More money available as NFL teams dive into free agency

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Some teams go wild spending for veterans in free agency. Others prefer to focus on the fresh crop of college talent.

Free agency philosophies vary almost as much as teams' uniforms, and they can change year to year depending on the budget.

Fans love free agency because most of the players are known quantities, if not household names. But it's important to remember when the market opens Tuesday that there are always reasons these players are available in the first place, be it consistency, character, chemistry or simply cost.

"In a perfect world," Bears GM Ryan Pace said, "you address a lot of your needs in free agency to open up the draft for (the) best player available."

Broncos boss John Elway has made some splashy moves in free agency the last few years, including signing the biggest free agent ever in Peyton Manning. He's also lured Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware.

He's more strapped for cash this year, even with Manning's $4 million pay cut.

Like just about every general manger, he swears he'd rather pick his players on draft day than recruit them - even though he can wine and dine them at his own "Elway's" steakhouse.

"Our philosophy is to build in the draft and then add with free agency," Elway said. "We've just been fortunate (to) get some very good high-profile players."

Like most roster builders, Elway prefers players seeking their second contract because they're experienced but still in their prime. Still, he's grabbed the likes of Jim Leonhard, Keith Brooking and Brandon Stokley from the NFL's bargain bin, and all of them paid big dividends for a year.

Finding comfort on the other side of the spectrum is GM Ted Thompson, whose Packers were well under the salary cap last year as they chose not to spend about $10 million in available funds.

While some flustered fans argue that money might have made a difference in reaching the Super Bowl, "we don't necessarily look at it like that," Thompson said. "We feel like we understand what the cap means. It doesn't mean we roll over money every year and it doesn't mean we spend to the last penny. We run our business the way we think it should be run. We like to get in position where we make football decisions and don't make economic decisions."

Like Green Bay, the Steelers have traditionally stayed quiet in the spring only to roar in the fall. They've found a happy middle ground, bringing in the likes of lesser-known, lower-cost free agents such as Arthur Moates and Brice McCain.

This year, teams have more money to throw around with the salary cap rising $10 million to $143.28 million.

That's good news for the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Devin McCourty, Julius Thomas, Byron Maxwell, DeMarco Murray and others looking to cash in. And while every team would love to land one of these crown jewel free agents, most swear they'd prefer to find the next Suh, McCourty, Thomas, Maxwell or Murray in the draft.

The Redskins used to "win" every offseason - in part because they'd get a head-start on it by continually missing the playoffs. Mostly, however, it was because Dan Snyder threw around his money to sign big names such as Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Albert Haynesworth.

The pendulum has swung in the last few years, and new GM Scott McCloughan had this to say: "You start dabbling too much in free agency, sometimes you're getting older guys, you get the medical history" and guys set in their ways.

"We're going to draft these guys, we're going to draft them and mold them as Redskins. We're not going to have to go out to other organizations and bring in 32-, 33-year-olds who have different plans," McCloughan said. "I think the best-case scenario is you draft and mold your own and re-sign your own.

"But free agency is still there to be used to make a roster stronger, too."

Several teams are carrying over wads of money they did not spend in 2014, giving them higher adjusted salary cap numbers. The highest such total is Jacksonville at $168.4 million.

"You have to be wise to not mortgage the future," Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell said. "There's no sense of urgency for us to go out and spend for the sake of spending, but we'll be aggressive. If there is a player we want, we're going to do what we need to do to get him."

The Jets ($156.1 million) are another team with substantially more money to spend, and GM Mike Maccagnan said, "We will be active in free agency. Whether that's with the high-dollar guys, the first wave of free agency, I would think we'd be potentially in that market. But we'll be in the middle and lower tier market, too. We have a lot of cap space."

The Colts, with $152.4 million in cap space, also figure to be among the more aggressive suitors this year.

"I think you have to be aggressive no matter what avenue you're going down to acquire players, even if it's acquiring (college free agents) after the draft," Colts GM Ryan Grigson said. "But you can't just do it for the sake of being aggressive and just get a name or get whomever."

Many of the top free agents were uninterested in signing with one of the league's worst teams, so Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie had to mostly acquire older players on the downside of their careers. They were fairly low-risk deals with little guaranteed money and no cap hits for cutting them after a year, however - a major departure from the days of Al Davis. So, McKenzie has more than $50 million in cap room to add some playmakers this time around.

And the Raiders recognize there will be plenty of other aggressive teams in the marketplace on Tuesday and beyond.

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