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 went through the AFC last week, and this week we'll tackle all the teams of the NFC. Following the same order, we shall start with the NFC North.
Current Projected Cap Space - $10.3M
Key Free Agents - Henry Melton (DT), Israel Idonije (DE), Brian Urlacher (LB), Chris Spencer (G)
The new regime of the Chicago Bears has been installed, and will get the chance to leave their first impression in 2013 after a 2012 campaign where the team missed the postseason despite winning ten games. Gone are Lovie Smith and crew; replaced by Marc Trestman at head coach, Aaron Kromer as offensive coordinator, and Mel Tucker coordinating the defensive side. The team needs an infusion of talent in some key areas, but they don't have much cap room to accomplish that with and they might not be able to fill all of their needs through the Draft. In the scenario that the team feels the need to spend some money in the free agent market, who could be getting shown the door to clear up some room on the payroll?
It isn't an easy question to answer. The Bears have done a good job of managing their cap and making sure that their star players are being paid appropriately, while avoiding bloated contracts and unnecessary overpays. If there is any player on their roster who seems like a candidate to be cut, it would be tight end Kellen Davis
, who routinely fails to impress or make an impact in the passing game. He has value as a blocker, but the problem for him is that the Bears already have one of the best blocking TEs in the league on the roster in Matt Spaeth. The Bears are fully expected to look for a replacement for Davis in the upcoming Draft, so it would make sense for them to cut ties with Davis and his $3.85M cap hit for 2013. Doing so would save the team $2.5M that they could put towards keeping one of their stud free agents on the defensive line in Henry Melton or Israel Idonije.
Current Projected Cap Space - $1.8M
Key Free Agents - Cliff Avril (DE), Gosder Cherilus (OT), Chris Houston (CB), Louis Delmas (S)
After being one of the most surprising teams in the NFL in 2011, the 2012 season was an utter disaster for the Detroit Lions. Incidents both on and off the field plagued the team, and they dropped from ten wins the year before to just four. Detroit ended their season looking at being over the salary cap for 2013, and as a result had no choice but to cut Kyle Vanden Bosch and Stephen Peterman in order to cut costs, as well as restructuring the contract of Dominic Raiola. Even with those moves, they're still barely shaving their way underneath the cap limit, and need to continue making moves if they want to have any chance of retaining some of their own free agents, or bringing new ones in.
The easiest solution to doing so may not actually be cutting anybody, but in fact, giving a certain someone a contract extension. Currently, Matthew Stafford
is set to make over $20.0M in 2013, effectively taking up about one-sixth of the overall cap space all by himself. The reason that number is so high is due to the fact that Stafford has previously reworked his deal in years past to help give the team immediate cap relief. Now Detroit is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and has little choice but to extend Stafford with a big deal to deflate his figure for 2013 and give them room to spend money in free agency. A secondary potential source of savings would come from releasing Mike Thomas, who they would owe no money after claiming him off of waivers from Jacksonville and would result in a savings of $1.5M. To those wondering if Jahvid Best is a candidate to be cut, let me stop you right there - he's not. The money on his rookie deal is largely guaranteed, so whether he is on the team or not, the Lions will be paying him.
Green Bay Packers:
Current Projected Cap Space - $18.8M
Key Free Agents - Greg Jennings (WR), Brad Jones (LB), Sam Shields (CB), Cedric Benson (RB)
The Packers find themselves in a pretty decent cap situation after releasing veteran safety Charles Woodson from the team, and getting rid of his nearly $9.0M cap hit in the process. Green Bay is fully expected to be a heavyweight contender in the NFC in 2013 just as they have been the past few seasons, despite looking completely out of their league upon running into the buzzsaw that was the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs earlier this January. With their payroll looking in good order and not too much to worry about regarding free agents, Green Bay will be able to be very flexible and unrestricted this offseason in terms of what moves they'll be able to make.
If they wanted to get even more flexible in their dealing opportunities, they could make another very effective cost-cutting move by releasing Jermichael Finley
; a man who is no stranger to making headlines in either Green Bay or nationwide. Recently Finley said he believed it was about "50-50" when asked about his chances of returning to Green Bay in 2013. If the Packers have truly looked at the matter in such a way, they might be wise to pull the trigger. Finley is set to have the second-highest cap figure on the team next season (behind Aaron Rodgers) at $8.75M. However, if they were to release Finley, it would only cost them $500K in dead money against the cap. Another name generating a lot of buzz as a potential cap casualty in Wisconsin is linebacker A.J. Hawk, who has never quite lived up to the lofty expectations placed upon him when he entered the league in 2006. He'll make just a little bit over $7.0M in 2013 if he remains on the roster, and GM Ted Thompson may be of the belief that he has two better options as starters in D.J. Williams and Brad Jones (provided that Jones is re-signed of course). Cutting Hawk would result in about $2.2M worth of money freed up.
Current Projected Cap Space - $13.0M
Key Free Agents - Erin Henderson (LB), Phil Loadholt (OT), Jamarca Sanford (S), Jerome Felton (FB)
The Vikings ended up being one of the biggest surprises in 2012, going from 3-13 the year prior to 10-6 and a postseason berth. Card-carrying member of the All-Universe team, Adrian Peterson, rushed for over 2,000 yards and was named the MVP of the league. First round selection and #3 pick overall in the 2012 Draft, Matt Kalil, was plugged in at left tackle on day one and looked every bit the part of the future superstar he is supposed to be. Fellow first-round rookie, Harrison Smith, helped drastically turn around a secondary that previously was one of the most exploitable in the league. Just about everything that could go right for Minnesota in 2012 did, with the glaring exception of the quarterback situation, where 2011 first-round draftee Christian Ponder looked out of his league at times.
That being said, the Vikings have a modest amount of cap space with which to make deals, and they don't have many free agents to make sure they retain. The ones that they will pursue most heavily, such as Sanford and Felton, won't cost too much to keep around either. It may get a little trickier to bring back Henderson and/or Loadholt though, and if they want to give themselves some more money to work with, it may come at the expense of Michael Jenkins
. Jenkins signed with Minnesota prior to the 2011 season, and in his two years there he has failed to establish himself in any capacity. Now, set to make just over $3.9M next season, it's unlikely he'll be kept around. The penalty for releasing him will only be about two-thirds of a million dollars too, so the Vikings shouldn't have any reservations about the move if that's the direction they decide to go in. Another option for the Vikings would be to release veteran offensive lineman Charlie Johnson, who was pushed out of his spot at left tackle by Kalil, and subsequently failed to impress beside him at left guard. He is due $4.35M in 2013, and the team would save over $2.5M by letting him go.