The NFL salary cap causes GM’s to have to make hard decisions like these.
The NFL, just like the NBA and NHL, attempts to keep a level playing field through the use of a salary cap. This forces General Managers to think creatively when trying to manage their rosters. Every offseason, difficult decisions have to be made about whether to keep good players and limit spending flexibility or release players to increase cap room and provide flexibility for improving the team. Here are three big name players who could be casualties of the salary cap this offseason:
1. Arian Foster: RB, Houston Texans
Amount of cap space gained if released: $6,625,000
Arian Foster has been one of the best running backs in football the last six years. In that time, he has run for over 1,200 yards four times and scored eight or more touchdowns four times. This season, he suffered a groin injury in training camp which caused him to miss the first four games of the season, and then in Week 8, he tore his achilles and missed the rest of the season.
With Foster coming off such a serious injury and turning 30 in August, it doesn’t make sense for Houston to keep him at a cap number of $8.9 million. The history of great running backs declining by age 30 is well documented. LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Maurice Jones Drew, Steven Jackson, Marshall Faulk, and Eric Dickerson are all examples of guys who looked past their prime by the time they hit 30.
After Foster got hurt, the Texans posted a 7-2 record. Though backup Alfred Blue had a mediocre season (83 attempts/698 yards/2 TDs), it didn’t seem to affect Houston on the scoreboard. When Foster did play, the Texans went 1-3, and Foster averaged only 2.6 yards per carry. In short, Foster is a 30-year-old coming off a major injury and playing the most replaceable position in the NFL.
With all that being said, I think it would be a very smart move for the Texans to save about $6.6 million by releasing him. The Texans are in desperate need of a quarterback, so they will need all the cap space they can get to chase someone like Brock Osweiler. And in 2017, they will need a lot of cap space to sign their best offensive player DeAndre Hopkins, who is going to command a huge contract when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
2. Jimmy Graham: TE, Seattle Seahawks
Amount of cap space gained if released: $9,000,000
Coming off of two straight Super Bowl appearances, the Seattle Seahawks made the splash of the offseason. They traded away center Max Unger and a first round pick to the New Orleans Saints for Jimmy Graham and a fourth round pick. Adding one of the most productive tight ends in the league since 2011 looked like a move that would make the Seahawks even more of a juggernaut than they already were. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, they could never really figure out how to use him before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 11.
Before Graham got hurt, he was having the worst statistical season of his career since his rookie year. In 11 games, he posted a stat line of 48 receptions, 605 yards, and two touchdowns. The number that really stands out is the two touchdown catches: he dominated the endzone from 2011-14, catching 46 touchdowns — a number better than anyone else in the league.
The main reason he had only two touchdowns was that the Seahawks didn’t give him the same opportunities in the red zone he had with the Saints. In 2013 and 2014, Graham was targeted 25 and 23 times in the red zone, while in this past season, he was targeted only 10 times according to Pro Football Reference.
Even with the subpar statistics he was putting up, one would assume that just his presence on the field would have made the Seahawks a better offense, but that wasn’t the case. In the 10.5 games he played in, the Seahawks averaged 21 points per game. In the 7.5 games the Seahawks played without him, they averaged 27 points per game.
The issue with the Seahawks in the playoffs wasn’t Jimmy Graham’s absence — it was their offensive line not being able to protect Russell Wilson. According to Football Outsiders, Seattle’s offensive line ranked 30th in pass protection DVOA with an adjusted sack rate of nine percent. Seattle should be spending its money in free agency on offensive line help. By releasing Jimmy Graham, the Seahawks would gain an extra nine million dollars in cap space, allowing for them to improve the offensive line or re-sign other important players. Re-signing Russell Okung, Jermaine Kearse, Jeremy Lane, and signing a talented offensive lineman like Evan Mathis are better moves than hanging onto Graham at his price tag.
3. Charles Johnson: Defensive End, Carolina Panthers
Amount of cap space gained if released: $11,000,000
Charles Johnson has been one of the most foundational players for the Carolina Panthers since 2010. In the years 2010-2014, Johnson recorded 11.5, 9, 12.5, 11, and 8.5 sacks respectively, numbers which made him one of the most underrated pass rushers in football. This solid play earned him a big six year, $76 million contract.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he suffered a hamstring injury in Week 3 and ended up playing only 12 games, including the three playoff games, and recorded only four sacks. While Johnson didn’t have his usual productive year, players such as Mario Addison (six sacks), Kawann Short (11 sacks), and Kony Ealy (five sacks) all had good seasons. Those three were the anchors of a pass rush that in large part created the 15-1 Carolina Panthers’ identity.
With those three younger pass rushers showing ability, it isn’t crucial Charles Johnson becomes less crucial to the Panthers’ defense. Johnson has the second highest cap hit on the team, $15 million, and that’s just too much money locked up for the small extra benefit that he provides.
Releasing him would open up $11 million in cap space, and there are many key players who are about to hit free agency the next two years for Carolina. This offseason, first team All-Pros Josh Norman and Mike Tolbert are free agents, and in 2017, many key starters and depth players become free agents. This list includes Ryan Kahlil, Andrew Norwell, Kawann Short, Mario Addison, and Kurt Coleman. It is pretty obvious that the $11 million in extra cap space flexibility is much more valuable to this team than having Charles Johnson on the roster.
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