We began alerting you to the looming salary cap bloodletting last June.
It's upon us. And while it won’t be as bad as the worst-case scenario floated back then, the 2021 cap is still going to wind up at least $20M lower than it would have been if we’d never heard of COVID-19. The result? A lot of teams are going to have to lop pricey veterans they’d otherwise keep.
For teams with a lot of cap space – the Patriots among them – opportunity knocks. Enclosed, please find a list of possible salary cap casualties from the AFC. Most of the names you’ll recognize. Some are longshots to be released. Others are far more likely. Teams are already getting busy with their moves in anticipation of the start of the league year on March 17.
For our cap info, we relied heavily on the excellent website Over The Cap. When it comes to cap savings, we are presuming a pre-June 1 release. When a player is designated as a post-June 1 release, there can be further cap savings.
Von Miller, EDGE
Age: 32 | Cap savings if released: $18 million
If you were to leave J.J. Watt's departure from the Texans out of the conversation, Miller might be the biggest name to become a cap casualty in 2021. If the Broncos want him, they'll have to pick up a team option by March 16. But if they let him go, they'll pick up a massive wad of cap space with which to play.
Miller had ankle surgery in September and missed all of last season. He's also the subject of a case that has been submitted by the Parker Police Department in Colorado to the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office. He has not been charged with a crime at the time of this writing.
Jurrell Casey, DT
Age: 31 | Cap Savings if released: $11.9 million
Casey tore his bicep in September and was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the season. A five-time Pro Bowler with the Titans, Casey has an impressive resume. But his injury history is lengthy. He tore a ligament in his knee in 2018 that forced him to end the season in injured reserve. A shoulder issue robbed him of two games in 2019 . . . but he still made a Pro Bowl.
If he could stay healthy, he'd be a serviceable piece on the interior for wherever he ends up. But he seems like an obvious choice to part ways with the Broncos this offseason.
Kareem Jackson, S
Age: 33 | Cap savings if released: $10 million
Jackson is still a very useful player. He played 100 percent of the team's snaps last season, having transitioned from corner to safety full-time a few years ago and taking to the switch well. But he's expensive. And his fellow safety in Denver, Justin Simmons, is about to get paid either as a free agent or on a second franchise tag.
The Broncos could restructure Jackson's deal, but depending on how much breathing room they want heading into free agency -- they have $31.1 million already in cap space -- he could be on the move.
Casey Hayward, CB
Age: 32 | Cap savings if released: $9.8 million
Hayward was not too long ago considered among the best corners in football. He was a second-team All-Pro in both 2016 and 2017. He's not that guy anymore, having given up an average of 16.9 yards per reception last season.
The Chargers aren't in a boatload of cap trouble ($23.8 million in space), but freeing up almost $10 million by parting with Hayward would make some sense for them.
Trai Turner, G
Age: 28 | Cap savings if released: $11.5 million
Turner was expected to be one of the pieces that turned around the abysmal protection provided to Chargers quarterbacks in recent seasons. He was dealt to LA last offseason straight up for tackle Russell Okung. It didn't go well.
He missed seven games and graded out as the No. 165 (out of 166 with at least 500 snaps) offensive lineman in football, per Pro Football Focus.
Bobby McCain, S
Age: 28 | Cap savings if released: $5.7 million
McCain is well-paid among safeties league-wide. His base salary is seventh-most and his cap hit is 10th. Are the Dolphins going to be OK With that for someone who picked off one pass and broke up five more last season? Brian Flores, who once coached safeties in New England, may feel as though he can get more out of a less-expensive player at that spot.
Emmanuel Ogbah, EDGE
Age: 27 | Cap savings if released: $7.5 million
The Dolphins have about $23 million in cap space as things stand currently, so if they don't want to get rid of a guy who had nine sacks last year, they could make do without that particular swing of the axe.
But the Flores school of defensive is all about aggressiveness and sending bodies -- or threatening to send bodies -- after the quarterback. If they can save almost $8 million and replace Ogbah with a younger player, it'd come as little surprise if they made that move.
Eric Rowe, S
Age: 28 | Cap savings if released: $5 million
The Dolphins would eat only $1 million in dead cap space if they were to let go of this former Patriots defensive back.
Rowe started at strong safety last season, picking off two passes and breaking up 11 others. If he were to move on, there should be teams interested. He's still young enough that when he's healthy he should be viewed as a versatile chess piece for any team's secondary.
John Brown, WR
Age: 31 | Cap savings if released: $7.9 million
Need a little speed on the outside? Brown caught 33 passes in nine games last season and is clearly behind Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley in the receiver pecking order in Buffalo. The Bills are pretty snug up against the cap ($1 million over at the moment) and could easily free up almost $8 million by parting ways with the soon-to-be 31-year-old.
Quinton Jefferson, DT
Age: 28 | Cap savings if released: $8 million
The Patriots may need some interior defensive line help. Jefferson wouldn't be a game-changer for them, but at 6-foot-4 and almost 300 pounds, maybe they feel he could handle some of the early-down work they would lose if Lawrence Guy departs via free agency.
Jefferson was a very good athlete coming out of Maryland in 2016, running a 4.95-second 40 and clocking a 4.37-second short shuttle.
Vernon Butler, DT
Age: 27 | Cap savings if released: $6.8 million
The Bills probably won't want to part with edge defender Jerry Hughes (who'd save them over $7 million on the cap if released), but guys like Jefferson and Butler would be much easier to let go.
Though Butler was taken in the first round in 2016, he's not a foundational piece for them. At over 320 pounds, the Patriots could try him on the nose -- a need for them unless Beau Allen is somehow going to come back and be a reliable piece after missing all of 2021.
Malcolm Butler, CB
Age: 31 | Cap savings if released: $10.2 million
Tennessee would eat $4 million in dead cap by releasing Butler, but they'd be able to save a significant amount. Over the cap by more than $2 million at the moment, they could make this move and still survive defensively.
Butler did pick off four passes last season and he started all 16 games, but investing significantly in corners on the wrong side of 30 -- particularly when they have young, promising players at the position like Adoree Jackson, Kristian Fulton and Desmond King -- might not be the Titans' idea of a great idea.
Brandin Cooks, WR
Age: 27 | Cap savings if released: $12 million
Is it possible Cooks will be on the move again? Yep. Despite reaching 1,000 yards receiving for the fifth time (and with a fourth team!) last season, cutting him to save $12 million with no dead cap remaining on the books could help give the Texans some flexibility during this tumultuous offseason.
Benardrick McKinney, LB
Age: 28 | Cap savings if released: $6.4 million
If he were to go, McKinney might be one of the best Patriots fits to shake free as a cap casualty. At 6-foot-4 and over 250 pounds -- and with experience in Romeo Crennel's defense -- he has the size and experience to slide into Bill Belichick's defense and perform. The Texans would eat only $1.5 million in dead money if McKinney was released.
Duke Johnson, RB
Age: 27 | Cap savings if released: $5 million
The Texans could part with another running back, David Johnson, too. He'd save them $6.4 million but Houston would be eating $2.1 in dead cap. Is that enough to prevent them from making that move? No. Duke Johnson's release wouldn't result in any dead cap money, and would result in a talented pass-catching back hitting the open market.
Marcus Mariota, QB
Age: 27 | Cap savings if released: $11.4 million
Mariota should be dealt to another team via trade. It makes sense for the Raiders, of course. But it'd make sense for Mariota, too, since he's set to make over $10 million on his current deal. If he were released, he may be looking at a contract that pays him the going rate for a reclamation-project quarterback which is about $7 million.
So if Mariota has any reluctance to work on his 2021 incentives and that is what prevents teams from trading for him, that could end up being a bit of a risky proposition for him financially. Trading for him shouldn't be all that bad a deal for an acquiring team, either. Even with the incentives.
If he hits them and plays like a competent starter, he'll be paid on the low end for veteran NFL quarterbacks and about half of his cap hit would be pushed to 2022 when the cap should increase. Not a bad deal considering what quarterbacks around the league are paid.
Trent Brown, OT
Age: 28 | Cap savings if released: $14 million
When healthy, Brown has the physical tools to be a very effective tackle. His athleticism is rare for his size. But he's missed 16 games over the last two seasons. With no dead money on the Raiders cap if released, Brown could find himself available this offseason.
Tyrell Williams, WR
Age: 29 | Cap savings if released: $11.6
Another injury-plagued free-agent-to-be. Well, he could be anyway. Williams caught 42 passes for 651 yards and six touchdowns in 2019. But he missed all of last season with a torn labrum and the Raiders have loaded up on young pass-catchers lately. Williams will reportedly be released at the start of the new league year.
Lamarcus Joyner, CB
Age: 30 | Cap savings if released: $8.7 million
Only a part-time starter, on the wrong side of 30 . . . Releasing Joyner would be a simple way of clearing more than $8 million off the Vegas books. The Raiders would absorb $2.5 million in dead money by letting go of Joyner.
Tyrann Mathieu, DB
Age: 29 | Cap savings if released: $14.8 million
Almost $5 million would hit the Chiefs' cap in dead money, but freeing up almost $15 million would be a boon for a team in a tough spot cap-wise. Mathieu is arguably the team's best defensive player, but this team isn't living and dying with what it does defensively.
An argument could be made that releasing Mathieu and pouring that money in Patrick Mahomes' offensive line would be a wiser investment.
Eric Fisher, OT
Age: 30 | Cap savings if released: $12 million
We saw how the Super Bowl unraveled for the Chiefs with their starting offensive tackles out injured. Does that mean Kansas City wants to keep Fisher around if they can save $12 million by releasing him? They're currently $23 million over the cap and have to do all they can to keep their core intact, but I'm not sure Fisher qualifies as valuable enough to be considered part of that group.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB
Age: 39 | Cap savings if released: $19 million
The Steelers want Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger wants the Steelers. Sounds like he won't be released. But they've got to do something drastic with his contract. He's a shell of himself physically and the team would have to eat $22.3 million in dead money if he was released.
David DeCastro, OL
Age: 31 | Cap savings if released: $8.75 million
Roethlisberger isn't the only tough-to-get-out-of deal the Steelers must be looking at this offseason. DeCastro has a significant $5.5 dead money figure that'd land in Pittsburgh's lap if released.
Worse? Corner Joe Haden would save the team $7 million in cap but cost the team $8.5 million in dead money if released. Stephon Tuitt, still one of the team's better defensive players, would save the Steelers almost $6 million but cost the team over $9 million in dead money. Woof.
DeCastro was once one of the better interior offensive linemen in football, but he's no longer that type of player.
Eric Ebron, TE
Age: 28 | Cap savings if released: $6 million
Vance McDonald has decided to retire, which means the Steelers might be reluctant to let go of Ebron. But the Steelers -- prior to re-doing Roethlisberger's deal -- are $19 million over the cap. They've got some hard decisions coming. And unlike some of his teammates, Ebron's dead money number isn't off the charts ($2.5 million).