It doesn’t take long for the jubilation of the Super Bowl to give way to the anxiety of looming cuts in the NFL.
With the new league year set to begin on March 18, all 32 teams must be under the salary cap at the start of free agency. And as each organization looks to line up plans for retaining key players and making offers on the open market, freeing up funds is often a necessity. Given that setup, some prominent figures and franchise mainstays undoubtedly will be sent packing in the coming weeks.
Here are 13 notable NFL players who could be cut this offseason:
Panthers QB Cam Newton
In an offseason with abundant potential for several quarterbacks to change teams, perhaps no cut decision is more compelling than the one Carolina faces with Newton. The Panthers embraced change earlier this year by playing the long game with the hire of Matt Rhule as head coach, and more upheaval was thrust upon the franchise with linebacker Luke Kuechly’s retirement. Though the Panthers would recoup $19.1 million by closing the book on Newton, the final decision might depend more on whether the franchise envisions the former MVP as integral or expendable in the reboot effort. A trade also might be possible, though Newton’s status is unclear as he comes off a Lisfranc injury that sidelined him for all but two games last season.
WHERE TO NEXT? 6 teams stand out as Philip Rivers moves on from Chargers
Jaguars DT Marcell Dareus
Restructuring his contract ensured Dareus would remain in Jacksonville last season, but the agreement also likely sealed his departure in 2020, as he would carry a $22.5 million cap hit into the new league year. For a run-stuffing specialist who played in just six games before landing on injured reserve, that figure is untenable. Declining Dareus’ option and saving $20 million is a necessity for the Jaguars, who might also face tough decisions on defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye as they try to pave a path to retain pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue.
Chiefs WR Sammy Watkins
Watkins walked back a pre-Super Bowl declaration that he could take a season off from football, but the Chiefs still have to address the final year his contract. His 2020 cap hit is set to be $21 million, the most of any wide receiver and a potentially problematic sum for a tertiary option behind Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. A pay cut, however, might salvage the pairing, though a clean break would save Kansas City $14 million and clear space for the massive deal Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones is poised to earn.
Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes
The “Rhodes closed” moniker feels like an anachronism after the 2019 season, during which the cornerback yielded an 81.5% completion rate and 123.8 passer rating when targeted, according to Pro Football Reference. The Vikings are facing a serious cap crunch — left tackle Riley Reiff and defensive end Everson Griffen could also be out in a reshuffling — and it will be hard to justify keeping a player whose three-time Pro Bowl billing belies his disappointing on-field performance. Minnesota could save $8 million by dropping Rhodes, though reinforcements might be needed in a secondary that could also lose cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander as well as standout safety Anthony Harris.
Saints CB Janoris Jenkins
Quarterback isn’t the only position where the Saints face uncertainty in the offseason, as cornerbacks Eli Apple and P.J. Williams are set to hit the market. Their fates might be tied to the team’s decision on Jenkins, who mostly fared well in the final games of last season after being claimed on waivers. The eight-year veteran’s $11.25 million cap figure, however, can be cleared with no dead money if he is released. An extension is possible, but Jenkins’ volatile play could make that a risky proposition.
Packers TE Jimmy Graham
One of general manager Brian Gutekunst’s first splashes in free agency turned out to be a belly flop, as Graham has averaged just 33.8 yards per game since signing a three-year, $30 million contract with Green Bay in 2018. Set to turn 34 in November, Graham doesn’t have much of a case to finish that deal, especially given the $8 million the Packers would save by cutting him. Though Jace Sternberger should be in line for a larger role after the third-round pick mostly sat as a rookie, Gutekunst would be wise to make another run at a veteran tight end to give Aaron Rodgers another established threat beyond Davante Adams.
Ravens S Tony Jefferson
Chuck Clark on Monday signed a three-year extension worth $16 million, according to multiple reports, leaving Jefferson’s subsequent release a foregone conclusion. Clark proved a reliable starter opposite Earl Thomas after taking over the role when Jefferson suffered a knee injury in Week 5 that coach John Harbaugh said entailed “at least” a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Jefferson, 27, said on Instagram earlier in January he expected to be a free agent, and his return is likely a non-starter given the $7 million that would become available upon his release.
Broncos QB Joe Flacco
A herniated disc might complicate the timeline for resolution on Flacco, with a ruling on whether the 12-year veteran requires surgery still looming. It’s clear, however, that the 35-year-old isn’t returning to Denver to serve as Drew Lock’s backup next season with a $23.65 million cap hit. Moving on from him would save $10.05 million.
Redskins CB Josh Norman
The former Panthers cornerback was vocal in his support for Ron Rivera to take over as the Redskins’ coach, but the duo’s reunion might be short-lived. Norman was benched for the final six games of last season, and Washington can save all $12.5 million by parting ways with him. Even amid Rivera’s arrival and fellow cornerback Quinton Dunbar’s trade request, the Redskins’ most sensible route might be cutting bait and allotting that money elsewhere in the secondary.
Steelers G Ramon Foster
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said keeping outside linebacker Bud Dupree would be a “priority” this offseason, but the roster requires some pruning to facilitate a franchise tag. A reasonable starting point might be saying goodbye to Foster, which would free up $4 million. At 34, he’s the oldest player on the offensive front and might be out of step with the rest of the unit’s youth movement.
49ers RB Jerick McKinnon
Two years after signing a four-year, $30 million deal to make him the fourth-highest paid running back at the time, McKinnon has yet to play a down for the 49ers. A torn ACL in September 2018 robbed him of his initial season in San Francisco, and he landed on season-ending injured reserve last August after a setback with his knee. The running game nevertheless found its footing, with Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman all playing significant roles at various points. McKinnon said last week he hopes to remain with the organization, but the $4.55 million the 49ers can salvage by cutting him would provide needed flexibility with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, defensive end Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward all set to become free agents.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton
Well before securing the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, the Bengals made their long-term plans clear by benching Dalton in late October, though the team would later return to him for the stretch run. Clearing all $17.7 million from the final year of his contract should be a no-brainer for Cincinnati. And given Dalton’s grousing at the organization not giving him more notice of his demotion so close to the trade deadline, allowing him a chance to pursue a starting opportunity elsewhere might be the optimal decision for both parties.
Falcons RB Devonta Freeman
A rigid cap situation figures to complicate Atlanta’s efforts to recapture the form displayed during its 4-0 run last December. Freeman, 27, might face an uphill battle to stick around after averaging a career-worst 3.57 yards per carry in 2019. Releasing the two-time Pro Bowl selection would yield $3.5 million in savings, and the Falcons could draft a replacement to join Ito Smith in the backfield.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
If you love talking football, we have the perfect spot for you. Join our Facebook Group, The Ruling Off the Field, to engage in friendly debate and conversation with fellow football fans and our NFL insiders. Do the right thing, sign up now!