Veteran NFL Stars Who Could Be Cap Casualties in 2018 Free Agency

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystFebruary 14, 2018

Veteran NFL Stars Who Could Be Cap Casualties in 2018 Free Agency

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    In the spirit of Olympic glory, former USA hockey coach Herb Brooks once said, "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours." 

    Eventually, a moment in time gives way to memories. Even the greatest players must step aside because former glory no longer reflects their current abilities. 

    Monetary factors become the biggest differentiator between continued greatness and those who must move on after falling short of expectations. Some of the league's biggest names own the richest contracts, only to find those deals are based on previous merits.

    Nothing can take away a player's past accomplishments, but NFL parity is built upon the salary cap, talent evaluation and constant management (or mismanagement in some cases). Individuals whose play, attitude or presence no longer warrants a hefty price tag are discarded once it becomes sensible to do so. 

    Few can dictate their circumstances. Some of the greatest of all time didn't finish what they started at their first, second or third stops. More will be shown the door this offseason because their value continues to diminish. 

    The following stars were born to play the game and meant to be in the NFL. Their moment is no longer theirs, though.             

Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills have a one-time Pro Bowl quarterback behind center, yet their search for a new starter is ongoing. An organization can't move forward when it's stuck in neutral at the game's most important position. 

    Tyrod Taylor started 43 contests the last three seasons for an organization that's never thrown its complete support behind him. Despite the quarterback's 62.6 completion percentage, 8,857 passing yards, 1,575 rushing yards, 65 total touchdowns and only 21 turnovers, former general manager Doug Whaley wondered aloud whether Taylor deserved to be recognized as the Bills' franchise quarterback.

    The current coaching staff benched him last season for an unprepared fifth-round pick because Nathan Peterman supposedly fit the offense better (before throwing five interceptions in his first NFL start). 

    Taylor isn't a perfect quarterback, yet the 28-year-old signal-caller proved he is a competent starting option and just helped lead his team to the postseason for the first time in 18 years. 

    If the Bills want more of a traditional pocket passer, so be it. They can release him before March 16, when his $6 million roster bonus becomes guaranteed, per Spotrac. His departure saves $9.44 million toward the 2018 salary cap. Taylor isn't open to restructuring his current deal for a second time either, per the Buffalo News (via NFL.com's Nick Shook). 

    As such, the seven-year veteran will become a free agent and one of the top available quarterbacks. 

    "The naysayers are always going to be out there, and I'll continue to prove them wrong," Taylor said recently during an interview on NFL Network's Good Morning Football

Adrian Peterson, Arizona Cardinals

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    Hall of Fame-caliber players don't always age gracefully. Some experience a precipitous drop in performance during a short period of time. 

    Adrian Peterson is one of the greatest running backs to ever play. He's also expected to be with his fourth team in a year-and-a-half since the Arizona Cardinals are planning to release the 32-year-old ball-carrier, according to Mike Jurecki of 98.7 FM Arizona's Sports Station.

    The Minnesota Vikings released the franchise's all-time leading rusher last March before he signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. Peterson didn't fit into a rotation that featured Mark Ingram and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara, so the organization traded him to the Cardinals in October. 

    Peterson experienced ups and downs in the desert, including two 100-yard rushing games and three contests with under two yards per carry, before the team placed him on injured reserve because of a neck injury. Arizona can save $2.88 million by releasing the veteran and going with a younger option. 

    The injury and last year's poor production (529 rushing yards) won't push Peterson into an early retirement, though. 

    "I think I would want to play maybe four more years, four to five more years," he said early this month, per the Pioneer Press' Chris Tomasson

    Peterson's 12,276 career rushing yards are 37 yards short of entering the NFL's all-time top 10 by surpassing the great Jim Brown.

DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans

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    The Tennessee Titans wished running back DeMarco Murray a happy birthday Monday on Twitter. They might as well have signed his career death warrant with the organization since the veteran turned 30 years old. 

    A running back's shelf life is short, and teams aren't willing to invest much in an experienced back with too little tread left on his tires. Murray's wear and tear of 1,604 career carries showed last season. He had a career-low 659 rushing yards while dealing with shoulder, hamstring and knee injuries.  

    "[There were a] handful of games where I didn't have anything. That's part of the game. Injuries come and go," Murray said, per ESPN.com's Cameron Wolfe. "You got to do the best you can to play through them."

    The Titans are set at running back with Derrick Henry's emergence late in the 2017 campaign. He's not as versatile in the passing game as Murray, but he's a far more effective runner at this point in their careers. 

    Two options exist for the Titans. Murray appeared to be willing to restructure his contract when he stated, "We'll have those discussions if they need to happen and go from there," following Tennessee's loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round. Otherwise, Tennessee can save $6.5 million by releasing the running back. 

    Brand-new head coach Mike Vrabel doesn't have any previous ties to the veteran and may prefer to build his running back rotation by getting younger and more explosive. Murray's time is running out, and moving on is a logical step.

Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Doug Martin's career may have started much better than fellow running back Trent Richardson after they became the first two running backs selected in the 2012 NFL draft, but they seem to be ending on the same note. 

    Richardson struggled to make an impact because he lacked the vision to see available running lanes and turned big potential plays into small gains. Martin hasn't been much better the last two seasons with an average of 2.9 yards per carry. 

    A substance-abuse problem led to the running back being suspended for the final four contests in 2016 before a subsequent trip to a treatment facility. He didn't return to form in 2017 and eventually gave way to Peyton Barber as the starter. 

    Barber started four games and managed 277 yards at 4.2 yards per carry. The 225-pound back is a powerful downhill runner at 23 years old. Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Martin holds a $6.75 million cap hit this fall. The Buccaneers, however, can release the veteran back without incurring any dead money. 

    The Muscle Hamster burst onto the scene in 2012 and made the Pro Bowl. He repeated the feat in 2015 and earned first-team All-Pro honors too. Martin is no longer the same back, and the Buccaneers have a better and cheaper option on the roster. Due to his recent play and his age, he may struggle to find a new home.

Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Dallas Cowboys' Dez Bryant is among the league's highest-paid wide receivers, yet his recent play hasn't backed up his price tag. 

    "Of course, we pay Dez a lot of money, and he knows that. Hes as aware of it as anybody," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said, per the Dallas Morning News' Kate Hairopoulos. "He knows when you get paid that kind of money there's high expectations in terms of the productivity. ... Those are all things we have to look at as a team, as an organization when we start to put our team together for next year."

    Jones and Co. must make two potential franchise-changing decisions this offseason. First, the team will decide whether to place the franchise tag on defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Second, Bryant's contract needs to be addressed, which could result in his release. 

    The two situations go hand-in-hand, because the Cowboys have enough salary-cap space at $20.31 million to franchise Lawrence but not much more. Bryant's release would create far more flexibility for the team. 

    His possible departure isn't just financially based, though. A lack of production over the last three seasons could tip the scales. The wide receiver's last 1,000-yard campaign came in 2014. He'll turn 30 in November and hasn't produced more than 838 receiving yards since.

    The three-time Pro Bowler can still be effective, particularly near the red zone. But is that enough to warrant a $16.5 million cap hit in each of the next two seasons? Unless Bryant is willing to restructure his contract—and he said he isn't, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer—Dallas can put together its 2018 roster without him. 

Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers

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    Both Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are on shaky ground this offseason. However, the 32-year-old Nelson sits in a worse position because of his age, contract and declining play. 

    He even spoke about considering retirement if the Green Bay Packers won't roster him. 

    "I'm going to take it year by year, because it's 100 percent on how the body feels," Nelson said in December, per Packers News' Zach Kruse. "We love it up here, my son loves his school, everything's been perfect. As long as the body can handle it and they want me, I'll play."

    Nelson's final point remains the hang-up. Green Bay might not want him after last season, especially with a $12.5 million cap hit this fall. The 10-year veteran lost a bit of juice and struggled to create separation. He experienced a drop in production with a career-low 9.1-yards-per-catch average.

    At his best, Nelson blew the top off defenses, but he isn't the same vertical threat. The 2016 NFL Comeback Player of the Year managed two receptions last season over 30 yards and didn't break the 100-yard plateau once in a game. 

    He could take a pay cut to stay in Green Bay. A healthy Aaron Rodgers can get more out of Nelson than Brett Hundley did, even if Nelson's skills are reduced.

    Or, the Packers may cut the organization's third all-time leading receiver to provide more opportunities for younger options in Cobb (27), Davante Adams (25), Geronimo Allison (24) and Trevor Davis (24). 

Julius Thomas, Miami Dolphins

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    Julius Thomas' reunion with Adam Gase didn't go as planned. 

    The two were great together with the Denver Broncos, where the Miami Dolphins head coach once served as an offensive coordinator. Thomas caught 24 touchdown passes during the 2013 and '14 campaigns to earn a pair of Pro Bowl nods. 

    The tight end hasn't been the same since he left the Mile High City, however. During his two seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Thomas caught 76 passes for 736 yards and nine touchdowns before being traded to the Dolphins in March 2017. 

    Back in Gase's offense, Thomas disappointed with 41 receptions for 388 yards and three touchdowns. In addition, the veteran ended his first season in Miami on injured reserve with a foot injury. 

    Now, he may be on his way out because of a $6.6 million 2018 cap hit. The Dolphins can save $4.6 million by releasing him. 

    His departure would reset the position, since fellow veteran Anthony Fasano is a free agent. That would allow the team to get younger and more athletic, as an eighth-season return to form for the 29-year-old Thomas seems unlikely.

    A.J. Derby could then grow into a bigger role alongside a free-agent signing or draft pick.

Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets

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    The New York Jets signed defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson to a five-year, $86 million contract extension before the 2016 campaign and the deal quickly developed into one of the league's worst. 

    Wilkerson became an overpriced malcontent and found himself on the bench during the 2017 campaign. Todd Bowles decided to make the defensive lineman a healthy scratch for the final three contests, because the head coach wasn't happy with the player's attitude, according to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini

    The 2011 first-round pick has been habitually late to team meetings during his career and his presence in the locker room can be described as divisive. 

    On the field, Wilkerson is dominant at times with the ability to take over games, hence the decision to sign him to a lucrative contract. But those moments are too far and few between to warrant the constant disrespect he's showed toward the coaching staff. His production also dipped significantly after 2015's 12-sack effort. The defensive lineman only managed eight combined sacks the last two seasons. 

    The Jets finally have a chance to move past Wilkerson this offseason. By releasing him, the organization saves $11 million instead of absorbing his entire $20 million salary-cap hit. 

    Trading the two-time second-team All-Pro performer is ideal, but teams with enough available cash flow to take on his current contract, not to mention his attitude, make him nearly impossible to move. 

    New York can give Wilkerson one more chance or cut ties and not worry about the sunk cost. The latter seems far more likely at this juncture. 

Robert Quinn, Los Angeles Rams

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    The Los Angeles Rams' unexpected success in 2017 overshadowed the fact the organization is still in a transitory phase. Sean McVay did a spectacular job turning around the offense and leading his team to an 11-5 regular-season record and playoff berth. However, the roster is still a work in progress. 

    Those who excelled under the previous coaching staff may not be retained by the current group. Both Robert Quinn and Mark Barron received large extensions during their time playing for Jeff Fisher and Co. Those same deals are now problematic. 

    Quinn, in particular, counts toward a significant portion of the salary cap. The defensive end will be on the books for $25.33 million between the 2018 and '19 campaigns. His release shaves off $11.44 million this year, whereas Barron's possible departure doesn't bring as much cap relief. 

    The 27-year-old edge-rusher also has an injury history worth considering, too. Quinn required back surgery in 2015 and missed seven games in 2016. As a result, McVay decided to cut back his workload this past season. The decision allowed the 2011 first-round pick to be fresher as the season progressed. Quinn bounced back with 8.5 sacks after only nine the previous two campaigns combined. 

    Premium pass-rushers are rare commodities. A healthy Quinn at a reasonable price isn't even in the conversation as a potential salary-cap casualty. However, his departure makes sense from a financial and schematic sense as the Rams continue to acquire talent for Wade Phillips' defense. Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner's potential re-signings, as well as Aaron Donald's inevitable $100-plus million contract extension, must factor into the equation. 

    McVay built plenty of goodwill in his first season as the 2017 NFL Coach of the Year. Difficult moves, like releasing Quinn, won't receive the same amount of scrutiny.

Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs

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    The Kansas City Chiefs have been quite active at the start of the offseason, and the organization is nowhere close to being done. 

    First, the franchise reportedly agreed to trade its starting quarterback, Alex Smith, to the Washington Redskins, per Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star, thus paving the way for 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes to take over the offense. Then, the team released veteran cornerback Darrelle Revis. 

    These moves had to happen since the Chiefs were over the projected 2018 salary cap. Kansas City is now $8 million under the cap after clearing $21.5 million off the books, per ESPN.com's Field Yates

    Two more defensive stalwarts aren't expected to return, either. Derrick Johnson's contract voids on the last day of the 2017 league year, and he will become a free agent, according to the Chiefs official site. Tamba Hali is next in line to be shown the door. 

    The second-leading sack artist in Kansas City history played sparingly in five games last season and managed only one tackle after starting the campaign on the physically unable to perform list because of sore knees. The Chiefs aren't going to keep him on the books with a $9.4 million salary-cap hit when they can save $7.7 million with his release. 

    Hali once asked on social media if he's needed in Kansas City anymore. No, he's not. The 2006 first-round pick put together an exceptional career during his 12 seasons, but it's time to move on.  

Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos

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    When a team is trying to rid itself of an overpriced veteran, it has two options. First, it attempts to trade the veteran. If/when that fails, the player is released. 

    Aqib Talib already has one foot out of the door in Denver since the Broncos are prepared to shop his services, per Denver 9News' Mike Klis

    Talib is still a stellar corner after coming off his fifth straight Pro Bowl appearance, but age, financial considerations, younger options and a possible big splash in free agency all factor into a potential departure. 

    The 2016 first-team All-Pro turned 32 years old Tuesday and holds a $12 million cap hit in 2018. The Broncos can save $11 million by releasing the cornerback. The team's 2014 first-round pick, Bradley Roby, is prepared to step into a starting role, and he'll be paid just $8.5 million on the fifth year of his rookie contract. Finally, Denver is a legitimate option for top free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins. 

    At $25.9 million, the Broncos don't have enough available cap space to compete for Cousins, let alone sign any other free agent. This hasn't stopped All-Pro linebacker Von Miller from putting the full-court press on the quarterback. 

    "If Kirk loves rainbows, I love rainbows," Miller tweeted in jest after being open about his preference to have Cousins leading the Broncos offense.  

    Talib's release is a simple solution to provide far more financial flexibility. The Broncos have developed depth at multiple defensive positions. The same can't be said at the game's most important position.

Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks

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    Richard Sherman's career sits at a crossroads.

    At 30 years old (next month), the standout cornerback is entering the final year of his contract after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon to end his 2017 campaign. The Seattle Seahawks are expected to approach the defensive back, who is representing himself, to restructure his current deal since he has an $11 million base salary and a $13.2 million cap charge. 

    "If we have the talks, we do," Sherman said, per ESPN.com's Brady Henderson. "If we don't, then it is what it is. I plan on playing five, six more years, whether it's here or somewhere else. Business is business." 

    The four-time All-Pro performer's preference is to remain in Seattle, though. 

    "Not in my mind," he said Thursday when questioned about whether he'll be in Seattle next season. "We're going to try to get everything back on track, get healthy and try to get back after it. Hopefully everybody heals up the way they're supposed to. I hope Kam [Chancellor] can play and it works out however it needs to for him. But obviously, [the roster is] going to look different either way."

    Sherman has been the face and voice of the Seattle organization during its defensive renaissance. However, general manager John Schneider acknowledged the cornerback was available for a trade last season during an interview with Brock and Salk on 710 ESPN (via Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper). 

    The Seahawks once-vaunted defense is going to look very different next year. Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril's neck injuries could force them into early retirements. Michael Bennett also said there are "going to be some player changes," per Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle (via Henderson). 

    Sherman's release would save the team $11 million. Lingering leg issues, failed contract negotiations, roster turnover or all of the above may force the front office to pull the trigger.

       

    All stats via Pro Football Reference or NFL.com unless otherwise noted. Contract numbers courtesy of Spotrac.