Recent history tells us that teams that win the Super Bowl follow that triumph by losing a number of key players, often because of the sheer reality of the salary cap. Seven players who started for the 2012 Ravens in the Super Bowl were gone the next season. Nine of the Seahawks who started in their blowout of the Broncos the subsequent year are no longer on the roster. And the 2014 Patriots lost their top three cornerbacks (Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington), Vince Wilfork and Shane Vereen by the time Week 1 rolled around this season. There's just no way teams can hold on to all of their Super Bowl contributors.
Of course, that problem isn't limited to Super Bowl winners. The salary cap comes back to bite just about every competitive team over each offseason. Many veteran contracts are not guaranteed, so teams can claw back much-needed cap space by turning unproductive veterans into cap casualties. It's not a fun aspect of the league to discuss, but it's part of the business, and it's about to become very relevant.
So, with one more game left before we hit the NFL offseason, let's run through the league's playoff teams and identify players who could become cap casualties in the months to come. For each team, I'll also include its expected salary-cap space heading into the offseason after accounting for the space from this year that it gets to roll over into the 2016 season, using an estimated 2016 cap figure of $154 million. Because that number won't include re-signing any free agents, I'll include each team's key pending unrestricted free agents, as well. The salary data in this piece comes from Spotrac.
Let's start in the desert, where the Cardinals seem to do their best shopping long after free agency is over. (Possible cuts bolded in the text.)
The Cardinals seem likely to bring back the core of their team and make small investments at the bottom of the veteran free-agent market. Sure, they could clear out $12.7 million in cap space by cutting Carson Palmer and designating him as a post-June 1 release, but, even after his disastrous postseason, that's not likely. (The post-June 1 designation allows a team to push any signing bonus acceleration onto the next year's cap; otherwise, it would accelerate onto the present year's cap figure.) Backup Drew Stanton is also an unrestricted free agent, which would seem to render that idea foolish unless the Cardinals have faith in one of the coming free-agent options, such as Brock Osweiler.
A more plausible release would be inside linebacker Daryl Washington, who has been suspended for each of the past two seasons and usurped in the starting lineup by Kevin Minter. Cutting Washington and taking his $7.5 million salary off of the books would save $2 million for Steve Keim & Co.
Could it be?
Is it finally the year Dave Gettleman can loosen the purse strings? For the first time since Gettleman took over in 2013, he finally has a meaningful amount of cap space, albeit not as much as that number might suggest. He'll surely earmark a good chunk of that space to lock up Norman, who emerged as one of football's best cornerbacks this season and should expect a deal in the $14 million-per-year range. Norman is one of three starters in the secondary to hit free agency this year, and, although the other parts are far easier to replace, the Panthers probably will target a cheap veteran or two.
The good news is they can clear out another $8.5 million by releasing Jared Allen or allowing him to retire; after acquiring him from the Bears, Carolina can release Allen without owing any dead money on their cap. The only other theoretical dead cap figure would be defensive end Charles Johnson, whose release could clear out $11 million if the Panthers wanted to move on. Given their need for pass-rushers, though, such a move seems unlikely at best.
2016 cap space: $38.2 million
Unrestricted free agents: CB Leon Hall, S Reggie Nelson, T Andre Smith, S George Iloka, LB Vincent Rey, CB Adam Jones, DE Wallace Gilberry, WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Marvin Jones
Who needs most of a secondary, anyway? The Bengals could lose four of their top five defensive backs, as well as their second and third options at wideout, which is a testament to how much young talent they've mined over the past few seasons. Given Cincinnati's near-total indifference to the veteran free-agent market, it seems likely the Bengals will use much of their cap space in tying up some of their free agents-to-be, along with working on extensions for guard Kevin Zeitler and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who are entering the final year of their respective rookie deals.
With plenty of space, the Bengals don't really have a certain cap casualty. Instead, they could just clear out money the old-fashioned way by releasing Rey Maualuga ($4.1 million) or Domata Peko ($3.8 million) without any hint of dead money on their cap for 2016.
Now, here's the Super Bowl participant with a lot to do this offseason! The Broncos have managed to keep together the core of their perennial playoff contender while adding much-needed free-agent help to their defense, including stars such as Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware. The Broncos will have to dig deep to retain the stars of their conference championship victory over the Patriots. Miller seems like a likely target for the franchise tag, which would come in around $14 million, as the Broncos try to negotiate a new long-term deal. That could cost them 26-year-old Jackson, who remains criminally underrated as a 3-4 defensive end in Wade Phillips' defense.
And that's without getting to the thorny problem of finding a quarterback. The good news is the Broncos can start clearing out cap space there. Denver can save a whopping $19 million by removing Peyton Manning from the roster, either via his release or (likely) retirement. And that's not all. Another $8.9 million gets lopped off the books if Denver releases left tackle Ryan Clady, who has missed 30 of Denver's past 48 games with various injuries. John Elway could clear another $10 million by cutting 33-year-old DeMarcus Ware, but the Broncos likely won't need the space if they get rid of Manning or Clady. Now, if they can only find a quarterback worthy of their attention ...
Packers coach Mike McCarthy is reportedly "fed up" with general manager Ted Thompson's penurious approach toward free agency, which is ironic for a coach whose conservative decision-making has cost the Packers each of the past two postseasons. Barring a rare foray into the market for a targeted player or two, Thompson should stay the course again this year, retaining several of the longtime Packers above while continuing to build through the draft. Thompson manages his roster as well as anybody in football, McCarthy's whims be damned.
Thompson's cap sheet is pristine, which leaves him without many bad deals to prune. His quickest route to extra cap space would be releasing 36-year-old outside linebacker Julius Peppers, a move that would turn his $10.5 million cap charge into a $2.5 million hit on Green Bay's cap, saving $8 million. Unless Thompson breaks the bank by re-signing starting guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang (each in the final year of his deal) to mammoth extensions, though, the Packers won't need the cap room that would come with cutting Peppers.
Houston general manager Rick Smith will have money to work with for the first time in years after going through a relatively painful stretch of cap woes. With J.J. Watt locked up, he can focus his attention elsewhere. The most pressing need is a new contract for star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal. The second-most pressing need is for a quarterback, but all the cap space in the world might not be enough to get them anybody better than Brian Hoyer.
One way to clear out space would be to release stalwart running back Arian Foster, who is recovering from a torn Achilles. Cutting Foster in the final year of his contract would save the Texans $6.6 million. The likely departure of benched safety Rahim Moore would throw another $2.1 million into the well, and dumping the aforementioned Brian Hoyer would save $4.9 million more. That adds up to $13.6 million, which is valuable space, but is that really money the Texans would be better off committing to Osweiler, Stanton or Sam Bradford?
That sure seems like a lot of cap space until you realize the Chiefs might be losing half of the league's sixth-ranked defense. And that's without considering how they need to pay defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie deal. It's hard to imagine they'll let Berry leave, but the emergence of Dee Ford probably allows the Chiefs to move on from 32-year-old edge rusher Hali, and 33-year-old Johnson has an injury history that would seem to preclude John Dorsey from offering a long-term deal, despite how well Johnson played coming back from injury this season.
The Chiefs also don't have many avenues toward clearing out extra cap space. A long-term deal for Poe (currently with a $6.1 million cap charge) could generate a small amount of space if the Chiefs want, but the only real plausible candidate for offseason release would be a painful name: star running back Jamaal Charles. Cutting 29-year-old Charles after his second ACL tear would save Kansas City $5.3 million, and, although it would have seemed outlandish 12 months ago, the Chiefs did just fine with the combination of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware in the backfield this year. Then again, $5.3 million isn't a lot of money for a player who did this in 2014. Cutting Charles would be a hard sell to me, and I'm not even a Chiefs fan.
General manager Rick Spielman has the Minnesota cap on point. The Vikings have one of the deepest rosters in the league and can go in all kinds of different directions. If they want to spend money in free agency, it's easy for them to clear out cap space. If they want to roll with the guys they have, they can keep a few luxury items on the roster while easily making space to sign star safety Harrison Smith (in the final year of his rookie contract) to a long-term extension.
My suspicion is that Spielman might want to make a move or two. He can facilitate that by lopping off the two largest cap holds on Minnesota's roster. The Vikes can release Mike Wallace ($11.5 million) and Matt Kalil ($11.1 million) without incurring any dead cap penalties. They can make another $10 million free by dumping Phil Loadholt, who is coming off of a torn Achilles, and Captain Munnerlyn. In many cases, this could be like-for-like swaps -- the Vikings are better off giving the $11.5 million they owe Wallace to a free-agent wideout such as Alshon Jeffery.
When your most pressing free-agent concern is Blount, you know things are just fine. What's more notable is the crop of players the Patriots have to sign to extensions before they hit unrestricted free agency next year. Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins -- the athletic, emerging core of New England's defense -- are all in the final years of deals. Jones and Hightower have a combined cap hold of $15.5 million thanks to their fifth-year options, so the Patriots won't need to clear out a massive amount of cap space to sign them to new deals. As a second-round pick, though, Collins is due to make just $1.2 million in the final year of his rookie deal, with no possibility of a fifth-year option.
That likely leaves the Patriots in need of some cap space. But they have options. That starts with Jerod Mayo, who didn't look healthy all season and played just 36.1 percent of New England's defensive snaps. His release would save $7 million. Cutting Danny Amendola would generate $4.1 million. Marcus Cannon, whom most Patriots fans would like to fire out of one after the AFC Championship Game, would add another $3.7 million to the coffers. Brandon LaFell, who most Patriots fans wish would change his last name to Cannon for purposes of the previous joke, would create another $2.7 million in space. You get the idea.
I wrote about Pittsburgh's cap problems earlier in January. The Steelers yet again will need to create cap space by restructuring deals, although they can help that process along by releasing a few veterans. They would save $4 million by releasing Heath Miller, whose $7.2 million cap hit for 2016 is higher than those of Rob Gronkowski ($6.6 million), Delanie Walker ($5.3 million) and Greg Olsen ($5.1 million). Of course, cutting a fan favorite who doesn't miss games might not be something they want to entertain.
Pittsburgh can generate $4.4 million by designating Cortez Allen as a post-June 1 release, pushing their cap problems further down the line. Kicker Shaun Suisham likely will create $1.8 million more in cap space when he's cut, and the Steelers likely will push most of the money for David DeCastro's extension into the future to clear out more space.
General manager John Schneider has some interesting avenues of attack available to him this offseason. He might be able to swoop in and re-sign Okung, who seemed out of Seattle's price range, if the market doesn't want to invest after Okung underwent surgery for a dislocated shoulder. It helps that the Seahawks almost certainly will save $6 million by moving on from Marshawn Lynch, whether by release or retirement.
The more interesting decisions come with two of the team's highest-paid players. Schneider has said he's bringing back tight end Jimmy Graham, but, with the former Saints star due $9 million and coming off of a ruptured patella, that's an expensive risk to take on a player who wasn't a difference-maker when healthy last year in Seattle. None of that $9 million is guaranteed.
And there's the fascinating case of Kam Chancellor, who manages to check all kinds of boxes. You can make a case that Chancellor is underpaid given his track record, and you also can argue that the Chancellor -- who was targeted and torched in pass coverage by teams such as the Bengals and Vikings in the fourth quarter of Seahawks games last year -- is significantly overvalued. At $6.1 million, Chancellor doesn't have an enormous cap hit, but he also wants a new deal. A trade might make the most sense for all parties, which would create $4.1 million in cap space for the Seahawks and break up the Legion of Boom for good.
That cap figure means just about nothing. As much as general manager Scot McCloughan might want to suggest that Washington is thinking about holding on to its third-string quarterback, there is a zero percent chance that Robert Griffin III will be on the payroll in 2016 at his current cap hit of $16.1 million. Much of that money likely will go to re-signing Cousins, either on a long-term deal or with the franchise tag on a one-year contract for about $20 million.
There are plenty of other avenues for McCloughan to clear out room. Chris Culliver, a 2015 free-agent addition, had $8 million in 2016 guaranteed money voided from his deal after an early-season suspension before he promptly tore his ACL and MCL in practice. Washington can save a minimum of $5.5 million on his deal by cutting Culliver, and it's money it can better use elsewhere. The team is unlikely to hold on to safety Dashon Goldson, which would create an additional $8 million in cap space. Marginalized wideout Andre Roberts would generate an additional $3 million, and Washington could even give some thought to cutting Pierre Garcon, which would turn his $10.2 million cap hold into a $2.2 million penalty. That's $24.5 million in cap space. Now, Washington fans burned by years of mistakes will just have to trust that McCloughan will spend the money wisely.