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5 big-name players who could be released ahead of NFL free agency

Vincent Frank
NFL free agency: 49ers to release Jimmy Garoppolo?
Nov 1, 2020; Seattle, Washington, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) returns to the locker room following pregame warmups against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

With NFL free agency slated to start here soon, we’re already seeing a number of big-name players being given their walking papers. This was expected due to the revenue downfall brought on by COVID-19.

The 2021 NFL salary cap is set at $182.5 million. It’s a figure that’s lower than last year. It also has a ton of teams in less-than-stellar cap situations. This will lead to some big-name releases ahead of the start of NFL free agency. Here’s a look at five players who could surprisingly get cut.

Related: Top NFL free agents of 2023 – Lamar Jackson, Deebo Samuel lead the charge

Anthony Barr, linebacker, Minnesota Vikings

NFL free agency: Vikings to release Anthony Barr?
Sep 8, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Anthony Barr (55) reacts during the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Currently $3.52 million over the salary cap, the Vikings will need to do more work if they want to be players in free agency. That’s no small thing given that the team is coming off a disastrous seven-win season and must find upgrades up and down the roster during NFL free agency. One avenue would be to release or trade this four-time Pro Bowl linebacker after he suited up in just two games due to injury in 2020.

Moving off Barr as a post-June 1 cut would save Minnesota $12.46 million against the 2021 NFL salary cap. It also has an in-house candidate to replace the former first-round pick in impending free agent Eric Wilson. The 27-year-old linebacker played exceedingly well last season and would come a whole heck of a lot cheaper.

Read More: NFL salary cap tracker: Where each team stands in 2021

Kyle Fuller, cornerback, Chicago Bears

NFL free agency: Bears to release Kyle Fuller?
Sep 13, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller (23) puts his hands up after a play during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After placing the dreaded franchise tag on wide receiver Allen Robinson, Bears general manager Ryan Pace has a lot of work to do ahead of NFL free agency. Still in the market for a quarterback, Chicago finds itself in the fifth-worst cap situation in the league, $22.55 million over the projected figure. Not only is this going to make it hard to hit the market, adding a quarterback to replace Mitchell Trubisky would prove to be difficult.

A Pro Bowler back in 2018 and 2019, the 29-year-old Fuller took a step back this past season. He’s also slated to count a whopping $20 million against the cap in 2021. If Chicago were to release Fuller ahead of the start of NFL free agency, the team would save a cool $11 million. It’s something that Pace and Co. have to seriously consider despite exhausting both draft capital and money on the former first-round pick.

Read More: 5 most overrated NFL free agents of 2021

Preston Smith, edge, Green Bay Packers

NFL free agency: Packers to release Preston Smith?
Oct 25, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith (91) celebrates with cornerback Jaire Alexander (23) and linebacker Kamal Martin (54) after a defensive play during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s an intriguing scenario to look at. Green Bay seemed to cash in big time by signing Smith to a four-year, $52 million contract back in March of 2019. Teaming up with Za’Darius Smith, the former Washington Football Team star recorded 23 quarterback hits and 12 sacks in his first season with Green Bay. With that said, Smith took a major step back in 2020. He registered all of 11 quarterback hits and four sacks.

General manager Brian Gutekunst did well to structure Smith’s contract in a way that gave Green Bay an out after two seasons. In fact, it would save $8 million by releasing him today. If he team opted for a post-June 1 cut designation, it would save $12 million. Currently $8.35 million over the cap heading into NFL free agency, the Packers are looking to extend both Aaron Rodgers and the above-mentioned Za’Darius Smith to create room. They were also in on J.J. Watt. This is all a clear indication that Smith could be jettisoned from Green Bay here soon.

Read More: NFL trade rumors: Latest updates and information for 2021 offseason

Jaylon Smith, linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

NFL free agency: Cowboys to release Jaylon Smith?
Oct 6, 2019; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) celebrates a sack in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It’s disappointing to look at. A feel-good story coming out of Notre Dame back in 2016, Smith overcame a serious injury in college and morphed into a Pro Bowl player in 2019. Unfortunately, he took a major step back this past season. Struggles in coverage and with missed tackles showed him to be one of the weakest links on a disappointing Cowboys defense.

With Dallas in salary cap hell following the Dak Prescott contract extension, owner Jerry Jones must find a way to cut the fat somewhere. Sure moving off Smith would be a bitter pill to swallow. With that said, it might be a necessity. Playing under a six-year, $68.4 million contract, releasing Smith with a post-June 1 designation would save Dallas $7.2 million in cap room. The Cowboys need to be somewhat active during NFL free agency. This could help in that regard.

Read More: 5 most underrated NFL free agents of 2021

Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers

Jimmy Garoppolo would be involved in hypothetical Deshaun Watson trade to the 49ers
Oct 25, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) throws a pass against the New England Patriots in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The much more likelier scenario for Jimmy Garoppolo and his 49ers is a trade to the New England Patriots. Despite an injury-plagued 2020 season, he’s still just over a calendar year removed from leading his team to the Super Bowl. New England is also said to have interest in reuniting with Garoppolo.

With that said, there’s a scenario here which includes San Francisco releasing Garoppolo outright. If the team is able to add Deshaun Watson or Sam Darnold to the mix, an immediate cap savings of $23.6 million by moving off Garoppolo would make sense. That’s magnified by the fact that the 29-year-old quarterback has a full no-trade clause. Given the 49ers’ cap situation and with the team boasting over 40 impending free agents, drawing out this process would not make sense if a quarterback change is in the cards.

Read More: Jimmy Garoppolo: 5 teams who are a perfect fit for San Francisco 49ers QB