With more cap space available than ever, teams find a way to keep the players they truly want. That means that most of the AFC players listed below who could potentially be cut will hit free agency with a "buyer beware" tag.
I'll hit some spicy potential trade candidates later this month.
Strong candidates for release
1) Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs: The regular season is ultimately the best way to judge an NFL player, and Watkins' 673 receiving yards in 2019 marked his highest output in the last four seasons (split between the Chiefs, Rams and Bills). If Sean McVay and Andy Reid couldn't get consistent production out of Watkins, it's hard to imagine who will.
2) Trumaine Johnson, CB, New York Jets: Johnson received more guaranteed money than any non-quarterback free agent in the 2018 cycle before two seasons with the Jets that could generously be labeled a fiasco. The ghost of Mike Maccagnan will live on the Jets' cap this year in the form of $12 million in dead money just to offload Johnson's contract.
3-5) DT Marcell Dareus, WR Marqise Lee and CB A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars: That AFC Championship Game core continues to fade away in Jacksonville. GM Dave Caldwell can save $20 million against the cap by cutting Dareus, a fine rotation player still living off a near-$100 million contract given to him back in Buffalo by former Bills GM Doug Whaley. Lee has three catches for 18 yards since signing a four-year, $34 million contract. Bouye is the toughest call here, but he had a down 2019 season, and Jaguars.com's John Oesher, one of the strongest team site writers out there, wrote he expected Bouye to be released.
6-8) RB Dion Lewis, TE Delanie Walker and OLB Cameron Wake, Tennessee Titans: Walker is a franchise legend who proved to be one of the best free-agent pickups of the last decade, but he's been unable to stay healthy. Lewis doesn't have the burst he used to back in New England, while Wake struggled to get playing time last season even before being placed on injured reserve in late November.
11-13) S Reshad Jones, WR Albert Wilson and OLB Charles Harris, Miami Dolphins: Signed to a massive contract before the Dolphins' latest teardown, Jones, 31, doesn't make sense as Miami's highest cap figure. The Dolphins can save $9.5 million by cutting Wilson, who didn't top 400 yards in either of his two seasons with the team. Harris, a 2016 first-round pick, may at least get a chance to make the team one last time in camp.
14) Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Houston Texans: Bill O'Brien doesn't have many other options to play cornerback, but paying Hargreaves nearly $10 million doesn't make much sense. It's possible they'll sign him to a re-negotiated deal.
Potential surprise cuts
1) Olivier Vernon, DE, Cleveland Browns: Vernon was far more effective in Cleveland than his low sack total (3.5) suggests, but injuries have become an increasing concern. Once as durable as any defensive end in football, Vernon has missed 15 games over the last three seasons. Cutting Vernon would result in $15.5 million in cap savings.
2) Jacoby Brissett, QB, Indianapolis Colts: The Colts' tone around Brissett was markedly different in January than it was in August. After having complete confidence in him before the season, GM Chris Ballard said "the jury's still out" on Brissett after a streaky 2019 campaign. If the Colts snap up Philip Rivers in free agency, I'm not convinced that Brissett's contract is that tradable in a crowded market.
Changing course would be a costly move for Ballard. Brissett has a guaranteed $7 million bonus due, and releasing him would cost $12.5 million in dead money, although the Colts have enough space to cut their losses if they go Full Rivers.
4-5) WR Mohamed Sanu and S Patrick Chung, New England Patriots: Sanu's $6.5 million base salary looked like a bargain when the Patriots traded for him, but his rough stretch since then could potentially put his roster spot in jeopardy. Chung, one of Bill Belichick's favorite defenders, struggled to keep up in coverage last season.
Other players in trouble (in alphabetical order):Mark Barron, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers; Anthony Chickillo, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers; Thomas Davis, LB, Los Angeles Chargers; Zach Fulton, G, Houston Texans; Chris Hubbard, T, Cleveland Browns; Senio Kelemete, G, Houston Texans; Ronald Leary, G, Denver Broncos; Vance McDonald, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers; Jake Ryan, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars; Avery Williamson, LB, New York Jets; Damien Wilson, LB, Kansas City Chiefs; Brian Winters, G, New York Jets.