NFL cut candidates: 15 big-name veterans on shaky ground

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Before NFL teams can begin their annual bidding war against one another, a swath of franchises will make moves to attempt to rightsize their financial future.

The start of the new league year on March 15 means the official opening of free agency. By that time, of course, all teams must be compliant with the league’s salary cap, which is set to $224.8 million – a $16.6 million boost from the previous year’s figure. And while several front offices are mapping out a strategy to spend, others have some significant paring back to do in the coming days and weeks. The moves have already started, too, with the Tennessee Titans seemingly kicking things off last week by dropping four key contributors, including three-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Taylor Lewan.

Here’s a look at 15 notable veterans who could be in jeopardy of being cut in the near future: 

Chargers WR Keenan Allen

Would a Chargers team that bet big last offseason with marquee acquisitions move on from a longtime franchise leader in 2023? If they do, the decision was likely set in motion partially by that spending spree. Los Angeles is more than $20 million over the cap, and there’s only so much restructuring the team can do without inhibiting its future flexibility.

Allen, 30, would likely yield the largest fiscal help of any of the team’s options for release, as he would create $14.8 million in space as a pre-June 1 cut. While parting with the five-time Pro Bowler might prove too difficult for the franchise, Allen’s effectiveness looks to be waning after he played in just 10 games last year, and the receiving corps is due for a makeover.

Chiefs DE Frank Clark

At nearly $29 million, Clark is set to have the third-largest cap hit in 2023 of any defensive end. Even after the eight-year veteran enhanced his postseason legend with another prolific stretch in Kansas City’s Super Bowl 57 run, that figure almost certainly will have to come down. But the Chiefs could – and probably should – try to resolve this via contract restructuring for a second consecutive offseason to keep one of their key pass rushers in place for their repeat bid.

Vikings RB Dalvin Cook

As Minnesota looks to recapture the magic of its 13-4 run in 2022, letting go of a player who recorded 1,468 yards from scrimmage last season might seem like an odd move. But a recession looks imminent for the top of the running back market, and Cook’s $14.1 million cap hit leaves him on uncertain ground. A restructure might be the most reasonable route, but several other potential veterans on the chopping block – including WR Adam Thielen, LB Eric Kendricks and S Harrison Smith – might not have the same option.

Jets WR Corey Davis

A top-notch blocker and overall solid pass catcher, Davis still hasn’t managed to live up to his draft billing or the three-year, $37.5 million contract he signed with the Jets in 2021. The Jets can clear his $10.5 million salary by walking away, which is likely a necessity for a team that has signaled its intention to pony up for a veteran quarterback.

Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

Jerry Jones has some thinking to do about how he can keep Dallas’ spending at running back from getting out of control. There’s the matter of what to do with impending free agent Tony Pollard, the breakout all-purpose threat who could be a candidate for the franchise tag even after fracturing his fibula in the divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. More important, however, is the decision on Elliott, whose $16.72 million cap hit is set to be the most of any back in 2023. That’s an imposing number for a player who averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last season and has more mileage – 1,881 career carries – than any other active ball carrier. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones seemed to hint at a forthcoming salary reduction by saying earlier in February that the team wanted Elliott to return so long as doing so worked financially for both parties.

Jaguars CB Shaquill Griffin

A back injury ended Griffin’s 2022 season after just five games, and Jacksonville’s defense flourished down the stretch once Darious Williams moved from the slot to the outside role opposite Tyson Campbell. That dynamic doesn’t leave an easy return for Griffin, who hasn’t come close to justifying the three-year, $40 million contract he landed two offseasons ago. Given their current cap crunch, the Jaguars might be inclined to pounce on this opportunity for added flexibility.

Giants WR Kenny Golladay

An overpriced, underachieving relic of a previous regime, Golladay is essentially a lock to be dismissed by Giants GM Joe Schoen, who has to clean up several mistakes left on the books by his predecessor in Dave Gettleman. The only question is how the Giants spread out Golladay’s dead money hit. 

Falcons QB Marcus Mariota

Atlanta can entertain a variety of scenarios this offseason for its future at quarterback, but it’s doubtful any of them involve Mariota, who was benched for rookie Desmond Ridder in December and then underwent a procedure on his knee. In clearing $12 million by dropping Mariota, the Falcons – who rank second only to the Bears with $55 million in cap space – could further boost their potential free-agent spending power.

Bengals RB Joe Mixon

Was the AFC championship game – in which Mixon totaled 23 snaps to Samaje Perine’s 43 – a harbinger of a changing of the guard in the Bengals’ backfield? Mixon managed just 3.9 yards per carry last year, and Cincinnati could recoup $7.3 million against the cap by moving on. With a sure-to-be massive Joe Burrow extension looming, every dollar matters. Perine is a free agent, so Cincinnati could go the most cost-effective route and turn things over to a mid-round back of its liking.

Lions DE Romeo Okwara

The trimming in Detroit began Thursday with the release of defensive tackle Michael Brockers, and it likely won’t end there. Despite already being well under the cap, the Lions can create more space for free-agent spending by parting ways with Okwara, who has played in just nine games the last two years due to a torn Achilles. The Lions’ defensive youth movement likely will continue this offseason – perhaps with a defensive end chosen with one of the team’s four picks among the top 55 selections – and the team can save $7.5 million with a split.

Colts QB Matt Ryan

A separation between the 37-year-old signal-caller and team determined to invest in a young quarterback is sure to come some time before March 17, when Ryan would be due an additional $17.2 million in guaranteed money (Indianapolis is already on the hook for $12 million). Ryan told ESPN he still is weighing whether he wants to return for a 16th NFL season, but his playoff work with CBS might have been his first step toward the broadcast booth.   

Buccaneers OT Donovan Smith

Tampa Bay’s daunting fiscal outlook – a league-worst $56 million over the cap with a horde of soon-to-be free agents unsigned – leaves plenty of candidates to be sent packing, including running back Leonard Fournette and offensive guard Shaq Mason.

Smith’s situation, however, creates a dilemma. The Buccaneers won’t have any easy replacement at left tackle if they do bid farewell to the eight-year veteran, who had a down year after suffering an elbow hyperextension in September. But they might not be able to pass up the $15.25 million in space afforded by a post-June 1 release of Smith, even if it means creating an even more inauspicious landscape for the likely inexperienced successor to Tom Brady. 

Panthers LB Shaq Thompson

It’s never easy to send a team leader and captain packing, and new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero said Thompson would be a fine fit for his 3-4 scheme. But a $24.4 million cap hit is likely prohibitive for an off-ball linebacker who offers next to nothing as a blitzer and has been uneven in coverage. Carolina can save almost $13.2 million by walking away. 

Steelers QB Mitchell Trubisky

With Kenny Pickett entrenched as the starter, no point in seeing through the the two-year, $14.3 million deal Trubisky inked with Pittsburgh last summer. The Steelers likely will need to find a veteran backup for Pickett given that Mason Rudolph is set to become a free agent, but there’s no reason they can’t find a more cost-effective option than Trubisky. 

Commanders QB Carson Wentz

(UPDATE: The Commanders announced Monday afternoon they had released Wentz.)

On a list with several players whose futures are murky, this one looks like a done deal. Commanders coach Ron Rivera signaled earlier in February that second-year passer Sam Howell will likely enter the offseason as the team’s starter, and there’s no reason to keep Wentz around as a $26 million backup. No dead money would be incurred with a divorce, meaning the seven-year veteran should be headed for his fourth team in as many seasons.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

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