NFL franchises have exhibited an increased willingness in recent years to release underperforming, highly-paid players while swallowing “dead money” on their payroll, as the salary cap has increased by at least $10 million each year since 2012. There are currently 23 players whose cap holds account for at least $5 million on each of their former teams' payrolls. There were 20 such players the last time I ranked the biggest dead money hits in 2015.
The drag of dead money on a team’s salary cap may never be heavier than it will be next year, however, when the cap is expected to drop for the first time since 2011 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Friday's agreement between the NFL and NFLPA established a salary cap floor of $175 million for 2021. That would be a sharp drop from the $198 million figure for 2020 and about $40 million less than teams were expecting it to be until the COVID-19 pandemic threw off any and all calculations.
Teams figure to be more cautious than ever next offseason about incurring dead cap hits, which means the raw amount of dead money in the league right now is probably the highest it'll be for a while. Seems like as good a time as any to revisit which players are costing their former teams the most salary cap space. Players are ordered strictly by the amount of money they are costing teams, not necessarily the larger impact the dead money will have on a team's entire financial situation.
A basic rundown on the math of dead money: If a player received a $4 million signing bonus on a four-year contract, that money would be spread out as $1 million per year in cap dollars. If that player was released halfway through the deal, there would be a cap hit of $2 million in dead money during what was supposed to be the third year of the contract, to represent the sunk cost of the two unfulfilled years. Got it? Good.
All salary cap data comes courtesy of OverTheCap.
20. Larry Warford, former Saints guard
2020 cap hit: $5.1 million
The Saints cutting Warford, a Pro Bowler in all three of his seasons in New Orleans, was a surprising move, albeit one lessened by the selection of interior lineman Cesar Ruiz in the first round of the draft and the massive five-year extension handed to left guard Andrus Peat. The team’s hierarchy evidently grew tired of the immobile Warford’s limitations in pass protection, which were laid bare in New Orleans’ first-round playoff loss to Minnesota. Warford was set to count $12.9 million against the cap in 2020, and the Saints saved $7.8 million in space by releasing him. He’s still a free agent, but at 29 years old, will almost certainly soon join a team looking to improve its run blocking.
19. Nigel Bradham, former Eagles linebacker
2020 cap hit: $5.3 million
Bradham was a core contributor to Philadelphia’s Super Bowl team, and he was recognized for his efforts with a five-year extension. But as so many NFL contracts do, it contained option years for the Eagles to get out of it rather easily. That’s exactly what they did when his playmaking abilities disappeared over the last two seasons to the tune of one interception, two sacks and zero forced fumbles in his last 30 games, including the playoffs.
18. Telvin Smith, former Jaguars linebacker
2020 cap hit: $5.6 million
Smith signed a four-year extension in the middle of Jacksonville’s out-of-nowhere 10-6 campaign in 2017, when the former Florida State standout earned a Pro Bowl berth by displaying excellent ball skills for a linebacker (three interceptions, two fumbles recovered, two defensive touchdowns).
Smith’s NFL future appears to be in jeopardy now, however. The Jaguars placed him on the reserve/retired list in July 2019 after he said he’d sit out the season to “get his world in order.” He was then charged with unlawful sexual contact with a minor in April, which he responded to with a not guilty plea.
17. Trey Burton, former Bears tight end
2020 cap hit: $5.7 million
Burton tallied modest receiving numbers during his tenure with the Eagles. His peak with the team was a pass, not a catch. But the Bears thought the former Florida Gator had more to show outside the shadow of Zach Ertz and signed him to a four-year, $32 million deal shortly after his Super Bowl heroics.
Burton established career highs with 54 receptions, 569 yards and six touchdowns in 2018. But Adam Shaheen stole snaps from Burton in 2019 even before several injuries limited his time on the field, resulting in an ugly final line of 14 receptions, 84 yards and zero touchdowns. Chicago thought it could do better at his position and went on to sign Jimmy Graham and spend a second-round draft pick on Notre Dame's Cole Kmet. Burton will try to reestablish himself in Indianapolis with Philip Rivers, so we can probably rule out any more passes from Burton to a quarterback in the near future.
16. Rick Wagner, former Lions tackle
2020 cap hit: $5.8 million
Wagner was signed away from Baltimore at the price of $47.5 million over five years alongside former Packers guard T.J. Lang in 2017 to strengthen Detroit’s offensive line. That plan did not work out, as Lang retired in 2019 after an injury-riddled tenure in the Motor City and Wagner was released in March after three unspectacular seasons. He received a lowly 59.0 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2019 while earning the sixth-highest salary among right tackles. The Wisconsin product was set to count $11.9 million against the cap, so the Lions saved $6.1 million by releasing Wagner, who will have a chance for some revenge this season after latching on with the division rival Packers.
13 (tied). Devonta Freeman, former Falcons running back
2020 cap hit: $6 million
The Falcons made Freeman the NFL’s highest-paid running back in 2017 after fielding the league’s highest-scoring offense en route to Super Bowl LI the previous season. The five-year, $41.25 million extension was a reward for two consecutive Pro Bowls and back-to-back seasons with at least 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Unfortunately, Freeman never reached any of those benchmarks again in Atlanta. He rushed for a total of 1,580 yards over the next three years, while missing 18 of a possible 48 games. After his yards per carry dipped below 4.0 for the first time in 2019, the Falcons released Freeman in March and saved $3.5 million against the cap—the exact amount guaranteed to Todd Gurley in his one-year deal with the club.
13 (tied). David Johnson, former Cardinals running back
2020 cap hit: $6 million
Heading into the 2018 season, the Cardinals wanted some consistency in their backfield with a first-year coach in Steve Wilks and a rookie quarterback in Josh Rosen coming into the fold. That gave Johnson, who was a first-team All-Pro in 2016 after tying Barry Sanders’s record with 100 yards from scrimmage in his first 15 games, enough leverage to command a three-year, $39 million extension despite missing virtually the entire 2017 campaign with a broken wrist.
Johnson would gain 100 yards from scrimmage in just four games that year, then see his playing time decrease dramatically in 2019 following a Week 7 ankle injury and the acquisition of Kenyan Drake. The Cardinals were happy to accept Johnson’s $6 million dead money hit as part of the price to acquire DeAndre Hopkins.
13 (tied). Paul Richardson, former Washington receiver
2020 cap hit: $6 million
Richardson parlayed a solid walk year in 2017 with the Seahawks (703 receiving yards, six touchdowns) that far surpassed what he’d done in his first three seasons into a five-year, $40 million deal with Washington. Injuries ended up limiting the former second-round pick to just 17 games in two seasons, during which he totaled 507 receiving yards and four touchdowns, before he was released in February. Washington saved $2.5 million by releasing Richardson, who hasn’t yet caught on with another team despite still being 28 years old.
12. Malcolm Jenkins, former Eagles safety
2020 cap hit: $6.1 million
Jenkins didn’t miss a start for Philadelphia over his six seasons with the franchise, making three Pro Bowls (2015, 2017, 2018) while serving as an outspoken leader on everything from defensive alignments and player union developments as the NFLPA’s vice president to prison reform and racial inequality. He signed a four-year, $35 million extension in 2016 that was later restructured to run through 2020.
Jenkins’s play didn’t noticeably fall off last season. He led Philadelphia’s defensive players in snaps, notched career highs in forced fumbles (4), QB hits (9) and sacks (2.5) while also recording eight passes defended and 81 tackles. The Eagles nevertheless elected to get younger on defense and save $4.8 million on the cap by cutting the 32-year-old Jenkins, who on the very next day in March signed another four-year contract with New Orleans that could end up earning him another $35 million.
11. Andrew Luck, former Colts quarterback
2020 cap hit: $6.4 million
Luck’s shocking decision to retire last August left the Colts with a tough decision of their own: either try to recoup $24.8 million from their longtime franchise quarterback—$12.8 million in prorated signing bonuses and $12 million in roster bonuses—or let him keep it. They chose the latter.
It was a nice and deserved gesture for the beloved fictional military captain, but it did leave $12.4 million on Indianapolis’s cap last year, the sixth-highest dead money figure of 2019, and another $6.4 million this year.
10. Eric Berry, former Chiefs safety
2020 cap hit: $8 million
Berry’s inspiring recovery from lymphoma to return to All-Pro form in 2015 and 2016 earned him the largest contract ever handed out to a safety at the time (six years, $78 million). He was rated as the No. 13 player in the NFL by his peers heading into the 2017 season. It’s a good thing for Berry he reached an agreement with the Chiefs then, because after that, the injury bug bit and never let go of him for the remainder of his time in Kansas City.
He’d only play four more games for the team after tearing his Achilles during the first game of the 2017 season, then suffering from a nagging heel ailment that was eventually diagnosed as a Haglund’s deformity. The Chiefs cut him last June to save $9.5 million on the 2019 salary cap and push most of his dead cap amount to this season. Berry’s absence was perhaps the only thing that felt off about Kansas City’s Super Bowl run.
9. Stefon Diggs, former Vikings receiver
2020 cap hit: $9 million
Trade rumors swirled around Diggs for years in Minnesota, even after he signed a five-year, $72 million extension in 2018 following the Minneapolis Miracle. They finally came to fruition in March when the Bills acquired him for a package of draft picks headlined by a first-rounder that became LSU receiver Justin Jefferson.
Minnesota saved $5.5 million in cap space by trading Diggs, but they may be hard-pressed to replace his production. The former fifth-round pick averaged 73 catches, 925 yards and six touchdowns during his five years in the purple and gold.
8. Trai Turner, former Panthers guard
2020 cap hit: $9.5 million
The Panthers are clearly punting on 2020. There was only one financial reason for them to trade Turner to the Chargers for Russell Okung, a left tackle with blood clot problems who’s five years Turner’s elder, and a rather weak one at that. Okung is only signed through this season at a cost of $13 million, while Turner has two years left on his four-year, $45 million extension. Carolina is rebuilding, so they want the books as clear as possible down the road.
But Turner earned Pro Bowl berths every year save for his rookie campaign since being drafted by Carolina in the third round out of LSU in 2014. Was Okung, the $3.3 million they saved in 2020 space and some flexibility in 2021 really the best they could get for one of the league’s premier guards?
7. Matt Kalil, former Panthers tackle
2020 cap hit: $9.8 million
The trade of Turner marked the second straight offseason the Panthers decided to cut ties with a highly-paid offensive lineman and eat a fittingly hefty sunk cost. After Kalil agreed to a five-year, $55 million contract as a free agent in 2017, he was graded by Pro Football Focus as Carolina’s worst offensive player that season, then spent all of 2018 on injured reserve with a knee injury. The former No. 4 overall pick out of USC was released the following spring, failed to make the cut for the Texans in the fall and has been out of football since.
Kalil's deal is the leading reason why the Panthers lead the NFL with $41.2 million in dead cap money heading into this season.
6. Reshad Jones, former Dolphins safety
2020 cap hit: $10.1 million
Jones, who was Miami’s longest-tenured player before his release in March, served the Dolphins well during the 2010s and signed a four-year, $48 million extension after his second Pro Bowl berth in 2017. But the 32-year-old butted heads with former head coach Adam Gase, endured an injury-plagued 2019 campaign and was set to earn $11.5 million in 2020, so the rebuilding Dolphins elected to save $5.5 million with his exit.
Jones acknowledged in an interview with the Palm Beach Post’s Joe Schad that he may have played his last NFL game. He’s waiting to undergo neck surgery but hasn’t been able to go under the knife as hospitals reckon with the coronavirus pandemic, so he’s planning on sitting out 2020. The former fifth-round pick has had quite the underrated career if this is it.
5. Todd Gurley, former Rams running back
2020 cap hit: $11.8 million
Gurley’s mysterious knee injury remains one of the most perplexing situations in the NFL. No team was willing to trade for the two-time All-Pro—who led the league with 3,924 yards from scrimmage and 40 total touchdowns between 2017-18—so Los Angeles cut its enormous losses hours before an additional $10.5 million was set to become guaranteed and less than two years after making him the highest-paid running back in the league with a four-year, $60 million extension.
The capped-out Rams couldn’t afford to take on the entirety of his $20.2 million dead money hit this year, so they used a post-June 1 designation to push $8.4 million of it to next year. Atlanta scooped up the former Georgia star on a prove-it deal only after letting Los Angeles take on the brunt of Gurley’s pay. This extension is one of two handed out by the Rams in 2018 that have contributed to a dire cap situation. We’ll get to another soon.
4. Tom Brady, former Patriots quarterback
2020 cap hit: $13.5 million
The departure of New England’s iconic on-field leader left a hole in Patriots fans’ hearts and a sizable dent on the team’s salary cap—although obviously not one big enough to prevent them from signing Cam Newton to an incentive-laden deal to succeed Brady.
This dead money was caused by the Patriots giving Brady a pay raise in 2019 via a contract with two voidable years in 2020 and 2021, which helped lessen his weight on last year’s cap. But Brady swapping Foxboro for Florida accelerated a $6.75 million cap hit from that dummy 2021 season onto an identical amount from 2020. Since Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick still ended up with Newton, it’s fair to say this financial penalty isn’t bothering them too much.
3. Joe Flacco, former Broncos quarterback
2020 cap hit: $13.6 million
Flacco was done in Denver as soon as Drew Lock proved himself down the stretch last season. The Broncos restructured Flacco’s contract, which ran through 2021, in the same manner that the Patriots did with Brady before last season in terms of voidable years. That let them waive Flacco with a failed physical designation due to him needing neck surgery, which saved them $10 million in cap space rather than pay him $20.2 million to back up Lock. That’s an easy decision even with an unsightly dead cap hit.
The Jets will pay Flacco a fraction of that price to compete for the right to back up Sam Darnold, instead.
2. Nick Foles, former Jaguars quarterback
2020 cap hit: $18.7 million
Jacksonville made the call to move on from Foles, whom they signed to a four-year, $88 million deal with $50 million guaranteed, after just one ill-fated season (2019 was a bad season for the Philly Special folk heroes). Signing Foles was undoubtedly a costly mistake—Jacksonville's $37.4 million dead money total in 2020, the second-highest in the NFL, is reflective of that. But the team’s decision makers have clearly opted to rebuild and go with Gardner Minshew under center for the time being, so keeping Foles would’ve been compounding one bad decision with another.
Trading Foles to Chicago for a compensatory fourth-round selection saved the Jaguars $35 million in cap space over the next two years and leaves them with at least $63.6 million of cap space in 2021 with no dead money, according to OverTheCap. With the salary cap set to shrink next year, things could be far worse.
1. Brandin Cooks, former Rams receiver
2020 cap hit: $21.8 million
In trading Cooks to the Texans for the No. 57 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, which was used on Cooks’s replacement in Florida receiver Van Jefferson, the Rams seem to have set the record for the biggest dead cap hit in NFL history. It surpasses the previous mark of $21.1 million set last offseason when the Steelers traded Antonio Brown to the Raiders after signing him to a four-year, $68 million extension in 2017. Only four other teams—the Panthers, Jaguars, Patriots and Dolphins—are set to carry more dead money in total this year than Cooks’s cap number.
The circumstances here are obviously night and day compared to when the Steelers traded the malcontent Brown shortly before his saga took several bizarre turns for the worse, though both are unfortunate. In Cooks’s case, the combination of five known concussions (and two in the span of four weeks last season), the emergence of Josh Reynolds and the Rams electing to decrease their usage of three-receiver sets made him an expendable asset to Los Angeles. After averaging 77 catches for 1,149 yards in his previous four seasons, he recorded 42 receptions for 583 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games last year.
The Texans are hoping Cooks can help compensate for the loss of DeAndre Hopkins and make the Rams regret trading him far more than the Steelers do with Brown.
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