All things considered, NFL player contracts are probably the most team-friendly of those found among the “top four” leagues in North America. Because of this, franchises often part ways with recognizable stars in efforts to save money against the salary cap heading into the start of a new NFL year. Many of these transactions are predictable months and, in some cases, years ahead of time. Plenty of others catch experts, observers and fans by surprise. After all, the value of an All-Pro can change in the blink of an eye after one misstep that sidelines that individual for a significant length of time. It’s not cliche to say the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately?” business.
Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers are the ultimate playmakers on offense. Because of this, those who are top-tier performers earn massive contracts that also include options for teams to eventually move on from those men and save money in the process. It should be pointed out that not every QB, RB and WR who changes teams in 2019 will be cap casualties. Some will merely need new homes in an attempt to extend their careers, while others will change employers so that they can cash-in or earn more playing time. It’s even possible some of the players spotlighted in this piece could hang their cleats up for good before the start of the 2019 regular season.
21 RB: Mark Ingram
This past spring, the New Orleans Saints learned that veteran running back Mark Ingram will miss the first four games of the 2018 season. That is not the only reason Ingram could change teams in 2019. He showed in 2017 that he can still produce at a high level, but he also turns 29 years old in December. There are legitimate explanations for why teams believe that RBs hit figurative walls right at 30. Ingram's age coupled with how he performs once he is able to return to the field could cause the Saints to let him enter free agency.
20 WR: Kelvin Benjamin
In theory, the Buffalo Bills should want to pair wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with a young quarterback who will still be working to evolve and develop in 2019. This is the Bills we’re talking about, though, so it’s anybody’s guess on what those in the front office may be thinking about any products. In Buffalo’s defense, Benjamin has not played like a superstar since being dealt from the Carolina Panthers to Western New York. He’s a big target who could up his value between the summer and January, or he could flop before the Bills decide to not offer him a contract extension ahead of the offseason. A healthy Benjamin would attract attention in free agency.
19 QB: Tyrod Taylor
In a perfect situation, the Cleveland Browns will be able to start veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor ahead of rookie and first overall draft pick Baker Mayfield for the entire 2018 campaign. That notion sounds great , but the Browns don’t have a solid history of showing patience when a rookie signal-caller is sitting on the bench. Unless Taylor plays like an All-Pro and looks better than ever before, Mayfield should be given the keys to the offense in 2019, if head coach Hue Jackson doesn't make that handoff later this year. Taylor is auditioning for would-be suitors with each week he starts for the Browns. He can’t be worse than DeShone Kizer... right?
18 RB: Giovani Bernard
The Cincinnati Bengals realistically could hold onto running back Giovani Bernard beyond the 2018 season. Bernard’s contract isn’t horrible, and he seems to be alright with keeping his current role on the roster. The Cincinnati coaching staff and front office is expecting Joe Mixon to become the team’s bellcow RB and a breakthrough asset this fall, meaning Bernard’s spot on the depth won’t be guaranteed. Bernard could be viewed as surplus to requirements if the Bengals make multiple changes in 2019 and believe that the club could get similar output from a cheaper product. Bernard’s numbers over the past two campaigns do not justify the money he’d be owed by the Bengals in 2019.
17 WR: Julian Edelman
Like with the previously mentioned Mark Ingram, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman will miss the first four games of the season. Edelman has been a favorite target of quarterback Tom Brady over the years, but New England head coach Bill Belichick has not been shy about parting with talents when the time is right and he is finished with them. Brady probably wouldn’t love the move if Belichick pulled the trigger, but Edelman’s contract and his current situation with the team leads one to assume he will change teams at some point in 2019. Then again, Brady may retire before March of next year.
16 QB: Nick Foles
The Philadelphia Eagles made the logical decision in keeping Nick Foles on the roster as Carson Wentz works to recover from the torn ACL that he suffered in December 2017. Assuming that Wentz re-enters the lineup and once again plays like an MVP candidate, Foles will certainly change teams in 2019. Unless Foles decreases his value with poor performances this fall, a handful of clubs will contact the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Don’t look now, Philadelphia fans, but division rivals the New York Giants may be looking for a new starting QB in March 2019, especially if Davis Webb doesn’t look like a future franchise signal-caller this summer.
15 RB: LeSean McCoy
The future of Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy is up in the air following an alleged home invasion robbery that resulted in the hospitalization of his ex-girlfriend. McCoy has denied any wrongdoing, and it is expected that he’ll report to the team’s training camp and, ultimately, be available for the start of the 2018 season. Even if McCoy is able to play for the Bills until the end of the campaign, the veteran ball-carrier turns 31 years old next summer, and he is on a contract that gives the Bills the ability to save money by cutting him. McCoy could still feature in an NFL backfield, but it will probably be with a different team in 2019.
14 WR: Jordy Nelson
The Oakland Raiders are putting trust in the thought that veteran wide receiver Jordy Nelson will be able to turn the clock back even though he won’t be playing alongside Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. Nelson may not realize or want to admit it, but he is also playing for one final contract. His deal with the Raiders essentially guarantees the club would want to move on from him unless he experiences a career resurrection, while Nelson could prove to a different team that he is worth the gamble in 2019. Truth be told, it would not be a surprise to see him return to the Packers before he retires.
13 QB: Andy Dalton
This may be the first surprise on the list even if some fans of the Cincinnati Bengals would welcome this type of announcement with open arms. According to Spotrac, the Bengals could free up quite a bit of salary cap space by moving on from Dalton after 2018, and the signal-caller has not yet shown himself to be capable of routinely winning important January contests. The 30-year-old is a fine starter, no doubt, but the Bengals may be a team going in a different direction in several ways before next year’s draft. It could behoove both Dalton and the Bengals to call time on this portion of his career in 2019.
12 RB: Lamar Miller
As Kennth L. Of Battle Red Blog wrote in the middle of July, Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller has the third-highest base salary among NFL RBs heading into the start of the 2018 season. Miller’s stats in two of the past three seasons don’t justify that type of contract, and he will have to accept a cut in pay to avoid being a salary cap casualty unless he can get back to finding the end zone at least eight times, as he did in 2014 and 2015. The values of veteran running backs such as Miller decrease more and more with each year. More likely than not, this will be his last season with the club before he changes teams in 2019.
11 WR: Terrelle Pryor
We have seen this movie about former quarterback and current wide receiver Terrelle Pryor before. Pryor signs for a team that expects him to continue to improve following his breakout year with the Cleveland Browns, he underwhelms, and he then moves on to a different team. Maybe Pryor will find that previous form playing alongside veteran Josh McCown if McCown is able to stay on the field for more than a handful of games. It is, however, more likely that the Jets and Pryor move on in 2019. Because of Pryor’s attributes, some team will give him another chance to earn a spot on the roster ahead of next summer.
10 QB: Jameis Winston
This one’s interesting, as it is equal parts “hot take” and also a realistic possibility. Critics of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may say that the team knew what it was getting when the club drafted quarterback Jameis Winston, who is facing a three-game suspension. Whatever you may believe about that, there are whispers, and maybe hints, the Bucs could be talked into moving on from the signal-caller in 2018 or 2019. At 24 years old, Winston still has more than enough upside to generate interest from general managers if Tampa Bay wants to explore what would have been a shocking decision at the beginning of the year.
9 RB: Le’Veon Bell
Situations change, sometimes at the flip of a switch, so maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers and running back Le’Veon Bell will mend fences. Assuming that isn’t going to happen, Bell will eventually receive his wish and get paid by some team that is willing to make the man widely viewed as the best RB in the NFL richer than he is today. Bell may even sit some games out this fall, which would further negatively affect a relationship that is already on rocky ground. He’s only 26, meaning he could give the Steelers or a different team several years of elite play on a new contract. His future will be one of the big stories of the 2019 offseason.
8 WR: Josh Gordon
As of the typing of this sentence, the Cleveland Browns do not know if wide receiver Josh Gordon will play a single down of regular-season football as he continues to work through well-known issues he has battled for years. While the Browns -- and everybody else, for that matter -- should wish only the best for Gordon, the NFL is a business, and the Browns will need to make a call on Gordon if his contract expires. A change of scenery could do Gordon good if he wishes to continue trying to save his career past 2018. The Browns should allow him to make a professional exit in 2019 if Gordon feels leaving Northeast Ohio is for the best.
7 QB: Joe Flacco
The Baltimore Ravens are already planning for life after quarterback Joe Flacco. Baltimore moved up to the final pick of the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft to take quarterback Lamar Jackson and, as part of that process, own Jackson’s rights for an additional year. Flacco is 33 years old and should still have multiple solid seasons ahead of him, but his best days as a member of the Ravens may be in the past. Some think Jackson should be given chances to start later this year. Baltimore trading Flacco to a team with a need at the position and one willing to accept his contract in 2019 wouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, it may be an inevitable transaction.
6 RB: Tevin Coleman
The Atlanta Falcons could shake things up and go with Tevin Coleman as the team’s next No. 1 running back if Devonta Freeman misses action due to injuries in 2018. Unless something like that occurs, though, Coleman will change teams in 2019 via free agency knowing what he will be able to earn on the open market. Perhaps the only reason Coleman won’t change teams in 2019 is that the Falcons will be able to get something for him ahead of the 2018 trade deadline. That type of trade could benefit the Falcons and a different club if that franchise is able to sign Coleman past the upcoming season.
5 WR: Cody Latimer
This probably isn’t the New York Giants wide receiver some would predict will change teams in 2019. Odell Beckham Jr. is saying and doing all the right things as he approaches the final season of his rookie contract, and both sides are keen on the superstar wearing a Big Blue jersey well past the 2019 campaign. Meanwhile, Cody Latimer is a one-year rental. Latimer probably won’t ever be a No. 1 option for any playoff team, but he could put himself in a position to earn a pay-raise from a different team if he impresses while featuring in an offense that includes Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley.
4 QB: Sam Bradford
The Arizona Cardinals will be asking for quarterback Sam Bradford to prove himself during the 2018 season. Bradford’s lengthy injury history leads us to assume he will stumble during this fall and possibly miss a handful of games. Even if Bradford is able to survive all 16 games, the Cardinals have Josh Rosen waiting to take the gig between now and the start of 2019 training camp practices. According to Spotrac, the dead cap value of Bradford’s contract drops by half next year. The best-case scenario for everyone involved is that Bradford gets the Cardinals something in a trade for his services before the team is able to start Rosen.
3 RB: Jonathan Stewart
It is difficult to imagine why the New York Giants would retain veteran running back Jonathan Stewart beyond the 2018 season. Stewart was acquired to contribute to what was a lackluster rushing attack last year, and he will be tasked with mentoring rooking Saquon Barkley. He also turns 32 years old next March. It’s difficult to know how much he’ll have in the tank even if he is able to sit and watch Barkley take touches this fall. We’ve recently seen RBs continue to earn contracts into their mid 30s, so those believing Stewart is about to begin the final year of his career may want to rethink things even if he isn’t in the Giants’ long-term plans.
2 WR: Darrius Heyward-Bey
Passionate Pittsburgh Steelers fans will point to the fact that wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey contributes more to the roster, both on and off the field, than what is visible on a stat sheet. Heyward-Bey is also a 31-year-old who is beginning the final season on what will probably be his last contract with the franchise. In fact, Heyward-Bey may find himself looking for work once the preseason concludes. Because of his reputation around the league and the fact that he can contribute for the right price, if only on special teams, he will find a different team if he wants to continue playing in 2019.
1 QB: Eli Manning
If fans of the New York Giants are writing the script, quarterback Eli Manning leads Big Blue to one final title run before the then-three time Super Bowl champion announces that he is retiring as a member of the only team he’s played for during his career. Storybook endings for pro athletes are rare, and the reality here is that the Giants can save money in 2019 by moving on from a QB who was not scouted or drafted by the front office and coaching staff currently working for the franchise. Manning has hinted he wants to keep playing for a few more years. He may have to change teams to start under center in 2019.