Early Predictions for Most Surprising NFL Veteran Cuts of Training Camp
There is a man who prowls the fields of training camp and the halls of NFL facilities who is feared above all others. Whose very name is spoken only in hushed whispers.
He is "the Turk"—the person charged with telling players it's time to turn in their playbooks and hit the bricks.
Usually, the Turk comes for young players and rookies. He's the Angel of Death for the NFL careers of players who just aren't quite good enough to play the game at its highest level.
But sometimes, the Turk has a surprise up his sleeve. Sometimes, he comes for a player few expected would be released outright. Sure, that player has battled injuries. Or maybe he isn't an ideal schematic fit for a new staff.
But still, given that player's NFL resume and/or draft slot, it's still a shock to see his tenure with a team end so abruptly.
It just goes to show that the Turk can come for anyone.
And this year, he may just come for these veterans.
Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
In 2017, defensive end Michael Johnson was the Cincinnati Bengals' finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
In 2018, it's entirely possible Johnson might be out of a job.
Outside of one disastrous season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014, Johnson has spent his entire nine-year career with the Bengals. And while the 31-year-old has never come close to duplicating the 11.5-sack 2012 season that got him a payday in Tampa, Johnson quietly had a decent season as a rotational player for the Bengals last year.
The problem isn't Johnson—it's the logjam behind him.
Second-year pro Carl Lawson posted 8.5 sacks last year flipping between defensive end and strong-side linebacker. Fellow youngster Jordan Willis wasn't as productive as Lawson, but per Chris Roling of Bengals Wire, buzz has been building that the Bengals have a much larger role in mind for Willis in 2018.
Never mind rookie Sam Hubbard, whom the Bengals added in Round 3 of this year's draft.
It's worth noting that part of the Bengals' motivation for acquiring so many linemen in such a short time was likely the expiring contract of Carlos Dunlap after the 2018 season. But it was also partly motivated by the realization Johnson isn't a huge pass-rushing threat any longer (if he ever was) and isn't getting any younger.
If the younger players shine in camp, the Bengals could consider making the future now—especially when releasing Johnson would shave nearly $5 million off the salary cap, per Over The Cap.
Menelik Watson, OT, Denver Broncos
When the Denver Broncos signed Menelik Watson last offseason, the hope was that the team had found a cheaper alternative to replacing a hole at right tackle during a free-agency period where even average tackles were getting gonzo money.
Happens every year.
Unfortunately, another annual event came not long after. Seven weeks into the season, Watson got hurt—just as he did with alarming regularity in Oakland.
John Elway went back to the well at tackle this offseason, flipping a pick to the Arizona Cardinals for veteran tackle Jared Veldheer. Veldheer also saw an injury cut his 2017 season short after missing half of 2016, but if he's healthy, the 31-year-old is a mammoth upgrade over Watson.
Per Travis Wakeman of Broncos Wire, Veldheer has allowed 14 sacks over his past five seasons. Watson gave up nine in seven starts in 2017 alone.
As Wakeman's colleague Jon Heath reported, the Broncos tinkered with the idea of kicking Watson inside in OTAs.
"We want guys to play left guard and right guard," head coach Vance Joseph said. "We want guys to play tackle and guard. He's played tackle his entire career, so we're going to see how he plays guard. It just makes us better and makes him a better player. It helps us win. We'll see."
Even if that switch doesn't stick, it's somewhat unlikely the Broncos will cut bait entirely on Watson. The team doesn't have a ton of depth up front, and Watson's at least a capable run-blocker.
But if he can't handle moving inside and loses the "swing" tackle battle to Cyrus Kouandjio, the Broncos will start running out of reasons to keep Watson around.
Breshad Perriman, WR, Baltimore Ravens
It's come to this for Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Breshad Perriman.
Not that long ago, Perriman was a first-round draft pick—taken 26th overall by the Ravens in 2015.
That was the high point of his NFL career.
First, Perriman's rookie season was wiped out by injury. His second year was a drop-filled mess in which Perriman caught just 33 passes for less than 500 yards. Year three was a combo platter of crud—five games missed, more passes dropped and a whopping 10 catches for 77 total yards.
Now, it would be great to be able to say that Perriman's been diligently working to salvage what's left of his NFL career after the Ravens declined his 2019 option.
However, as ESPN's Jamison Hensley reported, it would also be a lie.
"Ravens wide receiver Breshad Perriman continues to have trouble with his hands," Hensley tweeted on June 12. "He has dropped a pass in each of the three offseason practices that's been open to the media. Perriman is due a $649,485 roster bonus on third day of training camp."
It's that last part that's especially ominous. At best, Perriman is fourth on the depth chart at receiver behind Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown. If he keeps dropping balls into training camp, the Ravens may decide to just cut their losses rather than set another 650 grand on fire.
John Simon, EDGE, Indianapolis Colts
John Simon's story is an abject lesson in just how precarious life in the NFL can be.
In his first year with the Indianapolis Colts in 2017, Simon was exactly what the Colts signed him to be. In nine games before he suffered a neck injury, Simon tallied 43 tackles and three sacks. He was solid against the run and gave one of the NFL's most toothless pass rushes a bit more bite.
Now, Simon's a player in limbo.
The reason is the Colts' switch to a four-man defensive front in 2018. Rather than trying Simon as a strong-side linebacker, the Colts moved him to defensive end. At 250 pounds.
Maybe. Soaking wet. With six rolls of quarters in his pocket.
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus admitted to Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star that the transition hasn't been especially smooth, although Simon is doing his best.
"Yeah, he's been working hard," Eberflus said. "What you have to do is use your attributes, your strengths, use your get-off, all those things. He'll figure it out as we go."
It's just not a good fit. It's a round peg in a square hole. Simon's a good player, but he doesn't have the size and strength to overpower tackles or the speed to blow past them. Simon won at outside linebacker with guile and technique. That's much harder to do in a phone booth.
It would be quite the upset to see one of Indy's better front-seven defenders from 2017 off the team a year later.
But if the Colts keep insisting on hammering pegs into holes that don't fit, it can't be ruled out, either.
Mike Gillislee, RB, New England Patriots
As Zack Cox reported for NESN, New England Patriots tailback Mike Gillislee is well aware that the running backs room in Beantown is, as they say, crowded.
"You've just got to stay focused," Gillislee said at minicamp. "But at the same time, you've got to know that you're blessed, because there's a lot of people that want to be in my situation. ... I'm still on the team and just working hard every day trying to get better. ... I've been given another opportunity, and that's what I'm focused on right now."
The thing is, that opportunity involves quite the uphill climb.
It appeared for a bit that wouldn't be the case. With Dion Lewis off to Tennessee in free agency, a window of opportunity opened for Gillislee. But that window may have slammed shut when the Pats took Georgia's Sony Michel 31st overall in this year's draft.
Gillislee realizes that Michel's arrival ratcheted up the pressure.
"I just knew that I had to bring a little bit more to the table, because more competition [had been] added to the table," he said. "With the other guys, too. So just coming out here every day and working hard and growing with those guys is one of the best things ever."
It wasn't just Michel, either. The Patriots also added Jeremy Hill, who appears best suited for a between-the-tackles role that would have been mostly—wait for it—Gillislee's.
There were reports that Gillislee looked sluggish in OTAs, and at best, he's probably fourth on the RB depth chart behind Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White (in some order). After gaining 5.7 yards a carry in Buffalo in both 2015 and 2016, his production fell off a cliff in his first year in New England.
As in "seven missed games and a full two-yard drop in YPC" fell off a cliff.
If he falls behind Hill as well, Gillislee could find himself on the outside looking in when final cuts roll around.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Buffalo Bills
It wasn't supposed to be like this for Shaq Lawson.
After a standout career at Clemson, the Bills made Lawson the 19th overall pick in the 2016 draft. However, before Lawson ever saw the field he had shoulder surgery, and he's missed nearly twice as many games in two years (11) as he has career sacks (six).
Bills general manager Brandon Beane was blunt while speaking to Matthew Fairburn of The Athletic about Lawson's career to date.
"Shaq is a guy that this franchise put a lot of stock in with a first-round pick [in 2016]," Beane said. "It's no secret he hasn't lived up to that. Sean [McDermott] and I are very frank. We try not to be rude, but we don't beat around the bush. We laid out the expectations for Shaq."
Lawson told Fairburn he knows the ice under his feet isn't especially thick after trade rumors swirled around him this spring:
"Shoot, I've been on the trading block I feel like. I've just been seeing it. Yeah, it's been a wake-up call. I've been hearing trade rumors and then I kind of realized, 'I'm a first-round pick, third year now. It's time to wake up.' I know I'm a good player. I just have to put it all together and be not just a talented player but a talented player who works hard and works on his craft and skill all together."
The Bills signed free agent Trent Murphy in the offseason—ostensibly to start opposite Jerry Hughes at defensive end.
That leaves Lawson fighting for rotational snaps in training camp, and Beane has already shown the Bills aren't shy about severing ties with players from the previous regime.
Lorenzo Alexander, OLB, Buffalo Bills
Seeing Shaq Lawson get shown the door in Western New York would be a big-time surprise. But there's another surprise cut candidate in the opinion of Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News that might leave even more jaws scraping the ground.
Outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander.
"Could Alexander be a surprise cut in training camp? He turned 35 last month, and there would be a cap savings of $1.75 million if he's released," Skurski wrote. "The Bills would miss his presence in the locker room, but it's a possibility. If he does earn a spot, chances are his playing time will come mainly on special teams."
Not too long ago, this would have been considered wacky talk. Back in 2016, Alexander was one of the surprise stars of the year—the veteran journeyman who piled up more sacks in one season (12.5) than he did in the nine that came before it.
But 2017 brought a new head coach in Sean McDermott and a new defensive scheme in Buffalo. Alexander did post 73 total tackles a year ago, but playing the strong side of a 4-3 instead of as a 3-4 rush linebacker caused Alexander's sack total to free-fall back down to three.
This isn't a knock on Alexander. Or an indication he's over the hill—if released, there are plenty of 3-4 teams that would kick the tires on him as a rotational pass-rusher.
But he doesn't fit what the Bills do defensively now, and this regime in Buffalo hasn't been shy about breaking eggs to get the omelet just the way it wants it.
Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas Cowboys
At first glance, the Dallas Cowboys wouldn't appear to be a team in a position to cut bait on any of its wide receivers. The Cowboys aren't exactly loaded for bear at the position.
But at some point, some players just become more grief than they're worth.
And Dallas may have reached that point with Terrance Williams.
This has been a disastrous offseason for the sixth-year pro, who has been with the Cowboys longer than any wide receiver on the team not named Cole Beasley. First, Williams had surgery for a broken foot that has prevented him from participating in OTAs or minicamp.
Then came a May arrest for public intoxication that (per John Breech of CBS Sports) involved a Lamborghini wrapped around a pole, an electric bicycle, Williams blaming the whole thing on Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Kendall Wright and Williams' own attorney saying that Wright had nothing to do with it.
Yes, you read that right.
This isn't Williams' first off-field issue, but it might just be his last in Dallas. As Riaz Dhanani of Cowboys Wire pointed out, Williams' 2018 salary is guaranteed—unless the NFL suspends him before Week 1.
If Williams does get suspended and newcomers to Dallas like veteran Allen Hurns and rookie Michael Gallup help fill the void left by Dez Bryant at wide receiver, the Cowboys may decide Williams' limited skills on the field aren't worth the bad publicity off of it.
After all, we're not exactly talking about a plus-level talent. Williams' 53 catches in 2017 were a career best, but his 10.7 yards a catch were a career worst.
He also found the end zone exactly zero times.
Charles Sims, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As Greg Auman reported for the Tampa Bay Times, fifth-year running back Charles Sims logged the most snaps of any Buccaneers back in 2017—383, if you're counting.
The Buccaneers just re-upped Sims in the offseason, and at the time, offensive coordinator Todd Monken said the team was glad to get the scatback back on the roster.
"We're happy to have Chuck Sims back in the role we like him as, which is a third-down back," Monken said. "His ability to catch the ball and protect, that's an undervalued thing in this league, being able to protect on third downs, which he does a great job of."
However, a lot can change in short order in the NFL.
Per ESPN's Jenna Laine, rookie undrafted free agent Shaun Wilson was a surprise standout in OTAs, displaying plus receiving abilities and a knack for special teams. If the youngster continues to stand out in training camp, the Buccaneers could face an interesting dilemma.
We know that Ronald Jones is (Tampa hopes) the team's future in the backfield. Peyton Barber is the present (on early downs), at least for now. That leaves third-down duties for some combination of Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and Wilson.
It's a good problem for the team to have, but it leaves that trio with little margin for error this summer.