We began alerting you to the looming salary cap bloodletting last June.
It won’t be as bad as the worst-case scenario being floated back then, but 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 that they’d otherwise want to 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 NFC. Most of the names you’ll recognize. Some are long shots 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.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB
Age: 30 | Cap savings if released: $23.6M
You look at the tea leaves and it seems almost inevitable that, once the Niners feel they have a non-Jimmy plan in place, they are going to pull the ripcord. He’s played barely half the team’s regular season games the past three years. His cap number is $26.4M.
If the Niners cut him they’ll save $23.6M on the cap and his release alone can put San Fran at least $30M under projected cap projections. A trade would result in the same savings but whoever deals for him will take on his deal which has a $24.1M base in 2021. Garoppolo also has to approve his trade destination.
Rob Havenstein, RT
Cap savings if released: $5.170M
These guys have three players with cap hits over $20M and six guys with cap hits of over $11M. None of them can be released because of the dead money incurred, because they are close to retirement (Andrew Whitworth) or -- in the case of Matt Stafford and his $20M -- he just got there. Havenstein would save them $5.2M and they’d carry $3.1M in dead cap. The Rams are still about $33M over the projected cap so they need to get busy with restructures. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey are likely places they will begin.
Tyler Lockett, WR
Cap savings if released: $12.7M
Coming off a 100-catch, 1,054-yard season, Lockett is entering the final year of his deal. He’s been such a good player for the Seahawks with 28 touchdowns the past three seasons and over 3,000 yards. But that cap number of almost $15M is onerous and Seattle almost certainly has to extend Lockett to drop that and keep him around. If not, he’ll be one of the best wideouts available.
Carlos Dunlap, DE
Cap savings if released: $14M
Dunlap played about 40 snaps per game with the Seahawks after coming over from the Bengals in a trade deadline move. He had five sacks and 18 pressures in eight games. This is the final year of his deal. Seattle is about $5M under the cap currently and that’s fairly tight. Moving on from Dunlap would obviously be a huge savings. If they can’t get him to redo his deal, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s released.
Robert Alford, CB
Cap savings if released: $7.5M
An aging corner with a $9M cap hit, Alford came over to the Cardinals as a free agent and has yet to play a game for them because of injuries. He’s almost certain to be released by an Arizona team with around $12M in cap space.
Jared Cook, TE
Cap savings if released: $9.1M
Every crack cap guru that’s proclaimed “cap is crap” need only look at the Saints to realize that if you keep on borrowing, eventually you’ll be up Crap’s Creek. They are almost $75M over and are going to have to let some good players go. Start with Cook. He is due to collect an $8M roster bonus on the second day of the 2021 league year. He’s an easy release. He’s still got some gas left in the tank but he’s probably not going to a team with no quarterback for a cut-rate contract.
Janoris Jenkins, CB
Cap savings if released: $7M
A $14M cap hit for a 33-year-old corner? That’s not going to work, even if Jenkins is still a pretty productive player. He’s a candidate for a restructure for sure but could also wind up being outright released if that doesn’t take.
Kwon Alexander, LB
Cap savings if released: $13.1M
Coming off an Achilles injury with a $13.1 cap hit and no dead money if he’s released. Alexander, even if he’s young enough to come back and return to the player he’s been, has got to go.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR
Cap savings if released: $4M
Sanders can still get it done but his $10M cap hit is a glaring one. The Saints will still see $6M worth of prorated bonus money accelerate but the $4M savings will help get them get closer to where they need to be. Sanders caught 61 passes for 726 yards with five touchdowns and his skill level remains high.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB
Cap savings if released: $8M (designate as post-June 1 release)
I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on Teddy Bridgewater’s deal. But he’s here because word is currently circulating that Carolina wants to get in the race for Deshaun Watson. Which means Bridgewater -- who is a fine, capable player -- would be expendable. There are two ways the Panthers can save if they move on from Bridgewater. His base salary is $17M. He’s got a cap number of almost $23M when prorated bonuses are added in. If released after June 1, the Panthers can spread the accelerated dead money from his bonus over two years and save $8M. They only save $3M and carry $20M in dead cap if they release him prior to June 1. If they trade him before June 1? They’ll save $13M on the cap. So while he’s not looking like a cap casualty in the near-term, watch the Great Watson Chase to see if Ted gets loose.
Cameron Brate, TE
Cap savings if released: $6.5M
Even though he was very useful in 2020, Brate's carrying a $6.5M cap hit and the Bucs will clear all of it from their books if they don’t bring him back. Between Brate and O.J. Howard – who we will get to – the Bucs have more than $12M sunk in guys who aren’t as good as Gronk. They need one 1A complement to Gronk, not two. And not at $12M.
O.J. Howard, TE
Cap savings if released: $6M
This is the last year of Howard’s rookie deal and he’s coming off a season-ending injury. Do the Bucs keep him or the older Brate? They’ll have to decide quickly. Howard’s salary is fully guaranteed on the first day of the league year, March 17.
Jaylon Smith, LB
Cap savings if released: $7.2M (designate as post-June 1 release)
The Cowboys have some truly absurd contracts -- five of their top six cap hits are on offense and when Dak Prescott comes back, that will be six of the top seven. But they’ve based so much around those players -- Amari Cooper, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, Zeke Elliott and La’el Collins -- their hands are tied. So Smith, the productive second-round linebacker from 2016, is about the only option for release. Everyone else will likely be reworked. He’s a smaller linebacker at 6-foot-2, 223 pounds but is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker.
Golden Tate, WR
Cap savings if released: $8.5M if designated post-June 1
Tate is in decline. He had 35 catches for 388 yards in 2020 with two TDs. In two seasons with the Giants it’s been 84 catches and eight TDs. That’s not horrible. But during the four-year stretch in Tate’s prime, he was a 90-catch guy. So he’s not worth the $10M cap hit or $8.475M salary. Would he be a target for the Patriots? Could be. He got along fine with Matt Patricia in Detroit. But if Tate makes more than Julian Edelman at this stage (at any stage, really) that’s a travesty.
Cap savings if released: $6M
Engram was a 2020 Pro Bowler and is unlikely to be released because that $6M is very reasonable for a good tight end and Engram is that despite some issues with drops. But he’s worth mentioning here if only because of his relevance to the Patriots as a tight end who does stick out on a roster that needs trimming. Two other Giants who are almost certain cap casualties are LT Nate Solder and RG Kevin Zeitler, who would have little interest for New England unless -- in the case of Zeitler -- Joe Thuney leaves.
Zach Ertz, TE
Cap savings if released: $8.25M if designated post-June 1 release
Ertz had a down season in 2020 (36 catches, 335 yards in 11 games). He’s got plenty of upside still and the Eagles are in cap hell. A player like Ertz may be a smarter tight end add for the Patriots than another rookie in the mix to go with second-year players Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. The Eagles may be looking to deal Ertz before free agency.
Marquise Goodwin, WR
Cap savings if released: $4.3M
Goodwin opted out in 2020 and is an almost-certain release which means a smaller, whippet-quick wideout will be joining the free agent pool. He’s a downfield threat who had his best seasons in San Francisco. Similar to Damiere Byrd and not an upgrade for the Patriots interests.
Alshon Jeffery, WR
Cap savings if released: $2M
The Eagles already reworked Jeffery’s contract to set up a release prior to the start of the league year. Our friend at NBC Sports Philadelphia, Dave Zangaro, wrote that, “The Eagles lowered his base salary from $12.75 million to $2 million, which lowered his cap hit from nearly $18.4 million to $7.6 million (a savings of $10.8M), according to a league source. To guarantee the Eagles either give him a different contract or release him, Jeffery’s contract includes a $25 million guaranteed base salary for 2022 if he’s on the roster on the second day of the 2021 league year. So they’re obviously going to cut him. When they do, they’ll likely do it with a post-June 1 designation, which will eventually save them another $2 million or so in cap space.” So there you go.
Alex Smith, QB
Cap savings if released: $14.7M
Smith is a terrific story but his age and upside are not what you’re looking for when the cap hit is $23.3M. He’s got an $18.75M salary. He could rework his deal to stick around or look for greener pastures. He’d be a sensible one-year bridge quarterback with the chance to start in New England.
Jimmy Graham, TE
Cap savings if released: $7M
Graham is getting up there. He’s actually been up there. But he was pretty productive for Chicago last year with 50 catches for 456 and nine touchdowns. The Bears need to clear space and Graham’s $10M is an easy place for them to look.
Kyle Rudolph, TE
Cap savings if released: $5M
Rudolph is slowing down a bit. He had just 28 catches for 334 yards and one touchdown in 2020. But he’s still a decent two-way tight end and would immediately be the best tight end on the Patriots roster if he were to land in New England. His 2021 salary is $7.65M
Jesse James, TE
Cap savings if released: $5M if designated as post-June 1 release
James signed quickly with the Lions when he was a free agent in 2019. He’s caught 30 passes in two years playing every game. His 2021 salary is about $5M and the Lions need to do some cutting so James is a definite candidate.