With the 2012 season and accompanying postseason fully in the history books, NFL teams are now focused on preparing for the upcoming 2013 Draft as well as the impending free agency period. Free agency officially begins on March 12, but there will be plenty of moves and transactions made before then. As always, we'll see teams release established veterans and valuable players in order to save themselves money and gain flexibility under the salary cap. I'll be going division-by-division and analyzing the salary cap situation of each team in the league, highlighting some players for every club that could potentially be axed in order to save some money. We'll start off with the division where the current Super Bowl champions reside, the AFC North.
Current Projected Cap Space - $14.6M
Key Free Agents - Joe Flacco (QB), Paul Kruger (LB), Dannell Ellerbe (LB), Ed Reed (S)
The euphoria of claiming the Lombardi Trophy won't last too long for the Baltimore Ravens, as they are going to faced with an offseason full of tough decisions that need to be made. Joe Flacco just finished off an incredible postseason run by claiming Super Bowl MVP honors, and is set to get quite a hefty contract from the team as a result. This will certainly cut a large chunk of change from what the team has available to spend, and some important players from their Super Bowl run might be on the way out as a result. The most popular name by far being floated around as a possibility right now is wide receiver Anquan Boldin
, who carries a $7.5M cap figure with him into 2013. Boldin made seemingly an endless string of spectacular catches during the postseason, and has been one of the most reliable and productive receivers in the NFL for his whole career. Cutting him would be an extremely tough pill to swallow, but in the end I think the two sides will manage to work out a restructured deal.
The Ravens are not strangers to drastic roster change though. Last year the team let Jarrett Johnson, Corey Redding, Ben Grubbs, and Tom Zbikowski all walk. The year before that, they purged several longtime mainstays of the team in Todd Heap, Kelly Gregg, and Derrick Mason. Another potential cap casualty for the organization could be another of their star performers in the Super Bowl, receiver Jacoby Jones. His $4.9M figure for next season certainly sticks out, if nothing else. An off-the-board candidate to be cut could be OT Michael Oher, who has continually disappointed after having an impressive rookie season in 2009. He's set to make just under $5.0M in 2013, and the team could draft another offensive tackle early to replace him.
Current Projected Cap Space - $55.1M
Key Free Agents - Andre Smith (OT), Michael Johnson (DE), Terence Newman (CB), Adam Jones (CB)
Unsurprisingly, the Bengals find themselves in a position where they have plenty of cash to spend this offseason. Under Mike Brown, the organization has become very well-known for their frugal spending habits, especially in recent years. You have to assume that they will be willing to write some big checks for some of their important free agents. Andre Smith emerged as one of the better right tackles in the NFL this past season, and fellow 2009 draftee Michael Johnson had quite a strong year in his own right. It's unlikely that the Bengals will need to actually make any cuts to gain cap flexibility, but if they do, then Jason Allen
could be the first to go. Cincinnati stockpiled defensive backs prior to 2012, and Allen ended up getting buried on the depth chart as he contributed only three snaps on defense all year. He carries a cap figure of $4.1M for 2013, and though he might be in line for more playing time if Newman and Jones are not brought back, that's still a tough number to swallow.
Other potential cap casualties for the Bengals include DT Domata Peko, who carries a $5.1M cap hit into next season, but it's believed that Peko is respected too much as a defensive leader in the locker room for him to be cut, despite the drafting last year of both Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. Travelle Wharton suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason after signing on with the Bengals, and then proceeded to watch Clint Boling take his job and run with it. Wharton is quite a solid option as your sixth offensive lineman, but a $3.7M cap figure might be too much to stomach for most teams. Luckily, the Bengals don't seem to have to worry about it considering their cap situation.
Current Projected Cap Space - $47.0M
Key Free Agents - Sheldon Brown (CB), Phil Dawson (K), Benjamin Watson (TE), Kaluka Maiava (LB)
The new regime of the Cleveland Browns got to work very early this offseason, already having cut DE Frostee Rucker, who was signed less than a year ago last March to a five-year contract worth about $21M. Rucker didn't fit in with the organization's plans to revert back to a 3-4 defensive scheme, and his salary was deemed too high to keep him around. Rucker will end up being $4M worth of dead money to the Browns this coming year, but the team still has quite a large amount of cap space to work with. There was speculation that LB D'Qwell Jackson might also be on his way out due to concerns over his ability to play in the 3-4, but his contract became fully guaranteed on February 6, and isn't likely to be going anywhere.
The most likely candidate to be a cap casualty for the Browns is probably linebacker Chris Gocong
, who ruptured his Achilles tendon during training camp in 2012 and never saw the field. He's set to earn about $4.9M in 2013, but is yet another member of the defense who might not have a role in the new defense being installed. The Browns will almost certainly ask him to restructure his deal, and if Gocong refuses, it's likely he'll be allowed to pursue a new contract somewhere else. Colt McCoy could also be in danger of being on the chopping block, as he's not considered to be a strong fit for new head coach Rob Chudzinski's vertical offense.
Current Projected Cap Space - $12.5M OVER
Key Free Agents - Keenan Lewis (CB), Mike Wallace (WR), Ramon Foster (G), Rashard Mendenhall (RB)
The Steelers are currently projected to be over the 2013 cap by a fair bit, and will have no choice but to make some cuts in order to get under the ceiling. It seems like a foregone conclusion to most people that the team will part ways with former Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison
, considering that he'll be 35 years old and set to make just over $10.0M in 2013. His play has not been at the same level as it was just a few short seasons ago when he was terrorizing opposing offensive tackles on a weekly basis, and the organization appears to be comfortable enough with 2010 second-round Draft pick, Jason Worilds, to give him the starting job opposite Lamarr Woodley.
Another veteran defensive player on the Steelers roster who could potentially be axed in order to cut costs is defensive end Brett Keisel. His $4.5M cap figure for 2013 might be too much for the team to swallow, especially considering that 2011 first-round draftee Cameron Heyward looks more than ready to take over for Keisel as a starter. Also it would appear that Willie Colon is another name being floated around as a potential cap casualty for Pittsburgh. Colon has always been a solid and dependable offensive lineman for the team when he's been able to stay on the field, but he hasn't played a full season since 2009 and he may be deemed too injury-prone for the team to invest over $7.6M to him next season.