5 NFL teams that desperately need salary cap space — and how they can make room

Two teams, the Vikings and Jaguars, are entering the offseason over the $200 million salary cap.

Hope springs eternal in the NFL offseason. Every team has a chance to sign and draft new players who could become difference-makers in the future.

Some franchises have more resources than others, though.

There are teams that landed near the top of the 2020 NFL Draft order, a few that made trades to acquire more draft picks, and some that have plenty of room under the salary cap to dish out big money in free agency. On the flip side, there are a handful of teams that can’t afford to do much unless they make some tough decisions.

Here are the five teams entering the 2020 offseason with the most tenuous salary cap situations, and what they can do to clear space (all cap figures as of Feb. 12, courtesy of Over The Cap):

Atlanta Falcons ($5.3 million in cap space)

The Falcons didn’t make many changes after finishing the 2019 season with a 7-9 record. Head coach Dan Quinn, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter were all retained. Minimal cap space means the team doesn’t have room to make many big moves in the offseason either.

How did they get here? Matt Ryan’s 2018 extension isn’t the most expensive in the league, but his $24.175 million cap hit is still sixth among quarterbacks. Julio Jones is one of 12 non-quarterbacks with a hit over $20 million. There are another five players (Jake Matthews, Desmond Trufant, Grady Jarrett, Alex Mack, and Deion Jones) due to cost the Falcons at least $10 million each.

Three moves to save money

  1. Release running back Devonta Freeman (save $9.5 million): Only four running backs are set to cost more in 2020. Meanwhile, Freeman’s 3.6 yards per carry made him one of the least effective backs in the league in 2019. He doesn’t seem to fit in Koetter’s offense and he’s through all the guaranteed money in his contract. It makes sense that the Falcons are reportedly considering a split.
  2. Restructure for cornerback Desmond Trufant (save $5-10 million): The last four years of Trufant’s career in Atlanta haven’t been as stellar as his first three. He’s not a bad player when healthy, but Trufant is overpaid with a cap hit of $15.15 million. The Falcons would only get back $4.95 million in savings by releasing or trading Trufant though. The better move would be shifting some of his base salary into a signing bonus to clear space.
  3. Release safety Keanu Neal (save $6.47 million): This is the least likely of the three moves, mostly because Neal is a former Pro Bowler who’s still just 24. However, an ACL tear cost him 15 games in 2018 and an Achilles tear kept him out for 13 games in 2019.

Chicago Bears ($5 million in cap space)

The Super Bowl push didn’t go as planned in 2019. Still, the Bears finished 8-8 and have a roster that can be a winner in 2020. They’re keeping Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback and probably won’t want to do anything too drastic to clear space.

How did they get here? There are only four players in the NFL with bigger cap hits than Khalil Mack‘s $26.6 million number, and they’re all quarterbacks. Another seven Bears — six of whom play defense — have payouts between $10 and $15 million. Chicago still has an elite defense, but it’s paying a lot for the dominant unit.

Three moves to save money

  1. Release linebacker Leonard Floyd (save $13.22 million): After seven sacks in his rookie season, Floyd’s production has dropped each year. He managed just three sacks in 2019. Now he’s headed into the fifth-year option of his rookie deal and the Bears can recoup the entire $13.222 million by cutting ties with him.
  2. Release or trade receiver Taylor Gabriel (save $4.5 million): The slot receiver missed a couple games early in 2019 due to a concussion and then five more at the end of the season after suffering a second concussion. In his stead, Anthony Miller stepped up as a starter. That makes Gabriel expendable, and — if Chicago is lucky — he’s a player who could have some trade value.
  3. Extend receiver Allen Robinson (save $5-10 million): In a season, 98 receptions, 1,147 yards, and seven touchdowns are impressive numbers for any player. That Robinson did it with Mitchell Trubisky and a 29th-ranked offense is ridiculous. The Bears should want to keep Robinson around and an extension would secure that, as well as shift much of his cap hit into later years.

Pittsburgh Steelers ($1.4 million in cap space)

A season that looked like a lost cause early nearly turned into a playoff run for the Steelers. They don’t have much room to make many moves, but, fortunately for them, they don’t need to.

How did they get here? The hefty two-year, $68 million extension given to Ben Roethlisberger last year didn’t pay off when the quarterback was sidelined for almost all of 2019. Jared Goff is the only player with a cap hit larger than Roethlisberger’s $33.5 million in 2020. Barring a surprise retirement, there’s not much Pittsburgh can do about that contract. The team will have to chip away at other parts of the roster to find cap room.

Three moves to save money

  1. Release tight end Vance McDonald (save $5.67 million): The veteran tight end averaged just 19.5 receiving yards per game and 5.0 yards per target in 2019. The Steelers need tight end help, but drafting one would be better than picking up McDonald’s contract option.
  2. Release linebacker Mark Barron (save $5.25 million): Adding Devin Bush to the middle of the defense made Barron expendable. He split time with Vince Williams this past season, and is now due to cost over $8 million in 2020. That’s way too much for a rotational player. While Pittsburgh would have to eat some dead money, the savings would be worth it.
  3. Release linebacker Anthony Chickillo (save $5 million): The Steelers led the NFL in sacks with 54, and got only a half-sack out of Chickillo. Outside linebacker will be a problem area for Pittsburgh if Bud Dupree departs, but it’s not worth keeping Chickillo over $5 million.

Jacksonville Jaguars ($3.4 million over the cap)

The Jaguars have a lot of work to do before a return to the playoffs can happen. The once-dominant Jacksonville defense has regressed and the offense was 26th in points scored.

How did they get here? The Jaguars ponied up serious cash in 2017 to sign Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, Barry Church, and Tashaun Gipson in free agency. Then they traded for Marcell Dareus and took on another sizable contract. Now those deals are eating up a lot of room. It didn’t help that the team blew $130 million in two offseasons on Blake Bortles and Nick Foles. Trading Foles would only clear a few million. Fortunately, the Jaguars can clear up a ton of space with mostly inconsequential moves.

Three moves to save money

  1. Release defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (save $20 million): Twenty million! The Jaguars could use his run-stopping prowess, but not in lieu of that much money. Besides, Dareus isn’t the same player who was an All-Pro in 2014. Now he’s mostly a run stuffer who doesn’t make many plays in the backfield.
  2. Release linebacker Jake Ryan (save $6 million): The former Packers linebacker played one defensive snap in his first season with the Jaguars. He missed the first three months of the year on the reserve/non-football injury list and suffered a hamstring injury shortly after returning to action. Cutting ties is a no-brainer.
  3. Release tight end Geoff Swaim (save $4.05 million): An ankle injury and a concussion ended Swaim’s first season with the Jaguars after only six games. He only had 65 receiving yards in his limited time on the field, and was outperformed by several other Jaguars tight ends.

Minnesota Vikings ($11.4 million over the cap)

The Vikings have the largest pit to climb out of, and — unlike the Jaguars with Dareus — don’t have a $20 million golden parachute out of trouble.

How did they get here? Kirk Cousinsfully guaranteed contract was unprecedented and is now due to count $31 million against the cap in 2020. Another eight players on the Vikings’ roster have cap hits of at least $12 million.

Three moves to save money

  1. Extend quarterback Kirk Cousins (save as much as $22.84 million): Minnesota has gotten two second-place finishes in the NFC North and one playoff win out of the Cousins era. Is that all his fault? No. But it hasn’t been enough either. Even still, Cousins had a 107.4 passer rating and probably isn’t a player the Vikings want to part with yet. So now is a great time to give him an extension and push a significant chunk of his $31 million hit into later years.
  2. Release cornerback Xavier Rhodes (save $8.1 million): Rhodes’ play has fallen off a cliff. The 2017 All-Pro allowed a 127.8 passer rating on throws his direction in 2019, third-highest among cornerbacks. And that’s just the regular season. The number jumped to 155.8 in the Vikings’ two playoff games. Maybe if Minnesota had a better cap situation it could hope for a bounce-back year from Rhodes. That’s not a risk the team can afford, however.
  3. Release defensive tackle Linval Joseph (save $10.55 million): There’s more than $13 million in potential savings if the Vikings release Everson Griffen. The defensive end is still playing at a Pro Bowl level, though. Joseph is not. The nose tackle’s production has declined and he finished with a Pro Football Focus grade below 70 for the first time since 2011. Joseph is a defensive leader, but the Vikings could find a cheaper way to stop the run.

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