2021 NFC cut candidates: Viable releases and potential surprises

Welcome to an NFL offseason like no other. After the league’s salary cap rose more than $10 million per year on average since 2012, the number is expected to fall dramatically. The new salary cap floor is now set at $180 million, well below 2020’s $198.2 million cap, though we’ll have to wait and see where the final figure ends up. Yup, we’re working off estimates at the moment, just like NFL decision makers. Nope, no one planned for this.

The changing dynamics should lead to more tough player cuts, more trades, more player movement and less money for mid-tier free agents. Quality players like J.J. Watt, Kawann Short and A.J. Bouye have already been let go. With all that in mind, here’s a first look at potential player cuts in the NFC. I’ll hit the AFC on Friday and big-name trade candidates in the near future.

NOTE: All salary cap figures are from Over The Cap unless otherwise stated.

Strong candidates for release

1-3) WR Alshon Jeffery, DT Malik Jackson and WR Marquise Goodwin, Philadelphia Eagles: General manager Howie Roseman has a lot of pruning to do with an aging roster, even after offloading Carson Wentz on Thursday. Roseman already started by shuffling money around in Jeffery and Jackson’s contracts in anticipation of releasing them as June 1st cuts. (There’s always a way to find cap space!) Goodwin’s release would also save more than $4.2 million. These are relatively easy moves for a team expected to make tougher cuts.

4) DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: D-Jax is one of those tougher cuts. The Eagles don’t have a surplus of offensive firepower and Jackson caught an 81-yard touchdown as recently as Week 16, but he’s only been healthy enough to catch 23 passes in two injury plagued years. Even though he’s 34 years old, Jackson should get another chance. Perhaps it will be back in Philly for a much lesser price than his current $8.2 million base salary.

5-6) OT Nate Solder and WR Golden Tate, New York Giants: Solder, who opted out of the 2020 season, could retire before the Giants cut him. That would possibly jeopardize some signing-bonus money he received in 2018, when general manager Dave Gettleman kick-started his struggling tenure by giving the left tackle huge money.

Tate, another Gettleman move, failed to top 400 yards in 15 games last season and the Giants can save over $6 million in cap space by releasing him. The 32-year-old’s colorful 11-year career could be nearing an end.

7-8) TE Jimmy Graham and OT Bobby Massie, Chicago Bears: Like the Eagles, the Bears have a raft of big-money veterans who could be at risk of being cut. Graham and Massie should be relative no-brainers despite all the snaps they took in 2020.

9-12) CB Desmond Trufant, CB Justin Coleman, TE Jesse James and QB Chase Daniel, Detroit Lions: No team is more clearly rebuilding than the Lions, so the first order of business for new general manager Brad Holmes will be to excise bad contracts.

13) Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings: Rudolph has mentioned not being thrilled about his role in Minnesota and has zero interest in taking a pay cut. Perhaps the Elder High legend could return home to Cincinnati for the final years of his career.

14) Cameron Brate, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brate proved useful for Tampa this past season after O.J. Howard’s injury and the Bucs have plenty of cap room. Still, paying $6.5 million for a player with less than 600 yards combined in two seasons under Bruce Arians feels like an unnecessary luxury.

15-17) S Ricardo Allen, OG James Carpenter and DT Allen Bailey, Atlanta Falcons: Seven new general managers were hired this offseason, including Terry Fontenot in Atlanta. Each will want to bring in their guys, which can only happen by starting to get rid of the other guy’s guys.

18-19) LB Kwon Alexander and DT Malcom Brown, New Orleans Saints: No team may look more different in 2021 than the Saints. These moves would only be the start of their offseason.

20-21) DE Dee Ford and C Weston Richburg, San Francisco 49ers: Both big-money signings by general manager John Lynch were all but absent in 2020 because of injuries. Richburg is almost certainly gone. Because of an injury guarantee in Ford’s contract, it’s possible the 49ers keep him around if only to spread financial pain into future years. The trade for Ford is quietly one of the costliest NFL acquisition misfires of the last few seasons.

22) OLB Preston Smith, Green Bay Packers: I don’t think general manager Brian Gutekunst regret’s the contract he gave Smith, who was a big part of the team’s 13-3 campaign in 2019. He was less effective this past season and now appears in the way of 2019 first-rounder Rashan Gary, who deserves more playing time.

Potential surprise cuts

1) Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles: There has been trade buzz about Ertz, but a straight release wouldn’t be a huge surprise. He was not moving well last season on the way to 335 yards. With the 30-year-old due an $8.25 million base salary, it’s hard to imagine he’d get that much in free agency.

2) Kevin Zeitler, OG, New York Giants: Due a $12 million base salary with a $14.5 million cap hit, Zeitler is more likely to stay in New York because making the Giants’ offensive line worse on purpose would be taking a big risk. It would also qualify as Dave Gettleman giving up on part of the Odell Beckham Jr. trade.

3) Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings: A favorite of Mike Zimmer, Barr would be a bigger lock to return in 2021 despite missing 14 games last season if his fellow off-ball linebacker Eric Kendricks weren’t also getting big money. The Vikings could earn over $7 million in cap space by cutting Barr, and I suspect he’d have some trade value.

4) Chandler Jones, DE, Arizona Cardinals: The category says “surprise” after all. Jones had a rough September before missing 11 games last season and has a cap figure ($20.8 million) that looks like he plays quarterback. He’s turning 31 later this month. His insane production in the desert would make this an upset, but the Cardinals could risk cutting him a year too early rather than waiting to see if he rebounds in 2021.

5) Jaylon Smith, LB, Dallas Cowboys: Smith has struggled since signing a big extension in Dallas and has been discussed locally at length as a possible cut. Will he fit with new coordinator Dan Quinn’s scheme?

My guess is he stays. Smith got that extension because ownership loves him and the Cowboys don’t save much by cutting him until after June 1, which feels like a long time away. Admitting personnel mistakes and making moves expressly designed to help the cap in the future are not The Cowboys Way.

6) Landon Collins, S, Washington Football Team: I’m surprised this potential move hasn’t been bandied about. Need more bandying in general. Collins hasn’t lived up to the huge contract signing that was executed two personnel chiefs ago. He’s coming off a major injury (Achilles’ tendon) and his replacement, Kam Curl, was a standout under Ron Rivera. We’re hitting a lot of boxes on the surprise-cut bingo board.

7) Alex Smith, QB, Washington Football Team: No one wants this outcome, including Rivera. But the signing of Taylor Heinicke last week makes Smith’s return as a potential backup in Washington more complicated. If Smith wants to continue playing — and he proved he still deserves a roster spot in the league — he may have to do it elsewhere.

8) Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Atlanta Falcons: Fowler’s signing was part of the reason the last Falcons regime could never solve their pass-rush issues. The only reason Fowler isn’t listed in the category above is that cutting him would put a lot of dead money on Atlanta’s cap. The new staff could try to salvage his contract.

Other players to monitor: Robert Alford, CB, Arizona Cardinals; Jon Bostic, LB, Washington Football Team; Christian Kirksey, LB, Green Bay Packers; Rick Wagner, OT, Green Bay Packers; Stephen Weatherly, DL, Carolina Panthers.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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