DeMarcus Ware, Muhammad Wilkerson and other veterans could be on their way out in the near future after their team's top draft picks.
Teams talk about their use of sabermetrics at times, but quite often, the most important number when evaluating player value is the one with a dollar sign in front of it. The balance between player value and player cost is a constant battle, and several franchises have made moves in the 2015 draft to try and offload the potential stress of the hard choices that result from those decisions. To that end, here are the veterans who should most be looking behind them when they review their team's top draft picks. (Advanced stats from Pro Football Focus; salary cap info from OverTheCap.com)
DeMarcus Ware, DE, Broncos: The Broncos got one of the steals of the draft when Missouri defensive end Shane Ray dropped to the 23rd pick in the draft, due to the fact that Mr. Ray didn't seem to understand that getting popped for marijuana possession in the week of the draft was a really bad idea. That said, Ray is an outstanding pass rusher—he led the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss last season—and he's a perfect fit for Wade Phillips's aggressive one-gap defense. Ware was outstanding in his first season with the Broncos, and he of course has familiarity in Phillips's defense when the two were together in Dallas from 2007 through 2010. But the Broncos cast veteran Shaun Phillips aside after one good season in 2013, and Phillips did very little for the Titans and Colts last year. Ware is in the second year of a three-year deal, he's got an $8,666,666 cap hit this season. The Broncos could save $3.5 million in cap space if they released him this year as a post-June 1 cut, and that number shoots up to $10 million in 2016.
Sean Smith, CB, Chiefs: The selection of Washington cornerback Marcus Peters with the 18th pick should perk Smith's ears up. Peters has had his share of off-field issues, but Andy Reid has never been shy about starting alleged malcontents if they can play, and Peters has real talent. Smith signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal in 2013, and the last year of that deal carries a $7.75 million cap hit, which could be reduced to $2.25 million in dead money were he released. Smith didn't play badly last season, logging over 1,000 snaps and logging an 85.3 opposing passer rating, but it's safe to say the Chiefs probably want more than one pick (and fewer than three touchdowns allowed) from their high-priced veteran. Smith could also receive a two-game suspension for a DUI charge he pled down in April.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Jets: The pre-draft trade rumors surrounding Wilkerson were certainly surprising until it came out that the Jets wanted "multiple first-round picks" in exchange for the four-year veteran. Wilkerson is one of the better 3-4 ends in the league, especially since he's been teamed with Sheldon Richardson, and he'll likely thrive in new head coach Todd Bowles' defense. But 2015 marks the last season of Wilkerson's rookie deal, and he's said to want $40 million guaranteed in his next contract. So, when the Jets took USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams with the sixth pick, it probably signaled that the team's relationship with Wilkerson will end after the 2015 campaign. Williams was considered one of the best—if not the best—player in the 2015 draft, and like Wilkerson, he is a true force against the run who can line up in multiple gaps. C'est la vie. Bowles will have Williams, Wilkerson and Richardson on his line for at least one season. AFC East quarterbacks are not at all happy with that thought.
Johnathan Joseph, CB, Texans: When the Texans selected Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson with the 16th pick, they may have grabbed the most well-rounded pass defender in this class. They also put Joseph on notice, and for good reason. Last season, Joseph played decently, giving up four touchdowns with two picks and an 83.8 opponent passer rating, but he did so with an $11.25 million cap hit as part of the five-year, $48.75 deal he signed in 2011. In 2015, Joseph will cost the Texans $12.25 million in cap in the final year of his contract, but the Texans can offload all but $3.75 million of that with a release.
Thomas Davis, OLB, Panthers: Davis has been one of the better players in Panthers franchise history when healthy, and he's a good guy, too: He was given the league's Walter Payton Man of the Year award for the 2014 season. Davis was honored at the draft, and made the official announcement for his team's first-round pick, only to announce the selection of the guy who will probably replace him over time in Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson. Like Davis, Thompson is a rangy player with safety-level coverage abilities. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has said that he envisions a linebacker corps in which Thompson, Davis and Luke Kuechly are wreaking havoc at the same time and in a rotation, and that would be a great thing for Carolina's defense. That said, Davis turned 32 in March, and though he's been healthy over the last three seasons, he's got a history of knee issues. Davis counts for $9.9 million against the cap this season, so Gettleman's best move would be to extend Davis with a more team-friendly deal. But as we saw with the Steve Smith scenario, Gettleman has no issue jettisoning franchise-defining veterans if the numbers don't add up. Davis's final three years of his current deal are voidable due to a 2014 restructure, so he's essentially a team-controlled free agent after the 2015 season.
Brandon Carr, CB, Cowboys: This is a no-brainer. The Cowboys took Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones with the 27th pick, and the highly athletic Jones should be a natural fit in Rod Marinelli's defense. One of the few players who didn't benefit from Marinelli's outstanding tutelage in 2014 was Carr, who signed a five-year, $50.1 million contract in 2012 but played at a veteran minimum level in 2014. Carr allowed six touchdowns and a 116.6 quarterback rating while picking off exactly zero passes. He's going to be a $12.7 million cap albatross this season, and the dead money precludes a cut, so the famously creative Cowboys should be talking to Carr loudly about a contract restructure. If that doesn't happen, the Cowboys might investigate making Carr a post-June 1 cut and eating $4.7 million.
Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, OT, Bengals: The Bengals made their intentions clear in the 2015 draft by taking Texas A&M tackle Cedric Ogbuehi in the first round, and doubling down with Oregon's Jake Fisher in the second. Ogbuehi is a natural left tackle, and projects there very well when he's recovered from the torn ACL he suffered last December. Fisher played left tackle for the Ducks last year, but that was due to the injuries of others—he's a natural high-rep right tackle. And it just so happens that Whitworth and Smith, Cincy's two starting tackles at this time, are in the final years of their contracts. Whitworth may look like an unathletic aging veteran, but he was also the NFL's most efficient pass-blocker in 2014. The Bengals might try and keep him on as a guard. Smith's future is more nebulous. He played in just nine games last year due to a torn triceps, and gave up a team-leading four sacks in just 497 total snaps.
Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers: This is an interesting face-off. Brown led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards last season, and then said that he wanted a bump in the six-year, $43.04 million deal he signed in 2012. The Steelers are not known for re-negotiating with players under contract no matter how good they are, and they also have great faith in their ability to grab underrated speed receivers in the middle rounds of the draft. As well they should: Brown was a sixth-round pick in 2010, Martavis Bryant was a fourth-rounder in 2014, and Emmanuel Sanders was a third-rounder in 2010. Pittsburgh let Sanders walk in free agency after the 2013 season, only to watch him become a major factor in Denver's high-flying offense. Would they do the same with Brown? Well, they took Auburn speed merchant Sammie Coates in the third round of this draft, and Coates could be a real find as soon as he gets the hang of an NFL route tree. Brown has a $9.6 million cap number this year, and that accelerates to just over $12 million in 2016, but in each of those years, a post-June 1 cut would cost the Steelers just $3.787.5 million in dead money. 2016 is the season to watch here.
Aldon Smith, OLB, 49ers: Between the off-field issues that have resulted in suspension and the iffy on-field production of late—Smith has amassed just 10.5 total sacks in the last two seasons after grabbing 19.5 quarterback takedowns in 2012—the 49ers would be forgiven for looking on to life without him. General manager Trent Baalke has said all the right things about how he believes that Smith will rebound from his two-sack 2014 season, but Baalke then took Oregon defensive lineman Arik Armstead with the 17th pick, and Virginia outside linebacker Eli Harold in the third round. Armstead might be a hybrid guy with the ability to replace either Justin Smith or Ray McDonald over time, but Harold is right in Smith's wheelhouse as an edge rusher. Head coach Jim Tomsula would no doubt prefer a scenario in which Smith and Harold were terrorizing quarterbacks from either side at the same time, but 2015 is the last year of Smith's rookie deal, and it's tough to imagine the team bringing him back unless he's clean off the field and completely ridiculous when he's playing. Smith's 2015 deal isn't even guaranteed, it's more a week-to-week deal, and he agreed to that in a restructure.