The NFL can be a cold business.
While free agency can certainly make a lot of players rich, it's not rainbows and unicorns for everyone. Cap casualties are an inevitability under modern collective bargaining rules. Teams have to get under the hard salary cap, and sometimes this means painful cuts.
The proposed 2014 salary cap is set to be $126.3 million, per Tom Pelissero of USA Today. There are plenty of teams slated to be over or near the cap, and they will likely have to make some big cuts to compensate.
Which players are the biggest ones likely to shake free before free agency hits this March? Click through to find out.
*All cap information courtesy of OvertheCap.com.
2014 Cap Number: $13.9 million
The New Orleans Saints are going to have to shed some salary this fall, being they are one of the few teams set to be over the projected cap. They are slated to be roughly $10 million over the 2014 cap at this point, which would preclude them from keeping stud tight end Jimmy Graham without serious action.
Fortunately for New Orleans, there is an easy way to create some relief, and it comes in the form of Will Smith.
Cutting him, to be precise, will save the Saints $11 million, which would get them under the cap. That won't be enough to keep Graham, but some more roster magic will do the trick.
Unfortunately for Smith, a knee injury knocked him out of the 2013 season. He had a forgettable 2012 campaign, however, ranking second-worst among 4-3 defensive ends, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
2014 Cap Number: $13.6 million
A difficult offseason looms in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are currently $9 million over the projected salary cap.
Pittsburgh may have nearly snuck into the playoffs, but that roster is in dire need of some overhaul. It will be difficult to get anything done in free agency without some difficult cuts.
LaMarr Woodley would be one such cut.
The Pittsburgh stalwart is a quality outside linebacker. Injury woes have slowed him down since he signed that massive contract in 2011, however, and he is not an elite pass-rusher.
Were the Steelers in a better cap situation, Woodley might be too good to cut. Given the current state of affairs, however, they might have little choice.
2014 Cap Number: $7.5 million
Nate Burleson's cap number might not seem terribly big at $7.5 million, but it is good for fourth-best on the team for 2014.
The Detroit Lions are hovering around the proposed salary cap, and paying an oft-injured No. 3 receiver masquerading as Calvin Johnson's sidekick just won't cut it.
There is a glut of receivers hitting the NFL draft, many of whom could be better than Burleson right out of the gate. He is a worthy contributor, but his cap number is simply not worth it.
2014 Cap Number: $16 million
The Dallas Cowboys are in some serious cap trouble.
Currently at $148 million total salary, the Cowboys are a whopping $22 million over the projected salary cap. Word on the street is owner Jerry Jones has hired David Blaine as a consultant.
The cap situation in Jerry's World is going to cause some major waves on the roster, and DeMarcus Ware could be the biggest one.
The longtime Cowboy is still a productive pass-rusher, but that $16 million price tag is second only to quarterback Tony Romo for the 2014 season. At 31, Ware might be nearing his expiration date to boot.
His contract could feasibly be restructured with significant cap savings, but it might not be enough given his age and the fact turning his base salary into a bonus will count for big bucks against future seasons.
2014 Cap Number: $9.7 million
This one is rather elementary.
At $9.7 million, Sidney Rice counts for the third-highest cap number on the Seattle Seahawks roster. That would make two of the top three cap numbers playing the same position in Seattle, with Percy Harvin topping the 2014 roster at $13.4 million.
You read that right—that is $23.1 million for two players not named Russell Wilson or Richard Sherman. The Seahawks are butting up against the proposed cap to boot.
Reality is conspiring to oust Rice in Seattle.
Given he has only played double-digit games once in the past four seasons and the Seahawks have done just fine without him, it is easy to see Rice looking for a new employer soon.
2014 Cap Number: $17.6 million
The St. Louis Rams aren't in terrible cap shape. They are currently slated to be $3 million under the proposed cap, a workable number with some cuts and restructuring on the roster.
Sure, Sam Bradford was their first-overall pick in 2009, and he was performing well before getting injured in 2013. But is he worth $17.6 million against the cap?
The Rams hold two first-round picks, including the second-overall pick thanks to Washington's ineptitude. There are no sure things in the draft, but St. Louis has a shot to draft a top quarterback this season and get a fresh start at the position.
Bradford might be worth keeping around after all the Rams have invested in him, and he could certainly sign a cap-friendly extension. But if they don't feel he is franchise material, cutting bait and saving a huge chunk of money in the process seems like a better idea.
2014 Cap Number: $10 million
Chris Johnson rode his magical 2,000-yard season to a massive contract extension with the Tennessee Titans. He has been disappointing ever since.
Granted, it's not all his fault—Tennessee hasn't quite fielded a great offensive line since then, despite efforts to the contrary, and he has hit at least 1,000 yards rushing every year of his career. He has not quite lived up to that six-year, $55 million contract he signed in 2011, however, averaging less than 4.2 yards per carry and 5.3 rushing touchdowns per season since then.
The Titans need Johnson to take a pay cut to bring down his team-leading cap number for 2013, given they need some breathing room under the cap. Unfortunately for them, Johnson is unwilling to take that cut, and Tennessee might cut him altogether as a result.
As confident as he is in his talent, the math is simply not working in Johnson's favor here.
2014 Cap Number: $8.2 million
As detailed with DeMarcus Ware earlier, the Cowboys have a lot of work to do to get under the proposed cap. They will have to part ways with several big-name players to get there.
One of those guys should be Miles Austin, who parlayed an unexpected breakout season into a six-year, $54 million deal back in 2010. Injuries have plagued him ever since, and Austin bottomed out last season with a 24-catch campaign that yielded no touchdowns.
If he could stay healthy, Austin would be a nice complement for Dez Bryant. With rookie Terrance Williams flashing his ability at times last season and Dallas' cap woes, however, it seems a likelihood that he will not be back.
The Cowboys will save $5 million in cap space this season if they designate him a post-June 1 cut, per Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas, a big chunk of change they will need to get south of the proposed cap.
2014 Cap Number: $5.3 million
Dunta Robinson's fate was all but sealed when rookie Marcus Cooper overtook him on the depth chart earlier this season.
The Kansas City Chiefs are only a few million under the proposed cap heading into the 2014 offseason, and Robinson has a rather bloated cap figure for a guy who is No. 4 on the depth chart.
2014 Cap Number: $7.4 million
The Atlanta Falcons' Tony Gonzalez is riding into the sunset, garnering plenty of well-deserved attention and praise for an outstanding career. But are we quietly seeing the end of an era in San Diego, too?
Antonio Gates hasn't quite aged as gracefully as Gonzalez has, seeing a decline in efficiency over the past several seasons. Part of that has been due to injuries, but the 33-year-old appears to be getting a bit long in the tooth for the Chargers.
That wouldn't be a huge issue except he counts for the fourth-highest cap number on a team strapped for cap space this coming offseason.
With young Ladarius Green breaking out last season, there seems to be little strategic value in keeping Gates, at least at that price tag.
It's feasible Gates restructures his contract to stick around, but that might not be enough of a savings for San Diego.