Welcome to the business portion of the off-season. This stretch, after the Super Bowl concludes and before free agency begins in full, tends to be among the most difficult for the league's players. The 32 franchises spend these weeks getting their books in order, often by releasing their higher-priced veterans.
Any player cut is free to sign with another team immediately. Meanwhile, the teams that do the cutting usually recoup a rather substantial sum from the contracts promised to those cast-off players.
This is also a good time to review the designation between cuts made before and after June 1. If a team releases a player before the June 1 cutoff, any remaining guaranteed money owed that player is pushed onto the 2015 salary cap; if the transaction happens after June 1, that money is spread out over the '15 and '16 caps.
While a post-June 1 release usually adds more cap space to a team's pocket, that cash does not become available until long after free agency begins, when the benefits of spending it in a thinned-out free agent market may be negligible.
With those rules out of the way, which big-name players might be on the chopping block in the immediate future? Here are a few possibilities:
Vince Wilfork, DT, Patriots
Cap hit: $8.933 million; savings if cut before June 1: $8.067 mil.; post-June 1: $8.5 mil.
Keep an eye on two days in the middle of March here. March 9 is the cutoff for New England to pick up Darrelle Revis's $20 million contract option for next season, so the front office will want to have its superstar cornerback signed to a long-term deal (with a smaller cap hit) before then.
The following day, March 10, Wilfork's $4 million roster bonus kicks in. The Patriots may opt to release him at a $433,000 dead-money hit and attempt to re-sign him later. They also could work out a contract extension or decide to just take on that $4 million bonus. But the current structure of Wilfork's contract gives New England an out that is probably too tempting to pass on. The $8.933 million cap hit would leave Wilfork as the fourth most costly player on the roster, nearly $300,000 higher than Rob Gronkowski's number.
From a financial standpoint the Jets can pull the plug on the Percy Harvin experiment at any time, with no additional penalty—the guaranteed money on Harvin's deal is not their responsibility. If Harvin is on the roster past March 19, though, the sixth-round pick New York currently owes Seattle as trade compensation would become a fourth-rounder.
Given that variable and the all-or-nothing status of Harvin's contract, odds are the Jets will make their final call on Harvin soon.
It's worth mentioning that the Jets have upwards of $45 million in projected cap space, counting Harvin's contract. They may decide Harvin is worth the monetary risk to see what he can do in the offense in 2015.
The Steelers have shown little hesitation casting off the players from their old guard in recent seasons, either to save money or to make room for younger options. Polamalu checks off both boxes at this stage in his career. Pittsburgh drafted Shamarko Thomas last year, and Polamalu's $8.25 million cap cost sits behind only Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons (a candidate to be restructured or cut himself at a $12.5 million hit) and Antonio Brown.
The departure of longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau also points to Polamalu's exit. The Steelers could wait him out for a bit to see if he'll retire, thereby saving them the dead-money hit they would take by cutting him. Either way, the chances of a Polamalu return are no better than 50-50.
Last off-season, a disgruntled Johnson briefly hinted at trying to force a trade out of Houston. The Texans may be the ones threatening to cut the cord this time if Johnson, 34 in July, does not agree to a reduced salary.
"We understand it’s a business and we’re willing to deal with that," Johnson's uncle and advisor, Andre Melton, told The Houston Chronicle in December. "And Andre doesn’t mind having a pay cut."
We'll see if that is still the case this spring. Johnson did lead the Texans with 85 receptions, but rising star DeAndre Hopkins topped him in touchdowns (six to three) and yards (1,210 to 936). Both receivers' current contracts expire after 2016, and by that point the Texans definitely will want to reward Hopkins with a Johnson-esque deal. Could they start the transition process even earlier by releasing Johnson?
Tamba Hali, OLB, Chiefs
Cap hit: $11.965 million; savings if cut before June 1: $9.0 mil.; post-June 1: $9.0 mil.
Hali recently said that he's willing to take a pay cut to help the Chiefs get Justin Houston locked up on what should be an extremely lucrative deal. The 31-year-old Hali may not have any other choice. The $9 million savings on his potential release is substantial, and Hali's 2014 production (6.0 sacks) was at its lowest since '08. Kansas City also, in theory, used its prior first-round pick on a player who could help phase out Hali in Dee Ford.
The other situation to watch in Kansas City is that of wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. He's still the Chiefs' No. 1 wideout, but he hasn't hit 1,000 yards in three years and finished last season without a single touchdown. Right now, the Chiefs could save $5.0 million by cutting him and his $14 million salary; after June 1, those savings grow to $11.0 million.
Trent Cole, OLB, Eagles
Cap hit: $11.625 million; savings if cut before June 1: $8.425 mil.; post-June 1: $10.0 mil.
Cole has been better than the Eagles expected over the past two seasons, notching 8.0 sacks in 2013 and another 6.5 last season as an outside linebacker in Chip Kelly's 3-4 alignment. His $10 million base salary prices him out of the picture, though, even with fellow linebacker Brandon Graham bound for free agency himself.
Perhaps the Eagles can talk Cole into returning at a discounted price. However, with Connor Barwin (14.5 sacks) patrolling one side and rookie disappointment Marcus Smith headed into his second season, the Eagles may be better off using some of Cole's money on an upgrade.
You've probably heard the rhetoric from Minnesota's brass turn in a very pro-Peterson direction. "Of course, he's a Minnesota Viking," team president Mark Wilf said Wednesday, "and we'd love to have him back."
Team COO Kevin Warren delivered a similar message Thursday, per ESPN's Ben Goessling, adding that he would "welcome Peterson back with open arms."
Minnesota may be at the point where it's willing to forgive and forget after Peterson's violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy sidelined him for most of the 2014 season. Is it willing to do so at a cost of $15.4 million? Peterson, who turns 30 next month and has been out of action since last Sept. 7, remains the league's highest-paid running back ... by a lot. (LeSean McCoy checks in second at a $9.75 million base salary and a $11.95 million cap hit for '15.)
Under the best of circumstances, Minnesota probably would have taken a second look at Peterson's value—$13 million potentially added to the cap is nothing to sneeze at. A pay cut might be in order. A release still could be the end game.
Sam Bradford, QB, Rams
Cap hit: $16.58 million; savings if cut before June 1: $12.985 mil.; post-June 1: $12.985 mil.
The Rams already have explored a restructured deal for Bradford, and who could blame them? The $12.985 million they could save by releasing the oft-injured quarterback constitutes all of Bradford's base salary for the 2015 season -- a whopping number for a player with a deep history of knee injuries and just seven games played between 2013-14.
A trade might be possible considering the quarterbacks otherwise available through free agency and the draft. Transitioning much of Bradford's salary to performance-based bonuses or sending him packing are more likely resolutions.
There is simply no way for Arizona to justify setting aside $23.6 million of its 2015 cap for Fitzgerald. The 31-year-old face of the franchise may still have something left in the tank, but he is on the downslope of his career, coming off of three straight seasons with fewer than 1,000 yards receiving and just two touchdowns in 2014.
The two sides reportedly have begun work on a restructured deal, which is the only way Fitzgerald will be in a Cardinals uniform next season. The post-June 1 cut would be appealing should an agreement fail to be reached.
Manning first must decide that he wants to play another season and then must pass a physical. (Should he fail the latter, his $19 million base salary would no longer be guaranteed.)
After that ... well, after that, the Broncos have to figure out if he's worth bringing back for one more year. That answer is not as easy as it was a few months ago, although it's still tough to imagine a situation where Denver gives Manning the ol' "Thanks, but no thanks."
One possibility? General manager John Elway decides new head coach Gary Kubiak can win with Brock Osweiler or a yet-to-be-determined replacement at quarterback and uses the $16.5 million saved by cutting Manning to re-sign Demaryius Thomas, Terrance Knighton, Julius Thomas or other impending free agents.
Other notable potential cap casualties ...
Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Dolphins (cap hit: $9.85 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $5.65 mil.): Too much money for a player who missed almost all of 2014 to injury. Ellerbe is one of many Dolphins—Brian Hartline, Randy Starks, Earl Mitchell, Cortland Finnegan—who could be released in cost-saving measures. A wild card is wide receiver Mike Wallace, who carries a $6.9 million post-June 1 savings on his $12.1 million cap number.
Calvin Pace, OLB, Jets (cap hit: $2.25 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $2.125 mil.): Pace will turn 35 midway through next season. His production dipped in '14, from 10.0 sacks the previous year to 4.5.
Domata Peko, DT, Bengals (cap hit: $3.7 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $3.7 mil.): The lack of dead money here likely punches Peko's ticket out of town. Cincinnati needs more impact alongside Geno Atkins up front.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Texans (cap hit: $3.875 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $3.25 mil.): One-and-done in Houston for the veteran quarterback? Could be, depending on what happens with Ryan Mallett and others. The team's center, Chris Myers, might be on the bubble, too, thanks to a potential $6 million savings.
Trent Richardson, RB, Colts (cap hit: $3.184 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $3.184 mil.): An inevitable conclusion to a disastrous marriage.
Chase Daniel, QB, Chiefs (cap hit: $4.8 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $3.8 mil.): Hefty price tag for a backup quarterback. Is that how the Chiefs view Daniel, or is he Alex Smith's eventual successor? He's just two years younger than Smith.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Raiders (cap hit: $2.5 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $2.5 mil.): Oakland is flush with available cash for 2015, and new head coach Jack Del Rio is familiar with Jones-Drew, so this might not be as obvious a cut as it seems. Quarterback Matt Schaub ($5.5 mil. hit, no dead money) and defensive end LaMarr Woodley ($5.038 mil. hit, no dead money) are safer bets for release.
Henry Melton, DT, Cowboys (cap hit: $9.25 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $8.5 mil.): Answer coming soon—the Cowboys have until Feb. 15 to pick up Melton's three-year, $24 million contract. Don't bet on it. Tackle Doug Free's contract also voids this weekend. One more name to remember in Dallas: cornerback Brandon Carr, whose cap savings would rise from $566K to $8 million after June 1.
Mathias Kiwanuka, DE, Giants (cap hit: $7.45 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $4.825): Turns 32 next month and has struggled to stay effective. Already took a pay cut last offseason, dropping his 2014 salary from $4.3 million down to $1.5 million.
Cary Williams, CB, Eagles (cap hit: $8.167 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $6.5 mil.): The cornerback-starved Eagles might hold out hope that flashes from Williams hint at a big 2015 season. Still, that's a lot of money to fork over with fingers crossed.
Pierre Garcon, WR, Redskins (cap hit: $9.7 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $5.3): Only Trent Williams carries a larger 2015 cap hit on Washington's roster. Garcon's stats plummeted in 2014 with the arrivals of DeSean Jackson and new head coach Jay Gruden.
Reggie Bush, RB, Lions (cap hit: $5.277 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $1.722 mil.): May not be worth a release until after June 1, when Detroit's savings rise to $3.5 million. Bush remains electrifying at times, but he can't stay healthy. Theo Riddick looks ready for a larger role.
A.J. Hawk, LB, Packers (cap hit: $5.1 mil.; pre-June 1 savings; $3.5 mil.): Both Hawk and Brad Jones ($3.694 million in savings) are on the chopping block. Hawk's role diminished down the stretch.
Greg Jennings, WR, Vikings (cap hit: $11 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $5.0): Post-June 1 savings runs up to $9 million. If Jennings won't restructure his contract, he'll be gone.
Steven Jackson, RB, Falcons (cap hit: $4.916 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $3.75 mil.): Foregone conclusion. Reports are already circulating that Atlanta will cut Jackson.
Marques Colston, WR, Saints (cap hit: $9.7 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $4.3 mil.): The Saints' savings on Colston are $7 million post-June 1. Their cap situation is a complete mess, so it may force the team's hands.
Dashon Goldson, S, Buccaneers (cap hit: $8 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $4.0 mil.): Two years into a five-year, $41.25 million contract, Goldson was a letdown in Lovie Smith's defense last season.
Darnell Dockett, DE, Cardinals (cap hit: $9.8 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $6.8 mil.): Will Dockett, who recentlyrailed against the NFL's lack of guaranteed contracts, be willing to restructure his deal? He turns 34 in May and is coming off a season-ending ACL injury.
Jake Long, OT, Rams (cap hit: $10.5 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $8.0 mil.):Greg Robinson's ready to replace Long at left tackle on a permanent basis. It doesn't help Long's case that he is constantly banged up.
Ahmad Brooks, OLB, 49ers (cap hit: $7.055 mil.; pre-June 1 savings: $1.508 mil.): Brooks carries a post-June 1 savings of $4.7 million. Given the choice, the 49ers would likely prefer to release Brooks (who turns 31 in March) over Aldon Smith, despite Smith's $9.75 million being non-guaranteed.