This is the time of year many NFL veterans dread. It's when that contract that looked so appealing just a few years ago -- in an era where nothing is fully guaranteed in this league -- suddenly becomes much less palatable.
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It's a time for teams to get cap-compliant and prepare for the 2012 season; a time of contract restructuring, and in many cases, of players being released. "Cap Casualty Season," you could call it. Age, injury, lack of production, a bloated contract or all of the above can lead to many a player looking for a new home. Just ask Stanford Routt, who a year ago at this time was becoming one of the highest-paid corners in the NFL with the Raiders, and is now on free agent visits. (Albeit pocketing that $20 million guaranteed surely provides some solace, and the immediate interest from outside clubs has been significant.)
For many others, the segue to that next team, and next contract, could be far more drawn out and circuitous. In many cases, it's a hulking, ominous, looming roster bonus that leads to a departure. Of course, Peyton Manning immediately comes to mind on this subject -- something that has been covered ad nauseum. But beyond Peyton, the majority of those set for big roster-bonus paydays are in good shape. Kevin Kolb has the biggest -- a $7 million roster bonus due March 17 with the Cardinals -- and absent a power play for Manning himself, Kolb's in good shape for pocketing that.
Other bonuses, like New England's Tom Brady ($6 million), Philadelphia's Cullen Jenkins ($5 million) and Cincinnati's Leon Hall ($5 million), seem automatic to be picked up, even with Hall coming off injury. Routt's former secondary partner in Oakland, Michael Huff, however, could be in serious danger of hitting the open market with a $4 million roster bonus due by March 16. (And with the Raiders still over the cap, an exodus could be coming; more on that below.)
Otherwise, some the biggest roster bonuses go to San Francisco's Frank Gore ($3.6 million), Jacksonville's Mike Thomas ($3.5 million) and Marcedes Lewis ($3 million), Denver's Champ Bailey ($3 million) and the New York Jets' Antonio Cromartie ($3 million). Again, all likely to stay put, with all of those players just one year into their latest contracts. A few young players with roster bonuses at least worth monitoring: Mark Sanchez is due $2.75 million on the 15th day of the league year, which begins March 13; and Dez Bryant, also underachieving, is due $1.44 million on the 10th day of the league year.
But Huff isn't the only defensive back to be staring at an uncertain future. Terence Newman already got one more year in Dallas than many figured, and with a $6 million base salary coming off a subpar season, this could be the end. The Vikings, in rebuild mode, face a dilemma with corners Antoine Winfield ($7 million base) and Cedric Griffin ($4.1 million), and it's hard to imagine both of them back. The Ravens carried Domonique Foxworth a year longer than I thought they would, given his injury history, but I can't imagine they pay his $7 million base coming off another lost season.
As for pass-catchers, the Ravens are very unlikely to pick up Lee Evans' $1 million roster bonus. He gave them nothing after the trade with Buffalo and he couldn't finish a catch in the AFC Championship Game that would have sent Baltimore to the Super Bowl. Green Bay faces a $2.2 million roster bonus for Donald Driver, but the Packers are loaded with young weapons at wideout. Meanwhile, the Steelers are going to have to start paying their young wide receivers, which is why league sources say the Steelers won't bring back Hines Ward and his $4 million salary. Pittsburgh, like Oakland, is still trying to get under the cap. And at tight end, as much as Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan loves tight end Chris Cooley, he is oft-injured and his $3.8 million base may be too steep, especially if Fred Davis is brought back.
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On the offensive line, St. Louis' Jason Smith won't be back at his current base salary ($10 million), according to a league source, and is a candidate to be cut. San Diego is very unlikely to bring back tackle Marcus McNeill with his $10.5 million base. Arizona has Levi Brown counting $17 million against the cap, with over $8 million in base salary, which will lead to a restructured deal or him hitting the open market, too. Willie Colon ($4.5 million base) is not willing to take a pay cut to stay in Pittsburgh following another injury-marred season, and at his age, Steve Hutchinson ($6.95 million base) might not make sense for a rebuilding Vikings team.
The Raiders have difficult decisions with linebackers Aaron Curry ($5.75 million base salary) and Rolando McClain, whose off-field issues and attitude may have worn out his welcome with Reggie McKenzie trying to establish a new mentality as Oakland's general manager. Kamerion Wimbley, another highly paid Raiders linebacker (due to make $11 million in 2012), is not interested in taking a pay cut to stay, league sources said. Oakland defensive lineman Tommy Kelly ($6 million base) is another potential cap target. The Raiders are likely to restructure Richard Seymour's massive deal, as well.
Aaron Kampman's injury woes and $4.6 million salary may be too steep for the Jags. Carolina loves linebacker Thomas Davis, but after yet another major injury, it's more likely he returns on a reworked contract than on his existing one.
In any given year, there are always a few shockers, or unexpected moves. But in general, if you follow the money, and play a little arm-chair Moneyball, many of the forthcoming transactions are not all that difficult to figure out. Come 2013, with the cap likely to spike dramatically with new TV money coming in and teams required to spend 90 percent of that figure in actual payroll dollars, perhaps fewer 'name' players will be left on the street.
In fact, I strongly believe by 2013 or 2014 we see most teams re-investing even more heavily on their own talent to meet that 90 percent threshold, which would mean even less prime, mid-20s talent getting anywhere near the market. Those who do become available will carry significant concerns with injury, attitude, work ethic or off-field activities.
It will make even more sense to spend on those players you already know and have developed as the economics of this new CBA play out in the coming years, and the revenue streams continue to pour in.
But in the mean time, there will be a bloodletting of talent, and those purges will only increase after the combine, with some players willing to restructure during February meetings with team officials and others awaiting their chance to test the market.