NFL Starters Most Likely to Be Cut Before the 2020 Draft
While the first few waves of NFL free agency have come and gone, teams could still make big moves over the next several weeks. Clubs are trying to sign free agents and position themselves for future trades or draft picks.
With many teams up against the cap, we could see a flurry of big-name players released in the next month. Often, franchises will release players at this time to free up cap space or a starting job for an incoming rookie. That's even more true at the quarterback position as several teams may move on from their "current" starters as the NFL draft approaches.
As well, players who are aging or have seen a decrease in production could be released as long as there isn't a big dead-cap hit for future seasons.
Here the eight veteran starters most likely to be released before the 2020 NFL draft.
Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton
The most obvious starter who could be released in the upcoming weeks is Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers front office has given Newton the ability to seek a trade, but with most other quarterback situations settled, there doesn't appear to be a good landing spot for the 2015 NFL MVP. It doesn't help that franchises can't meet with Newton during the coronavirus pandemic; given his recent injury history, they'll want him to pass a physical exam.
Carolina has already secured his replacement, reportedly signing Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year deal. If the Panthers can't find a trade partner for Newton—and they likely won't—expect them to release him and save over $19.1 million.
If and when Newton is released, expect several teams to be interested in him as a high-end backup who still has an outside chance of returning to his MVP form. He should hit the open market sooner than later.
Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton
The Cincinnati Bengals have been more aggressive in free agency than in previous years, which could be because they are expected to select LSU quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in April's draft. In the recent history of the NFL, a team's best chance to win the Super Bowl comes with a quarterback on a rookie contract.
The Bengals have a lot of cap space and will soon gain even more as they are expected to move on from veteran Andy Dalton.
The Bengals can clear $17.7 million in cap space with a release or trade of Dalton. It's important to note there is no dead-cap hit for Dalton, making it even easier for the Bengals to cut ties with their franchise quarterback.
Dalton should get a lot of interest in free agency given his experience and durability, but don't expect a team to trade for him and his contract. Instead, the Bengals will likely release him and allow him to choose his next team.
Dallas Cowboys DE Tyrone Crawford
The Cowboys have one of the most interesting cap situations in the NFL. They retained receiver Amari Cooper this offseason and franchise-tagged quarterback Dak Prescott. They were also able to sign veterans Gerald McCoy and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to help rebuild their defense. While the Cowboys still have some cap space available, they could free up even more if they wanted to target someone else in free agency.
One player who could be on his way out in Dallas is defensive end Tyrone Crawford. The Cowboys could release Crawford and save $8 million with only a $1.1 million dead-cap hit. With talented edge-rushers such as Jadeveon Clowney and Everson Griffen still available, the Cowboys could use his cap savings to upgrade their defensive end spot opposite of DeMarcus Lawrence.
Crawford has been a versatile player for the Cowboys over the past seven seasons, but he turns 31 in November and missed most of the 2019 season with a hip injury. He still can contribute in a defensive line rotation, but his salary doesn't match his production. Look for Crawford to be a potential cap casualty for the Cowboys in the upcoming weeks.
Kansas City Chiefs WR Sammy Watkins
During the 2018 offseason, 2014 No. 4 overall pick Sammy Watkins was one of the biggest free-agent commodities on the market. He signed with the Chiefs on a three-year deal worth $48 million, but after two subpar years in Kansas City, he is entering the final year of his contract.
Watkins has missed eight games over the last two seasons and averaged just 13 yards per reception on 92 catches. While he has split targets with the likes of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, he hasn't been worth the contract he signed two years ago.
The Chiefs already have Mecole Hardman on the roster to take his spot, so they could release Watkins this offseason and save $14 million. There would be a $7 million dead-cap hit, but considering the Chiefs hardly have any cap space available, that move can't be ruled out.
The Chiefs may be able to trade Watkins to a wide receiver-needy team. Regardless, don't expect him back in Kansas City on his current contract.
Kansas City Chiefs LB Anthony Hitchens
If the Chiefs decide to hold on to Sammy Watkins this offseason, another potential cap casualty could be starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens.
Hitchens signed with Kansas City in 2018 after playing four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. He has started 30 of a possible 32 games for the Chiefs, totaling 223 tackles and 11 tackles for loss.
While Hitchens has been reliable for the Chiefs, his play doesn't match his $12.6 million cap number in 2020. An outright release wouldn't save them any money, but they could designate him as a June 1 cut and recoup over $8 million in 2020.
If the Chiefs need cap space and flexibility, they could decide to move on from Hitchens and his contract over the next few weeks.
New Orleans Saints CB Janoris Jenkins
For the last decade, the New Orleans Saints have been one of the league's most cash-strapped teams. They are always up against the salary cap, and the 2020 season will be no different. Quarterback Drew Brees has taken a below-market deal, so they have a little more spending money than usual. But they could still use some more space, especially if they plan on signing Taysom Hill to a long-term deal.
One player whose salary does not match his recent production is cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Saints claimed Jenkins last season after the New York Giants released him. He played 74 percent of the defensive snaps in his two games with the Saints, allowing seven receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown, according to Pro Football Reference. He's a fine No. 2 cornerback at this stage in his career, but it's hard to justify his large cap number in 2020.
The Saints could release Jenkins in the upcoming days and save $11.25 million without any dead-cap hit. They could then try to bring him back on a cheaper deal with more years attached. However, don't expect him to remain with New Orleans on his current contract.
Tennessee Titans CB Malcolm Butler
In 2018, the Titans signed Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler to a five-year contract worth over $61 million. At the time, he was one of the league's highest-paid cornerbacks after playing in several big games for the Patriots. He also clinched the 2014 Super Bowl for New England, intercepting Russell Wilson on the goal line in the closing seconds of the game.
However, Butler's play has dropped off dramatically since his Pro Bowl appearance in 2015. While he's still a starting-level cornerback, he isn't worth his $13.4 million cap hit in 2020 and beyond. He has three years left on his deal, but there isn't any more guaranteed money in his contract.
The Titans could cut Butler in the upcoming weeks, saving nearly $7.4 million in 2020. However, releasing him now would also save over $22 million in 2021 and 2022. The Titans have several notable players up for contract extensions over the next few years, such as Derrick Henry (again), Adoree' Jackson and Jonnu Smith, so they could use all the cap space they can get.
Chicago Bears TE Trey Burton
It's no secret the Bears have been looking to upgrade at tight end for the last several years. They have spent draft picks on the position and signed a bunch of free agents.
2020 is no different as the Bears signed Jimmy Graham to a two-year, $16 million deal that includes a no-trade clause. Considering how poorly Graham has played over the last two seasons, it's not a stretch to think he could be one of the worst overpays in free agency this season.
In 2018, the Bears signed Trey Burton to a four-year deal worth $32 million, but it's fair to say they haven't gotten the production they hoped for. In two seasons in Chicago, Burton has caught just 68 passes for 653 yards and six touchdowns. He missed a significant amount of time in 2019 with injuries, but even when he was healthy, he was overmatched as a No. 1 tight end.
With the Bears' signing of Graham, it's likely Burton won't be back in his starting role in 2020. An outright release of Burton doesn't make a ton of sense as it would only save the Bears $1 million in cap space and cost them $7.5 million in dead money. Instead, they could spread the cap savings over two years if they designate him a June 1 cut. That would free up nearly $3 million in cap space, a significant difference considering how cash-strapped they are.
The Bears could decide to hold on to Burton this season as he can fill multiple roles, but don't be surprised if they move on given how little cap space they have currently.
All cap figures via Over the Cap.