Early Predictions for Most Surprising NFL Veteran Cuts

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 8, 2017

Early Predictions for Most Surprising NFL Veteran Cuts

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    With the 2017 NFL draft only recently completed and free agency entering its second phase, most of the talk around the league has been about adding players—whether it's newcomers fresh out of college or veterans changing addresses. 

    There's a flip side to all those additions, however. Even in the offseason, roster spots are a finite resource in the National Football League. So are salary-cap dollars.

    And some clubs are running short on one or both.

    There's also an NFL rule that allows franchises to designate a player a post-June 1 cut. That allows them to spread the "dead money" out over two years. In turn, teams can free up a little more cabbage to pay rookies or add another veteran or two.

    In other words, we're headed toward another wave of cuts.

    Now, not every player on this list is going to get the ax in the weeks to come.

    But whether it's due to age, injury or salary (or some combination of the three), this group of notable and familiar names is probably more than a little nervous that the next phone call they get will leave them looking for work. And while the cold reality of business in the NFL may not surprise, a few of these names finding their way onto the waiver wire could raise eyebrows for the casual fan.

Ryan Mathews, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    At this point, the surprise wouldn't lie in tailback Ryan Mathews being released by the Philadelphia Eagles.

    The surprise is it's taken this long for it to happen.

    There's been rumors swirling for quite some time that the 30-year-old Mathews, who rushed for 661 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games in 2016, was on the chopping block.

    Mathews was only recently cleared to start working out after offseason neck surgery and is set to make $5 million in 2017. But cutting the eighth-year veteran would cost the team only $1 million.

    As Evan Macy of Metro US reported, after the draft, Eagles Vice President of Football Operations Howie Roseman tried to downplay reports that the team might release linebacker Mychal Kendricks and center Jason Kelce.

    But when it came to Mathews, Roseman was a bit less emphatic.

    "Ryan Mathews is on this team," Roseman said. "Can I tell you anyone who's going to be on this team in September? We're here in April. All that stuff will work itself out. His rehab is going well. There are some things that he—some parts of the process that he has to get through here—but he's working hard, and he's able to work out, and he's cleared to do all that."

    According to Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Eagles attempted to trade up in the 2017 draft to acquire Florida State tailback Dalvin Cook, but it didn't work out. Instead, the team had to settle for scatback Donnel Pumphrey and undrafted free agent Corey Clement.

    Still, despite questionable depth in the backfield, all indications are Philly—the team with the least cap space in the NFL, per Spotrac—is going to free up some room by showing Mathews the door.

Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers

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    Being a veteran running back with a high cap hit in today's NFL can be a nerve-wracking proposition.

    Being a veteran running back with a high cap hit whose team just spent a top-10 pick on another tailback is that much worse.

    That's the boat Jonathan Stewart of the Panthers finds himself in after Carolina spent their first-round pick in the 2017 draft on Stanford's Christian McCaffrey. Designating Stewart, who rushed for 824 yards and nine scores last year, as a post-June 1st cut would net the Panthers over $6 million in cap savings, per Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated.

    As Hank Lee of WCNC-TV reported, Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman raved about his newest toy in the backfield after making McCaffrey the eighth overall selection in the draft.

    "He has elite skills in terms of running, his vision, his run patience, his receiving skills, and he can step on the gas pedal," Gettleman said. "And on top of that, he's a big-time punt returner. There's so much value there. He's a guy we targeted, and we were hoping to get him."

    At this point, the best-case scenario for Stewart is that McCaffrey either struggles to pick up the offense or the Carolina coaching staff has just enough reservations about his ability to run between the tackles that Stewart can hang on to a role as an early-down grinder and short-yardage/clock-killing back.

    But if McCaffrey gets to rookie to minicamp and flashes an every-down skill set, Gettleman is going to start asking himself a question.

    Is an oft-injured Stewart really worth keeping around at a cap hit of over $8 million in 2017?

Koa Misi, OLB, Miami Dolphins

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    On many levels, the potential release of veteran linebacker Koa Misi by the Miami Dolphins doesn't qualify as a surprise. The 30-year old has struggled mightily to stay on the field in recent years, including 13 missed games last season thanks to a neck injury that required surgery.

    But if Misi does get the ax, it's probably going to be a surprise to him.

    Back in March, he restructured his contract, taking a pay cut in the final year of the deal to preserve his spot on the club.

    At the time, Misi's agent, Kenny Zuckerman, told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald his client was in the team's plans for 2017.

    "He's in the Dolphins' plans," Zuckerman said. "If he's healthy, he'll be there. He will be [medically] cleared during the offseason."

    However, Miami's plans may have changed.

    In addition to adding Lawrence Timmons in free agency, the Dolphins selected Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan in the second round of the 2017 draft at No. 54 overall.

    McMillan is more athletic than Misi, who's the prototypical two-down thumper. And Timmons is more durable than Misi, who hasn't played in 16 games in a season since he was a rookie in 2010.

    Simply put, Misi's taking up a roster spot the Dolphins could better utilize elsewhere.

    And pay cut or no, the odds he survives the summer on South Beach are dwindling.

DeAngelo Hall, S, Washington Redskins

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    According to the salary-cap tracker at Spotrac, the Washington Redskins rank 24th in the NFL in cap space. By the time the rookie salary pool is taken into consideration, the Redskins are upside down to the tune of about $1.3 million.

    In other words, someone has to go.

    And a 33-year-old defensive back coming off a major injury is a likely candidate.

    DeAngelo Hall has had an excellent 13-year NFL career and was once considered one of the league's better cornerbacks. Hall's played in three Pro Bowls (2005, 2006, 2010), and to his credit, he's morphed into a pretty good free safety in the twilight of his career.

    However, the NFL is a "what have you done for me lately?" league, and in that respect, Hall hasn't been earning his paycheck the past few years.

    In 2016, he played in only three games thanks to a torn ACL. In 2014, he missed the same amount of time with a twice-torn Achilles tendon.

    That means he spent well over half of the last three seasons watching from the sidelines, and it's fair to wonder what effect two injuries of that severity will have on the speed of an aging defensive back.

    The Redskins have more than a little depth in the secondary, and they appear set for starters with youngster Su'a Cravens, 21, and free-agent addition D.J. Swearinger.

    Backup safeties don't usually have the eighth-highest cap hit on an NFL team.

    Given that reality, Hall's nine seasons in the nation's capital could be headed for a rather inglorious conclusion.

Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Releasing a Pro Bowl lineman would count as a surprise.

    As mentioned earlier, Eagles personnel poobah Howie Roseman said the Eagles were intent on retaining the services of linebacker Mychal Kendricks and center Jason Kelce in 2017.

    "Yes, they are here, and we fully anticipate they're going to be here going forward," Roseman said, per Dave Zangaro of CSNPhilly.com.

    There have been rumors for some time that the Eagles were shopping the 29-year-old Kelce this offseason, which Roseman would neither confirm nor deny.

    "We don't ever talk about trade discussions with any teams, but both those guys have been here in the offseason, and they're going to be here going forward," Roseman said.

    If the Eagles were shopping Kelce to begin with, Roseman's protestations aside, it's sign his roster spot isn't safe.

    For starters, his second Pro Bowl nod last year was more a lifetime achievement award than an indication of well he performed in 2016. Kelce ranked 31st among NFL centers last year, per Pro Football Focus, and his pass-blocking grade tied for dead last—with Cameron "The Human Turnstile" Erving of the Cleveland Browns.

    The Eagles have an in-house replacement for Kelce waiting in the wings in second-year pro Isaac Seumalo. And while Kendricks carries a slightly higher cap hit in 2017, cutting Kelce would save the team more money in the long run—roughly $4 million.

    The Eagles desperately need that cap space. They need to clear over $5 million off the books just to pay this year's rookie class.

    And that leaves Roseman in a position that might force him to change his stance.

Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Tamba Hali has had a great career with the Kansas City Chiefs. Over 11 seasons, Hali has piled up 89.5 career sacks. One day he'll be enshrined in the Chiefs Hall of Fame.

    At that time, an argument will be made he belongs in the one in Canton, too.

    Right now, however, there's another argument. One that's quite a bit more difficult.

    The argument for a Chiefs team that's 31st in cap space to keep an aging pass-rusher with bad knees coming off the worst of those 11 seasons on the roster.

    Even though the Chiefs did their best to manage his snaps last year, Hali clearly wasn't close to his old self. His 3.5 sacks were the second-lowest total of his career.

    It tells you everything you need to know that in Kansas City's playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers—the team's biggest game of the 2016 seasonHali was on the field for all of seven snaps.

    That from a player who signed a three-year, $21 million extension just one year ago. A player who carries the fifth-highest cap hit on the Chiefs this season.

    That contract would leave the Chiefs saddled with over $7 million in dead money if they cut Hali after June 1, and the team would save only about $1.25 million in doing so.

    The configuration of that deal is likely the only thing keeping Hali on the roster right now, and it wouldn't be even a little surprising to see Hali and the Chiefs restructure the deal (again) to buy wiggle room.

    They have little choice. Per Spotrac the Chiefs are over $4 million in the red after accounting for this year's rookies.

    And that means if Hali balks at a do-over, it's possible (albeit unlikely) the Chiefs might take what little relief they can get.

    Hey, these are supposed to be surprising, remember?

Robert Quinn, OLB, Los Angeles Rams

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    It says a lot about the poor decisions made by the Rams front office in recent years that Los Angeles has one of the NFL's most talent-bereft rosters and one of the worst salary-cap situations.

    In the case of Robert Quinn, however, you can't really blame them. When the Rams inked Quinn to a six-year, $65 million megadeal back in 2014, the defensive end was coming off a 19-sack campaign the year before. He followed that up with 10.5 sacks in the first year of the new deal.

    Since then, however, it's been a much different story. Quinn missed eight games in 2015 and another seven last year. After 29.5 sacks in 2013 and 2014, he's managed only nine over the past two years combined.

    As if the injuries weren't enough, now the 26-year-old will be moving to a new position, switching to outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4. Rams head coach Sean McVay told Myles Simmons of the team's website he has no doubt the 6'4", 264-pound Quinn can make a seamless transition.

    “For all intents and purposes, Robert will line up as the Will linebacker, but he’s a rush player. He’ll play a similar role to what DeMarcus Ware did in Denver for Wade the last couple of years,” McVay said. “I think he’s going to still be, he’s going to be an elite rusher in this league for years and that’s what we’re hoping to do with him moving forward.”

    Of course, what's he supposed to say?

    It's not likely at all the Rams will move on from Quinn even if they really didn't think he could pull off the switch. Pass-rushers with his athleticism and resume just entering their prime are hard to let go of. And even if they did, the Rams would all but surely look to trade Quinn first.

    There are certainly teams that would try very hard to accommodate that deal.

    But the Rams have to do something to get out of the hole they're in against the cap, and there are two players on the roster whose release would afford the team significant relief.

    Guard Rodger Saffold is one.

    Quinn is the other.

Benjamin Watson, TE, Baltimore Ravens

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    Given the Ravens' cap situation, the bigger surprise would probably be if veteran tight end Benjamin Watson isn't released by Baltimore at some point.

    It's a shame, really. After setting career highs in receptions and yardage for the New Orleans Saints in 2015, the 36-year-old Watson signed a two-year deal to join the Ravens. But Watson didn't play a down for his new team last season, tearing his Achilles tendon in the third preseason game.

    Watson's rehab is reportedly progressing well, although the 14th-year veteran still hasn't been cleared to practice.

    Sadly, it may not really matter.

    The Ravens are in something of a financial bind relative to the salary cap. As a matter of fact, after including the funds needed to sign their draft class, the Ravens need to shave about $4 million in salary.

    The team has already made a number of cost-cutting moves, including releasing veteran outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and reworking tight end Dennis Pitta's deal.

    Now, however, the number of moves the Ravens can make from here without absorbing millions in dead money are limited.

    When you consider how the draft played out for the Ravens, they're even more so. Baltimore could free up almost $5 million by cutting wideout Mike Wallace, but after Ozzie Newsome whiffed at the position on draft day, that's just not going to happen.

    That leaves Watson, whose release would save the team $3 million.

    It sucks. It really does. Watson's one of the more interesting cats in the NFL, a player who, while rehabbing his Achilles, wrote a book about fatherhood.

    From a business standpoint though, the Ravens really don't have much choice.

Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints

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    Before I go any further here, a disclaimer.

    The New Orleans Saints, who are upside down by about $2.5 million once the rookie pool is accounted for, have an easy path toward getting in the black. Wait until June 1, when Jairus Byrd's salary comes off the books.

    That's no fun though, so we'll look at another candidate who could save the team some cheese.

    It wasn't long ago that Mark Ingram was the unquestioned lead back in the Big Easy. The lead dog. The big enchilada.

    Then the team signed Adrian Peterson.

    As Josh Katzenstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported, head coach Sean Payton insisted Peterson was being brought in to help Ingram, not replace him.

    "I think the role will be very clear and defined," Payton said. "It's a tough, long 16-week season. I think that he's someone that certainly will be able to complement Mark. Those guys are different in some ways, and yet we feel like we've added another quality player."

    Then, just three days later, the Saints traded a seventh-round pick and a 2018 second-rounder to move up and select Tennessee tailback Alvin Kamara.

    Suddenly, that clear status as the Saints' lead back was as muddy as the mighty Mississippi.

    Ingram's a decent running back coming off the first 1,000-yard season of his six-year career. And he insisted to Mark Inabinett of AL.com that he wasn't surprised by the team's additions.

    "Listen, man, it's nothing new," Ingram said. "I've been sharing the ball with one or two, maybe even three, guys since I got there. I figured we were going to draft somebody or get somebody in free agency. We still might. I figured that was going to happen, so it's not surprising to me.

    Ingram's also a player who hasn't lived up to expectations, who has had flareups with Payton and whose release would net the team over $3 million against the cap.

    Just saying.

Haloti Ngata, DT, Detroit Lions

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    There have been some potential cuts in this article (like Ryan Mathews) that would be surprising only in that it took this long. There are others (such as Robert Quinn) that would leave fans and sportswriters alike scraping their jaws off the floor.

    We'll wrap things up with a release that would be surprising because of the name but truly shouldn't be in reality.

    Back in February, Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated mentioned Haloti Ngata as a potential salary-cap casualty for the Detroit Lions.

    "The Lions have minimal depth at defensive tackle and Ngata, when healthy, remains a solid run-stuffing tackle, so the math may work in his favor here," Burke said. "Shy of releasing Matthew Stafford or Ziggy Ansah, though, Ngata is the player who could put the most money back into the Lions’ pockets. He just turned 33 and has missed a handful of time during his two Detroit seasons."

    Nothing has changed in that regard. The Lions haven't added much at the tackle position, although they did sign Akeem Spence (formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and draft Jeremiah Ledbetter of Arkansas.

    But it also remains true that Ngata's a 33-year-old lane-clogger known much more for what he did in his heyday with the Baltimore Ravens than anything that's happened the last two years in Motown.

    According to the graders at Pro Football Focus, Ngata was the NFL's 43rd-ranked defensive tackle in 2016. He ranked only 30th against the run—his supposed specialty.

    By those metrics, Ngata is an average defensive tackle at this point in his career.

    And a $7.7 million cap hit is an awful lot to pay for an average defensive tackle.

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