With NFL offseason programs kicking into gear, the roster evaluation period has begun around the league.
Between now and Week 1 of the NFL 2021 season, all 32 teams will need to make dozens of cuts as they trim down their rosters to 53 players. And among those released could be some surprising veteran names, whether it is due to salary cap reasons or crowded position groups.
While some may be longshots to be released, here are a few veterans to keep an eye on as potential surprise cuts:
Philadelphia Eagles TE Zach Ertz
The Zach Ertz saga continues to drag on in Philadelphia. The three-time Pro Bowler’s departure from the Eagles has felt inevitable ever since his emotional end-of-season press conference. That was in January. Yet here we are in May and he’s still an Eagle, even after a report came out saying he would be traded by the end of the 2021 draft.
Ertz was a no-show for the formal start of the Eagles' offseason program and he reportedly isn’t expected to report until his situation is resolved. The Birds can save $8.5 million in 2021 if they trade or release Ertz after June 1. It’s clear they are holding out for whatever they believe is fair compensation in a trade, but what if that offer never comes? Will they do right by a player who’s spent eight years with the organization and caught the go-ahead touchdown in Super Bowl 52 by lowering their asking price or releasing him?
Chicago Bears TE Jimmy Graham
The Chicago Bears were clowned when they inked Jimmy Graham to a two-year, $16 million contract last offseason. Graham was able to make that deal look not as bad with his play in 2020 by hauling in a team-high eight touchdowns, along with 50 receptions for 456 yards.
The Bears could have released Graham at any point this offseason and saved $7 million, although it doesn’t sound as if that was ever a real possibility. But with 2020 second-round pick Cole Kmet projected to take on a bigger role in Year 2, it’s hard to completely rule out the Bears eventually cutting ties with a 34-year-old TE2 carrying a $10 million cap hit.
New England Patriots RB Sony Michel
Sony Michel faces an uncertain future in New England as the Patriots declined the 2018 first-round pick’s $4.5 million fifth-year option earlier this month. Since his promising rookie campaign, Michel tallied 3.7 yards per carry in 2019 and was limited to nine games in 2020 due to injuries.
The running back is now scheduled to be a free agent in 2022, but could the Pats’ crowded backfield lead to him hitting the open market even sooner than that? Damien Harris emerged as New England’s lead back in 2020. The Pats re-signed James White in free agency and then used a 2021 third-round pick on a running back in Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson. J.J Taylor and Brandon Bolden are also in the picture.
The Pats won’t get much salary relief by moving on from Michel, but he could simply be a victim of the numbers game, especially if he isn’t in the future plans.
New York Jets WR Jamison Crowder
It’s safe to say No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson will have better weapons in his rookie season with the New York Jets than Sam Darnold did. The Jets upgraded their receiver corps for Wilson this offseason, paying big money to Corey Davis, bringing in slot weapon Keelan Cole and drafting Ole Miss product Elijah Moore in the second round. Those additions will join a group of wideouts that already includes Denzel Mims and Braxton Berrios.
Jamison Crowder could also be catching passes from the Jets’ new quarterback of the future in 2021, unless of course he’s playing elsewhere for less money. The seven-year pro continued to put up solid numbers last season (59 receptions for 699 yards and six TDs in 12 games), but New York could save over $10 million by releasing him. It’s nice to have good veteran receivers for a young quarterback, but the additions of Davis and Cole might make Crowder expendable.
Buffalo Bills DE Mario Addison
Not only did the Buffalo Bills draft two defensive ends, they used their first two picks on defensive ends -- taking Miami’s Gregory Rousseau No. 30 overall and Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr. in Round 2. It was the second straight draft the Bills used a premium pick on a defensive end after selecting AJ Epenesa in the 2020 second round.
So what does this infusion of youth at defensive end mean for the vets? The Bills could free up the most money by moving on from Jerry Hughes ($6 million), but he’s their best veteran and a seven-year starter in Buffalo. Mario Addison, who will be 34 by the start of the season, is the more likely surprise cut candidate after tallying five sacks in his first season with the Bills, snapping a four-year streak with at least nine sacks.
Releasing Addison wouldn’t provide huge cap relief though (over $2 million) and the Bills are in win-now mode, so a move could hinge on the readiness of the young pass rushers.
San Francisco 49ers RB Wayne Gallman
The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2021 draft with one of the more loaded backfields in the NFL, yet they still selected two tailbacks in Ohio State’s Trey Sermon and Louisiana’s Elijah Mitchell. Those two rookies will certainly have to earn their carries, as they’ll be competing with Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., Wayne Gallman and JaMycal Hasty in camp.
The question here is how many roster spots Kyle Shanahan and Co. will dedicate to the backfield (Remember: they also have fullback Kyle Juszczyk). Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, both rookies are locks, Hasty is cut and the 49ers plan to keep two other backs. That means one of Mostert, Wilson Jr. or Gallman has to go. Moving on from pending free agent Mostert would provide the 49ers with the most cap savings ($3.1 million), but he’s their most talented back. Wilson Jr. is also set to hit free agency next year, but he impressed in an expanded role last season.
That leaves Gallman, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry over 147 attempts in 2020, as the most likely odd man out in this scenario with zero guaranteed money on his deal.