NFL free agency is just under a month away, but teams are already getting a jump on the offseason by releasing veterans. Earlier this week, the Chicago Bears released offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod and the Detroit Lions cut ties with running back Joique Bell. The Cleveland Browns also released defensive lineman Randy Starks and tight end Jim Dray.
None of those cuts came as a surprise. Bushrod, 31, had a disappointing season just three years after signing a $35.9 million deal with more than $22 million in guarantees. Cutting the left tackle saves the Bears $4.3 million off the cap, which they feel is more valuable than keeping Bushrod on the roster. He failed his physical this month, as well, which may have contributed to Chicago's decision to cut him lose.
Bell broke out for the Lions in 2014, leading the team with 860 rushing yards and scoring seven touchdowns. But he wasn't able to regain that form this season coming off knee, Achilles and ankle surgeries. Bell played sporadically last year and eventually fell to fourth on Detroit's depth chart. The Lions will save $2.5 million the cap after cutting him.
Starks and Dray were both in the final years of their contracts and didn't contribute much on the field in 2015. The Browns freed up nearly $5 million in cap space by terminating their contracts.
Those will hardly be the biggest names let go this offseason, though. Players get released for a host of reasons, whether it's because of declining play, pure financial motives or a combination of both. Here are our top big-name candidates that could be handed their walking papers sometime over the next month or two.
Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills
Williams is also a certain release candidate after clashing with coaches and proving to be a poor fit in Rex Ryan's defense. After recording 15 sacks in 2014, that number dropped to five last season. The 31-year-old should have a few prime years left, although he won't come close to earning his last contract, which was worth $96 million over six years and paid out $24 million in guaranteed money. Williams will likely try to find a team that will play him as a more traditional defensive end.
Possible landing spots: New England, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver, Carolina
Prediction on next year: Philadelphia. Williams had his best professional season in 2014, when Jim Schwartz was the Bills defensive coordinator. A reunion in the City of Brotherly Love could give the Eagles defense some real pop.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans
Foster was done in by yet another injury-riddled season in 2015. He missed most of training camp and the first three games of the regular season while recovering from groin surgery, and then tore his Achilles in Week 7. Foster had a great run in Houston, but a 30-year-old running back on the mend is a tough sell.
If the Texans do keep Foster, it may only be because they don't have an obvious replacement on the current roster. Alfred Blue, Jonathan Grimes and Chris Polk formed an uninspiring committee last year.
Possible landing spots: Cleveland, New England, Miami, Denver
Prediction on next year: Out of the league. These are tough times to be an older running back, especially one with an extensive history of injuries.
Mike Wallace, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings acquired Wallace from the Miami Dolphins with the intention of giving second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater a deep threat. However, Wallace was woefully miscast in Norv Turner's run-heavy offense, and Bridgewater doesn't really have the arm strength to stretch the field, in any case. Wallace's first (and probably last) year in Minnesota ended with just 39 catches for 473 yards and two touchdowns.
Now going on 30, it's fair to wonder just how much Wallace has left in the tank. He hasn't cleared 1,000 receiving yards since 2011 and never really replicated the same success he had with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. Although he seems to be a one-dimensional speedster, teams with a big-armed quarterback may still have interest in using Wallace.
Possible landing spots: Cincinnati, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Buffalo
Prediction on next year: Los Angeles. This one has all the makings of a classic Jeff Fisher free agent signing, banking on a difficult player who used to be productive.
Andre Johnson, Indianapolis Colts
Much like Wallace, Johnson could be one-and-done with his new team. The 34-year-old was brought in to be a steady veteran presence, but he instead became one of the biggest liabilities on offense. Johnson struggled with drops and looked to be out of gas, finishing the year with his fewest catches (41) and yards (503) since an injury-shortened 2011 season.
Perhaps Johnson will catch on with another contending team as he tries to chase a Super Bowl ring, but it's more likely that he's reaching the end of the line in his distinguished career. He may have to settle for a one-year "prove it" deal, along with a possible training camp battle.
Possible landing spots: Cincinnati, New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore, New York Giants, San Francisco
Prediction on next year: Baltimore. Could he be a decent stop-gap solution for the Ravens, if they could convince him to take an incentive-laden deal? Even that seems iffy.
Antonio Cromartie, New York Jets
Cromartie reunited with the Jets after a successful one-year stint with the Arizona Cardinals, but the 31-year-old cornerback had one of his worst seasons yet in 2015. He failed to record an interception for the first time since his 2006 rookie year and was frequently burned in coverage while playing on the opposite of the field as Darrelle Revis.
Cromartie will most likely land on his feet somewhere else, but cornerbacks rarely age gracefully. His free agent market could be cooler than expected.
Possible landing spots: Buffalo, Carolina, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Baltimore
Prediction on next year: Buffalo. Nobody likes to bring in their former players quite like Rex Ryan, for better or worse.
Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins
Grimes remains a solid player, but he wasn't his usual consistent self in 2015. If the Dolphins release him, it won't be for lack of talent. However, they are tight on cap space and badly want to re-sign defensive end Olivier Vernon, and running back Lamar Miller won't come cheap either. His wife didn't do him any favors with the Dolphins' brass either.
It's entirely possible that Miami restructures Grimes' contract or brings him back on a cheaper short-term deal, simply because it has thin secondary depth and no obvious in-house candidates at cornerback. Grimes would be one of the more sought-after corners if he leaves Miami.
Possible landing spots: Tampa Bay, San Diego, Buffalo, Arizona, Pittsburgh, New York Giants
Prediction on next year: Tampa Bay. Grimes could be reunited with Mike Smith, his former coach in Atlanta.
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