Scouting out NFC South salary-cap room

As we linger in lockout limbo, there’s not a lot to do but watch as the negotiators continue on a road that seems to be headed toward a new labor deal. With at least that on the horizon, the possible start of a free-agency period isn’t far behind it.

So let’s take a look at some salary-cap figures as we look forward to free agency. Some of the reports about the possible deal have pegged that 2011 salary cap right about $120 million.

In terms of money already committed toward a 2011 cap (rookie contracts aren’t a factor yet because teams haven’t even been allowed to negotiate with draft picks), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the lowest figure in the league. They’re sitting at $63.8 million. In recent years, the Bucs spent well below the cap and had the league’s lowest payroll in the uncapped 2010 season.

There’s been talk that a new agreement could require all teams to use somewhere near 90 percent of the salary-cap space. That means the Bucs theoretically would have to spend somewhere close to $50 million in cap space to meet the minimum. Could that lead to the Bucs being players in free agency? Yes, but I don’t think you’ll see them going crazy. They have some of their own free agents (like Davin Joseph and Cadillac Williams) that they want to keep. The Bucs also have some other young players under contract for the moment that could be in line for contract extensions. Tampa Bay’s in a youth movement and the Bucs will do their best to keep their core intact first. They could make some moves in free agency. But I don’t expect to see them going out and signing a bunch of big-name free agents who are in their 30s.

The Carolina Panthers are just a bit ahead of the Bucs at $73 million. But that number’s a bit misleading. Assuming the rules for the franchise tag get worked out as expected, center Ryan Kalil, who had the tag placed on him before the lockout, is going to add $10 million to that.

Then, there’s the fact that the Panthers want to keep some of their own free agents, like DeAngelo Williams, James Anderson and Charles Johnson. That’s going to cost some big money. Oh, by the way, the Panthers also are in a youth movement like the Bucs. They may sign a veteran backup quarterback and a few role players, but don’t expect a frenzy in Carolina.

The two teams in the NFC South that are the most likely to be active in free agency are the two who currently have the most money committed to the salary cap. The Atlanta Falcons are at $103.5 million and the New Orleans Saints are at $104.8.

The Falcons have to make decisions on keeping some of their own guys, like linebackers Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas and offensive linemen Tyson Clabo, Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl. They’ll keep at least a couple of those guys and that will add to their cap figure. But owner Arthur Blank isn’t going to sit idle in free agency. If there’s one move that’s been telegraphed, it’s that the Falcons will go out and get an expensive pass rusher. They’ve got enough money to do it and if they want to sign a few more free agents beyond that, they’ve got a few guys that could be cap casualties.

The Saints aren’t the type to sit still either. They’ve got a bunch of potential free agents and it will cost them money to keep the ones they want. But there’s plenty of room to be creative. Running back Reggie Bush has a $16 million cap figure. There’s no way he stays at that number. The Saints either will sign him to an extension that will greatly lower this year’s cap figure or they’ll let him go.