Previewing AFC East salary cap

Free agency begins in less than two months. Teams around the league are planning their strategies and figuring out which big names to pursue.

But where teams stand with the $120-million salary cap next season will be an indicator of which will be aggressive and which won't.

Let's take an early look at the projected 2012 cap numbers in the AFC East:

Buffalo Bills (6-10)

Projected cap: $105.5 million

Key free agents: WR Steve Johnson, TE Scott Chandler, K Rian Lindell

Analysis: The Bills are looking pretty good entering free agency. General manager Buddy Nix says the team will spend to the cap this year. The first order of business is deciding on Johnson's future. The two sides are still a ways apart and I think it's a 50-50 proposition. With or without Johnson, Buffalo has the space to acquire impact players. We mentioned Houston Texans defensive end/linebacker and unrestricted free agent Mario Williams as a possibility to help the Bills' pass rush. But getting Williams -- or any top free agent -- to come to Buffalo will be a tough sell.

Miami Dolphins (6-10)

Projected cap: $114.3 million

Key free agents: DT Paul Soliai, G Vernon Carey, QB Chad Henne

Analysis: The Dolphins are in decent (but not great) shape with the cap. There will be an interesting dynamic in Miami to keep an eye on this offseason. Usually when a new coach comes in, there is huge turnover in the coach's first season. But that probably won't happen with general manager Jeff Ireland still in charge of the 53-man roster. Ireland is not going to cut many of the players he helped bring to Miami. But the Dolphins would have to do something if they want to make enough room to make a splash for a big free agent. Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn is a good example.

New England Patriots (13-3)

Projected cap: $99.9 million

Key free agents: WR Wes Welker, DE Andre Carter, WR Deion Branch

Analysis: It's amazing that the best team in the AFC East also is in the best shape with the cap. The Patriots have done a masterful job and have plenty of money to spend in free agency if they choose. A big chunk of it will go to Welker, who is due for a nice payday. New England won't let Welker slip away. The Patriots also have the tools to acquire defensive help in free agency, as well as sign their two first-round picks and two second-round picks in the draft. The Patriots are in position to be a major force again next season.

New York Jets (8-8)

Projected cap: $125 million

Key free agents: WR Plaxico Burress, DT Sione Pouha, S Jim Leonhard

Analysis: The Jets are the only AFC East team projected to be over the cap. This was a team built to win now and it didn't work out; now New York has to make some trimmings on the roster if it wants to do anything in free agency. There's a good chance Burress and Leonhard won't return. Pouha is a good player and could come back at the right price. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson also is a free agent. But his role was drastically reduced this past season and it's unlikely he will return. Tomlinson is contemplating retirement.