The NFL offseason has arrived and with it comes the time for front offices across the league to make difficult decisions that impact the present and future of their franchises.
One of the most important endeavors for each team’s front office will be finding creative ways to create cap space to address their needs. For some teams, this is more difficult than it is for others, and that can lead to messy divorces from franchise cornerstones, after which we’ll all be reminded that the NFL is a “business.” Here are some of the top players at each defensive position who could become salary cap casualties this offseason. (Credit to OverTheCap.com and Spotrac.com for player salary information).
Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots
Fresh off their first Super Bowl championship celebration in 10 years, the Patriots have a big decision to make regarding one of their largest men, Vince Wilfork. Wilfork stated this week that he plans to return to New England, not retire as was speculated in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, a decision that makes sense since Wilfork continued to be a force for the Pats up front in 2014. The New England front-seven gained steam as the season rolled on, particularly against the run, and Wilfork was a big part of that. However, at the age of 33, Wilfork carries a cap hit of nearly $9 million for 2015 and the way his contract is structured with very little guaranteed in 2015 and 2016, the Pats can save nearly all of what they currently owe him by simply cutting him. It would be the most Belichickian move New England could make to move on from Wilfork now and get younger up front.
Darnell Dockett, DT, Arizona Cardinals
Injuries hampered the Arizona Cardinals all season, particularly on offense, but their defense took some major hits as well, and their performance as a unit suffered notably in 2014. Darnell Dockett, one of the team’s best defenders was lost during training camp to a torn ACL, a major setback for the Arizona defensive line at a time that left them few options to address the hole. This offseason the Cardinals will try to tackle that problem and one option will be moving on from Dockett. The 11-year veteran has spent his entire career in Arizona, but he will be 34 when the season opens and is set to make $9.8 million next year in the final year of his contract. The fact that Dockett is coming off a severe injury maked that cap number tough to swallow. The Cardinals will likely attempt to renegotiate Dockett’s contract, but if that fails they can save $6 million against the cap simply by cutting him loose.
Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens are facing a similar problem with one of the cornerstones of their defensive line, Haloti Ngata. Ngata missed four games during the 2014 season due to a PED suspension, but finished strong, showing he still has plenty left in the tank. However, in Baltimore, where it seems the entire roster is in flux this offseason, Ngata is set to count $16 million against the cap this season, more than any other player. Like Arizona with Dockett, the Ravens’ first choice would likely to be to restructure and extend Ngata’s contract beyond 2015, the final year of his deal. But Ngata, who has spent all nine years of his career with the Ravens, has been resistant to those attempts thus far. With rebuilding seemingly on the horizon in Baltimore, he may want to test the free agent market before he reaches an age where doing so would no longer be beneficial. If both sides agree to move on, the Ravens could cut him and save $8.5 million.
Michael Johnson, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While some teams have to think about the value long-time veterans still hold, others like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to weigh the value of more recent signings like defensive end Michael Johnson. Johnson signed an interestingly structured five-year, $43.7 million contract with the Bucs last offseason. But the pass rush specialist had a disappointing season in 2014, with just four sacks in 14 games, and hasn’t been able to recreate the production of his 11.5-sack 2012 season. Johnson is owed $7 million in guaranteed money for 2015 as it is, but when the new league year begins, another $7 million of his contract will vest. Stuck in a perpetual rebuilding state, Tampa could look to hit the reset button, and bite the bullet on that first $7 million to move on from Johnson and save $7 million more down the road.
Mathias Kiwanuka, DE, New York Giants
As the New York Giants attempt to jump back into the playoff race in 2015, after three straight years of missing out, one of their top priorities will be upgrading up front. One way to do so will be to move on from clearly diminished defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka. The 2006 first round pick was a member of both of New York’s recent Super Bowl runs, but the Giants must take emotion out of the equation and look at the numbers. In his ninth NFL season, Kiwanuka played in just 11 games for New York last season and managed a career-low 2.5 sacks. The veteran will be 32 years old in March and is owed $7.5 million in the final year of his contract. A cut would save the Giants nearly $5 million of that and seems like a no-brainer.
Others to watch: The St. Louis Rams could save $6 million of the $7 million owed to defensive tackle Kendall Langford by cutting him after he only started four of 16 games in 2014. The New Orleans Saints enter the offseason well over the cap as they seek to revamp their defense. They could part ways with nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley and gain a savings of $4.5 million by designating him a post-June 1 cut. Nose tackle Domata Peko could also be on the market if the Bengals decide they’re done with the nine-year vet. Cutting Peko would save Cincy $3.7 million without costing them anything. Defensive end Lamarr Woodley played just six games for the Raiders in 2014 before a biceps injury cut his season short, and his brief tenure in Oakland could come to an end if the Raiders choose to let him go and save $5.3 million in the process.
Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Penciled in as one of the league’s top pass rushers and the leader of the burgeoning Chiefs defense just a few short years ago, Tamba Hali is a good example of how quickly things change in the NFL. Hali had one of his toughest seasons as a pro in 2014, registering just six sacks. Now in the final year of his contract, Hali is due nearly $12 million and Kansas City can save $9 million by simply cutting the 31-year-old. Hali has said he’s willing to renegotiate his contract and take a pay cut, but that would likely require a longer term commitment from the Chiefs and it remains to be seen how much money and time, if any, Kansas City wants to commit to a player who may be entering a steep decline.
Ahmad Brooks, OLB, San Francisco 49ers
In a disappointing season all around in San Francisco, the performance of Ahmad Brooks dropped off so steeply that it triggered a de-escalator in his contract, costing him $2.5 million in salary. Still Brooks represents a $7 million dollar cap hit for a 49ers franchise that enters the 2015 offseason right up against the cap with a desire to retool their roster. The Niners won’t save much short term by simply cutting Brooks, as that would give them a present savings of just $1.5 million with the other $5.5 million sitting on the books as dead money. However, if San Francisco designates Brooks a post-June 1 cut, they can push some of that dead money down the road and save $4.7 million for 2015.
A.J. Hawk, ILB, Green Bay Packers
Perhaps the most obvious divorce of the 2015 offseason is the impending one between the Packers and A.J. Hawk, who continued to disappoint in 2014. Hawk’s lack of production got him benched late in the season while the Packers shuffled their linebacking corps and moved Clay Matthews inside. The nine-year veteran is in the final year of a deal he signed after being cut and then re-signed in 2011, and it seems another cut is in his future, though this time he won’t be returning to Green Bay. Instead look for the Packers to invest the $3.5 million they’ll save by moving on in an upgrade.
Jon Beason, ILB, New York Giants
It’s been a frustrating few seasons for Jon Beason, once considered one of the top middle linebackers in the game. After being traded to the Giants in 2013, a reinvigorated Beason finished the season strong and, at age 29, appeared headed toward a career resurgence in New York, where he signed a three-year, $17 million contract last offseason. But Beason was limited to just four games in 2014 due to a toe injury. Now it appears Beason is at another crossroads in his career, with injury questions clouding his future. As they try to upgrade their defense and retain star defenders Jason Pierre-Paul and Antrel Rolle, the Giants will likely attempt to restructure Beason’s deal and make it more cap-friendly, but they could instead decide to swiftly move on and save nearly $3 million against this year’s cap.
Others to Watch: The Dolphins have already moved on from outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, replacing him with Jelani Jenkins, who starred for the rising Miami defense in 2014 after Ellerbe suffered a season-ending hip injury. Now it’s just a matter of Miami making it official and gaining the $5.6 million in savings associated with cutting Ellerbe. The Eagles didn’t have it so easy trying to replace inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, but the veteran inside linebacker was also having a poor season before he went down. Ryans is now 31, with a long injury history and Philly might be better off moving on and investing the $6.9 million they can save by doing so in an upgrade. The Detroit Lions face a similar decision with Stephen Tulloch, who missed the final 13 games of the regular season after tearing his ACL celebrating a sack in Week 3. Tulloch is owed nearly $6 million in 2015 and the Lions can save $3.2 million by cutting him.
Brandon Carr, CB, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys invested a ton in Brandon Carr when they signed him to a five-year, $50 million dollar contract in 2012, and in the years since, Carr has been a massive disappointment. Carr was clearly hampered when the Cowboys made the move from Rob Ryan’s defense in 2012 to Monte Kiffin’s defense in 2013. Although his play ticked up slightly under Rod Marinelli in 2014, it’s hard to justify spending $10 million/year on a cornerback who went all of last season without an interception. Dallas will first look to restructure the final three years on Carr’s contract and get the corner to take a pay cut, but if he resists, they can generate some savings, including $8 million in 2015 by designating him a post-June 1 cut.
Cary Williams, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Like Carr in Dallas, Cary Williams has been a bust since joining Philly from Baltimore in 2013. He famously got roasted three times by Dez Bryant last December in a loss that cost the Eagles a chance at the NFC East title. He then spent the next few weeks being rotated in and out of the lineup to hide his deficiencies and avoid being targeted repeatedly. One of Philadelphia’s top priorities this offseason will be upgrading their secondary and luckily for them it will be easy to move on from Williams, who is in the final year of his contract. A simple cut will save the Eagles $6.5 million of the more than $8 million owed to him.
Troy Polamalu, SS, Pittsburgh Steelers
Some decisions are easier than others and for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the decision on what to do about safety Troy Polamalu will be met with much angst. Polamalu has long been a cornerstone of the Pittsburgh defense, but he’ll be 34 years old in April and his performance has declined significantly as wear and tear of a long NFL career has sapped some of the ability that made him one of the most feared players in the game in his prime. Steelers owner Art Rooney was non-committal on the veteran safety’s future when asked about it after the season ended and Polamalu has said he’s unsure what the future holds. Polamalu has two years left on his contract, each with a cap hit at or exceeding $8 million. Cutting him would save Pittsburgh nearly half that this year and more than half that in 2016. If the Steelers can remove the emotion from the equation, they’ll see that’s the right move.
Dashon Goldson, FS, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers expected more when they signed free safety Dashon Goldson away from the San Francisco 49ers two seasons ago. In 27 games since joining the Bucs, the ball-hawking free safety, who had 14 interceptions in his final four seasons with the 49ers, has just one INT with Tampa, and he went without one last season. Though Goldson’s first season with the Buccaneers didn’t go according to plan, the arrival of Lovie Smith and with him the return of the Tampa Two defense has further hindered Goldson’s impact. The Bucs might be best suited to move on now, when they can save $4 million of the $8 million he is owed in 2015 and all of the $15.25 million he is owed in the two years that follow.
Others to Watch: Entering the final year of his contract, and coming off his worst season as a pro, Bengals cornerback Leon Hall is a prime candidate for a cut. Hall has been productive over an eight-year career with Cincinnati, but he carries a cap hit of $9.6 million for 2015 and the Bengals can save $7.8 million of that by cutting him. The Texans are in a similar situation with former Bengal Johnathan Joseph. But unlike Hall, Joseph saw an uptick in his 2014 production after two injury-marred seasons. Still the $12.2 million cap hit in the final year of his contract is cumbersome and Houston will try to restructure and extend him. If they can’t agree, a cut of Joseph would save them $8.5 million in cap space.
Buccaneers admit mistake, boot Aguayo
Source: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk
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Did Bucs put too much pressure on Aguayo?
Source: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk
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Broncos holding their breath on Derek Wolfe
Source: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk
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