The NFL’s salary cap leads to plenty of roster churn every year. Franchises are tasked with balancing expensive proven veterans with cheaper talent. That means some pricy athletes could find themselves looking for new homes — even if they’re still in their primes.
Last year, we saw former Pro Bowlers like Gerald McCoy, Demaryius Thomas, and Justin Houston excised in advance of free agency. This offseason has already seen All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen left to ponder his football future.
These are the other veterans who could join him on the free agent market, ranked by order of how much they can save their respective teams by leaving this spring.
Josh Norman, CB, Washington
Savings from cutting Norman: $12.4 million
Norman was just one of many things that went wrong for Washington in 2019. He suffered through his worst season in the league, where he gave up more than 11 yards per target and accounted for -1 points saved, per SIS. That’s the lowest score among any cornerback who started at least five games last fall.
This sudden downturn at age 32 could put Dan Snyder’s former prized signing on the chopping block. The 2015 All-Pro has failed to reach that standard since joining Washington in 2016. As a result, the club plans to release him and make him a free agent this offseason.
#Redskins are releasing CB Josh Norman, source says. Intriguing situation to watch, as he now has time to find his new team ahead of free agency.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) February 14, 2020
Wide receiver Paul Richardson, who lasted just two seasons into his five-year, $40 million contract with Washington, will be released as well. Ryan Kerrigan, 31 years old and headed into the final year of his contract with none of the $11.6 million owed to him guaranteed, could also be up for discussion.
No decision yet
Savings from cutting Dareus: $20 million
Dareus, at his best, is worth $20 million+ annually. The problem is, he hasn’t been that player in several years. Even if he was, the 2020 Jaguars — currently with negative cap space — probably couldn’t afford him.
Dareus broke through with a 10-sack season in 2014 that he’s been chasing ever since. In just six games, he averaged a career-low 2.2 tackles for an underwhelming Jaguars defense in 2019. More telling, those tackles came an average of 4.2 yards past the line of scrimmage, which is an untenable mark for a player who is supposed to be pushing blockers backward and creating chaos in the trenches.
While he can still be a useful presence in the middle of a defensive line, he’s due for a major pay cut this offseason.
Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals
Savings from cutting Dalton: $17.7 million
Dalton gave the Bengals nine seasons of mostly good, never great quarterbacking. Now he has no place on team ready to draft Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick. Dalton’s career in tiger stripes is almost certainly over.
Even though Cincinnati will need a veteran quarterback to help ease Burrow’s presumptive transition from LSU to the NFL, it’s time for both sides to move on. The money saved by releasing the Pro Bowl quarterback can be spent acquiring weapons and bolstering the offensive line tasked with keeping Burrow’s jersey clean in 2020.
Savings from cutting Watkins: $14 million
Watkins has shown flashes of star-making play throughout his six-year career, but has ultimately failed to live up to the potential that made him the fourth overall pick in 2014. This past season was no different. He began it with a three-touchdown, 198-yard performance in the Chiefs’ season opener, had just one 100-yard game in the next 13 games, and finished the year with 14 catches for 288 yards in the postseason.
That makes it hard to justify Watkins’ $21 million cap hit for 2020 — especially now that reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes is eligible for what’s sure to be a massive contract extension. With Chris Jones careening toward free agency, the team’s decision may come down to either its second-best wide receiver or the defensive lineman who helped save a Super Bowl win.
Then again, in the biggest game of his life, he put Richard Sherman on roller skates.
Sammy Watkins diced up Richard Sherman, then Patrick Mahomes just had to drop a pass in the bucket pic.twitter.com/ezEyARIu26— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) February 3, 2020
It’s possible the two sides find a middle ground on a restructured contract that extends Watkins’ contract while spreading his massive cap hit and guaranteed cash into the future.
Derek Carr, QB, Las Vegas Raiders
Savings from cutting Carr: $13.6 million
Carr’s future with the Raiders is very much up in the air. Reports suggest the franchise is interested in making free agent Tom Brady the face of its Las Vegas debut.
Brady may be a long shot, but this year’s free agent crop includes plenty of veteran alternatives should the Raiders want to swap out QBs. Las Vegas could also package its two first-round picks this April and move up to select a rookie quarterback at the draft.
The team has a lot of spending room this offseason, so moving Carr isn’t a priority, even if it lures a young QB to Nevada. He remains an efficient, if low-impact passer who could bring back a decent return via trade. There isn’t really a glaring reason for the Raiders to cut him loose, but this is Jon Gruden we’re talking about. You can’t rule out any splash-making move in advance of his team’s first season in Vegas.
Savings from cutting Okung: $13 million
Okung’s release would be a surprise. The veteran left tackle played well in 2019 when he was on the field — but that only lasted six games due to a pulmonary embolism and, later in the season, a groin injury.
With a solid chunk of cap space available and a new incoming QB who’ll need protection, Okung is likely to stick around in LA. Even if he doesn’t, a Pro Bowl-caliber blocker is much more valuable for his team as trade bait than if he were to be cut outright. But we’re headed toward a Philip Rivers-free future for the Chargers, so who knows what’s next.
A.J. Bouye, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Savings from cutting Bouye: $11.4 million
Like Dareus, Bouye is a highly paid defender who has seen better days. And like his colleague, he could be looking at a change of venue this offseason thanks to the Jaguars’ cap crunch. The former Texan allowed opposing QBs to post a 106.0 passer rating against him this past season while completing two-thirds of their passes with him in coverage.
Savings from cutting Jenkins: $11.3 million
The Saints will have to figure out what to do with all three of their quarterbacks — Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, and Taysom Hill — and are already strapped for cash heading into the new fiscal year. One easy space-saving move would make New Orleans the second team to cut Jenkins in the past three months.
The Saints claimed Jenkins after he was released by the Giants for a combination of on-field malaise and off-field concerns. He performed well in New Orleans despite the team’s sudden playoff exit, but his one-year, $11+ million cap number may be too steep. There’s a chance the Saints work out a longer-term deal in order to massage those numbers and keep him in black and gold moving forward.
Joe Flacco, QB, Denver Broncos
Savings from cutting Flacco: $10 million
The Joe Flacco who led the Ravens to a Super Bowl XLVII win is no more. This is the era of a Joe Flacco who is barely a replacement-level passer.
The former Super Bowl MVP has been mostly forgettable the past five seasons, recording an 83.0 passer rating and a 26-33 record as a starter. He also had his lead role usurped in both Baltimore (Lamar Jackson) and Denver (Drew Lock) after midseason injuries. General manager John Elway could keep him in Colorado to continue in his role as Lock’s mentor, or the Broncos could cut Flacco and invest a fraction of the savings involved to lure an available free agent quarterback to town instead.
Savings from cutting Poe: $9.8 million
A 30-year-old Poe wouldn’t have much of a role in a Panther renaissance. The space-clogging tackle is set to be the third-highest paid player on the roster after a good, but not great season. With limited expectations for the upcoming year, he could be cut free as new head coach Matt Rhule looks to assemble his own roster.
Savings from cutting Rhodes: $8.1 million
The Vikings have some very difficult decisions to make this offseason. With -$12.3 million in cap room — worst in the NFL by a significant margin — Minnesota is going to have to cut some expensive veterans. First on the chopping block will likely be Rhodes, who signed a five-year, $70.1 million contract extension in 2017 and struggled mightily in both 2018 and 2019. Per SIS, he gave up a 122.9 passer rating in coverage last fall.
Cutting Rhodes still leaves the Vikings well over the cap, however. Minnesota will have to trim the fat elsewhere, and that could mean one or two strong players winds up as an unexpected jewel in this year’s free agent crop.
Savings from cutting Graham: $8 million
Graham hasn’t been the red zone panacea the Packers hoped he would be when they signed him to a three-year, $30 million contract in 2018. After scoring 10 touchdowns in his final season with the Seahawks in 2017, Graham has just five scores over two years in Green Bay.
The Packers drafted Jace Sternberger in the third round in 2019 to take over as Graham’s replacement, but injuries limited him to only six games as rookie — and one target from Aaron Rodgers, which he dropped. Still, if head coach Matt LaFleur thinks the second-year tight end is ready for a promotion, Graham’s tenure in Wisconsin could be over after two seasons.
Savings from cutting Butler: $7.4 million
While he’s been steady in two seasons with the Titans, Butler is far removed from the form that made him an All-Pro with the Patriots in 2016. He’s been a good, if inconsistent, corner when healthy — and Tennessee is paying him like a great one.
The Titans have two major priorities at hand with both Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry barreling toward the open market. Carving out extra space for them could mean cutting Butler, who didn’t play a snap for the club in 2019 after Week 9 and thus missed the team’s Cinderella run through the first two weeks of the postseason.
Savings from cutting Solder: $6.5 million
Solder was the first big-ticket signing of general manager Dave Gettleman’s tenure. He hasn’t panned out the way the Giants hoped, though. His 37 blown pass protection blocks were the most in the NFL in 2019.
He’ll turn 32 years old before the upcoming season, so last year’s struggles could either be an outlier in an otherwise solid career or the beginning of an age-related decline. He was the most important piece of an offensive line that allowed Daniel Jones to get sacked 38 times in 12 starts last season, a number that threatens to stunt the young QB’s growth if it isn’t remedied.
If Solder isn’t cut in 2020, this could be the former blindside protector’s last chance to prove he’s still an upper-tier blocker.