As one prominent agent deadlocked in a contract dispute once told me, the salary cap is the “most convenient excuse” any NFL team has to release a player or attempt to reduce their earnings for the coming year. Something can always be done, and while that agent was right, cutting a player because they’ve become too old, too expensive or too inconsistent is just part of the league’s natural order.
That’s why we have “cap casualty” season even if it isn’t aptly named, which can start after the team’s final game but picks up significantly leading up to free agency and the draft.
Over the next few weeks, some of the NFL’s most significant names will be cut and left to accept a re-worked deal at a lower salary, weather the free agent market or worse, hope that a team will pick them up after Week 1 so that the season’s salary doesn’t have to be guaranteed.
Here’s a primer on who might get swept up, and who already has been…
Current cap space*: $13,145,489
Potential casualties: This is a difficult one considering that we don’t know exactly what is happening with Martellus Bennett. Bennett can be cut free of dead money and save the Patriots more than $6 million, but as the Boston Herald noted, an early March roster bonus could set the stage for a paycut opportunity if the Patriots aren’t happy with their current tight end depth chart. With Rob Gronkowskicontemplating his future after the Super Bowl, Dwayne Allen possibly on the chopping block (New England could cut him without dead money, saving them $5 million) and Jimmy Graham potentially hitting the open market, the tight ends could be a fascinating position group to watch this offseason. If the Patriots shed themselves of Allen or Bennett, it could signal their plans moving forward, or at least provide a window into Gronkowski’s thinking.
Current cap space: $29,578,581
Potential casualties:Tyrod Taylor has been mentioned but a recent NFL Network report suggests the Bills may trade him—but not before paying out his roster bonus. Buffalo could be in on the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, but the team does not have a ton of hollow contracts which they could easily gut. Kelvin Benjamin could save them nearly $8.5 million, but was recently acquired via trade. Richie Incognito could also help them free up cash, but he’s still playing at a solid level and will count $7.575 million against the cap. Is that too much for a player that will be 35 on opening day next year?
Current cap space: $7,454,965 over
Potential casualties: The Dolphins already seem to be getting started. The Miami Herald notes thatJulius Thomas ($6.6 million), Lawrence Timmons ($8.225 million) and Ju’Wan James ($9.341 million) are on the chopping block, and Miami has four current players (Ndamukong Suh, Jarvis Landry, Ryan Tannehill and Reshad Jones) set to count more than $10 million against the cap next year. This may only be the first wave of moves for executive Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Adam Gase.
Current cap space: $73,196,618
Potential casualties:With the New York Post reporting that the Jets could try and dump a boatload of money into the first year of a Kirk Cousins deal, that would mean they may want more than $70 million to play with this offseason. SNY reported that the release of Muhammad Wilkerson is a foregone conclusion while Buster Skrine ($8.5 million) and Matt Forte ($4 million) could help round out the financial shaving. Remember that the Jets did a good amount of this last offseason to set themselves up for 2018.
Current cap space: $12,594
Potential casualties: Kansas City has already gotten to work, by waiving Derrick Johnson and Darrelle Revis. And while their current space looks paltry, the Kansas City Star noted that the Alex Smith trade will net them another $15 million or so to play with. Looking specifically at the age-to-salary ratios (Johnson told reporters that the team specifically informed him they were getting younger across the board), Tamba Hali ($9,395,834) also makes some sense to include here. The Chiefs will need to invest in a quality backup for Patrick Mahomes and those aren’t cheap anymore.
Current cap space: $23,762,546
Potential casualties:The Los Angeles Times mentions that Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget fit the bill for a potential cut-and-save maneuver—combined, they’ll count about $15 million against the Chargers’ cap next year. All told, the team seems to be in pretty phenomenal shape, with most of their younger stars either still on rookie deals or under contract for the foreseeable future. Russell Okung has a cap number that the team may consider excessive but it would not be a wise decision financially to bail on him in 2018.
Current cap space: $19,951,213
Potential casualties: How does general manager Reggie McKenzie keep signing all these players to mega-deals? He gives himself outs. Look at Oakland’s salary cap table for this year and you’ll see eight of their highest-salaried players (Sean Smith, Rodney Hudson, Keleche Osemele, Bruce Irvin, Marshawn Lynch, Jared Cook, Michael Crabtree and Cordarrelle Patterson) who are all releasable without dead money against the cap. ESPN Raiders beat man Paul Gutierrez pegged Lynch, Crabtree and Irvin as the main targets. Hudson and Osemele would be sensible to keep, seeing as the offensive like is one of McKenzie’s proudest investments and Derek Carr is the catalyst for their system. Oakland already released cornerback David Amerson earlier this year.
Current cap space: $26,848,245
Potential casualties: A run at Kirk Cousins isn’t going to be cheap, which means the Broncos will have to rob from their strengths (defensive secondary and running game) to upgrade under center. Aqib Talib has been a reliable presence in Denver’s secondary for years but many on the Broncos beat are projecting his ouster, which would save the team about $10 million. Beat sage Mike Klis initially reported trade interest, but teams could just be sitting back, waiting for the inevitable. C.J. Anderson, who can save Denver about $5 million, has openly talked about his potential as a cap casualty on Twitter, showing that veterans understand the business side quite well after a few go-rounds.
Current cap space: $6,540,224
Potential casualties: With Le’Veon Bell almost definitely getting tagged again, Pittburgh will have to get creative this offseason to make some room. It’s been a heavy roster financially for years, which makes sense given that the window to capitalize on another Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger is closing quickly. That being said, there aren’t a ton of obvious moves here. Vance McDonald ($4,318,750 with no dead money) makes sense from a financial perspective. The great Ed Bouchette also didn’t shy away from putting safety Mike Mitchell on the list—Mitchell would represent minor savings, but would the cap room he creates outweigh the value and tenacity he brings on defense?
Current cap space: $10,318,061
Potential casualties: Like the Steelers, there aren’t a ton of obvious moves here. Some minor savings could be created with the release of names like Austin Howard and veteran running back Danny Woodhead. The Baltimore Sun also identified LaDarius Webb as a potential cut alongside Jeremy Maclin and Brandon Carr. Baltimore is so interesting in that they seem to sustain themselves offensively every year with these short-term free agency signings only to come back to the table and reload again the following year. It will take more than $10 million to play in this market even once the rising cap figure is figured in.
Current cap space: $35,628,993
Potential casualties: Good luck getting the Bengals to make it interesting this offseason in free agency. Cincinnati could move on from Geno Atkins without any financial trouble, and the same goes for Carlos Dunlap and Brandon LaFell. ESPN analyst Bill Barnwell was recently bullish on keeping Dunlap and Darqueze Dennard, suggesting that the savings could come from cutting ties with Adam Jones. Will Marvin Lewis opt to shake up his roster knowing that this is (probably?) his last short-term contract extension with the Bengals? Or, will he double down to try and win that elusive playoff game.
Current cap space: $110,113,737
Potential casualties: By design, there is not a ton of fat on this roster. Sure, the Browns could save almost $3 million by cutting Jason McCourty but he was one of their best defensive players last year and on a team this young it might be good to keep him around. Should Joe Thomas walk away, Cleveland would also be free of their highest salary on the books (his cap number is $14.250 million). There is a reason this job was attractive to general manager candidates despite Cleveland being a cursed football town, because John Dorsey can go nuts this offseason Jaguars-style with little regret.
Current cap space: $18,035,444
Potential casualties: The Jaguars have already moved on from Chris Ivory, who was a fairly obvious candidate given his age (he’ll be 30 soon) and potential to generate more than $3.5 million in space if cut. The big decision, Blake Bortles, could more than double the Jaguars’ cap space this offseason should they choose to move on. A nice breakdown of the situation from Big Cat Country also mentioned former undrafted free agent Arby Jones, who could be let go without any dead money this offseason. While Allen Hurns has a similar structure this year, I cannot imagine the team getting rid of a receiver who has a rapport with the starting quarterback, and who has been productive in the past. Hurns is slated to count $7 million against the cap, which seems like a fair number.
Current cap space: $49,488,268
Potential casualties:Derrick Henry’s big postseason led to this NFL Network report placing DeMarco Murray on the chopping block. It would be excellent to see him ride out his golden years back in Dallas, just like it would be great to see Henry finally take on a more featured role. Wesley Woodyard will be 32 on opening day and set to count more than $4 million against the cap, while Matt Cassel will cost $2.5 million, which is more expensive than a serviceable rookie backup to Marcus Mariota who might fit the system better.
Current cap space: $74,194,402
Potential casualties: This should be a fun offseason for Chris Ballard. Andrew Luck finally has an offensive-minded head coach and the team finally has money to burn on the open market. With schemes changing defensively, there is always the option to unload Johnathan Hankins, Jabaal Sheard and Margus Hunt, but those decisions will be largely dependent on what kind of identity Indianapolis will look to take on this year. Multiple reports have pegged Frank Gore as a guaranteed walk in free agency, which leaves Luck and Frank Reich more room to bolster the offensive line and add more talent to their receiving corps.
Current cap space: $63,802,267
Potential casualties:Brian Cushing is already out the door, which saved the team almost $8 million. Ditching a fan favorite got the heavy lifting out of the way, leaving them a handful of smaller moves that won’t make or break their plans in free agency.
Current cap space: $9,666,190 over.
Potential casualties:A few different Philly outlets have already identified the big names at play here: Jason Peters is counting $10,666,666 against the cap next year and may have to restructure. Torrey Smith will have to compete against the other receivers on the market and in the draft. Doug Pederson lost plenty of talent on his offensive staff, but this is a brain trust that knows what it wants. Mentions of a Nick Foles trade seem a little far off unless the team is completely blown away. His $7.6 million cap hit is one the team is thrilled to carry.
Current cap space: $18,169,447
Potential casualties: The Dez Bryant situation is nothing new. The Cowboys can save about $8.5 million against the cap by cutting him, and Bryant has made public comments suggesting he’s too good to take a paycut. This would seem to be a difficult divorce for owner Jerry Jones, who loves having high-profile, brand names to entertain his high-paying audience. Bryant is a franchise institution, but the production has not matched up to the salary of late, and quarterback Dak Prescott seems to favor other weapons a bit more.
Current cap space: $49,150,517
Potential casualties: Most of Washington’s highest-paid players also still have a significant amount of guaranteed money remaining in their deals, which leaves the team room to shove the new Alex Smith contract and add a complementary player or two in free agency.
Current cap space: $24,535,434
Potential casualties: While Dave Gettleman is part of the Giants’ old guard, he may not be as financially loyal to the team’s list of regulars. Newsday mentioned both Brandon Marshall and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, which makes sense as the team tries to cleanse the locker room of so many strong veteran personalities. Shedding the duo would create almost $12 million, or as Gettleman probably sees it, more money in the safe to eventually sign Odell Beckham.
Current cap space: $40,863,316
Potential casualties: The Rams have the same general manager left over from the Jeff Fisher era but a completely different outlook. That could mean taking a hard look at some Fisher-era mistakes, like Tavon Austin. Austin has the seventh-highest cap hit on the team as of right now, and his release would generate $3 million. Converted linebacker Mark Barron would also create another $7 million. Turf Show Times wisely brings up Robert Quinn, who could end up being an interesting decision for general manager Les Snead coming up. Quinn’s nine sacks a year ago would seem to warrant the relatively high price tag (almost $12.4 million) but … this is a critical time for Snead. The opportunity to strike is at hand, when your quarterback doesn’t financially hamstring the roster. Aaron Donald needs to get paid. The money has to come from somewhere.
Current cap space: $14,123,861
Potential casualties: This could be a transformative offseason in Seattle. Richard Sherman getting cut would create $11 million in space, Earl Thomas getting cut would get them almost another $9 million and Cliff Avril would save them more than $7 million, just like K.J. Wright. What will end up happening to Kam Chancellor—will he come back at all? Is a 66-year-old Pete Carroll game for a complete rebuild, or will Seattle simply flirt with the idea of blowing up the core of their Super Bowl team before changing their minds? Injuries to almost all of the bolded players here will make for a very, very complicated spring.
Current cap space: $74,428,582
Potential casualties: Imagine having that much money after signing your franchise quarterback to the most lucrative deal in NFL history. Like the Browns, the 49ers are in strike mode and probably don’t need to further deplete a young roster. Smaller names like Zane Beadles and Elvis Dumervil could pop up to generate some pocket money, but there may not be much of a point unless the 49ers plan to get extremely active on the open market.
Current cap space: $22,159,438
Potential casualties: The highest salaries, Larry Fitzgerald, Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu aren’t going anywhere unless Steve Wilks wants to break up his defense and make a blockbuster offseason trade. If Arizona is committing to an offensive rebuild, there are a few older offensive linemen (Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati) who are reaching a decision point in their careers. Obviously, Adrian Peterson saving them nearly $3 million on a clean cut is enticing. The Cardinals are going to have to jump into the quarterback arms race this offseason and will need a little capital.
Current cap space: $49,053,643
Potential casualties:Latavius Murray has been the most commonly mentioned name in Minnesota, so much so that he’s being asked about the possibility. Like so many teams waiting on Kirk Cousins, the quarterback market could help dictate what teams are willing to do, but giving themselves extra financial flexibility can’t hurt. Murray saves Minnesota more than $5 million, and with Dalvin Cook coming back, it just makes sense.
Current cap space: $44,744,205
Potential casualties:Eric Ebron is an interesting name. The disappointing former first-round draft pick has already auditioned for offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. His comments to the Detroit Free Press recently did not sound optimistic but imagine Matt Patricia letting a dynamic weapon like Ebron go, only to have Ebron find himself in New England.
Current cap space: $17,095,351
Potential casualties: Under new management, the Packers could finally pacify their fan base and flex some muscle in free agency. In order to do that, and start stockpiling money for an Aaron Rodgers mega-deal, they’ll have to get creative. I’ve seen Jordy Nelson’s name listed a few places, including in this expansive Bleacher Report breakdown but it’s difficult to imagine given Nelson’s almost unconscious relationship with Rodgers on the field. More than likely, this will be a spring of contractual minutiae. The smart move, if it’s possible, would be to convince some of the team’s aging, high-end stars to take a paycut for a run at something truly spectacular in 2018.
Current cap space: $41,217,467
Potential casualties:Josh Sitton was already let go, with one more seemingly obvious move to go for the Bears: Mike Glennon. ESPN.com Bears beat man Jeff Dickerson put Glennon atop his list, noting that the $9 million savings will be able to afford the Bears a brand new backup much more content than the hoodwinked Glennon. Pernell McPhee also represents a difficult decision for new head coach Matt Nagy. Is he worth shaving another $7 million from the books?
Current cap space: $31,779,554
Potential casualties: The team is relatively healthy, but so much of the remaining funds will get chewed up by a high profile Drew Brees extension. There aren’t a lot of obvious outs. Coby Fleener would be expensive to cut, but Mike Triplett on the Saints beat finds it hard to believe Fleener will stay. Mark Ingram can save them money, but do you want to break up the power element of a great tandem backfield?
Current cap space: $20,305,968
Potential casualties: Newly re-hired GM Marty Hurney is on notice. After steering the organization into cap hell during his first tenure, he’ll have to tiptoe around the Panthers’ books this offseason. Will it finally be time to part ways with talented running back Jonathan Stewart and give Christian McCaffrey an expanded role? Stewart creates $3.718 million in capital. Ryan Kalil ($6.796 million), Charles Johnson ($3.250 million) and Thomas Davis ($3.718 million) are all cash sources to tap—or at least players Hurney could approach for a paycut.
Current cap space: $12,035,622
Potential casualties: Atlanta is in a tough spot. Matt Ryan needs a new deal and $12 million isn’t enough to get it done and keep Dan Quinn active in free agency. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution found a little more than $10 million by cutting the combination of Andy Levitre and Brooks Reed. Matt Schaub is a little pricey for a backup (he would save $3.250 million)
Current cap space: $71,196,463
Potential casualties: It’s a do-or-die season, maybe for everyone in Tampa Bay, which sets the stage for a potentially electrifying free agency. Tampa is in a rough spot because all three teams in their division are talented, and they’ll need to spend wisely to even keep pace. They’ve already created more than $10 million in savings by cutting Doug Martinand Chris Baker.
* = Cap numbers courtesy of OverTheCap.com.