Toughest Decisions Facing NFL's Cap-Strapped Teams Heading into 2023 Free Agency
While several games remain in the 2022-23 NFL postseason, it's never too early to look ahead at the looming offseason. Free agency, the trade market and the draft will determine a lot for next season and the 2023 playoff race.
This season's playoff field included seven teams that didn't make the postseason last year. Free-agent and trade additions like Marcus Williams, Christian Kirk, Evan Engram, Tyreek Hill and Khalil Mack helped new squads enter the mix. So did high draft picks like Ken Walker III, Charles Cross, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Tyler Linderbaum, Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd.
Of course, teams can't be major offseason players without cap space. For several franchises, that'll be a problem. As of this writing, nine NFL teams are projected to be more than $10 million over the salary cap, and each will have to make difficult decisions.
We'll dive into the nine most cap-strapped teams heading into free agency, which is slated to begin March 15. We'll examine the toughest decision each franchise faces and how things could unfold.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Green Bay Packers: Will the Team Bring Back Aaron Rodgers' 'Glue Guys'?
Projected Cap Space: -$14.5 Million
The Green Bay Packers' offseason will be dominated by the uncertainty around quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The 39-year-old struggled in 2022, and there's no guarantee he'll be back for 2023.
Rodgers could retire or try to force a trade to a different team, which will likely require a contract restructure. He signed a three-year extension last March that leaves $99.8 million in dead money on his contract.
Following the season, Rodgers hinted that his future could hinge on finding the right situation.
"Right situation, is that Green Bay or is that somewhere else? I'm not sure," he said on The Pat McAfee Show (h/t ESPN's Rob Demovsky). "... There's a lot of interesting names that we'll see if there's desire to re-sign certain guys that are glue guys in the locker room."
Several of Rodgers' longtime teammates, including Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard, Marcedes Lewis, Mason Crosby and Robert Tonyan, are set to be free agents in March. Assuming the Packers want Rodgers back, they may have to re-sign several of these players to placate him.
A year ago, Green Bay traded Rodgers' top target, Davante Adams, to the Las Vegas Raiders. Rodgers spent the better part of the season trying to establish chemistry with the new-look receiving corps, and the results were disastrous. If the Packers have to replace several more of his "glue guys," he may decide Green Bay isn't the right situation for him.
The problem is that with a $14.5 million cap deficit, re-signing players will be a challenge. Green Bay must decide if it's worth it—if Rodgers is worth it—long before March 15. If the Packers decide to run it back with Rodgers, they may request a pay cut or restructure in order to financially fit his favorites.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Does the Team Replace Shaquill Griffin?
Projected Cap Space: -$20.3 Million
The Jacksonville Jaguars are the lone team on this list that remains alive in the postseason. They'll look to reload and, ideally, improve their roster heading into 2023.
However, finding the necessary cap space won't be simple. The Jags are projected to be more than $20 million over the cap, and they'll need to clear cap space just to sign their incoming draft picks.
Jacksonville can jump-start the process by moving on from cornerback Shaquill Griffin. The 2021 free-agent addition appeared in just five games this season before suffering a season-ending back injury. Last year, he wasn't exactly a star. Though Griffin was a serviceable starter, he allowed an opposing passer rating of 109.5 in coverage.
Releasing him would save Jacksonville $13.2 million on the 2023 cap.
The problem is that if Jacksonville doesn't keep Griffin, it will have to replace him. Pass defense has been an issue this season—the Jags ranked 28th in passing yards allowed—and one could argue cornerback is a need even if Griffin is on the roster.
Jacksonville isn't guaranteed to find an upgrade either. Given the cap situation, chasing a top corner like James Bradberry or Jamel Dean isn't realistic, and a rookie cornerback would be far from a sure thing.
Recent first-round picks like Jeff Okudah and Caleb Farley have had early struggles at the pro level, albeit in part due to injuries.
While Griffin hasn't lived up to his three-year, $40 million contract in Jacksonville, he was a Pro Bowler in 2019. The 27-year-old should also still be in his prime. The cap savings will be enticing, but if Jacksonville believes Griffin can return to Pro Bowl form, it may look to trim salary elsewhere.
Los Angeles Chargers: Does the Team Dump Khalil Mack After Just One Season?
Projected Cap Space: -$19.4 Million
The Los Angeles Chargers acquired Mack in an offseason trade with the Chicago Bears. The move cost Los Angeles a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 sixth-rounder. The deal also paid immediate dividends for the Chargers.
Mack finished the year with eight sacks, 18 quarterback pressures, 50 tackles and a Pro Bowl nod.
Yet after just one season, the Chargers must weigh the possibility of parting with the soon-to-be 32-year-old. L.A. is projected to be more than $19 million over the cap, and its two clearest potential cap casualties are Mack and wideout Keenan Allen.
Trading or cutting Allen feels less likely, as the Chargers are focused on building around quarterback Justin Herbert and improving their offense. Firing offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was a step in that direction.
"I think there's a different gear we need to get to as a football team," Chargers head coach Brandon Staley told reporters after Lombardi's firing.
While trading or releasing Mack would be the more logical financial move, it would leave a hole opposite pass-rusher Joey Bosa, who missed the bulk of 2022 with a groin injury. It would be a difficult move to swallow, especially considering the trade cost to acquire Mack, but it would nearly resolve L.A.'s cap situation.
The good news is the Chargers should find takers on the trade market and recoup some of that cost if they move him—and an early offseason trade would still clear $18.4 million.
Los Angeles may try to clear cap space elsewhere first, but it shouldn't be a shock to see Mack on the trade block in early March.
Los Angeles Rams: How Long Will the Team Count on Matthew Stafford?
Projected Cap Space: -$11.0 Million
The Los Angeles Rams followed up their Super Bowl LVI win with a disappointing 5-12 record. Injuries to stars like Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp played a large role in the decline, but they had other issues. Pass protection was a problem, and the Rams lacked offensive playmakers outside of Kupp.
The Rams appear hopeful for a playoff return in 2023, and they plan to make it with Stafford under center. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Los Angeles is expected to pick up Stafford's 2023 roster bonus and 2024 guaranteed salary after the start of the new league year.
What the Rams must decide is whether they believe in the 35-year-old quarterback next season and beyond after he missed time in the concussion protocol and with a spinal contusion. Several offseason choices will likely hinge on his future.
If L.A. believes it will rebuild sooner than later, players like linebacker Bobby Wagner and tight end Tyler Higbee could become cap casualties. Releasing Wagner with a post-June 1 designation would save $8.3 million against the cap. Doing the same with Higbee would clear $6.6 million off the 2023 books.
If a rebuild is looming, trading players like running back Cam Akers—who was on the trade block during the season—or even standout corner Jalen Ramsey could also make sense. L.A. doesn't have first-, fourth- or fifth-round picks in 2023 because of trades for Stafford, Sony Michel and Troy Hill.
General manager Les Snead has regularly parted with draft capital in exchange for veterans who can help the Rams win now. But if Stafford is on his way out and winning now isn't an option, it could be time to compile draft picks again.
Then there's the issue of finding a long-term successor to Stafford. The Rams might want to take another flier on Baker Mayfield, who posted a respectable 86.4 passer rating in his four late-season starts for L.A. That option will be all the more appealing if the Rams don't believe Stafford can last another full season and/or will be gone after 2024.
Miami Dolphins: Is It Time to Cut Ties with Byron Jones?
Projected Cap Space: -$14.2 Million
The Miami Dolphins came close to being a contender in 2022. They made the playoffs as a wild card but were red-hot earlier in the season with an 8-3 record. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's two diagnosed concussions and the league's 27th-ranked pass defense played roles in Miami's late-season decline.
The Dolphins have to decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option of Tagovailoa's contract this offseason, though that will have no bearing on their $14.2 million cap deficit. A more relevant decision will involve the future of cornerback Byron Jones.
Jones, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with Miami in 2020, spent this past season on the physically-unable-to-perform list following Achilles surgery. He wasn't elite in his two previous seasons, either. In 2020 and 2021, Jones allowed a passer rating of 108.0 and 100.6 in coverage, respectively.
Miami could clear $14.1 million in cap space by releasing Jones with a post-June 1 designation. While that would be logical financially, it would mean moving on from a player whom the team spent much of this past season hoping to have back on the field.
"[Head coach Mike] McDaniel said he's 'hopeful and optimistic' Byron will play this season at some point," Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald tweeted in late November.
Jones was a Pro Bowl cornerback with the Dallas Cowboys in 2018, and a return to form would have a positive impact on Miami's pass defense. However, betting on that would be a huge gamble for the Dolphins given how things have unfolded for him over the past few seasons.
Will the Dolphins hold out hope for Jones or look to trade or cut him in for cap savings? With their cap constrictions and the inherent uncertainty of draft prospects, finding an obvious upgrade over him is far from guaranteed.
Minnesota Vikings: Is a Defensive Overhaul Doable?
Projected Cap Space: -$13.4 Million
Like the Dolphins, the Minnesota Vikings looked like a legitimate title contender at times this season. Minnesota went 11-0 in one-score games during the regular season and finished with a 13-4 record.
However, a putrid defense cost the Vikings a shot at the No. 1 seed and sent them home over Super Wild Card Weekend. Minnesota finished the regular season ranked 31st in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed.
Minnesota took the first step on Thursday by firing defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.
"While this was a difficult decision because of the tremendous respect I have for Ed as a person and a coach, I believe it is the right move for the future of our football team," head coach Kevin O'Connell said in a statement.
Minnesota next has to decide if reloading its defense in one offseason is a viable option. Several high-end defenders, including James Bradberry, Jamel Dean, Vonn Bell, Dre'Mont Jones, Tremaine Edwards and Arden Key, are set to become free agents.
The Vikings, who are already facing a $13.4 million cap deficit, would have to clear a lot of cap space to chase any of the big-name free agents. They could do so by parting with linebacker Eric Kendricks, safety Harrison Smith, pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith and linebacker Jordan Hicks.
These four players are each at least 30 years old and could provide significant cap savings if released. Cutting Harrison Smith with a post-June 1 designation would save $15.2 million, while cutting Za'Darius Smith before June 1 would save $12.2 million. Cutting Hicks would save $5 million, while releasing Kendricks would save $9.5 million.
That means Minnesota could clear roughly $42 million by releasing four aging vets. The caveat is that all four were starters in 2022 and would require immediate replacements.
Can the Vikings completely rebuild their defense in free agency and the draft? If they believe it's possible, fans should expect to see significant roster turnover in the Twin Cities this offseason.
New Orleans Saints: What Can They Do with Michael Thomas?
Projected Cap Space: -$52.9 Million
The New Orleans Saints are facing a hefty cap deficit heading into the offseason. They can clear $12.8 million of their $52.9 million deficit by releasing quarterback Jameis Winston with a post-June 1 designation.
That feels like a logical first step considering Winston lost his starting job to journeyman Andy Dalton after suffering ankle and back injuries and never regained it. New Orleans has a much more difficult decision to make regarding wideout Michael Thomas, though.
A few years ago, Thomas was one of the NFL's best wide receivers. However, he hasn't been a Pro Bowler since 2019. Thomas missed nine games in 2020 due to an ankle injury and a team-imposed suspension for punching teammate C.J. Gardner-Johnson in practice. He then missed all of 2021 following ankle surgery, and he missed 14 games this past season with a toe injury.
Parting with Thomas will be costly if New Orleans decides to go that route. He has $26.2 million in dead money remaining on his contract. Even with a post-June 1 designation, cutting him would give the Saints only $1.7 million in cap savings next season.
However, the Saints could be in even more financial trouble if they don't release Thomas, particularly after they restructured his contract earlier this month. According to ESPN's Field Yates, Thomas is now due a guaranteed $31.8 million roster bonus for the 2024 season on March 17 of this year.
The Saints don't have many options here. They could eat $26 million in dead money by cutting Thomas at the onset of free agency. Otherwise, they can owe him a ton of future money and hope he returns to form this season, or they can try to convince a team to take on his future guarantees in a trade.
None of these options are ideal. New Orleans is facing the tough task of deciding which is the lesser financial evil.
Tennessee Titans: Is It Time to Move on from Ryan Tannehill?
Projected Cap Space: -$24.3 Million
Will the Tennessee Titans run it back with Ryan Tannehill one more time? That's the single biggest question facing them as the new league year approaches.
Tannehill has been a serviceable starter since the Titans acquired him in a 2019 trade with Miami. He was a Pro Bowler that season and went 23-10 as a starter over the next two. However, he went just 6-6 this past season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
While Tannehill had a solid 94.6 passer rating, his QBR of 49.2 was his lowest as a Titan.
Tannehill is entering the final year of his contract, and the 34-year-old appears to have reached his ceiling in Tennessee. The problem is that 2022 third-round pick Malik Willis (42.8 passer rating) flopped as a rookie, and the Titans are set to be more than $24 million over the cap.
Tennessee could try its luck on a quarterback with the 11th pick in the 2023 draft, but there's no guarantee that a rookie could lead an otherwise talented Titans roster—one that claimed back-to-back AFC South titles before this season—to the playoffs in 2023.
A free-agent or trade target like Andy Dalton, Daniel Jones, Tom Brady or Derek Carr might steady the ship for Tennessee next season. The Titans could also try bringing back Joshua Dobbs, who started the final two games for them, though he's set to be a free agent.
However, chasing a veteran would only be possible with substantial cap relief. That's where the decision on Tannehill comes into play. If the Titans decide that they've gone as far as they can with him under center, they could save $27 million in cap space next year by releasing him with a post-June 1 designation.
With free agency rapidly approaching, Tennessee needs to decide whether it will pursue a new starter for the 2023 season. Otherwise, its options will be limited to sticking with Tannehill, rolling the dice in the draft and/or hoping that Willis makes a significant second-year jump.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is It Time to Blow Everything Up?
Projected Cap Space: -$55.5 Million
No team faces as much uncertainty as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They just got blown out in the Wild Card Round, fired offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, face the worst cap situation in the league and don't know if quarterback Tom Brady will return for his age-46 season.
Brady may retire (for real, this time) following his latest playoff loss. He might also look to play for a different franchise—the Las Vegas Raiders are interested, according to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer.
However, the Bucs reportedly want Brady back.
"They very much want [Brady] back and plan to make efforts toward that," NFL Network's Ian Rapoport said on NFL GameDay.
The Bucs must decide now if they'll pursue re-signing Brady—who has a projected annual market value of $40.8 million—or blow everything up and start over. Finding the money to pay Brady is just the tip of the hypothetical iceberg.
The Buccaneers also have decisions to make on impending free agents like Jamel Dean, Lavonte David, Akiem Hicks, Julio Jones, Logan Ryan, Carl Nassib and backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Additionally, they have potential cap casualties like running back Leonard Fournette and guard Shaq Mason to evaluate.
Given their cap situation, the Buccaneers might also have to consider more drastic moves like trading star wideout Mike Evans. Doing so after June 1 would give them $14.5 million in cap savings next season.
The Bucs face many tough financial decisions, most of which hinge on whether they believe they can reload and make another run at a Super Bowl in 2023. If they don't, players like Brady, Dean, David and Fournette will likely move on, while the Bucs will begin tearing down their roster and starting over.