The offseason for each of the 32 NFL teams marks a fresh start. A time to reflect on their roster, and see which players are fulfilling the value of their current contract. Players who are underachieving, or simply too expensive to retain become candidates to be released by a team. In the ever challenging pursuit to stay under the salary cap, NFL teams are faced with challenging decisions each off-season on which players to let go.
The NFL salary cap is one of the harder aspects of an NFL franchise to understand. Most teams now have a “capologist” on their payroll in order to manage the complex components to keeping a team below the cap. The basic concept of the salary cap is to try to level the playing field by setting equal spending for each team. This ensures that smaller market, and larger market teams are on a level playing field when it comes to assembling a team. The NFL cap was conceived in 1994 and was set at $34.6 million. In 2015 the cap number is projected to be $140 million. The cap number is determined from the total revenue of the league, and with the cap jumping by $100 million over the last 20 years we get a clear picture of how financially stable the league is.
Most individual contracts of players are divided up over multiple years. You will hear a player has signed a 4-year $16 million deal, but it is not as simple as saying that player will cost $4 million versus the cap annually. In most cases NFL teams will try to back load the contract, which in essence means the teams will pay more of the salary in the later portions of the contract. This has a twofold effect as it helps the team get under the yearly cap number, and it allows the team to move on from the player in later years when their salary gets too high. Players are not too keen on signing back loaded contracts, and this is where the signing bonus comes into play. The signing bonus is a sum of money that is guaranteed to the player even if he is cut. This is often referred to as “dead money”, meaning the team is on the hook for that portion of the salary even if the player is released from the contract. The following top 20 will take into account the cap hit, dead money, and overall player performance in highlighting players who are candidates to get cut this offseason. Their 2015 cap hit will be included here to highlight the probability of their release.
20 Mike Wallace, $12.1 million
This possibility due to Mike Wallace's relationship with Miami's coaching staff and management. The current management regime didn't sign Wallace to his 5-year $60 million deal. Coach Joe Philbin was very lukewarm when asked whether Wallace would be back with the team in 2015. His salary, lack of chemistry with Ryan Tannehill and troubled relationship with the coaching staff might leave him on the open market. By designating Wallace as a post-June 1st cut, the team could save $6.9 million in cap space. The emergence of Jarvis Landry in 2014, coupled with strong alternatives in free agency make this release a possibility.
19 Stephen Tulloch, $5.8 million
Stephen Tulloch had one of the oddest injuries of the 2014 season where he tore his ACL celebrating a sack on Aaron Rodgers, trying to mimic his “discount double check” move. It was not quite Martin Gramatica level, but it was still quite comical. Tulloch will enter the 2015 season coming back from major knee surgery at age 31. Tulloch is mainly a two down linebacker, as his coverage skills are atrocious. The word out of Detroit is that they are serious about making a run to retain Ndamukong Suh. If that is true they are going to need to find a way to free up some cap space. The Lions could save $4.5 million by designating Tulloch as a post June 1 cut.
Suh is going to get paid major dollars, whether that is on the open market, or being hit with the franchise tag by the Lions. The franchise tag on Suh would be $27 million. In order to fit that salary, some cap casualties would have to occur, and Tulloch seems the most likely candidate.
18 Dannell Ellerbe, $9.85 million
The Miami Dolphins tried to make a splash via free agency in the Jeff Ireland regime, and are now paying for it as they are right up against the cap limit. Their roster is littered with bad salaries, with perhaps the worst being Dannell Ellerbe. He cashed in from one big season in Baltimore. The Dolphins signed him to a 5-year $35 million dollar deal in 2013, and he has been a disappointment since.
He lasted all of one game this year before tearing a muscle in his hip. Ellerbe turns 30 soon and is set to be a $9.85 million cap hit, and the Dolphins would save $5.65 million by cutting him. He has no ties to the new management. It's a no-brainer.
17 Jerod Mayo, $10.2 million
Jerod Mayo has played just 12 games over the last two seasons with a pair of season-ending injuries. The Patriots just won the Super Bowl without the services of their highest paid linebacker.
Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower have now slid into every down roles. The Patriots are notorious for cutting bait with veterans before big pay days, which makes Mayo a prime candidate for being cut this offseason. The Patriots are projected to be over the cap by close to $3 million. Mayo is due to cost $10.6 million against the cap, and that may prove to be too much for the Pats, as they can save $4.6 million by letting him go. The Pats have to focus on retaining Darrelle Revis.
16 Darnell Dockett, $9.8 million
The Arizona Cardinals have the second worst cap situation entering the 2015 season. They are projected to be over the cap by almost $7 million. One player that they could cut to free cap space is Darnell Dockett. He has been one of the premiere 3-4 defensive ends in the league over the last few years, but this year he suffered a torn ACL in the pre-season.
The Cardinals defense was very strong this year, and clearly the strength of the team. As this unit still dominated without Dockett, he may be seen as a replaceable part. Dockett will be 34 next season, and the likelihood of him returning to pre injury form at that age isn't likely. They have $14.75 million invested in one end in Calais Campbell, and spent their 1st round pick last year on protypical 3-4 end Kareem Martin. Dockett has a 9.8 million dollar cap hit, which is 5th highest on the roster, and only 3 million of it is tied up in dead money. The savings of $6.8 million would go a long way to clearing cap space, which is a must for this Cardinals team.
15 Aldon Smith, $9.75 million
It was only a couple years ago that Aldon Smith was one of the most promising young defensive players in the league when he posted 33.5 sacks in his first two years. Then he began to run into off field issues that led to rehabilitation stints, and league suspensions. When he has been on the field he has still been a disruptive force drawing the attention of the offense, but his overall sack numbers have taken a hit since his legal troubles, posting only 6 sacks in 14 games. In 11 of those games he has been held sackless.
In 2014 the 49ers picked up the 5th year option on Smith allowing them to retain his rights for 2015, and not letting him hit the open market. Smith’s cap number is at $9.75 million, second highest on the team behind Colin Kaepernick. The great thing for the 49ers is that none of that money is guaranteed. They could essentially cut Smith and have no dead money, and obtain a salary cap relief of close to $10 million.
14 Percy Harvin, $10.5 million
Percy Harvin is one of the most electrifying players in the league with the ball in his hands, but it has not stopped two teams from giving up on him. Can the Jets be the third one? The Jets obtained Harvin from the Seahawks midseason for a conditional draft pick, with the Jets acquiring his contract that includes a $10.5 milllion cap hit for next season . That is a lot of money for a player with his share of problems in the locker room. All reports from the Jets say that he has been a model citizen in the locker room. On the field the production with the Jets “quarterbacks” has been less than promising. He managed only 15 catches for 199 yards, and a single touchdown. Those are not the type of numbers you are looking for from a a guy paid like a no.1 receiver. Of that salary none of it is guaranteed, which would allow the Jets to move on from Harvin and save $10.5 million in cap space. That number may be too high to ignore.
13 Trent Cole, $11.6 million
In 2012 Trent Cole signed a 4-year contract extension. At the time he had posted three straight double digit sack seasons. Since signing that extension he has not posted another. Last season he managed only 6.5 sacks. Cole will turn 33 during the 2015 season, and will carry a significant salary. He is set to cost the Eagles $11.6 million against the cap, behind only Lesean McCoy. The Eagles finished second in the league in sacks last year, and former 1st rounder Brandon Graham started to show flashes last year as to why the Eagles spent a top pick on him. Cole has openly stated he is open to restructuring his contract, but the more likely scenario is that the Eagles cut him and take the $8.4 million cap relief.
12 Jake Long, $10.5 million
In 2013 the Rams signed Jake Long to a 4-year 34 million dollar deal with the hopes that he would be the anchor to protect Sam Bradford’ blind side. Over the course of the first two years the duo has combined for four ACL tears, with each of them suffering one in back to back seasons. Not exactly what the Rams had envisioned. The way Long’s contract was structured the Rams can now easily part ways. Long was given $9.5 million of guaranteed money in his first two years, but the Rams are only on the hook for $2.5 million in the next two seasons.
If the Rams were to cut Long this offseason they would save $8 million in cap space. The Rams also prepared for this moment last offseason when they made Greg Robinson the 2nd overall pick. Robinson started the year on the inside at guard and struggled mightily. Robinson is a natural left tackle, and his emergence there makes this an easy call.
11 Jahri Evans, $11 million
The New Orleans Saints are in real dire straits this offseason as they have the worst cap situation, projected to be $22 million over. In analyzing places to recoup cap space, one position jumps out, and that is guard. The Saints have $20.6 million invested in their two starting guards Ben Grubbs and Pro Bowler Jahri Evans. One of these two, if not both will have to be released in order for the Saints to get under the cap. Despite being a Pro Bowler, the more likely candidate is Evans as he offers the greater salary cap relief.
At $11 million dollars next year, he'd be the highest paid guard in the league. Releasing him would offer the Saints a cap relief of $6 million. That is a lofty number that will go a long way into getting below the limit.
10 Troy Polamalu, $8.25 million
Troy Polamalu is a shell of his former self, and the time has come for the Steelers to move on from the once elite talent. One of the most popular and recognizable Steelers of all time will turn 34 this offseason, and he has missed 26 games over the last six years. The injuries have taken a toll on Polamalu, and it is hard to watch this once elite playmaker struggle as his body can no longer do the special things on the field that they used to.
The Steelers have a bad cap situation as they are projected to be over it by $1.5 million. They will also be looking to sign Ben Roethlisberger to an extension this offseason, and will need to clear cap space. Polamalu holds a $8.25 million dollar cap hit, and cutting him would save the Steelers $3.75 million dollars. Secretly the Steelers are probably hoping that Polamalu retires to offer the Steelers even more cap relief and give him that proper send off for both himself and the Steel Curtain fan base, as it would be very difficult to see him anything but the black and yellow.
9 Dwayne Bowe, $14 million
When you go an entire season without a wide receiver catching a touchdown, it probably shows there is not a need to overspend on the position. In 2015 Dwayne Bowe will be entering the 3rd year of a $56 million deal he signed in 2013. In the two years since signing the deal, Bowe has not eclipsed 60 receptions, or 800 receiving yards, the culmination came this year when he and no other Chiefs wide receiver caught a touchdown pass.
This is hardly the type of production you expect from a wide receiver set to make 11 million in base salary next year. Bowe’s cap hit is $14 million next year, but 9 of it is tied up in dead money. If the Chiefs were to cut or release Bowe, it would only save them $5 million. Reports of late have stated the Chiefs will be trying to restructure Bowe’s contract this offseason, and if they can’t come to an agreement the team is prepared to cut him.
8 Sam Bradford, $16.6 million
The former number one overall pick has torn his ACL in back to back seasons, and has now only played 49 out of a possible 80 games since being drafted. The St. Louis Rams have one of the most dominating defenses in the NFL, as evidence of their back to back shutouts of Oakland, and Washington this year. If they had even a little offense this team could have made a run at the division. This is where the dilemma resides with Sam Bradford.
When he has been healthy he has been a good quarterback that has shown the ability to move the ball. Bradford was in the last group of 1st rounders who received massive guaranteed money. When he was drafted he signed a 6-year deal for $78 million, with $50 million guaranteed. Now in the final year of that deal, there is no more guaranteed money. At $16.6 million Bradford’s cap hit is second to only stud lineman Robert Quinn. The Rams could cut Bradford and recoup his entire base salary which is $12.98 million. A contract restructuring is more likely for Bradford, but if the Rams brass wants to make a run in a strong free agency class, then they will need the extra cap space, and that might result in the Rams cutting ties with Bradford and starting fresh.
7 Ahmad Brooks, $9.6 million
The 49ers have the most money invested in their starting linebacking core. Their four starting linebackers account for $36 million of cap space. One is likely to be a cap causality. The decision will likely come down to the massively talented Aldon Smith, and his off-field issues or the under achieving Ahmad Brooks. Brooks will be entering the 4th year of a 6-year $40 million contract he signed in 2012. The 49ers saw the emergence of a lot of young players who were injury replacements. Rookie Chris Borland was a revelation replacing two Pro Bowlers in Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, and as crazy as it may sound his meteoritic rise may make one of those two expendable as well.
On the outside Aaron Lynch supplanted Ahman Brooks in the starting lineup. This ultimately led to a moment where Brooks benched himself in late November due to his displeasure with the rotation with Lynch. Jim Tomsula couldn't have been happy with what he saw. Cutting Brooks would offer a $5.5 million cap saving.
6 Trent Richardson, $3.1 million
When you are a game day inactive over a guy by the name of Zurlon Tipton it illustrates exactly just how far your career has fallen off the map. Trent Richardson came out of Alabama as a highly touted running back, and a can’t miss prospect as he went 3rd overall to the Cleveland Browns. It was the highest any running back was selected since Reggie Bush went 2nd overall in the 2006 draft.
Richardson started his career with such promise as he posted 950 yards, with 11 rushing touchdowns, while adding 51 receptions and 367 yards through the air, and he looked the part as a dominant three down back. In 2013 the Browns shocked the league by dealing him away for a 1st round pick in 2014. The casual fan enraged by fantasy numbers were crying highway robbery on the deal, as they believed the Browns got fleeced.
When Jim Brown stepped up, and called the deal a brilliant move for the Browns, because he thought Richardson was an “ordinary” talent, we all thought the old man was losing it. Turns out the Hall of Famer knows a thing or two about running the football. By the end of 2013 Richardson was replaced by Donald Brown. This season he started as part of a tandem with Ahmad Bradshaw, and within a couple games his share of the carries was being cut. Bradshaw went down with a season ending injury, but Richardson was supplanted again, by 4th string running back Dan “Boom” Herron. Finally in the playoffs he was passed by undrafted rookie Zurlon Tipton, and failed to make the active roster. This cut has nothing to do with cap space as all of Richardson $3.2 million salary for 2015 is tied up in his base salary which is guaranteed. This cut will be the Colts admitting their mistake in Richardson, cutting their loses and turning the page. With the plethora of quality backs in this year’s draft, look for the Colts to spend a day 2 pick on a pass-catching back like Miami’s Duke Johnson, or Boise State’s Jay Ajayi.
5 Tamba Hali, $11.9 million
The Kansas City Chiefs have one of the most talented pass rushers in the league in Justin Houston. In order to retain his services they are most likely going to have to cut his bookend Tamba Hali. Justin Houston led the league in sacks, and nearly broke the single season record falling a sack short. He is set to become a free agent this offseason, but there is not a chance in hell that the Chiefs let him hit the open market.
The likely scenario has the Chiefs slapping the franchise tag on Houston which will carry a salary of roughly $16 million. The most logical place to look for money is their other outside linebacker Tamba Hali. He is in the final year of a 5-year $57.5 million deal he signed in 2011. He banked the large contract off a career high 14.5 sacks in 2010. In 2014 the bottom started to fall out for Hali, as he posted a career low 6 sacks. Hali will turn 32 this year, and it seems he is entering the down slope of his career. Cutting Hali would save the Chiefs $9 million, and go a long way in finding the cash they need to sign Houston. The writing was on the wall last May when the Chiefs selected Dee Ford in the 1st round. They knew a decision was going to have to be made on either Hali or Houston at the end of the year. After the season Houston had the decision was made easy on which player they needed to retain.
4 Andre Johnson, $16.1 million
Andre Johnson knew what was on the horizon for the 2015 season, and his pre-season holdout out was a result of this. His attempt to milk a contract extension, or trade from the Texans failed, and he is likely a candidate to be cut this offseason. Johnson is slated to make $10.5 million next year, and will cost $16.5 million against the cap. That is a steep number for a wide receiver who will turn 34 next year.
The emergence of DeAndre Hopkins as the team's no.1 receiver gives the Texans comfort in moving on from Johnson. If you need an argument to keep Johnson look, no further than his Week 17 game, where he caught 10 passes for 134 yards, and the game winning touchdown, that for a moment put the Texans in the playoffs. Johnson has been the face of the franchise, and one of the best wide receivers of the past decade, and cutting him will not be an easy decision. His no.80 will likely be the first retired number in franchise history, but that won't save him. Cutting Johnson is the right decision for the future of the franchise.
3 Larry Fitzgerald, $23.6 million
Soon after their wild card loss the Cardinals approached Fitzgerald about taking a pay cut. It is hard to imagine Fitzgerald in a uniform other than the Cardinals, as he has spent his entire 11 year career with the franchise. The fact of the matter is that Fitzgerald will cost the Cardinals $23.6 million against the cap next year if he is kept on the roster at his current salary. That is a serious number for a wide receiver that is past his prime.
It is quite apparent that Fitzgerald is no longer a difference maker. He could no longer carry the team and many will argue that he has already been passed as the no.1 receiver with the emergence of Michael Floyd. He turns 32 next season, which puts him on the down slope of his career. His two touchdowns were a career low, and the 784 yards he posted was only four more yards than his rookie season. Cutting Fitzgerald would leave the Cardinals with $14.4 million in dead money, but would still save over $9 milllion against the cap. If cut, don’t be surprised if the Minnesota native ends up with the Vikings who are receiver needy. The marriage between the two parties seems to work as Fitzgerald precise route running, and glue like hands, are exactly the type of receiver Teddy Bridgewater needs to progress his growth, and Fitzgerald would likely take a pay cut to go home at the tail end of his career.
2 Marques Colston, $9.7 million
Marques Colston has had an incredible career since being a 7th round pick out of Hofstra in the 2006 draft, but he is now victim to the cap and the emerging young talent around him. The reality of the matter for Colston and the New Orleans Saints is that they currently sit $22 million over the cap. This fact coupled with the disappointing season equates a major house cleaning. One of the top names on the list is Marques Colston.
He has been the reliable safety blanket for Drew Brees since he came into the league, but coming into next season he will be 32, and an overpriced piece of the puzzle. Colston is set to be a $9.7 million cap hit. By cutting him the Saints would still be eating $5.4 million of dead money, but would save $4.3 million. What makes the cut even more logical is that the Saints have promising young players waiting in the wings. In a season dominated by rookie wide receivers, Brandin Cooks looked like one of the best early on in the season, before he went down with injury. He will be back next year, while Kenny Stills continues to round out of his game beyond just being a deep threat, and finally Nick Toon started to show his potential in the late second half of the season. These three plus some guy named Jimmy Graham gives the Saints the depth to move on from Colston. With the above points, Colston seems like a pretty clear cut candidate to be released this offseason.
1 Adrian Peterson, $15.4 million
Adrian Peterson is still technically suspended by the NFL, but they can only put off his reinstatement for so long. When he is reinstated he is on the books for $15.4 million on the Vikings cap, the highest for any running back in the league. The Vikings essentially did all they could to distance themselves from Peterson once his suspension broke, and it seems clear both Peterson and the Vikings are looking for a fresh start. It would be shocking if the Vikings would change their tune in 2015, and embrace him back.
When you factor in that cutting Peterson will offer the Vikings $13 million in cap relief, the decision becomes easier. The cap room will allow the Vikings to go after another running back like DeMarco Murray in the free agent market. Don't be surprised if the Cowboys and Vikings essentially swap running backs through the open market. It is no secret that owner Jerry Jones has been enamored with Peterson for quite some time, and what Jerry wants, Jerry gets. The thought of Peterson running behind that offensive line in Dallas is mouthwatering, and that might be exactly what Peterson needs to resurrect his career after tarnishing it in 2014. For the Vikings, the better option might be to spend that money on a pass catching weapon for Teddy Bridgewater to help his growth. They could then turn to the draft to address the running back position, as there are a couple of elite running backs this year in the form of Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley. Even the second tier backs like Telvin Coleman , T.J. Yeldon and Duke Johnson have the talent to step right in, and be better than any back the Vikings started last year.