How the NFL's Top Potential Cap Casualties Could Affect 2023 Free Agency

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxCorrespondent IJanuary 16, 2023

How the NFL's Top Potential Cap Casualties Could Affect 2023 Free Agency

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    Packers RB Aaron Jones
    Packers RB Aaron JonesEric Espada/Getty Images

    While the NFL is still in the midst of its Super Wild Card Weekend, more than two-thirds of the league is now out of the playoffs, meaning a lot of fanbases are thinking about next year.

    And next year could involve some very high-profile players starting for new teams. The headlining list of impending free agents already includes the likes of Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady, Josh Jacobs, James Bradberry, Brandon Graham and Orlando Brown Jr.

    However, the player pool will evolve between now and the start of free agency on March 15. Some players will receive extensions or the franchise tag before then, while others will be released into the wild for cap-saving purposes.

    Here, you'll find a look at the later group. We'll dive into eight notable players who are at risk of being cap casualties this offseason. We'll dive into exactly why they could be released and how their availability could impact the projected free-agent market.

    Players are listed in alphabetical order.

Bud Dupree, Edge, Tennessee Titans

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    NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - OCTOBER 24: Bud Dupree #48 of the Tennessee Titans defends during to an NFL game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Nissan Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    The Tennessee Titans are projected to be $24.1 million over the salary cap, and they'll likely look at multiple avenues of creating cap space. One of them could involve dumping former Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher Bud Dupree, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with Tennessee in 2021.

    Dupree was coming off of a torn ACL when he signed his deal and has logged just seven sacks in two years with the Titans. That's not the sort of production Tennessee paid for, and it could look to get out of the deal this offseason.

    Releasing Dupree outright would save $10.6 million off the cap. Releasing him with a June 1 designation could save $15.8 million. Given Tennessee's cap situation and Dupree's value as a pass-rusher, a split feels inevitable.

    It's a situation worth watching for pass-rusher-needy teams. The edge-rusher player pool isn't exactly overwhelming, and many of the top sack artists carry questions. Graham is 34 years old, Jadeveon Clowney has been plagued by inconsistent production, and Yannick Ngakoue finished the year on injured reserve following throat surgery.

    Dupree is not a top-tier edge-rusher, but he should draw some interest as a second or third rotational piece. That's the role he filled in Pittsburgh when he logged 11.5 sacks opposite T.J. Watt in 2019.

    If Dupree becomes available, expect him to fall in the second-tier of pass-rushers along with players like Melvin Ingram and Arden Key. The top of the market shouldn't be impacted by his release, and Dupree wouldn't come close to earning the $17 million in base salary he's scheduled to make next season.

Leonard Fournette, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 11: Leonard Fournette #7 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks down field against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on December 11, 2022 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are projected to be $43.4 million over the cap, and they may look to blow things up completely if Brady retires or looks to play elsewhere in 2023.

    If Brady is gone, releasing running back Leonard Fournette would make plenty of sense.

    Fournette was a serviceable starter in the regular season, but the 27-year-old was more effective as a receiver than a runner. He caught 73 passes for 523 yards but averaged a mere 3.5 yards per carry.

    In a new-look offense sans Brady, Fournette's receiving prowess may not be as valuable. Tampa can also turn to rookie third-round pick Rachaad White, who caught 50 passes and averaged 3.7 yards per carry in the regular season.

    Releasing Fournette with a post-June 1 designation would save $5 million in cap space.

    Given his 2022 production, Fournette will likely be viewed as a complementary back only if he reaches the open market. He can still be an effective part of an offense, but probably only in a committee role.

    This would place Fournette a tier below players like Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders and Tony Pollard and in the second tier with complementary backs like Kareem Hunt and Jamaal Williams.

    Expect Fournette to draw interest if he's released but not to command a starter's salary. He'll likely earn less than the $6.5 million base salary he's scheduled to receive from the Buccaneers next season.

Tyler Higbee, TE, Los Angeles Rams

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    INGLEWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 25: Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee (89) catches the ball for a gain during the NFL game between the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Rams on December 25, 2022, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Tight end Tyler Higbee was one of the few reliable (and healthy) offensive players the Los Angeles Rams had in 2022. He finished the year with 72 catches, 620 yards and three touchdowns.

    Yet, Higbee is still a player L.A. could move on from in 2023.

    The Rams are projected to be $11.6 million over the cap and will need to trim salary somewhere. Ideally, they'd move on from free-agent disappointment Allen Robinson II, who had just 339 yards and three touchdowns this season.

    However, Robinson's contract has $26.5 million in dead money remaining. Releasing him, even with a post-June 1 designation, would save nothing off the 2023 cap.

    Releasing Higbee with a post-June 1 designation, however, would clear $6.6 million in cap space. That's a noteworthy amount, for a 30-year-old tight end who will be a free agent in 2024 anyway.

    Higbee's release would add another quality pass-catcher to an already top-heavy tight end market. Dalton Schultz, Mike Gesicki and Evan Engram headline the position's player pool, followed by second-tier tight ends like O.J. Howard and Hayden Hurst.

    Higbee would be closer to the top tier than the second tier, based on his 2022 production. However, his age would likely make him a cheaper option than Gesicki or Schultz, who are 27 and 26, respectively.

    Engram, who will turn 29 in September, is probably a closer match for Higbee's market value. The Jacksonville Jaguars standout has a projected market value of $7.5 million annually, which is right around what Higbee should cost on the open market.

Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

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    GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 01: Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) runs with the ball during a game between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings on January 1, 2023 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI. (Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The Green Bay Packers' offseason plans will hinge on the future of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The future Hall of Famer is set to carry a $31.6 million cap hit next season with $99.8 million in dead money remaining on his deal. Rodgers will either be a Packer or retire, and Green Bay isn't pushing him for a decision.

    "He's certainly going to take some time. I think that's fair," Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst told reporters (h/t Myles Simmons of ProFootballTalk).

    If Rodgers retires, the Packers may look to blow up their roster and start over. If he doesn't, they'll still need to clear some cap room. Green Bay is projected to be $14.9 million over the cap.

    While releasing star running back Aaron Jones feels like an unlikely move, it's one we can't rule out entirely. The 28-year-old is set to carry a $20 million cap hit. That's a lot for a running back, especially when Green Bay also has AJ Dillon on the roster.

    Releasing Jones with a post-June 1 designation would save $16 million in cap space.

    Should Jones become available, he'd immediately become one of the top backs on the open market, perhaps just below Jacobs and Barkley, Though he split time with Dillon this season, Jones still finished with 1,121 rushing yards, a 5.3-yards-per-carry average, 395 receiving yards and seven combined touchdowns.

    Jones is quite capable of being a bell-cow back and could become the top target for several running back-needy teams. His availability would have a huge impact on the overall market and would likely bring down the value of players like Pollard, Sanders and D'Onta Foreman.

Byron Jones, CB, Miami Dolphins

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    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - NOVEMBER 21: Byron Jones #24 of the Miami Dolphins reacts after breaking up a touchdown pass intended for a New York Jets player in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on November 21, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    There are multiple reasons why the Miami Dolphins may move on from cornerback Byron Jones this offseason.

    For starters, Jones is a 30-year-old cornerback who spent the entire 2022 season on the physically-unable-to-perform list following Achilles surgery. Secondly, he didn't perform all that well when he was healthy in 2021.

    Jones finished last season with 10 passes defended but no interceptions and allowed an opposing passer rating (OPR) of 100.6.

    Lastly, the Dolphins are projected to be $9 million over the salary cap. They could get under the cap simply by designating Jones as a post-June 1 release. Doing so would clear $14.1 million of the 2023 cap.

    If Jones is released, it shouldn't impact the top of the market much. Impending free-agent corners like Bradberry, Jamel Dean and Rock Ya-Sin will be less risky than an aging corner who didn't play this past season.

    However, Jones would be an intriguing target for teams willing to bet on his return. While he never lived up to the hype in Miami, he was a Pro Bowl corner with the Dallas Cowboys who allowed an OPR below 88.0 in each of his last two seasons with Dallas.

    If he becomes available, Jones should be considered a risk-reward free agent who will command far less than the $13.5 million base salary he's scheduled to earn next season.

Shaq Mason, G, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 08: Shaq Mason #69 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gets set against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 8, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    If the Buccaneers do look to reload without Brady in 2023, guard Shaq Mason is a logical cap casualty. The 29-year-old, who was acquired from the New England Patriots in the offseason, is slated to carry a $9.6 million cap hit with no dead money on his deal.

    Cutting Mason would clear nearly a quarter of the cap deficit Tampa must erase before the new league year. Releasing a reliable starter like Mason would be a tough decision, but it would make financial sense if the Bucs don't believe they can contend in 2023.

    Mason is scheduled to be a free agent after next season.

    If Mason becomes available, he'll immediately be one of the top interior linemen on the open market. He should have several quality years in front of him, and Mason had a strong campaign for the Buccaneers this season.

    Mason was responsible for only two penalties and one sack allowed through 1,200 offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He played 99 percent of Tampa's offensive snaps.

    This should put Mason right up there with players like Rodney Hudson, Ben Powers and Nate Davis in terms of market value and perhaps at the top of the list for guard-needy teams.

    Davis, for example, has a projected market value of $7.4 million annually. Mason should command at least that much, given his experience and ability to instantly fill a starting role. Teams seeking help on the interior should be watching his situation closely.

Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints

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    CLEVELAND, OHIO - DECEMBER 24: Jameis Winston #2 of the New Orleans Saints warms up prior to a game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 24, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
    Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

    The New Orleans Saints turned to quarterback Andy Dalton when Jameis Winston was dealing with ankle and back injuries early in the season. Winston never returned to the starting lineup, and head coach Dennis Allen has defended that decision.

    "I think initially it was the injury issue. And then as time went on, I felt like Andy [Dalton] was the one who gave us a better opportunity to win," Allen told reporters during his end-of-season press conference.

    There's a chance that neither Dalton nor Winston are back in New Orleans next season. Dalton will be a free agent, and Winson is a prime cap casualty if the Saints don't view him as a starting option.

    Releasing Winston with a post-June 1 designation would save $12.8 million off the 2023 cap. The Saints are projected to be $53.4 million over the limit this season.

    Of course, if Winston reached the open market, he's not likely to move the needle much for teams seeking a starter. Quarterbacks like Brady, Lamar Jackson, Daniel Jones and Geno Smith will top the market if they become available.

    The Las Vegas Raiders are reportedly looking to trade Derek Carr as well.

    Winston will fall firmly in the category of bridge starter or risk-reward option if he's available. While the 2015 first overall pick has lots of physical upside, he has yet to establish himself as a reliable long-term starter.

    A franchise may be willing to bet on its ability to get the most out of Winston, but he's unlikely to command more than quarterbacks like Dalton, Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold.

    Given the fact that he lost his starting job to Dalton, Winston is likely looking at significantly less than the $12.8 million base salary he's due to earn with New Orleans next season.

Robert Woods, WR, Tennessee Titans

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    JACKSONVILLE, FL - JANUARY 07: Tennessee Titans wide receiver Robert Woods (2) runs with the ball during the game between the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars and the  on January 7, 2023 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    There's a chance that the Titans look to move on from quarterback Ryan Tannehill this offseason. The 34-year-old has been a solid starter for the Titans but hasn't lifted the team to the realm of Super Bowl contenders. He also finished the regular season on injured reserve with an ankle injury.

    Releasing Tannehill with a post-June 1 release would save $27 million off the cap. However, that's a move Tennessee will only make if it can guarantee itself an obvious upgrade in free agency. Until/unless that happens, it makes more sense for Tannehill to play out the final year of his contract.

    Expect the Titans to cut salary elsewhere first. Dupree is a prime candidate for release, as is wide receiver Robert Woods.

    Woods, who was acquired from the Rams in the offseason, is scheduled to carry a cap hit of $14.6 million this season. The Titans could clear $12 million of that by releasing Woods outright. That's half of the team's projected cap deficit.

    If Woods becomes available, he could become one of the most intriguing options in the receiver player pool. While his numbers weren't overly impressive this season (53 receptions, 527 yards, 2 TDs), it's worth noting that he played in an offense ranked 30th in passing attempts and yards.

    This year's receiver market—headlined by Odell Beckham Jr. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jakobi Meyers—isn't exactly loaded with top-tier talent. The 30-year-old Woods is still capable of being a potent No. 2 target and would be one of the top targets available—albeit likely on a short-term deal.

    Woods probably wouldn't take a major pay cut from the $13.8 million in base salary he's scheduled to make next year. He would simply get his money from a team with more cap flexibility than Tennessee.

    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. Cap, contract and market information via Spotrac.