The NFL's Biggest Salary-Cap Questions for 2016

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJanuary 28, 2016

The NFL's Biggest Salary-Cap Questions for 2016

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    While the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos prepare for Super Bowl 50, 30 other clubs have other matters on the agenda…like how they can get to Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

    For some, that will require making some financial decisions in order to get under the salary cap.

    As of the morning of January 28, the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints were the only teams over the projected cap, per Spotrac. However, six other NFL clubs are less than $10 million under the cap, so they may have to do some work.

    All teams must be under the salary cap as of 4 p.m. ET on March 9.

    So here is a glance at a number of prominent players (in order of biggest salary-cap hit in 2016) who represent the biggest cap questions this offseason. How each club wants to manage its roster—whether by re-signing its own players or opening up room for adding unrestricted free agents—may determine how it deals with these high-ticket performers. As a base reference, we looked at the 101 players whose cap hit in 2016 was a minimum of $9 million.

    Now let’s get one important thing straight: We are not suggesting that all of these players will be released, although in a few cases there may already be some writing on the wall. In some instances, teams will rework their contracts. For others, they could be looking for work.

    This is an early look at some of the topics that will be take center stage on February 8, the day after either the Broncos or Panthers hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Worth Mentioning

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    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    Due to time constraints, we move ahead to further action.

    All kidding aside, here are 12 more players who could also see their current deals reworked or terminated this offseason due to the hefty cap hit on their respective teams.

    All of these performers will count a minimum of $9 million against their club’s salary cap in 2016. Be it due to simple finance or a player coming off a season in which he was either ineffective or largely unavailable, don’t be surprised if you see the following standouts with a revamped contract or on the open market down the road.

    It’s also worth noting that while the new fiscal year in the NFL doesn’t begin until March 9, players who have their contracts terminated can be signed by a team immediately.

    Players are in order from biggest 2016 cap hit to lowest.

    • DE Chris Long, Los Angeles Rams ($14.25 million)
    • LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, New York Jets ($14.107 million)
    • CB Brandon Carr, Dallas Cowboys ($13.817 million)
    • WR Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($12.209 million)
    • CB Sam Shields, Green Bay Packers ($12 million)
    • OLB DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos ($11.67 million)
    • FS Jairus Byrd, New Orleans Saints ($10.9 million)
    • C Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh Steelers ($10.551 million)
    • OLB Julius Peppers, Green Bay Packers ($10.5 million)
    • DT Corey Liuget, San Diego Chargers ($10 million)
    • CB Byron Maxwell, Philadelphia Eagles ($9.7 million)
    • T William Beatty, New York Giants ($9.175 million)

QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints ($30 Million)

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    It’s only natural that we look at the one player in the league who will cost the most against any team’s salary cap in 2016. 

    Coincidentally, the New Orleans Saints are one of those three clubs that at the moment are over the projected 2016 cap. And veteran quarterback Drew Brees, who saw his contract get revamped a year ago, will count a whopping $30 million against the cap this year.

    Bear in mind that Mike Triplett of ESPN.com wrote back in October that this was not the issue some make it out to be. Then again, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported last month that he was told that Brees “has to take a hometown discount to return.”

    There’s little doubt that this will be one of the more intriguing stories around the league for the next month or so as head coach Sean Payton prepares for this second decade in the Crescent City.

DT Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins ($28.6 Million)

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    For goodness' sake, the guy just got here.

    But we also knew this was coming when defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, formerly with the Detroit Lions, inked a six-year, $114.3 million deal with the Miami Dolphins last offseason.

    While the cap hit in 2015 was a modest $6.1 million, that figure jumps to $28.6 million this year. So what will the organization do over the next few weeks?

    “By the time we get to the first day of the league year, we should have plenty of room to address the needs that we have,” said Dolphins vice president Mike Tannenbaum to James Walker of ESPN.com at the Senior Bowl on Tuesday. “Certainly we will be looking at Suh’s contract.”

    Of course, this team has been active in the free-agent market the last few years, so it will be interesting to see what Tannenbaum and Co. come up with. It’s also a club with a new head coach (Adam Gase) and one that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2008.

QB Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens ($28.55 Million)

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    Most will remember that Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco played a little what we will call “Crab Cake Roulette” by not signing a new deal prior to the 2012 season.

    The gamble paid off, as he and the team captured Super Bowl XLVII. The team would reward the reliable signal-caller with a six-year, $120.6 million contract not long after he was named Super Bowl MVP and enjoyed a four-game postseason stretch in which he threw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

    Of course, we also understood that the contract was back-loaded to give the Ravens some needed salary-cap maneuverability. But now it’s time to pay the piper, per se. As is it currently written, Flacco’s contract has a cap hit of at least $24 million each of these next three years.

    Meanwhile, the Ravens are just $4.3 million under the cap for this year. Time to get out the calculator and the abacus.

WR Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions ($24.008 Million)

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    Earlier this month, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson hinted that his playing days in the National Football League may be coming to an end.

    In a statement, the star wideout explained, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: “Like many players at this stage of their career, I am currently evaluating options for my future. I would expect to have a decision regarding this matter in the not-too-distant future.”

    But what does that mean for the Lions, who are on the hook for quite the cap hit this year? Will Johnson and/or the Lions have an answer anytime soon?

    “But like I said a couple weeks ago, I’m not here to rush him,” stated new Lions general manager Bob Quinn to Birkett. “I haven’t reached out to him; I haven’t talked to Bus Cook (Johnson’s agent). I’m letting him do what he needs to do. I’m in no position here to ask Calvin for an answer anytime soon.”

    For now, it’s a waiting game for the Lions until Johnson reveals his intentions. If the nine-year pro opts to play a 10th NFL season in 2016, the team will no doubt need to rework his current contract.

DE Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills ($19.9 Million)

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    There was a new face on the sidelines for the Buffalo Bills in 2015. But when it was all said and done, the bottom line was that head coach Rex Ryan failed to deliver a playoff berth, something that has now eluded this franchise for the last 16 years.

    Buffalo’s defense took its share of the blame. A unit that ranked fourth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed while totaling a league-high 54 sacks in 2014 slipped to 19th in total defense while racking up just 21 sacks this year.

    There were rumblings about the change in system, and performers such as defensive end Mario Williams were not shy about their feelings. One season after being ranked among the league leaders with 14.5 sacks, the 10-year pro tied for the club lead with only five sacks in 2015.

    Shortly after the season ended, an anonymous teammate of Williams stated the following, per Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News: “It’s been clear to me that Mario doesn’t care about anybody but himself. He followed that up by not giving any effort during the season and complaining about the scheme instead of manning up and saying he played like crap and doesn’t care.”

    When Williams was asked if the comments “had any impact on him,” the talented pass-rusher had a simple answer.

    “Nothing, because it’s anonymous,” said Williams, per Dunne. “If we’re all grown men, I don’t see how everything is anonymous around here. It’s the first time I’ve had something like that. Especially if it’s from the other side of the ball, I mean, that’s even worse.”

    Williams’ hefty cap number seems to indicate that he won’t be back with the club in 2016. Stay tuned.

QB Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins ($16.155 Million)

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    Yes, here is the obvious no-brainer on the list. Roughly a year ago, the Washington Redskins opted to pick up the fifth-year option on quarterback Robert Griffin III, the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft and the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year that season.

    As we know, it’s been a rough three-year stretch for the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, and this season, he didn’t play a down. So, what does that mean when it comes to his future with the franchise? Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk has the latest from Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan, who was asked about the future of Griffin at the Senior Bowl on Wednesday:

    Certainly, the thing that’s good about what we have right now is that we have until March 9, and that’s why I want to sit down with the coaches. Not just the coordinators, the position coach, but everybody individually and just get a feel for it.

    He is a good football player. He’s a really good person, and he’s under contract. That’s where we’re at right now.

    Fair enough.

QB Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers ($15.89 Million)

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    With all the excitement in the Bay Area leading up to Super Bowl 50, the San Francisco 49ers have taken a bit of a backseat in terms of publicity these days despite the hiring of a new head coach.

    Granted, the hiring of Chip Kelly certainly earned its share of headlines. But off the Niners' 5-11 showing and considering the former Philadelphia Eagles’ sideline leaders comes off a 6-9 showing with his former team, the enthusiasm (at least for now) has been tempered a bit.

    Now that Kelly is in place, what does the future hold for still-young quarterback Colin Kaepernick? Eric Branch of SFGate.com recently spoke to Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young and got his thoughts on the talented but erratic performer, who suffered through a rough 2014 and saw this past season cut short by injury.

    Some have already speculated that Kaepernick is an ideal fit for Kelly’s offense. We’ll soon find out if his cap number is still a fit when it comes to the organization.

WR Mike Wallace, Minnesota Vikings ($11.5 Million)

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    Mike Wallace of the Minnesota Vikings is known as one of the faster receivers in the league.

    Over the last few years, he also seems to be quickly wearing out his welcome with a number of teams.

    After a four-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of those resulting in a Pro Bowl invitation, the 2009 third-round pick signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. After two unspectacular seasons, he was dealt to the Miami Dolphins last offseason for a fifth-round draft choice.

    Now, Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune feels that Wallace is “one and done” with the Vikings. In 2015, he played in 16 games, made 12 starts and caught just 39 passes for 473 yards and two touchdowns.

    In four seasons with the Steelers, Wallace totaled 235 catches for 4,042 yards and 32 touchdowns. Over the last three seasons with Miami and Minnesota, the seven-year wideout has hauled in only 179 passes for 2,265 yards and 17 scores.

    It will be interesting to see what the Vikings’ front office opts to do.

RB Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks ($11.5 Million)

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    Marshawn Lynch, we barely knew you in 2015.

    Due to injuries, one of the league’s most physical players was limited to only seven games with the Seattle Seahawks this season, rushing for 417 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season and a combined 20 yards on six carries in the postseason split with the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers.

    So what does the future hold for Lynch? Former NFL agent Joel Corry and salary-cap expert Brian McIntyre gave the skinny on the ramifications of the Seahawks’ parting ways with Beast Mode or if the workhorse running back opts for retirement to Brady Henderson of 710 ESPN Seattle.

    Should the former occur, where could the relentless runner, who’s rushed for 9,112 yards and 74 touchdowns in nine seasons with the Buffalo Bills and Seahawks, wind up? That’s a worthwhile topic for another time.

TE Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks ($9 Million)

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    In one of the biggest NFL trades last offseason, the Seattle Seahawks sent former Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a 2015 first-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for three-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham.

    The two-time defending NFC champions, looking to bolster a passing attack that ranked 27th in the league in 2014, added a performer who had amassed 386 catches for 4,752 and 51 touchdowns in five seasons. Big things were expected.

    Instead, Graham (and the Seattle offense) got off to a slow start. And just when it looked like he was hitting his stride, the tight end suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 12 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    “We’ve loved Jimmy Graham coming to our team and we are very grateful that he has been a part of it and we are going to miss the heck out of him the rest of the season,” said head coach Pete Carroll after the game, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times. Graham finished 2015 as the club’s fourth-leading receiver with 48 catches, but he scored only two touchdowns.

    “Jimmy had a great offseason and I thought he had a great camp,” said Seahawks general manager John Schneider to "Brock and Salk" of 710 ESPN Seattle recently. “Me personally, I think people were a little hard on Jimmy. He started going when our offense started going…”

    You don’t get the impression Graham is going anywhere this offseason. But his contract and perhaps the fate of running back Marshawn Lynch may determine what direction this club may be headed in this offseason.

    All free-agent information courtesy of Spotrac. Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

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