2021 AFC cut candidates: Viable releases and potential surprises

I hit the NFC candidates for release in this messy offseason on Thursday. Here's a look at the AFC's likely candidates to be cut -- and some possible surprises -- with the salary cap expected to take a nosedive.

NOTE: All salary cap figures are from Over The Cap unless otherwise stated.

Strong candidates for release

1) Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos: The Broncos are in better salary cap shape than most, but this was always going to be an inflexion-point year for Miller, even if he wasn't coming off a dislocated tendon in his ankle that forced him to miss all of last season, due to his contract's club option for 2021. Miller's performance had already dipped before the injury and the Broncos can save $18 million against the cap by declining the option. Also, news broke in January that Miller was under criminal investigation, with the team releasing the following statement: "We are aware of an investigation involving Von Miller and are in process of gathering more information."

It's hard to overstate Miller's excellence or importance to the Broncos over the last decade. The Hall of Fame-caliber pass rusher could still have good years left, albeit at a reduced price. He could renegotiate a pay cut with Denver, but hitting the market is more likely.

2) Jurrell Casey, DT, Denver Broncos: It was always going to be a challenge for Casey to reach the final season of a four-year, $60.4 million extension he originally signed with the Titans. Denver had high hopes for Casey after acquiring the five-time Pro Bowler via trade last March, but he missed most of the season with an injury. The Broncos can save $11.9 million in cap space by cutting the 31-year-old. (UPDATE: The Broncos are releasing Casey, NFL Network's James Palmer reported Thursday.)

3-4) RB David Johnson and LB Benardrick McKinney, Houston Texans: New general manager Nick Caserio already released J.J. Watt. There will be less painful course corrections from Bill O'Brien's personnel blunders to follow.

5) Trai Turner, OG, Los Angeles Chargers: General manager Tom Telesco has tried everything to fix the Chargers' offensive line over the years, with last offseason's Turner-for-Russell Okung trade the latest misfire.

6) Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals: Like Von Miller, Atkins is an All-Decade performer who now figures to be in the year-to-year trusty-veteran phase of his career.

7-9) DT Vernon Butler, DT Quinton Jefferson and DE Mario Addison, Buffalo Bills: I don't think general manager Brandon Beane will move on from this entire trio of 2020 pickups. But the Bills are very likely to rebuild their defensive line and they'll need to create space by cutting one or two of these veterans.

10) David Njoku, TE, Cleveland Browns: The 2017 first-round pick played his best game of the season in the Divisional Round against the Chiefs, which will not be forgotten in Cleveland anytime soon.

11) Adam Humphries, WR, Tennessee Titans: Concussions could jeopardize Humphries' career. With Corey Davis hitting free agency, the Titans may have to re-work their receiver group beyond A.J. Brown. (UPDATE: NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported Thursday that the Titans are https://twitter.com/TomPelissero/status/1365042352012873729" target="_blank" >releasing Humphries.)_

Potential surprise cuts

1) Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Owner Art Rooney II made it clear back in January the Steelers are ready to release Big Ben if necessary. Teams do not ask players to take pay cuts -- much less talk about it publicly -- unless they are prepared to move on if the negotiations don't pan out. Roethlisberger has also made it clear publicly he's willing to take a pay cut, but general manager Kevin Colbert's noncommittal words recently indicate that may not be enough. (UPDATE: The Steelers want Roethlisberger back for the 2021 season his agent, Ryan Tollner, told NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala on Tuesday.)

Roethlisberger's buddy, Maurkice Pouncey, has retired. The Steelers let go of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, whom Roethlisberger was close to. JuJu Smith-Schuster may be next to go. It's possible that Steelers brass view this offseason as the appropriate time to rebuild the machine, especially after the team's 1-4 finish to the 2020 campaign. Cutting Ben, while painful, would save $19 million against this year's cap. It may be the cleanest way to massage their difficult salary cap situation, currently projected to be $30 million over the cap.

2) John Brown, WR, Buffalo Bills: I wouldn't make this move, because I am taking up the mantle from the late, great Chris Wesseling as this company's foremost Smokey Brown believer. He's a great No. 2 receiver!

I suspect, however, Bills general manager Brandon Beane wants to open up some cap flexibility and may view Brown's $9.5 million cap hit as expendable. In the end, I'd guess this move won't happen because Brown is too good when he's healthy.

3) Casey Hayward, CB, Los Angeles Chargers: One of the better value free-agent signings of the last decade, Hayward is now at an age (32 next September) and a cap figure ($11.75 million) that could put him at risk after a down season.

4) Eric Fisher or Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Kansas City Chiefs: Cutting either tackle seems crazy after the offensive line meltdown the Chiefs just had in the Super Bowl, not to mention Andy Reid's typical loyalty. Schwartz, perhaps the best right tackle of the last decade, is only listed if his back injury threatens to jeopardize his career. Otherwise, he's not going anywhere.

Fisher is a more complicated case, with the Chiefs currently projected to be more than $20 million over the cap. Fisher's cap hit is $15.2 million and the team could save nearly $12 million in cap space by cutting him. He's been a good, not great, blind-side protector throughout his career. Some action here wouldn't shock me, but it's more likely Kansas City moves some money around in both players' contracts rather than releasing them.

5) Marcus Cannon, OT, New England Patriots: The Patriots are one of the rare teams that don't need salary cap room this offseason, so it would be more like Bill Belichick to evaluate Cannon in training camp before making any big moves. Still, the former second-team All-Pro had a so-so 2019 season before opting out of the 2020 campaign. His replacement, 2020 rookie Michael Onwenu, played terrific at right tackle. Cannon has the fourth-highest cap figure on the team.

6) Jamison Crowder, WR, New York Jets: I've read a lot of speculation that Crowder isn't worth his $10 million base salary. As the most reliable receiver on a team short of them, I wouldn't be so sure. The Jets have plenty of cap space to absorb his salary and worry about positions other than slot receiver.

7) Malcolm Butler, CB, Tennessee Titans: This would be a tricky cut because Butler was the best Titans cornerback by far last year and the team is already shorthanded there. The Titans need flexibility, however, and could save $10 million against the cap by releasing Butler. That would make him a prime example of a player hurt by the reduced salary cap.

8-9) OG David DeCastro and CB Steven Nelson, Pittsburgh Steelers: This is going to be a challenging offseason for Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. Big Ben is far from the only veteran whose current deal puts him in jeopardy. DeCastro is a franchise cornerstone whose play fell off dramatically last year, and now he holds a $14.3 million cap hit. It would be more typical of the Steelers to hang on to him for one more year, which may help put one of the team's high-priced starting cornerbacks in trouble. My guess is that Joe Haden is a better bet to stay than Nelson, whose release would save $8.25 million against the cap.

Other players to monitor: Henry Anderson, DL, New York Jets; Adrian Clayborn, DE, Cleveland Browns; Brandon Dunn, NT, Houston Texans; Tyler Eifert, TE, Jacksonville Jaguars; Bobby Hart, OT, Cincinnati Bengals; Alex Lewis, OG, New York Jets; Bobby McCain, DB, Miami Dolphins; Eric Rowe, DB, Miami Dolphins; C.J. Uzomah, TE, Cincinnati Bengals; Greg Van Roten, OG, New York Jets; Vince Williams, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers. (UPDATE: Eifert is set to become a free agent with the Jaguars expected to decline the team option for his contract, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday.)

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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