Once the NFL offseason begins, franchises begin clearing the books to create as much cap space as possible. Front offices trim the salary sheet in hopes of re-signing key players or adding marquee free agents.
But it often comes at the expense of one-time stars, fading veterans or high-dollar talents who aren’t the right fit. Many recognizable players are destined to hit the open market in 2018, and be prepared for several of the following players to be available.
Note: All contract information via Spotrac.
Blake Bortles, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville finds itself in a tricky dilemma. Though the team nearly reached the Super Bowl, it happened largely in spite of Blake Bortles — not thanks to him. Now, the Jaguars are staring down a $19 million bill for the quarterback. They picked up his fifth-year option last summer but could waive Bortles and save every last penny. However, the Jags would be on the hook for all $19 million if he remains on the roster at 4 p.m. ET on March 14. Jacksonville doesn’t have a great alternative, but that’s an expensive year for a mediocre quarterback.
Dez Bryant, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys
Dez Bryant was once an elite NFL wideout. Over the last three seasons, though, he’s averaged no better than 61.2 receiving yards per game. In each of those years, Bryant carried a cap hit of $25 million or more. But in 2018, that number drops to $16.5 million with a dead cap hit of $8 million. Though the Cowboys will first attempt to convince Bryant to take a pay cut, there’s no guarantee he’ll accept it. The same situation happened with former Dallas defender DeMarcus Ware, who eventually headed to the Denver Broncos. Bryant might’ve played his last down for the Cowboys.
Randall Cobb, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers
Following the 2014 season, Green Bay rewarded Randall Cobb’s career year with a $40 million extension. Since then, his efficiency has tumbled rapidly. And during both the 2016 and 2017 campaigns, Cobb failed to average 50 yards per game. The Packers cannot afford to keep a trio of receivers earning eight figures, so either Cobb or Jordy Nelson and are likely gone. Nelson is older, but he has a unique chemistry with Aaron Rodgers and is a star in the red zone. The Packers can save nearly $9.4 million by cutting Cobb.
Michael Crabtree, wide receiver, Oakland Raiders
Michael Crabtree posted consecutive 900-yard, eight-touchdown seasons prior to 2017, when he managed 58 catches for 618 yards and eight scores. Those numbers aren’t terrible, but the combination of age, drop issues and a $7.7 million salary could lead to his exit from Oakland. The team may have tired on his ongoing drama with division rivals, too (like this). Since none of Crabtree’s contract is guaranteed for 2018, the Raiders would lose a starter but head into the offseason with a healthy addition to their cap space.
Coby Fleener, tight end, New Orleans Saints
New Orleans brought in Coby Fleener as a high-upside free agent two years ago, but the signing never worked out. The Saints will likely decide to cut their losses, even though the savings aren’t dramatic. Fleener would count $8 million against the cap next season, but that number will drop to $4.8 million without him on the roster. Fleener caught just 22 passes for 295 yards and two scores in 2017, and New Orleans can receive that production from a far less expensive Josh Hill.
Matt Forte, running back, New York Jets
Matt Forte may still be valuable in a limited capacity elsewhere, but the Jets shouldn’t keep the veteran running back around. Releasing him will free $3 million for New York, which already has Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire under contract. That duo, perhaps along with another rookie, should carry the backfield in 2018. Forte battled a couple of injuries while mustering career-low marks of 103 carries, 381 yards and two touchdowns last season. He added 37 catches for 293 yards and one score in 12 appearances.
Mike Glennon, quarterback, Chicago Bears
When Mike Glennon inked a $45 million contract, the entire NFL world knew it was a dreadful idea. Well, apparently everyone except the Chicago front office. Nevertheless, the Bears can erase most of the financial pressure Glennon puts on the roster. Instead of paying him $16 million next season, the quarterback carries just $4.5 million of dead cap. Bears fans would rather completely forget about Glennon — who went 1-3 with four touchdowns and five interceptions before the Mitch Trubisky era began — but they’ll be happy with saving $11.5 million.
Tamba Hali, defensive end, Kansas City Chiefs
A first-round pick of the Chiefs in 2006, Tamba Hali put together a wonderful career for the franchise. It’s simply time for Kansas City to move on. After playing in 15 or 16 games for 11 straight years, Hali appeared in just five contests and recorded a single tackle last season. With a $9.4 million cap hit in 2018, there’s no football reason for the Chiefs to keep Hali on the roster. He’ll only count $1.7 million once released. The outside linebacker posted 89.5 sacks and forced 33 fumbles in 177 games.
Doug Martin, running back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
General manager Jason Licht may have already signaled the end of Doug Martin’s tenure in Tampa, and the NFL world has expected it would happen. He amassed 1,402 rushing yards in 2015 but failed to average three yards per carry in each of the last two seasons. Martin was a healthy inactive in 2016 and served a drug-related suspension last year. It would be absolutely shocking if the Bucs retained Martin, who has a $6.75 million cap hit. Tampa Bay saves all of that money by cutting him.
Clay Matthews, linebacker, Green Bay Packers
The Packers are facing a tough situation with Clay Matthews’ future. The veteran is no longer a top-tier pass-rusher worth $11.4 million, but he plays a position of tremendous need for Green Bay. He’s a versatile veteran who provided 43 tackles and 7.5 sacks last year. Matthews’ situation is especially tricky because the Packers can save nearly $11.4 million without him on the roster. Green Bay will likely ask the linebacker to restructure his contract, but a franchise known for its loyalty to longtime players must keep this option on the table.
Pernell McPhee, defensive end, Chicago Bears
Chicago enticed Pernell McPhee with a five-year contract, but the free-agent move of 2015 hasn’t paid dividends. Injuries have limited the defensive end throughout his Bears tenure, keeping him out of 10 games over the last two seasons. McPhee has managed just 14 sacks since joining Chicago, which would be paying him a little over $8 million in 2018. Although the Bears are thin at his position, releasing McPhee creates about $7 million of space this offseason. His dead cap is only $1 million.
DeMarco Murray, running back, Tennessee Titans
After collecting 1,664 yards from scrimmage and scoring 12 touchdowns in 2016, DeMarco Murray was unable to make a similar impact in 2017. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark once in 15 games, ending the campaign with 659 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Between his $6.5 million contract and Tennessee having Derrick Henry ready to assume the No. 1 role, Murray’s time with the Titans is coming to a close. The franchise would wipe the entirety of his $6.5 million contract off the books for 2018.
Aqib Talib, cornerback, Denver Broncos
Denver built a dominant defense with an elite secondary, but the team must consider tearing a piece of it down. In 2018, Aqib Talib would have a $12 million cap hit. Release him, and the Broncos are responsible for just $1 million on the salary sheet. Talib remains a tremendous corner, so it’s more likely Denver pursues a contract restructure to keep him around. If, however, Talib is unwilling to take a pay cut, the Broncos must be willing to part with a cornerback who earned Pro Bowl nods in all four seasons.
Tyrod Taylor, quarterback, Buffalo Bills
This shouldn’t happen unless the Bills draft a quarterback they plan to start. But for whatever reason, Buffalo isn’t content with Tyrod Taylor. The team already tried its best alternative — and Nathan Peterman threw five interceptions in one half. The Bills hold a pair of first-round picks because of last season’s trade with the Chiefs, so the team may be eyeing the draft for a replacement. Since Taylor is due $6 million in mid-March, though, Buffalo needs to either keep Taylor or trade up and commit to a rookie. If the Bills do the latter, they’ll save $9.4 million.
Julius Thomas, tight end, Miami Dolphins
Miami has limited itself with a couple of massive deals, but Julius Thomas is both expensive and expendable. The Dolphins can free $4.6 million of space by releasing the tight end. His contract carries just $2 million of dead cap in 2018. In his lone season with Miami, Thomas managed 41 catches for 388 yards and three touchdowns. Although the Dolphins really don’t have any better options returning on the roster, his mediocre production isn’t worth the price.
Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive end, New York Jets
This isn’t even a secret. Once the Jets have a chance, Muhammad Wilkerson will be a free agent. He’ll still count $9 million against the cap, but New York will save $11 million. The relationship between the defensive end and head coach Todd Bowles is clearly fractured beyond repair, considering the team benched Wilkerson down the stretch of the regular season and didn’t even take him on road trips. His Jets tenure will end with 44.5 sacks over a seven-year span.