News & Analysis

Spielberger: Projecting 2021 NFL cap casualties

Houston Texans running back David Johnson (31) gains yards against the Tennessee Titans during the second quarter at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn. An52802

Salary cap liabilities are the biggest wild card about the 2021 NFL offseason at this point, as several teams will be forced to cut high-priced veterans.

Every offseason, a handful of big name players are released — not necessarily because their play is sub-standard, but because their production is not at a level that warrants top dollar. Teams will often approach these players about a pay cut, but these conversations, of course, don't always work out. In the end, sometimes a club has no choice but to move on. 

Some examples of cap casualties from the 2020 offseason were G Brian Winters, CB Desmond Trufant and S Reshad Jones

Past offseasons have seen the salary cap increase around 6% from the prior year. For 2021, the best-case scenario might be a static cap. It certainly won’t be rising, making matters more complicated for everyone.

Why this is such a wild card is simple: If a bunch of quality veterans hit the market as “street free agents,” it could suppress the unrestricted free agent market.

Here’s one such example from 2020: The Chicago Bears were in need of a veteran tight end, and the division rival Green Bay Packers cut Jimmy Graham as a cap casualty. Chicago signed Graham for two-years, $16 million. Steelers TE Eric Ebron was an unrestricted free agent who had been tweeting about playing in Chicago (he went to University of North Carolina where QB Mitchell Trubisky played). Instead, Ebron, who is seven years younger than Graham, signed for $12 million over two years in Pittsburgh.

Glossary:

Dead Money: cap charge left behind for the team in the event a player is cut/traded.

Pre-June 1 vs. Post-June 1: Dead money will either hit the cap entirely in the current year (pre-June 1) or it will be spread out between the current year and the following year (post-June 1).

PFF Production Value: Our PFF Contract Projections are initially unadjusted valuations of the on-field contributions of each player. Later, factors like age, health, etc., are factored in to further inform the market values.  

The following is our first table of potential cap casualties for the 2021 offseason — the group of almost certain cuts. (Note: Alshon Jeffery and Malik Jackson restructured their contracts in preparation of being cut, the details of which we do not know at this time, so their old terms are listed below):

Player Team Pos PFF Production Value 2021 Cap Hit Value – 2021 Cap Hit
Trai Turner Chargers G $1,171,668.27 $15,398,000 -$14,226,331.73
Kwon Alexander Saints LB $7,410,885.37 $13,500,000 -$6,089,114.63
David Johnson Texans HB $5,916,276.42 $12,000,000 -$6,083,723.58
Alshon Jeffery Eagles WR $4,732,016.91 $18,486,500 -$13,754,483.09
Golden Tate Giants WR $6,390,839.85 $10,852,942 -$4,462,102.15
Malik Jackson Eagles DI $5,510,058.40 $13,611,000 -$8,100,941.60

The first three players — Trai Turner, Kwon Alexander and David Johnson — were acquired via trade and thus carry much less dead money, which was left with the teams that traded them away. Here’s how those numbers shake out for each player:

Player Pre-June 1 Dead Money Post-June 1 Dead Money Pre-June 1 Cap Savings Post-June 1 Cap Savings
Trai Turner $0 $0 $15,398,000 $15,398,000
Kwon Alexander $0 $0 $13,500,000 $13,500,000
David Johnson $2,100,000 $2,100,000 $9,900,000 $9,900,000
Alshon Jeffery $10,509,500 $5,486,500 $7,977,000 $13,000,000
Golden Tate $4,705,881 $2,352,942 $6,147,061 $8,500,000
Malik Jackson $12,644,000 $3,611,000 $967,000 $10,000,000

As mentioned, Jeffery and Jackson restructured their contracts with Philadelphia in anticipation of being cut. This won’t impact their dead money charges, but here’s why it’s important: When teams designate a player as a post-June 1 cut (each team can do this with two players each offseason), that player is free to take part in free agency and sign elsewhere. However, their cap charge will stay on the original team’s books until June 2.

The win-win here is that Jeffery and Jackson get to hit free agency right away, when teams still have cash on hand, and they presumably dropped their 2021 base salaries down to the minimum in return. This will provide the Eagles with cap space before June 2 and help them get under the 2021 salary cap (which will be no small feat depending on where that number ultimately lands). 

This next group we would characterize as “likely” cap casualties, but perhaps these could be examples where a player agrees to a pay cut in order to stick around:

Player Team Pos PFF Production Value 2021 Cap Hit Value – 2021 Cap Hit
Jimmy Graham Bears TE $5,438,563.18 $10,000,000 -$4,561,436.82
Lamarcus Joyner Raiders DB $2,037,087.94 $11,200,000 -$9,162,912.06
Buster Skrine Bears CB $2,729,549.34 $6,100,000 -$3,370,450.66
Preston Smith Packers ED $7,645,525.79 $16,000,000 -$8,354,474.21
Kawann Short Panthers DI $2,665,154.89 $20,839,000 -$18,173,845.11
Nick Easton Saints G $4,315,687.67 $6,500,000 -$2,184,312.33
Geno Atkins Bengals DI $6,427,244.76 $14,700,000 -$8,272,755.24
Mark Ingram Ravens HB $4,863,188.05 $6,333,334 -$1,470,145.95

This is an older group of players in general, with some, like Kawann Short, having missed significant playing time over the last two seasons. Raiders safety/slot cornerback Lamarcus Joyner probably should’ve landed on the first list, but the Raiders may not have a single good defensive back on their entire roster for 2021, so you never know.

This group has the potential to significantly influence the middle-tier of free agency at their respective positions if they do get cut, and odds are many of them will. But there are some even better players at risk of being cap casualties — players who have performed better than this group but maybe not to the level that justifies big money.

Again depending on how the 2021 salary cap situation shakes out, a few potential surprise options:

Chicago Bears RT Bobby Massie
Green Bay Packers LB Christian Kirksey
Houston Texans LB Benardrick McKinney
Tennessee Titans WR Adam Humphries
Houston Texans HB Duke Johnson Jr.
Cleveland Browns TE David Njoku
Minnesota Vikings LT Riley Reiff
Seattle Seahawks ED Carlos Dunlap
San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Las Vegas Raiders G Gabe Jackson
Kansas City Chiefs LB Anthony Hitchens
Buffalo Bills ED Mario Addison
Pittsburgh Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey
Cleveland Browns WR Odell Beckham Jr.
Denver Broncos DI Jurrell Casey
Atlanta Falcons DI Allen Bailey
Cincinnati Bengals TE C.J. Uzomah
Buffalo Bills TE Tyler Matakevich
Atlanta Falcons S Ricardo Allen
New York Jets WR Jamison Crowder
Jacksonville Jaguars TE Tyler Eifert

This group has the potential to significantly impact the market during the 2021 offseason, and folks should not be surprised if a handful end up as cap casualties even though they are still quality football players.

PFF's Free Agent rankings, which are now live, will be updated to reflect any cap casualties during the offseason.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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