I refer to the NFL's offseason as the "business season", and it's a very appropriate moniker, as now is the time many realize how much of a business the league actually is during the offseason.
In the business season, loyalty doesn't matter. Tenure doesn't matter. How much a player has contributed to a team's success doesn't matter. All that matters is what's good for business, and that means tough decisions have to and will be made.
Over the next few months, players will be released in shocking fashion. Fans will wonder how it's possible that their favorite team could part with an impact player.
The answer, of course, is money.
It all comes down to dollars and cents and navigating the salary cap. Overpriced veterans will be shown the door in favor of younger and cheaper labor. It happens each and every year.
In this column, I predict eight players who could end up being surprising releases this offseason, and explain the reasons why for each.
Don't be stunned if these players are in fact released, and it's likely that many more will join them.
In this period of the NFL calendar, that's just business as usual.
(All salary cap information courtesy of Spotrac.com)
Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Dallas Cowboys' salary cap situation is extremely precarious and owner Jerry Jones might have to release a high-priced veteran in order to navigate it successfully.
In this case, the player in question very well could be pass-rushing specialist DeMarcus Ware.
Ware has been the Cowboys' premier pass-rusher over the last decade, accumulating 117 sacks since 2005. But an elbow injury sapped him of his effectiveness last season, and he was limited to only six sacks, a career low. In fact, Ware will have surgery on the elbow next week, telling Todd Archer of ESPN.com:
(The elbow has) been killing me. It's hurt really bad and that's why I would wear an elbow pad to stop from getting it hit but that didn't do much. It would get irritated even when it was barely touched.
Ware's injury, age (he'll be 32 by the start of the season) and salary cap hit ($16 million in 2014, per Spotrac) make him a prime candidate for release. Although the Cowboys would have eat around $8.5 million in dead money if they released him, they are going to have some finagling to do to get under the cap, as they're currently over by an outrageous $21 million.
Don't be shocked if the Cowboys part ways with Ware.
Much like DeMarcus Ware, Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers is an aging pass-rusher (he just turned 34) who didn't have his best season in 2013 (garnering only 7.5 sacks) and possesses a massive cap number in 2014 ($18.1 million), per Spotrac.
While the Bears' financial situation isn't as dire as Dallas', with the team being nearly $15 million under, there's simply no way the team can afford to pay Peppers that kind of money. In fact, Peppers has already restructured his deal twice since 2011, including before last season, when he saw his cap charge lowered by $2 million. He might not be as amenable to doing so again.
Peppers seems to be aware of the potential writing on the wall, telling Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com regarding his future in the Windy City, “I’m not sure, I don’t know [what’s going to happen]. I’m in a contract. You’ll need to talk to a decision-maker about that.”
The Bears will undoubtedly ask Peppers to take a pay cut, especially with quarterback Jay Cutler carrying a $22.5 million cap charge into 2014 as a result of his new deal. If Peppers balks, he could find himself on a new team next season.
I admit that this one would fall under the category of "stunner", but it's not outside the realm of possibility that the St. Louis Rams could release quarterback Sam Bradford.
The No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft has yet to live up to expectations, going 18-30-1 as the starter and failing to lead the Rams to the postseason. Yes, the team around him hasn't been great, but Bradford has failed to elevate lesser players on offense.
Bradford, who is coming off a torn ACL that limited him to seven starts in 2013, carries an outrageous $17.6 million cap hit into 2014, per Spotrac, and with the Rams owning two first-round picks, including the second overall selection, it might be time for coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead to hit the reset button on their franchise quarterback.
It's worth noting that Snead has publicly "committed" to Bradford, per Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com, so the release of Bradford remains a long shot. But with his cap number, unimpressive results and a bevy of potential franchise quarterbacks at the top of the draft, it's certainly a possibility.
As it concerns Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, 2009 seems like a lifetime ago.
That was the season in which Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards, earning the moniker "CJ2K" and a massive contract extension in 2011.
But Johnson hasn't been the same since, as he hasn't topped 1,250 yards in a season since 2010. Ever since he got paid, he's seemingly shed "CJ2K' for "CJ rushes into the line in an indecisive manner and gains two yards."
And now, Johnson is scheduled to earn a salary of $8 million next year and count for $10 million against the cap, per Spotrac. As the great wrestler and philosopher "Stone Cold" Steve Austin once said: "Eh eh!"
Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean agrees, writing that he doesn't expect Johnson to return.
With a new coach in town in Ken Whisenhunt, it's highly unlikely the Titans will keep Johnson around. Expect him to be jettisoned from the Music City.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs came out of the gates like gangbusters last season, sacking the opposing quarterback nine times in the first half of the season. But he was ineffective over the final eight games as the Ravens missed the playoffs, tallying only one sack to finish the season with 10 overall.
Suggs was the NFL 2011 Defensive Player of the Year and helped lead the team to a Super Bowl title following the 2012 season, but he's not a lock to return in 2014. In fact, general manager Ozzie Newsome said as much to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley:
Terrell is a real good football player. It not only shows up in the pass game, but it shows up in the run game. But that being said, we let a good football player go last year [wide receiver Anquan Boldin]. So we're not afraid. I'm not a virgin when it comes to letting guys walk out the door. What we'll do is we'll look at every aspect of it and see what's best for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Ravens and then make that decision once we get to it.
Suggs counts for $12.4 million against the 2014 cap, per Spotrac, and the Ravens are only under it by $14 million with a number of their own free agents to re-sign. Because of that, he could find himself playing elsewhere next season.
This one probably comes as a bit of a shock, but it's true: San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore could very well be a surprise release this offseason.
Gore authored yet another 1,000-yard season on the ground in 2013 and pass protected with aplomb, but he's set to count for $6.45 million against the cap, per Spotrac, and he will be 32 by the time the 2014 season starts.
The 49ers will likely work on an extension for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and they're only $6.9 million under the cap. Plus, the team has several free agents of their own, including receiver Anquan Boldin and kicker Phil Dawson.
With a trio of young running backs in Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore waiting in the wings, it's entirely feasible that the 49ers could ask Gore to take a pay cut, as noted here by CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco.
If that happens and he balks, Gore's storied 49ers career could come to an end.
Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is clearly a descending player, as age (he'll be 36 by the time next season starts) and injuries have sapped his effectiveness.
And anytime an aging player like Bailey is set to count for $10 million against the cap, per Spotrac, the question of whether or not he will be released obviously comes into play.
Bailey still has value to the team in a reserve role, as B/R's lead AFC West writer Chris Hansen notes in this piece, but he's no longer a full-time starter and worth that kind of money.
With Denver's Super Bowl window open for only as long as Peyton Manning remains the quarterback, it stands to reason that it must do everything in its power to get back to the big game next year, and that means spending this offseason in an effort to elevate itself to the level of Seattle and San Francisco. That prospect is made more daunting with Bailey's $10 million on the books.
Vice president of football operations John Elway will likely ask Bailey to restructure his contract to provide cap relief. If Bailey won't do so, he will surely be released.
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu has authored a Hall of Fame career, helping the team win two Super Bowl titles and being named the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
But he isn't getting any younger (he turns 33 this offseason) and his cap number for 2014 is slated to be $10.8 million, per Spotrac. With the Steelers over the cap by nearly $10 million, it stands to reason that they'd try to restructure Polamalu's contract, if not release him outright.
A factor working heavily in Polamalu's favor is the support of ownership, with team president Art Rooney II telling Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
How we structure or restructure (Polamalu's contract) is something we will look at in the next few months. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, but I certainly expect Troy will be one of the pieces to that puzzle. He's obviously been one of the great Steelers of all time.
There's no doubting Polamalu's legacy as a Steeler, and he was still a dominant force at times last season. But he's a player on the descent and isn't worth the huge cap hit he's set to incur.
His situation is certainly one to monitor. He could end up being one of the most surprising releases of the offseason.