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7 NFL players who could be surprisingly cut this offseason

From aging veterans to proven young talent, some big-time performers could wind up on the chopping block.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

NFL’s official free agency period doesn’t begin until March 14, but the list of available players isn’t set just yet. Several roster cuts will add a long list of talented players to the open market as teams consolidate salary cap space and prepare for a long offseason of roster building.

Some of these moves will be expected. Older, expensive veterans will be released in order to make way for a new generation of young players. Others will be cut just to create the room needed to sign the marquee free agents general managers see as their missing piece.

But some of these moves will send established stars to the unemployment line, albeit briefly. Big names and former first-round draft picks could wind up on the chopping block as their franchises weigh the pros and cons of moving in a new direction and their respective costs for replacement.

Here are seven well-known and long-tenured veterans who could be surprise cuts as the NFL’s free agency period approaches.

Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Money due in 2018: $19 million
Dead cap remaining: $0

Bortles seemed like a safe bet to head to free agency during a preseason in which he was benched for Chad Henne, but his proficient play during Jacksonville’s run to the AFC title game has restored some of his value. The fourth-year passer avoided the turnovers that had defined his career in a respectable playoff performance, and provided proof the Jaguars could win with him behind center.

But is he worth $19 million — especially heading into an offseason where Jacksonville only has $16 million in cap space and big decisions to make on free agent wideouts Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee? A healthy quarterback market set to feature players like Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, and a host of draft prospects could entice the Jags to hit reset on their quarterback depth chart. Bortles’ overall resume may be too much for his recent success to overcome.

Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys

Money due in 2018: $16.5 million
Dead cap remaining: $8 million

Bryant is the third member of Dallas’ latest big three alongside Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, but his waning production and inability to live up to 2014’s All-Pro standard may make him a cap casualty in 2018. The Cowboys have $19 million in space this offseason according to Over the Cap, and they’ll have to dedicate a major chunk of that to re-signing Demarcus Lawrence if they want to keep their pass-rushing defensive end in blue and white.

That could present an either/or situation between Lawrence and Bryant. Bryant played in 16 games for the first time since ‘14 this season, but had only 69 receptions and six touchdowns as Dallas underwhelmed. His one saving grace may be the team’s lack of production at wideout; Bryant’s 838 receiving yards were nearly 300 more than the team’s next-closest contributor.

Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

Money due in 2018: $22.2 million
Dead cap remaining: $12.4 million

The Giants are headed for a rebuild after bottoming out in 2017, but releasing the face of the franchise would be a legitimate surprise. Manning remains a good but not great quarterback. His veteran guidance and proven ability to win Super Bowls doesn’t just give New York a viable starter behind center, but also provides a positive presence for any young passers the team would like to develop in his stead.

Unfortunately, he’s an expensive luxury who may not fit in the team’s new era. First-year head coach Pat Shurmur’s success in developing overlooked quarterbacks into successful players could lead the Giants to a cheaper alternative this spring. If John Mara truly wants a fresh start, it could lead to Manning’s departure — but the backlash the franchise earned for benching its veteran QB last fall seems to suggest the club won’t be so obtuse in 2018.

Instead, a contract restructuring may be the more likely play. Manning’s been such a team player he okayed Ben McAdoo’s insane decision to phase Geno Smith into the Giants’ quarterback rotation, and a more team-friendly contract is a concession he could make. Playing with Shurmur, the man who helped revive the careers of Sam Bradford and Case Keenum in Minnesota, would also be another benefit to help convince the youngest Manning to take a pay cut rather than face exile from the only team he’s played for in the NFL. Given the way New York’s front office has lauded him this winter, it seems like a much more likely course than an outright release.

But if the Giants — or even Manning himself — want a fresh start, this isn’t out of the question.

Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks

Money due in 2018: $13.2 million
Dead cap remaining: $2.2 million

Sherman’s status may hinge solely on his ability to return from the torn Achilles’ tendon that cost him the end of his 2017 season. If he’s back to full strength, $13.2 million is a reasonable price for a shutdown cornerback with an All-Pro past. However, he’s also about to turn 30 years old and may have lost a step in 2018 even before suffering a catastrophic injury.

The Seahawks have just $14 million in cap space and have several holes to fill — particularly among an offense with consistently awful blocking and little run support. Sherman, who will act as his own agent this offseason, may be a tough negotiator with which to deal. Seattle will have plenty of tough decisions to make this offseason. Sherman will be one of them, and so will...

Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks

Money due in 2018: $7.6 million
Dead cap remaining: $500,000

Another casualty of the Seahawks’ busy offseason may be Avril, another defensive standout coming off a potentially career-threatening injury. The powerful defensive end had an 11.5-sack season in 2016 and has been a vital member of the Seattle defense since 2013. However, he’ll be 32 in April and could be jettisoned from a team that needs to seriously address whether its championship window has closed with its current makeup.

Robert Quinn, LB, Los Angeles Rams

Money due in 2018: $12.4 million
Dead cap remaining: $955,345

Quinn is a formidable presence in the Rams’ punishing defense, and 2017 was a bounce-back year after he missed 15 games between 2015 and 2016 due to injury. The seven-year veteran will be 28 this year, and after tallying 8.5 sacks in 2017, he’s proven he is still in his prime as a pass rusher.

The Rams won’t be as pressed for cap space as other teams on this list thanks to an estimated $41 million to spend this offseason, but decisions will have to be made on pending free agents like Trumaine Johnson, Sammy Watkins, Dominique Easley, and Lamarcus Joyner. Quinn is still effective, but he’s struggled to regain the form that made him one of the league’s brightest young stars after a 19-sack performance in 2013. If Los Angeles decides he’s not worth the investment, the club can move on from the final two years of his contract. Mark Barron, also due a healthy sum in 2018, could be substituted in his place if the team needs big savings.

Mason Crosby, K, Green Bay Packers

Money due in 2018: $5.25 million
Dead cap remaining: $2.5 million

The Packers wouldn’t stand to save much by releasing Crosby, but a new regime looking to make changes after Ted Thompson was relieved of GM duties could single out Crosby, whose accuracy dipped this past season. While never a great long range kicker, he’s made only two field goals from 50+ yards the last two seasons.

He could be replaced at little expense, though his ability to deal with the unique weather conditions of Lambeau Field may help convince his new management to keep him around — even if he made less than 80 percent of his kicks in 2017.