As the final week of the NFL season begins, the heat is already rising on every team, including the two playing in the Super Bowl this Sunday, to address the important decisions on the horizon this offseason.
When the new league year begins, 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 offensive position who could become salary cap casualties this offseason. (Credit to OverTheCap.com and Spotrac.com for player salary information).
Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams got unlucky at the top of the 2010 NFL Draft in more ways than one. Sam Bradford was the consensus pick at No. 1, particularly for a team in such desperate need of a franchise quarterback. Ever since making that pick, St. Louis has been stuck in NFL purgatory. When healthy, Bradford has been solid, but unspectacular. But it’s his inability to stay healthy that’s been the real issue. Bradford has played in just 49 of St. Louis’ 80 games (61.3%) since they drafted him. Further burdening the Rams is the fact that Bradford’s record six-year, $78 million rookie contract, which contained $50 million in guaranteed money, came in the last year prior to the implementation of the rookie cap. One year later, and St. Louis wouldn’t be on the hook for nearly as much money. But the Rams can get out from under the deal to a certain degree by cutting Bradford before the final year of his contract in 2015. Doing so would save St. Louis nearly $13 million and leave them with just over $3.5 million of dead money. After the quarterback missed all of the 2014 season due to injury, now might be the best time to move on.
Others to watch: There won’t be many other starting-caliber quarterbacks hitting the market by way of roster cuts. Oakland is almost certain to send Matt Schaub packing and save $5.5 million, and the Buccaneers could do the same with Josh McCown and save $5.25 million. Others like Chase Daniel, Matt Cassel and Ryan Fitzpatrick could all face similar circumstances and interest teams looking for a backup.
Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
As the Seahawks suit up for the Super Bowl on Sunday, it’s fair to wonder whether it will be the last time Marshawn Lynch plays for Seattle. Lynch is on the books for $8.5 million for 2015 and the Seahawks can get out from under all but $1.5 million of that by cutting the soon to be 29-year-old running back this offseason. After handing out extensions to several of their outstanding defensive players over the last 12 months, Seattle is flying closer to the cap than they have in years, and that’s before giving what is expected to be a record-breaking extension to Russell Wilson. The Seahawks don’t appear to have an in-house replacement for Lynch as an every down back, but that hasn’t necessarily been a prerequisite for teams moving on from veteran running backs in recent years. Seattle could use a draft pick to fill that need.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
The situation surrounding Adrian Peterson is likely to take another turn this offseason. Peterson can apply for reinstatement from his indefinite suspension in April, which is likely to be granted. Then it will be up to the Vikings whether to welcome him back or cut ties with their long-time franchise face. If this season’s revelations about Peterson’s character weren’t enough to scare off Minnesota, combining them with his impending salary might well be. Peterson, who turns 30 in March, is currently scheduled to count $15.4 million against Minnesota’s cap in 2015 and has stated he has no intention of taking a pay cut. The Vikings can save $13 million by letting him go, and that seems like an obvious choice.
Others to watch: If the Falcons go with a youth movement at running back, Steven Jackson, the league’s active rushing leader and No. 16 all-time, could be looking for a new home, a move which would save Atlanta $3.75 million. The Lions could save $3.5 million against the cap in 2015 by cutting Reggie Bush and declaring it a post-June 1 move. Carolina could also take the post-June 1 route with DeAngelo Williams and create $2 million in savings for 2015.
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
After enduring an 11-year roller coaster ride in Arizona, it seems almost unfair that Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals might part ways just as the fruits of his struggle are coming to pass. But Fitzgerald carries a $23.6 million cap hit for 2015, $3 million more than any other receiver in the league and he hasn’t topped 1,000 yards receiving or 90 catches since 2011. This year, Fitzgerald finished 63 catches for 784 yards and just two touchdowns, and was outperformed by teammate Michael Floyd. For their part, the Cardinals are saying all the right things about wanting to retain Fitzgerald by any means necessary, but they can save $9.2 million by cutting him at the start of the offseason and a whopping $16.25 million by designating him as a post June 1 cut. They’ll have to do some kind of magic in a restructure in order to recoup even close to that much while retaining him.
Andre Johnson, Houston Texans
Like Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson has endured years with a floundering franchise, and in Johnson’s case, the past payoff has been less substantial. The future doesn’t look much better in Houston until the Texans find a quarterback. With his 34th birthday on the horizon this summer, no matter what his public stance, Johnson would probably rather not endure any more growing pains. A split would make sense for both sides, as making Johnson a post-June 1 cut would save Houston $11.5 million against the cap and allow Johnson to pursue a spot with a team closer to title contention. It’s just a matter of convincing themselves it’s the right move.
Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith didn’t throw a single touchdown pass to a wide receiver this year. That didn’t bode well for Dwayne Bowe, who happens to be a wide receiver on the Kansas City Chiefs. Bowe did have 60 catches for 754 yards, a slight uptick in production over 2013. But things just haven’t been the same for Bowe since Smith took over under center and the 30-year-old receiver counts $14 million against KC’s cap in 2015, $11 million of which can be saved if he’s designated as a post-June 1 cut. Demand for Bowe’s services on the open market won’t be nearly as high as it would’ve been three years ago, so a restructure or pay cut that keeps him in KC is a pretty strong possibility.
Others to watch: When the Dolphins signed Mike Wallace during the 2013 offseason, the move was supposed to legitimize the Miami offense. It hasn’t quite worked out that way and the Dolphins could save $6.9 million of his $12.1 million against the 2015 cap by moving on. However, there is so much money tied up in that contract in the two years that follow, Miami might have to wait this out another year to get the savings they seek. The New Orleans Saints might not have that luxury with Marques Colston. New Orleans is currently projected at $23 million over the cap and Colston counts $9.7 million against it. With a post-June 1 cut of Colston, the Saints could clear $7 million of space in 2015. Similar circumstances exist in Tampa, where Vincent Jackson was passed on the depth chart this season by Mike Evans. Cutting Jackson could save Tampa at least $7.3 million this year, if not more, depending on the designation. When the Jets traded for Percy Harvin mid-season, it was considered a low-risk move and here’s why: if New York cuts Harvin this offseason it won’t cost them a dime of the $10.5 million he’s owed in 2015. Seems like an easy decision.
Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars
So much has changed in Jacksonville over the last decade, but one guy has remained a constant since his selection in the 1st round of the 2006 Draft: tight end Marcedes Lewis. However, that too is likely to change this offseason as the tight end, who will be 31 when the 2015 season begins, is in the final year of his contract and the Jaguars can save $6.8 million against the cap by cutting him loose. The Jags are well under the cap and don’t necessarily need the savings, but Lewis has been putting up mediocre numbers for a few years now and the time has come for Jacksonville to move on.
Others to watch: The emergence of Zach Ertz has made Brent Celek’s large salary a luxury for the Eagles, who can cut Celek and save $4.8 million against the 2015 cap in the process.
Michael Oher, Tackle, Tennessee Titans
The league’s most famous offensive lineman, Michael Oher of “Blind Side” fame, may again be looking for a new job after another underwhelming performance in his first year with Tennessee. The Titans would save $2 million against their 2015 cap by cutting him.
Logan Mankins, Guard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Logan Mankins is another 2014 offseason signing that could quickly find himself back on the free agent market. The difference is there would be no dead money against Tampa’s cap if they cut Mankins. They just reap $7 million in savings.
Jahri Evans, G, New Orleans Saints
As mentioned earlier, the Saints are in dire straits as it relates to the cap. Parting ways with nine-year veteran Jahri Evans would be a $6 million savings against their 2015 cap.
Chris Myers, C, Houston Texans
The Texans are one of several teams that enter the offseason close to the cap and looking to create savings wherever possible. Though his performance has remained solid, cutting center Chris Myers in the final year of his contract would save $6 million and leave just $2 million of dead money against their cap.
Jake Long, T, St. Louis Rams
The four-year pact with Jake Long is also looking like a bust for the Rams, who saw the tackle go down in Week 8 with his second major knee injury in as many seasons. The fully guaranteed portion of Long’s contract is out of the way, so the time is right for St. Louis to move on. Doing so at the outset of the new league year would save $8 million against the 2015 cap.
Others to watch: Tennessee could look to totally rebuild their line by also cutting guard Andy Levitre. Levitre, like Oher, has been a disappointing addition, and the cut would net the Titans $2 million in savings on the 2015 cap. Washington can recoup twice that by cutting guard Chris Chester while only having $800,000 of the $4.8 million he’s owed count against their 2015 cap. Atlanta will be aiming to strengthen their front and moving on from tackle Sam Baker, who has played in just nine games over the last two seasons due to injury, is an option. But the current structure of his contract would make them pay handily for it against the 2015 cap and beyond. A pay cut agreement seems more likely. The Eagles offensive line has gotten stronger over the last two years, but they could cut Todd Herremans, save $2.8 million against the cap, and pursue an upgrade at right tackle.
Some of the aforementioned moves are more likely than others, and there are sure to be a few cuts no one saw coming when teams start crunching their numbers. The free agent pool will get even deeper in the process, making for another intriguing offseason in the NFL.
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