The NFL is much more cutthroat than North America's other major sports leagues. While the salaries continue to increase, a strong majority of contracts aren't guaranteed and none are fully guaranteed. Organizations in the NHL, NBA and MLB cannot outright release a player without paying his contract. In the NFL, teams can cut a guy loose and save salary cap space depending on the nature of the player's contract. This year will be no exception, as there will inevitably be players who will be 'cap casualties'. While these players are still productive and useful, their price tag simply is not worth what they're providing to their teams. Teams in cap trouble will have to cut some of their higher paid players. Here are the top 10 players who may be cut this offseason, listed based on their talent, production and/or likelihood of being cut, with their scheduled 2014 cap hits. If they are, free agency will definitely be very interesting.
10 Cortland Finnegan - $10 million in 2014
Signing the former Titan looked like a stroke of genius in 2012, but quickly turned into a disaster in 2013. Cortland Finnegan's play dropped significantly in 2013. Both Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson proved to be far better options at cornerback for the Rams. Coach Jeff Fisher has shown loyalty to Finnegan, coaching him in both Tennessee and St. Louis, but it's time to say goodbye. Finnegan would count for $10 million against the cap this coming season. The Rams have some work to do to catch up to the two NFC finalists in their division, the Seahawks and the 49ers.
The bad news is cutting Finnegan would only save the Rams $4 million in cap space, as much of his 2014 salary is in bonuses. Still, the Rams need to upgrade in many areas and Finnegan just doesn't seem to be worth keeping at all.
9 Sidney Rice - $9.7 million in 2014
Sidney Rice has had trouble staying healthy since signing with Seattle back in 2011. He played only half of the 2013 season, before suffering a season-ending knee injury. His only season of full health in Seattle was in 2012, when he hauled in 50 receptions for 748 yards and seven touchdowns. While those are respectable numbers, particularly the touchdown catches, his production is closer to that of a no. 2 receiver, yet he's been paid as a no.1 receiver.
The Seahawks managed to march right to Super Bowl XLVIII despite losing Rice in 2013. While the offence slumped a little towards the end of the regular season, the fact they won it all will work against Rice. The Seahawks would save $7.3 million on the cap by cutting him. GM John Schneider's priorities this offseason are to sign All-Pros Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term deals. They simply can't hang on to a guy like Rice. They'll likely look for a replacement in the draft. A couple of Rice's teammates could be released as well, including tight end Zach Miller and defensive end Chris Clemons, but Rice is the most likely given his history of injuries. Teams stay contenders by making shrewd decisions, which is exactly what the Seahawks will do by cutting Rice.
8 Carlos Rogers - $8 million in 2014
The 32-year-old corner has been a solid piece for the San Francisco 49ers' ferocious defence over the past three seasons, but his production slightly dipped in 2013. He recorded 39 tackles and two interceptions, compared with 50 tackles and a pick in 2012 and 40 tackles and six interceptions in 2011. Those are very respectable numbers for a corner, but $8 million is probably too high a price. The 49ers have built their defence with a dominant front seven and can probably afford to let Rogers go.
It's also possible that the 49ers could have him take a pay cut or release him and sign him to a cheaper deal. The 49ers would save $5 million in cutting Rogers and with a bevy of draft picks, perhaps they could get younger at corner to replace him. It should be noted though that Rogers was rumoured to be released last year but wound up starting all 16 games for them in 2013. Maybe his salary is too high, but he would definitely be viewed as an upgrade for many teams.
7 Antrel Rolle - $9.25 million in 2014
The New York Giants could release Antrel Rolle from the remainder of his contract and only be on the hook for $2 million. Saving over $7 million in cap space might prove to be too tempting for the Giants to pass up even if they lose a good player like Rolle. A wiser move might be to extend Rolle's contract and bring down his 2014 cap hit, but with the productive season Rolle just had, he may be too expensive for the Giants. Rolle is also 31 years old and still playing at a high level. In all likelihood he wants one last big contract before his career dwindles down.
Rolle recorded 80 solo tackles this year, along with six interceptions, two sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Rolle wouldn't be a free agent for too long if New York were to let him go, as there are plenty of teams out there with ample cap space looking for an experienced, productive safety. With the disappointing season the Giants just had, they could be looking to rebuild in other areas and while cutting Rolle would be a tough move to make, it could be the right long-term move for this team.
6 Champ Bailey - $10 million in 2014
Cutting a future Hall of Famer and a Bronco legend would not be an easy move for Denver to make. Business wise, it would make sense. Champ Bailey's cap hit for 2014 currently stands at $10 million. For a guy who was relegated to mostly being a nickel/slot corner, that's simply way too much to invest. He also battled injuries for most of the 2013 season, playing in just five games.
If the Broncos were to cut Bailey, they'd have no dead money on their cap and would be off the hook for his $10 million cap hit. After coming so close to winning his first Super Bowl, the 35-year-old has stated his intention to keep playing. The Broncos are built to win now, so if Bailey's remaining goal is to win a Super Bowl, a likely move could be for him to take a major pay cut. The Broncos have to re-tool in several other positions in order to remain a strong Super Bowl contender in the 2014 season. They're built to win now with the biological clock ticking on Peyton Manning. Bailey wouldn't get much on the open market, so it's likely in everyone's best interest for him to take a cut in pay. If he were to get released, perhaps another contender with cap space would take a risk and give him an expensive one-year deal. One thing's for sure; there's no way Bailey stays a Bronco under his current contract.
5 DeMarcus Ware - $16 million in 2014
Could you imagine DeMarcus Ware in anything other than a Cowboys uniform? Well, you may have to soon. The 31-year-old was arguably the league's most dominant pass rusher a couple of years ago, but his numbers have started to dip. He had 19.5 sacks in 2011, 11.5 in 2012 and just six this past season. Part of the blame could be placed on Monte Kiffin's defence being a major flop in 2013, ranking dead last in the league.
Ware would count for $16 million against the cap in 2014 under his current contract. He is due a $12 million base salary plus bonuses and has two years and $26 million remaining on his current deal. Despite his drop in production, it'd be a blow for Dallas to lose Ware. However, the general manager version of Jerry Jones brought this on himself. The Cowboys are estimated to be $25 million over the salary cap due to bad contracts with too much dead money on them. Jones will have to get many of his players to restructure their contracts to bring down the Cowboys' cap number.
Ware has said he's not willing to take a pay cut, but would restructure his deal. In all likelihood though, the Cowboys will have to cut Ware and take $7 million off their cap. They'll be losing a good player, who can definitely help another team, but you reap what you sow. Dallas's lack of responsible cap management is going to cost them.
4 Santonio Holmes - $10.75 million in 2014
Santonio Holmes' production simply is not worth the headaches anymore. The Super Bowl XLIII MVP has struggled to stay healthy since being traded to the Jets a few seasons ago. After an ACL tear in 2012, Holmes played 11 games this year, recording 23 catches for 456 yards and a touchdown. Jets GM John Idzik's mission the last year has been to relieve the Jets of cap crippling contracts. He traded Darrelle Revis to Tampa Bay last year and rebuilt on defence through the draft. This year, he will likely cut Holmes and retool on offence through the draft. He'll also likely cut Holmes' teammates Antonio Cromartie and Mark Sanchez, but Holmes makes this list, because he can likely still offer something next year.
While Holmes has created distractions off the field, maybe going to a smaller market will relieve some pressure and he can probably be paired up with a better quarterback. Holmes wasn't a total bust for the Jets though, to be fair. He did have a stellar 2010 season, as his 52 catches for 746 yards and six touchdowns helped lead the Jets to the postseason. In the playoffs, he had nine catches for 127 yards and two scores, helping the Jets to an AFC Championship appearance. The Jets have to do what makes sense for them though, and cutting Holmes would save them over $8 million in cap space.
3 Chris Johnson - $10 million in 2014
The Titans gave Chris Johnson the contract extension he desired in 2010, which carries through 2016 and includes $30 million in guaranteed money. They expected CJ to be CJ2K, the player who ran for over 2,000 yards in 2009 and broke the league record for yards from scrimmage with 2,509.
However, for one reason or another, Johnson has not been able to follow up on that remarkable season. He hasn't even eclipsed 1,500 yards since that season and barely cracked 1,000 the past two seasons. He also averaged less than four yards a carry this past season. His durability can't be questioned, as he hasn't missed a start his entire career. This was despite playing with a torn meniscus for much of 2013. Several factors could be pointed to for his lack of big plays and yardage the last couple of seasons, such as instability on the offensive line, questionable play-calling on offence or the passing game not being a threat, allowing teams to stack the box against him.
The bottom line is that Johnson accounts for a $10 million cap hit and the Titans could save $6 million by cutting him. They would like to resign Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner to a long-term deal. Perhaps a restructured deal or a pay cut would keep CJ in Nashville, but Johnson has gone on record saying he will not accept a pay cut. It would be good to see what CJ could produce under Ken Whisenhunt's offence, but it appears it won't happen. Compromise is needed for that to happen, but it seems it won't be reached, so perhaps a fresh start for both parties will be the course of action.
2 Julius Peppers - $18.2 million in 2014
Julius Peppers is arguably the most physically gifted pass rusher the NFL has ever seen. He has long reach at 6'7", 287 pounds and has consistently wrecked havoc on quarterbacks throughout his career. Unfortunately, at 34 years old, his scheduled $18 million cap hit is something the Chicago Bears can't afford.
Peppers had his least productive season in Chicago this past year, with 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and 31 solo tackles. While those are good numbers for the average NFL player, a guy accounting for over $18 million on a salary cap has to be dominant. Perhaps age is catching up with Peppers. The Bears would save $9.8 million by cutting him. It's possible they'll offer him a restructured contract or a straight-up pay cut. His current contract at his age is just too much of a burden for a team that needs to get younger on defence. Chicago was 32nd against the run last year and failed to force turnovers as effectively as they had in previous years. GM Phil Emery has said this offseason's focus will be on improving the defence. It may start with cutting Peppers.
Peppers will certainly find another team fairly quickly. On a short-term deal at a lesser rate, he would be a wonderful addition for any team. It just can't happen at his current rate with the Bears.
1 Troy Polamalu - $10.8 million in 2014
It seems unfathomable for a future Hall of Famer like Troy Polamalu to be let go by the only team he's ever played for. However, dire cap situations can force a team's hand. The Steelers finished strong at 8-8 following a 0-4 start, but the fact is the team has missed the playoffs the past two seasons. They have to rebuild on defence and fortify their offensive line. Cutting Polamalu would save $8.25 million on the cap. The Steelers will have to decide if that's worth the leadership, wisdom and production they would lose by releasing Polamalu.
After an injury-riddled 2012 season, Polamalu had a strong comeback season this year, with 50 solo tackles, five forced fumbles and two interceptions. Perhaps a restructured contract is what will happen, but Polamalu being a free agent isn't impossible. Pittsburgh will also soon have to think of resigning Ben Roethlisberger to a long-term deal. The bottom line is, they're better with Polamalu on their team and renegotiating his contract would likely be best for everybody.
All in all, there is a possibility some or all of these players will be on new teams next year due to the burden of their current cap hits. This doesn't mean they're not good players. In fact, some are still great players. It's just part of the repercussions of a salary cap system. You have to manage it wisely.
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