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.
Prince Amukamara, CB, Chicago Bears
Savings from cutting Amukamara: $9 million
Amukamara has been a steady, if unspectacular cornerback in his nine seasons as a pro. While he made 42 starts for the Bears the past three years, Chicago felt it could better spend the additional $9 million owed to him elsewhere. Like perhaps on a veteran quarterback to push Mitchell Trubisky for the starting job?
Marcell Dareus, DL, Jacksonville Jaguars
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. As such, they declined his 2020 option and made him a free agent on the eve of the Scouting Combine.
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.
Russell Okung, OT, Los Angeles Chargers
Savings from cutting Okung: $13 million
Okung’s release would have been 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.
While he was capable, he didn’t fit in with LA’s rebuild. Rather than release a Pro Bowl-caliber blocker, he’ll be traded to the Panthers in exchange for guard Trai Turner.
The deal is tentatively agreed to and is expected to be processed at the start of the league year: The #Chargers are trading LT Russell Okung to the #Panthers in exchange for standout OL Trai Turner, sources say. A swap of big-time OLs. Nothing is final until it’s official.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 4, 2020
Turner is signed through 2021 compared to Okung’s 2020, and his $12.8 million cap hit for the upcoming season is less than Okung’s $15.5m. His cap number jumps to $15.4m next offseason, however — so we could see Turner wind his way to this list in 2021.
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’s looking at a change of venue this offseason thanks to the Jaguars’ cap crunch. He was traded to the Broncos for a fourth-round pick after news leaked about his imminent release in Jacksonville.
Bouye could be a boon for Denver, but he’ll have to put a disappointing season behind him. The former Texan allowed opposing QBs to post a 106.0 passer rating against him in 2019 while completing two-thirds of their passes with him in coverage.
With Jacksonville eager to find a way around Nick Foles’ cap-clogging $22 million average salary, Bouye’s departure may be the next step in a mini-rebuild of the Jacksonville defense.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers
Savings from cutting Graham: $8 million
Graham wasn’t 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, head coach Matt LaFleur must believe the second-year tight end is ready for a promotion, because Graham’s tenure in Wisconsin is over after two seasons.
Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Savings from cutting Rhodes: $8.1 million
The Vikings have some very difficult decisions to make this offseason. After coming into the offseason with -$12.3 million in cap room — worst in the NFL by a significant margin — Minnesota had to cut some expensive veterans. First on the chopping block was 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.
Releasing Rhodes still left the Vikings over the cap, however. That led to DT Linval Joseph’s release as well. Together, they trimmed more than $20.5 from Minnesota’s 2020 salary cap.
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. Rather than keep him in town as an extremely expensive backup, general manager John Elway decided to run with free agent signee Jeff Driskel as his No. 2, sending Flacco to the open market for the first time in his career.
Broncos just informed former Super-Bowl MVP Joe Flacco that he is being waived with a failed physical designation, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 19, 2020
Flacco now joins a group of free-agent QBs looking for work.
Three Super Bowl MVPs in headlines this week: Flacco waived, Foles traded, TB to TB.
Dontari Poe, DT, Carolina Panthers
Savings from cutting Poe: $9.8 million
The Panthers are a Matt Rhule-Teddy Bridgewater team now. The focus on the rest of Carolina’s offseason has been clearing out its ballast tanks and absorbing new talent into the cap room it’s created.
A 30-year-old Poe didn’t have much of a role in a Panther renaissance. The space-clogging tackle would have been the third-highest paid player on the roster after a good, but not great season. General manager Marty Hurney declined his contract option for 2020, allowing him to sign with the Cowboys instead.
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 a team that drafted Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick. Dalton’s career in tiger stripes is over.
Bengals are releasing QB Andy Dalton, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 30, 2020
Even though Cincinnati will need a veteran quarterback to help ease Burrow’s 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 — especially now that remaining free agents can be signed without affecting next year’s compensatory pick balance. The Bengals had already released one expensive standby before Dalton offensive tackle Cordy Glenn was jettisoned before the official start of the league year, clearing $9.5 million in cap space in the process.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
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
That’s why the two sides came to terms on a restructured one year, $9 million contract that could pay him up to $16 million should he meet certain incentives. That move will shave at least $5 million from the team’s cap this fall.
Janoris Jenkins, CB, New Orleans Saints
Savings from cutting Jenkins: $11.3 million
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 was too steep for the team’s liking. Not wanting to lose him in 2020, the team worked out a two-year extension that lowers that cap hit for the upcoming year but also allows head coach Sean Payton to walk away from him in 2021 with minimal dead salary cap repercussions.
Faced with a big cap number for CB Janoris Jenkins, the #Saints chose to sign him to an extension that could keep him in the fold in the future: It’s a 2-year, $16.75M extension based on new money, source said. So, 3 years, $27M overall with $10.2M guaranteed — all in 2020.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 25, 2020
No official decision yet
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.
Malcolm Butler, CB, Tennessee Titans
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. Dion Lewis, another former Patriot lured south with a big contract, has already been informed he’s no longer part of the team’s plans:
Three other notable veterans — Wake, tight end Delanie Walker and kicker Ryan Succop — were each served their walking papers this offseason as well. Butler’s been better than Lewis was as a Titan, but if he can’t convince leadership he’s due for a bounce-back year, he could be next on the chopping block.
Nate Solder, OT, New York Giants
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.