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AFC cut candidates: Blake Bortles obvious, but Justin Houston?

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Julian Edelman was barely done with his Monday morning Super Bowl MVP press conference when the first cuts started. The Falcons waved goodbye to cornerback Robert Alford, who, two long years ago, had a pick-six of Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. Alford was signed by the Cardinals just two days after his release, a reminder that free agency doesn't necessarily wait for mid-March.

Other notable names like Texans wideout Demaryius Thomas have been released since, but most of the roster pruning will take place closer to when the new league year starts on March 13.

Below is my best guess at projecting some of the potential AFC cuts. Click here for the NFC rundown.

Note: Unless otherwise cited, salary-cap figures in this piece were found on OverTheCap.com.

Strong candidates for release

1) Case Keenum, QB, Denver Broncos: Broncos executive John Elway admitted Keenum was a "short-term" solution, and then he showed that he meant it in trading for Joe Flacco. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reports that the Broncos will now shop Keenum. If nothing comes to fruition there, Elway is likely to eat the $6.5 million guaranteed on Keenum's 2019 contract to save salary-cap space, rather than let Keenum compete with Flacco.

2) Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Bortles will still cost the Jaguars $16.5 million against the cap in dead money, even if they cut him. That includes $6.5 million in guaranteed money due to Bortles in 2019 because of the deeply unnecessary contract extension Jags executive Tom Coughlin and general manager David Caldwell gave Bortles last offseason. It's up to the same front office to recover from that mistake quickly.

3) Malik Jackson, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars: Jackson has enjoyed a sneaky-good three-year run in Jacksonville and wasn't a huge liability last season, especially in a part-time role after his snaps were reduced late in the season. But $13 million is too much to pay for a rotational lineman when the Jags have real cap issues (see above) and real needs, and Jackson knows he's a goner. He won't be our No. 1 free agent again, but he'll inspire plenty of interest.

4-5) CB Jimmy Smith and WR Michael Crabtree, Baltimore Ravens: The two men whose end zone battle essentially decided Super Bowl XLVII could be linked again this offseason. Smith hasn't stayed on the field enough to earn his scheduled $9.5 million salary, while Crabtree's one season in Baltimore was a disappointment. The Ravens need to get younger and faster at wide receiver and in the secondary.

6) Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins: Due $38 million over the next two years, Tannehill's fate will be a great litmus test of just how desperate teams are in the quarterback market. There's a chance another team will see that contract and give up a draft pick to obtain it. A chance.

7-10) WR DeVante Parker, DE Robert Quinn, WR Danny Amendola and DE Andre Branch, Miami Dolphins: Nearly every genre of personnel mistake is represented here. Parker is an example of the first-round pick who fizzled out despite all sorts of chances. Amendola was the aging veteran overpaid for leadership. Quinn was the expensive trade acquisition who never made sense. Branch was the most costly of all, a homegrown contract-year hero who the club didn't correctly self-scout. These are the moves the Dolphins have made to win between six and eight games in nine of the last 10 years.

11) Donald Penn, OT, Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden announced his intentions at tackle when the Raiders drafted two players at the position last year, and that came before Penn missed most of 2018 with a groin injury.

12) Bud Dupree, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Tomlin has been patiently waiting for Dupree to live up to the Steelers' edge-rushing tradition for four seasons. Paying him $9.232 million on a fifth-year option would represent far too much patience.

13) Charles Clay, TE, Buffalo Bills: Clay was a splashy free-agent signing by former GM Doug Whaley. He was a healthy scratch late last season, usually the final sign a player is on his way out.

Potential surprises

1) Justin Houston, LB/DE, Kansas City Chiefs: Houston is one of the best pass rushers of the last decade, so I was surprised how casually The Athletic's Nate Parker wrote that Houston was unlikely to return to the team in 2019 because of his $21.1 million cap figure.

The more I thought about it -- and read comments from Chiefs GM Brett Veach -- the more sense it made. The Chiefs are switching to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and Veach lauded how youngsters Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi fit into the new system. The team has already said it will bring back Dee Ford, which probably means the franchise tag. Veach was vague about Houston's future. K.C. doesn't have a ton of cap space and needs to start making room for extensions for Jones, Tyreek Hill and eventually Patrick Mahomes. Houston can still play at a high level, but perhaps not at the level you'd expect for someone set to count for $21.1 million against the cap at age 30. If released, he'll get picked up quickly on a big deal elsewhere.

2) Kelechi Osemele, OG, Oakland Raiders: New Raiders GM Mike Mayock -- that still feels bizarre to write -- has plenty of cap space, but the team might want to continue getting younger up front.

3) Marcell Dareus, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars: Dareus is ultimately a valuable run-stopping specialist who is paid like a superstar.

4) Eric Weddle, S, Baltimore Ravens: Weddle said after the season he'd retire before playing for another organization, but then backed off that statement. A valuable pickup by former GM Ozzie Newsome, the 34-year-old no longer possesses the range he once had.

5) Jamie Collins, LB, Cleveland Browns: Still dogged by occasional complaints about his effort level, Collins' bigger issue is his lack of playmaking. It's been a while since NBC's Cris Collinsworth called him one of the best defensive players in football.

6) S Devin McCourty or LB Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots: Bill Belichick has shown in the past he's not afraid to let go of highly paid defensive leaders. Retirement has been floated as an option for McCourty, which could be a pre-emptive strike against any Patriots request for a pay cut. Hightower was terrific in the playoffs and is the heartbeat of the team's linebacker group, but the Pats often err on the side of letting go of a player a year too early rather than keeping him a year too long. It's hard to imagine New England cutting both players, but saying goodbye to one would be a typical Belichickian way to move on from the Super Bowl afterglow.

Other players in trouble (in alphabetical order): Dwayne Allen, TE, New England Patriots; Kelvin Beachum, OT, New York Jets; Travis Benjamin, WR, Los Angeles Chargers; Morgan Burnett, S, Pittsburgh Steelers; Adrian Clayborn, DE, New England Patriots; Isaiah Crowell, RB, New York Jets; Johnathan Cyprien, S, Tennessee Titans; Carlos Hyde, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars; Kevin Johnson, CB, Houston Texans; Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Cincinnati Bengals; Ronald Leary, OG, Denver Broncos; Corey Liuget, DT, Los Angeles Chargers; Brandon Marshall, LB, Denver Broncos; AJ McCarron, QB, Oakland Raiders; Seth Roberts, WR, Oakland Raiders; Josh Sitton, OG, Miami Dolphins; Daniel Sorensen, S, Kansas City Chiefs.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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