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Ranking the 10 worst NFL cap situations heading into free agency

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports Created:

NFL free agency is going to be starting here soon. It’s a time of the year when money is thrown around at a rapid clip.

A ton of teams have cash to spend, which should be a clear indication that this year’s market will be robust for impending free agents.

Unfortunately, there are multiple teams in less-than-stellar cap situations. Whether it’s overpaying for under-performing veterans or retaining core players, these 10 teams are in the worst cap situations heading into the new league year.

1. Philadelphia Eagles

The decision not to franchise tag Nick Foles will help Philadelphia’s cap situation. However, this team still has a ton of work to do if it’s going to be able to retain key free agents and add to its core group. The Eagles currently find themselves over the cap after re-signing defensive end Brandon Graham. It will need to rectify that before March 13. Of the team’s seven highest-paid players, Philadelphia can only seriously consider moving on from Jason Peters and Timmy Jernigan. The rest have extremely high dead cap hits.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s situation is complicated by the fact that it also has a ton of top-end impending free agents. That includes defensive starters Jordan Hicks, Ronald Darby and Corey Graham. Contract restructures could help here. Though, that would just kick the issues down the road. At the very least, Philly was able to retain Graham.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville would save just $4.5 million against the cap if it were to outright release Blake Bortles. Given that it’s $1.05 million under the cap, designating Bortles a post-June 1 cut makes the most sense. That would enable the Jags to save a cool $9.3 million this season. Outside of that, there’s not a lot of wriggle room for the Jags to become free-agent buyers after a disastrous 2018 season.

Two likely moves would be to release defensive tackle Malik Jackson and safety Tashaun Gipson — saving Jacksonville a combined $18.5 million against the cap. Given the team has youngsters ready to replace them, we’re fully expecting this to happen. Unfortunately, there’s huge dead money hits when it comes to other high-priced and under-performing players.

3. New Orleans Saints

It’s realistic to believe that future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees will restructure his contract or sign an extension to lower his $33.5 million cap hit for the 2019 season. Even then, the Saints don’t have a ton of wriggle room. They can save north of $9 million by releasing guard Andrus Peat. But given that he’s a Pro Bowler, that makes no sense. Outside of that, any move would be minor in the grand scheme of things.

New Orleans is just $9.9 million under the cap. It also has to think about signing youngsters Michael Thomas and Marshon Lattimore to lucrative extensions. The good news here is that Sean Payton and Co. are not wanting for a lot in free agency.

4. Chicago Bears

Now that guard Kyle Long has opted to come back at a lower cap number, one major off-season question is answered for Chicago after a surprising 2018 campaign. Unfortunately, the team has to pay out a combined $48-plus million to the combination of Allen Robinson, Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara next season. There’s no real outs when it comes to any of the four players — not that Chicago would be better off moving on from any of them of them in the first place.

Currently just $11.6 million under the cap, Chicago is in a decent situation in that only slot cornerback Bryce Callahan is a priority to re-sign in free agency. With that said, any hopes of improving this roster in free agency will hinge on general manager Ryan Pace getting creative.

5. New England Patriots

It’s somewhat surprising to see New England in a precarious cap situation. The team has been among the best at handling its finances since the Bill Belichick era started nearly two decades ago. That’s just not the case this spring. Tom Brady and Stephon Gilmore are slated to count a combined $41.8 million against the cap. Given that these are the Patriots’ two-best players, that’s not a big deal.

Instead, it’s the Patriots’ roster structure behind their two highest-paid players that should concern fans. New England is just $14.4 million under the cap. Short of releasing Devin McCourty and seeing Rob Gronkowski retire, there’s not a lot the team can do. Releasing Dwayne Allen would save the Pats $7.3 million. But that’s a drop in the bucket given that Trey Flowers, Jason McCourty, Malcom Brown and Trent Brown are all slated to become free agents. Belichick and Co. certainly have their work cut out for them.

6. Miami Dolphins

As of right now, Miami is just $8.7 million under the cap. That number will increase by north of $31 million with the inevitable releases of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and defensive end Robert Quinn. The Dolphins can also save $15.4 million by releasing DeVante Parker and Danny Amendola. Even then, a team without a quarterback has to assign $20-plus million to that position in free agency.

Given how much Miami struggled to remain relevant last season, the onus is going to be on general manager Chris Grier to improve this roster in free agency. Whether it’s Patriots pass rusher Trey Flowers or someone else, the big slash won’t be enough. With a lot of work to do and in a less-than-stellar cap situation, confidence in South Beach can’t be too high.

7. Minnesota Vikings

Technically, Minnesota has the third lowest cash to spend under the salary cap. But that’s why lists like these are important. The devil is in the details here. These Vikings can rid themselves of $33 million by either trading or releasing the likes of Everson Griffen, Trae Waynes, Kyle Rudolph and Andrew Sendejo. Veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes could also be a surprise cap casualty. Outside of Rhodes, all four of these players seem to be expendable.

The bad news? Minnesota took a major step back last season under the leadership of first-year starter Kirk Cousins. He’s a salary cap pariah and is set to count $29 million against said cap in 2019. If that weren’t enough, star linebacker Anthony Barr is an impending free agent. He’s more than likely going to earn $14-plus million on a long-term deal in March.

8. Carolina Panthers

Carolina is in an interesting situation in that it’s a decent $16 million under the cap heading into March. It also re-signed Pro Bowl caliber safety Eric Reid prior to the start of free agency. The bad news here is that these Panthers are coming off a down 2018 season and don’t have much wriggle room to get further under the cap.

Set to count $23.2 million against the cap in 2019, franchise quarterback Cam Newton is in line for a new contract. Meanwhile, the likes of Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short and Matt Kalil are set to count a combined $46.4 million against the cap. There’s no real flexibility when it comes to their contracts. One potential move is defensive end Mario Addison. If the Panthers were to release him, they’d save $8 million in cash.

9. Washington Redskins

Alex Smith’s injury and status for the 2019 season is a major financial problem for Washington. He’s slated to have a $20.4 million cap hit and is most likely out for the entire 2019 campaign. That’s a major blow, especially given that these Skins now need to add a starter-caliber quarterback. This is going to cost a fair amount in a watered-down market.

Currently $16.7 million under the cap, Washington can save a robust $25-plus million by releasing under-performing veterans Josh Norman, Ryan Kerrigan and Zach Brown. Even then, that wouldn’t be enough to become big-time players in free agency.

10. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Antonio Brown situation is bad for Pittsburgh for numerous reasons. Losing him in a trade would be a major on-field blow. Though, the $21.1 million dead cap hit that would come with trading Brown is an even bigger deal. The Steelers currently find themselves just $18.3 million under the cap. Taking on that dead cap hit will be a bitter pill for GM Kevin Colbert to swallow.

Outside of that, Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and David DeCastro are set to count a combined $69 million against the cap. Not that the Steelers plan on releasing any of these players, but their combined dead cap hit stands at $42-plus million. Ouch!