Fitzgerald said. "If a team is willing to spend $7 million a year on (tight end) Jared Cook, they should be willing to spend $9-10 million on (free agent wideout) Jeremy Maclin. That being said, I would agree their fortunes lie in consistent quarterback play. You can't win in the NFL with musical chairs at the position."

CARDINALS

2014 record: 11-5, lost in wild card round

Approximate cap space as of March 6: $14 million

Key free agents: DT Dan Williams; CB Antonio Cromartie; G Paul Fanaika; DT Tommy Kelly; LB John Abraham; LB Sam Acho

Analysis: Keim has been proactive leading up to free agency, renegotiating wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's contract and releasing wideout Ted Ginn and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett to ease the cap burden. Williams and Cromartie may command too much money on the

free agent market, and if they leave, those will be two holes to fill. Linebacker and the interior of the offensive line are also concerns, but overall, the core of a team which began 11-3 before losing its top two quarterbacks remains in place. With Palmer open to a restructure and other players on the roster who could be cut for cap savings, there is some flexibility to go hard after impact pieces.

"(The Cardinals' salary cap situation) is not good, but it may not be as bad as people perceive," Fitzgerald said. "(With Fitzgerald's pay cut) you come back with virtually the same team, so they aren't necessarily backed into a corner. They can also get big relief by reworking the contract of Patrick Peterson and Calais Campbell. Personally I would not do that for a short-term run in free agency but the possibility exists."

It is the tightrope Keim must walk. While current decisions could result in a future cap burden, the Cardinals may not have the luxury to wait. Palmer is 35, and the window with him will close sooner than later. The Cardinals' cap situation isn't perfect, but Keim has found some money without losing much from last year's team. The Seahawks should be fully armed again in 2015, and the Cardinals seem prepared to be aggressive in free agency as they take aim at knocking off their NFC West foe.



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