Early Predictions for Most Surprising NFL Veteran Cuts of 2021 Offseason
Few NFL players go into the offseason with a secure roster spot. Because of salary-cap restrictions, veteran pickups and draft additions, front offices must make tough decisions.
Teams may cut young players who haven't fulfilled high expectations. Some former first- and second-round picks won't play out their rookie deals with the clubs that drafted them.
Veterans with contracts that carry an expensive cap hit could also lose a roster spot if a cheaper backup can perform at a comparable level.
We'll highlight eight players whose teams could release them. Without trade buzz linked to the names below, these moves would cause some shock because of a player's draft pedigree, dead-cap hit or status on the depth chart.
DT Taven Bryan, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars selected Taven Bryan in the first round of the 2018 draft. Through three seasons, he hasn't made a steady impact in a rotational role. The Florida product has played fewer than 47 percent of the defensive snaps each year of his career.
Bryan may not have a chance to impress head coach Urban Meyer's staff. Jacksonville invested in its defensive line via trade, free agency and the draft.
The Jaguars acquired Malcom Brown from the New Orleans Saints, signed Roy Robertson-Harris and brought in Jihad Ward, who played under defensive coordinator Joe Cullen for two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. They also drafted Jay Tufele in the fourth round.
If Tufele looks impressive at training camp, the Jaguars may tighten their rotation at Bryan's expense.
The Jaguars declined Bryan's fifth-year option, which raises a question about his future beyond the 2021 campaign. If Jacksonville releases him, he could land in the Motor City and reunite with his former defensive coordinator Todd Wash, who's the defensive line coach for the Detroit Lions.
CB Bryce Callahan, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos made a somewhat surprising pick in the first round of the draft, selecting cornerback Pat Surtain II after signing Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller.
The Broncos could go into the 2021 season with an all-new cornerback trio in nickel alignment, and Bryce Callahan may lose a game of musical chairs in the secondary.
In 2019, Callahan came over with head coach Vic Fangio from the Chicago Bears. He missed the season because of a foot injury that required surgery and landed on injured reserve with the same issue at the end of the 2020 campaign.
For the current term, Darby and Fuller have a combined $13.5 million cap hit. The former has a fully guaranteed salary for the next two seasons. The latter had an All-Pro year under Fangio with the Bears in 2018.
The high-premium investments at the top of the cornerback depth chart could work against Callahan. Since signing with the club, he's missed 22 games because of foot injuries. The Broncos can save about $7.2 million if they release him, which seems like an easy decision.
Callahan could find a home with the New York Jets, who need veteran experience in their secondary.
WR Jamison Crowder, New York Jets
The rebuilding New York Jets may have selected Jamison Crowder's (much cheaper) replacement in the second round of April's draft.
At 5'9", 178 pounds, Elijah Moore will see most of his snaps in the slot, where Crowder has become an effective playmaker. Over the last two seasons, the veteran has led the Jets in receiving yards.
The Jets can release Crowder and save $10.4 million. They have the second-most cap space, so the front office doesn't have to make a decision for financial flexibility.
However, Gang Green can use that extra cap space to acquire a top cornerback with a more established resume than Blessuan Austin and Bryce Hall. Furthermore, the Jets don't need two primary slot receivers with one promising second-rounder and another set to make $11.4 million in 2021.
If released, Crowder can carve out a role with the Philadelphia Eagles, who cut veteran wideouts Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson this offseason. He would balance the youth at the position with second-year pro Jalen Reagor and rookie first-rounder DeVonta Smith primed to play big roles.
TE Jimmy Graham, Chicago Bears
On the back end of the 2020 campaign, Jimmy Graham saw a decline in his workload. Through Week 9, he played at least 62 percent of the snaps in each game. From that point, the 34-year-old logged fewer than 59 percent of the snaps for each outing.
As Graham's role faded, Cole Kmet had more opportunities. He played at least 70 percent of the snaps for each of the final seven outings. With that trend, the 2020 second-rounder could become a full-time starter in the upcoming term.
Last season, Graham led the Chicago Bears in touchdown receptions (eight) and became a reliable target in the red zone, catching seven of those passes for scores inside the 13-yard line.
However, the Bears have just $219,852 in cap space. They can release Graham and recoup $7 million for some flexibility. The aging tight end could become expendable if Kmet shows significant progress through the offseason or if the coaching staff identifies another viable red-zone target.
At Graham's age, he's not going to draw many suitors on the free-agent market. Yet the Arizona Cardinals could feature him in tight spots near the red zone. He would potentially start over Maxx Williams.
RB Sony Michel, New England Patriots
In his first two seasons, Sony Michel rushed for 1,843 yards and 13 touchdowns. He had a down 2020 campaign in part because of a quad injury and a week on the COVID-19 list.
As a 2018 first-rounder with a solid career start, Michel shouldn't worry much about his job security, but ESPN's Mike Reiss thinks otherwise because of a rookie addition.
"[Rhamondre] Stevenson, the fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, could threaten Michel for a spot on the game-day roster (and possibly the 53-man roster) because he's more likely to be a factor on special teams," Reiss wrote.
Perhaps Reiss has some intel on the Patriots' expectations for Stevenson or the team's concern for Michel's durability. The veteran ball-carrier has missed 10 games in his career.
Michel has some limitations in the backfield as well. He doesn't pose a major threat on passing downs as a receiver. The fourth-year pro has 26 catches for 258 yards and a touchdown.
At Oklahoma, Stevenson only caught 28 passes for 298 yards, but his potential as a special teamer and ability to stay healthy could give him the edge over Michel.
Michel wouldn't have a robust market because he's not a three-down back. With that said, the Seattle Seahawks can sign him as cheap veteran insurance in case Rashaad Penny continues to miss significant time with injuries.
DE Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills doubled down on defensive ends in this year's draft, selecting Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham in the first two rounds. The rookies will join a crowded unit with Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison and 2020 second-rounder A.J. Epenesa as notable names within the position group.
In an overview of the Bills depth chart, The Athletic's Matthew Fairburn thinks Addison has a spot on general manager Brandon Beane's roster for the upcoming campaign.
"The way Beane spoke after the draft, Addison sounds like he'll play a role on this team," Fairburn wrote. "Beane wants to reduce his snaps to allow Addison to be more impactful with the snaps he does get. He also views him as a crucial asset for the young defensive ends in the room."
Hughes had a decent 2020 showing with 4.5 sacks and 25 quarterback pressures. However, the Bills front office must decide if he's worth a $9.5 million cap hit going into his age-33 campaign with young talent at the position.
The Bills can save $6.4 million if they cut Hughes and go with Addison along with the youth movement on the edge. The 12th-year veteran should have a decent market. The Kansas City Chiefs can line him up opposite Frank Clark to improve their rotation at defensive end.
OT Greg Little, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers have short- and long-term options at left tackle, and Greg Little may not fall into either plan.
The Panthers signed Cameron Erving, who has experience at left tackle and started at the position during the previous season with the Dallas Cowboys. He's a seventh-year veteran with 47 career starts and likely has the advantage to win a position battle against Little, a third-year player with 358 offensive snaps on his resume.
Carolina selected tackle Brady Christensen in the third round of April's draft. Because of his experience on the left side, he could become a starter within a year or so.
With Taylor Moton locked into the right tackle position, Little may need to show versatility as a guard to earn a roster spot. If not, the Panthers can keep him around as depth or cut ties.
Remember, the Panthers' previous regime drafted Little. Head coach Matt Rhule, whom the team hired in 2020, and new general manager Scott Fitterer didn't invest an early-round pick in him.
Rhule may decide to roll with the players drafted and signed on his watch over Little, who played sparingly last season.
Perhaps Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera, the Panthers' former lead skipper, takes a flier on Little if Carolina releases him. The Ole Miss product could back up Charles Leno Jr. or battle rookie second-rounder Samuel Cosmi for the starting spot at right tackle following the departure of Morgan Moses.
RB Jalen Richard, Las Vegas Raiders
In 2016, Jalen Richard overcame the odds and earned a roster spot with the then-Oakland Raiders as an undrafted free agent.
As a rookie, he finished second on the team in rushing yards (491) for the league's sixth-ranked ground attack. In 2018, he tied tight end Jared Cook for the most receptions (68) among Raiders pass-catchers.
Although Richard provides solid pass protection, he's seldom used in the run or pass game. Last season, the five-year veteran logged a career-low 22 rush attempts and saw his fewest targets in a campaign (23).
The Raiders used a 2019 first-round pick to select Josh Jacobs and just signed Kenyan Drake to a two-year, $11 million deal that's guaranteed for injury. With those investments at running back, Vegas doesn't need a third-option tailback whose contract carries a $3.5 million cap hit.
Usually, Hunter Renfrow breaks a few tackles to put the offense in a good position after punt returns. Last year, Henry Ruggs III returned seven kicks for 141 yards, and his speed is dangerous in that phase of the game.
Richard is versatile, and the Raiders may need him in the backfield as a pass-blocker behind a remodeled offensive line, but he's not a unique asset on the roster.
If Richard lands on the open market, he's a good fit for the Tennessee Titans as a complementary pass-catching back to Derrick Henry under offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who served as the Raiders' play-caller in 2017.
Team salary cap and player salaries courtesy of Over the Cap.