The modern NFL is less about keeping teams together and more about keeping as much of a team together as possible. Ask the Denver Broncos, who mostly made smart moves after winning Super Bowl 50. They let eight of their starters leave, upgraded at quarterback, fielded the league's No. 1 defense and still went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. Or talk to the Carolina Panthers, who bet on their team culture over one star player in Josh Norman and lost.
You can't keep everybody on your roster happy forever. The bargain players want to make more money, the backups want to get more playing time, and the veterans want to believe they're going to stay at their peak forever. It's a tough game. The best organizations have to be proactive with their decision-making, and even they make mistakes.
As tough as that is, now is a good time to start looking forward to the offseason and wondering about the decisions 2016's playoff teams will have to make to get back to the postseason in 2017. Most have key players hitting unrestricted free agency. Many have decisions to make on veterans whose cap hits are bigger than their recent levels of production. Some teams seem immune to the hits and just keep on coming, but wouldn't you have said that about the Broncos before this season? Weren't the Panthers and Arizona Cardinals huge favorites to go far in the NFC?
Ten of these teams are already thinking about 2017, and the other two will be in 10 days' time. Let's start with one of those two teams, given that this franchise might have more to think about this offseason than any of the other organizations in this year's bracket:
The Patriots have had and will have to make tough decisions about their young core on defense. They've already traded away Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, likely out of concerns that they would be priced out of New England's budget, but it's unclear whether the Pats will retain Hightower and Ryan. Ryan might be tougher, given the money handed out to mid-tier cornerbacks in free agency and the presence of Malcolm Butler, who will be a free agent next offseason. Outside of receiver Danny Amendola, who will likely be cut to realize a $6.5 million savings, the Patriots don't have any obvious veterans in line for release.
The Patriots will need to shore up the holes left by those missing players, notably at defensive end, with Sheard and Long as free agents and Rob Ninkovich entering the final year of his deal in what will be his age-33 season. Those concerns might preclude them from re-signing Bennett, who will turn 31 next year and be in line for the last big-money contract of his career. The Patriots can afford Bennett on his $5.1 million price tag this season, but it would be hard to justify paying something in the $8 million range for a second tight end, even given how frequently the Pats use two-tight-end sets. They will likely look for another buy-low opportunity and pocket a compensatory pick. Vollmer, who missed all season with an injury and was made redundant by the stunning turnaround of Marcus Cannon at right tackle, is unlikely to return.
And while the Patriots have a well-deserved reputation for ruthlessly moving on from their franchise players if coach Bill Belichick feels the timing is right, there's little reason to think star tight end Rob Gronkowski will leave this offseason. Gronkowski has a $7 million cap hold for next year, but the Patriots would owe $6 million in dead money on their cap if they were to trade away Gronk.
The year to watch with Gronkowski is 2018, when his cap hit rises from $7 million to $11 million, with the Patriots instead only owing $4 million in dead money in the case of a trade or release. Depending upon how he looks after returning from back surgery in 2017, the Patriots will likely either move on from Gronk, whose contract runs out after 2018, or sign him to a new deal.
The other key Patriots player to watch out for is quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who is likely to leave via trade before he hits free agency after the 2018 season. Unless there's some sort of unspoken agreement that he'll take over for Tom Brady after next year, the Patriots can't really afford to keep him on the roster, either with an extension or the franchise tag. They would likely recoup a compensatory third-round pick if Garoppolo left in free agency, so the compensation will have to top that for the Patriots to make a move. Given the teams likely to pursue Garoppolo, a high-second-round pick and a mid-round selection from a bad team in need of a quarterback such as Cleveland, Chicago or San Francisco still makes the most sense.
The Chiefs find themselves in an even more difficult situation, as they're facing the possibility of losing one of their two Pro Bowl-caliber defenders in free agency. It's hard to imagine the Chiefs voluntarily moving on from either player, but they might not have a choice, given how they won't be able to use the threat of the franchise tag to keep more than one of them from leaving. The agents for both Berry and Poe subsequently have more leverage to ask for a market value deal, knowing that one will surely be coming in March.
Of the two, Berry has been more impactful and has fewer health concerns going forward. Berry has missed more time -- he tore his ACL in 2011 and struggled with a high ankle sprain in 2014 before successfully battling Hodgkin's lymphoma -- but the Chiefs might be concerned about Poe's back, which required surgery in 2015. Coming to terms on an extension with one of their defensive stalwarts would allow the Chiefs to franchise (or hold the threat of a franchise tag over) the other.
Kansas City needs to clear out cap space to pull this off. The Chiefs have about $8 million of space after rolling over $5 million from their 2016 cap, but they'll need a lot more. They also can't cut veteran defenders such as linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson after giving them what amounted to two-year deals to retain them in free agency last season.
There are a few obvious moves. They'll cut quarterback Nick Foles to clear out $10 million. Running back Jamaal Charles is unlikely to return on his current salary, and cutting the four-time Pro Bowler would free up an additional $7 million. Cutting linebacker Josh Mauga will free up an additional $3 million. The truly tough call would be whether to release receiver Jeremy Maclin, whose per-game performance declined dramatically as the offense shifted further toward tight ends and rookie Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs could free up $10 million more this season by designating Maclin as a post-June 1 release.
The sudden concern for the Steelers is over QB Ben Roethlisberger, given that the 34-year-old recently suggested he would consider retirement this offseason. Obviously, if Roethlisberger did decide to move on from football, it would dramatically change the outlook for the Steelers in the short term. In addition to replacing Roethlisberger under center, the Steelers would have $18.6 million in dead money accelerate onto their cap in 2017, a figure virtually identical to the $18.2 million cap hit he would have on the roster next season.
Even without Roethlisberger, this was going to be a critical offseason for the Steelers. For the first time in years, they're finally in decent cap shape after allowing Timmons' brutally mangled contract to finish without another restructure. Timmons' cap hit this year was a staggering $15.1 million, nearly $5 million more than any other inside linebacker. The Steelers might still choose to bring him back, but it would be at less than half of that cap figure. Harrison figures to re-sign if he wants to continue playing, though he will likely get a raise on the two-year, $2.8 million deal he signed before 2015.
The Steelers are also scheduled to see their dead-cap figure fall by about $9 million. They would add to that dead money but get additional salary by releasing safety Mike Mitchell, which would free up $4.6 million while opening up a hole at safety. They could also end their relationship with tight end Ladarius Green after one injury-riddled season, a move that could free up an additional $5 million if Green were to be designated as a post-June 1 release.
Bell, the team's marquee free agent, isn't going anywhere. The Steelers will franchise him and likely look to use their leverage to lock up the running back in the long term. It's going to be a difficult deal. Bell is enormously valuable and almost impossible to replace, even if the Steelers did find him in the second round of the draft and sport one of the league's best offensive lines. He has also been suspended twice by the NFL and struggled to stay healthy, having made it through one 16-game season in four years. The Steelers have made it to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, but Bell missed the playoffs in the previous two seasons and after a strong start to these playoffs, played in only 11 snaps against New England. Bell is too talented to let leave, but Pittsburgh might struggle to get any sort of surplus return on a contract extension.
After going on a spending spree last offseason, the Texans are likely to be relatively quiet. Re-signing Bouye, who has emerged as one of the league's better third cornerbacks, will likely be the team's priority. He could serve in that role again in 2017 before taking over as a full-time starter for Johnathan Joseph, who will be 33 and a free agent after next season. The Texans will likely look to the draft to replace Wilfork, and outside of backups like quarterback Brandon Weeden, there aren't many likely cap casualties on the roster.
Many Houston fans would love to see the Texans move on from QB Brock Osweiler, but as I've mentioned in the past, his $16 million base salary for 2017 is fully guaranteed. The Texans would actually owe $25 million on their cap if they cut Osweiler as opposed to the $19 million they'll incur with him on their roster. The only way they can realize any sort of savings would be to trade Osweiler to a team that would be willing to eat Osweiler's $16 million salary, which is unlikely. (I suggested that the Browns consider this in December in return for draft picks, but even they might not like draft picks that much.)
The Raiders will head into 2017 with $50 million to spend on a 12-4 team, and while their underlying performance suggests they're unlikely to keep up that sort of record next season, they will have the salary-cap space to plug the holes on their roster. General manager Reggie McKenzie also structured the vast majority of his free-agent deals to pay larger base salaries and roster bonuses up front, leaving the Raiders with flexibility if they wanted to create additional cap space.
In theory, the Raiders could be aggressive and move on from somebody such as cornerback Sean Smith, who had an uneven debut season by the bay, and save $9.5 million. They could swap out receiver Michael Crabtree for a player like Alshon Jeffery and dump Crabtree's $7 million without any dead money. In practice, they're likely to keep the core of their roster intact and use their cap space to head into free agency for help in their front seven. They're also the most logical landing point for running back Adrian Peterson.
The Dolphins arrived a year or two earlier than expected, thanks to an 8-2 record in games decided by one touchdown or less. They have a talented, young core of weapons and a massively talented defensive line, but the Dolphins will need to be disciplined as they continue to retool their roster in free agency. Their move into that market last year produced defensive end Mario Williams, who will surely be a cap casualty and create $8 million in space.
After releasing Williams, the Dolphins will head into the offseason with just over $50 million in cap room without needing to make any other notable releases. They could choose to decline Ryan Tannehill's option and save $10 million by sending their starting quarterback into free agency, but that's not likely to happen. More plausibly, the Dolphins will use their cap space to work on extensions for players like receiver Jarvis Landry.
Finding a talented quarterback on a rookie deal is the biggest advantage an NFL team can have. The Cowboys will pay Dak Prescott just less than $2.2 million over the next three years combined, while Eli Manning's cap hit will cost the Giants about $1.5 million per game next season. The $20 million difference between Prescott's market value and his actual salary is as big of a bargain as any NFL team can arrange.
By virtue of being leveraged across restructured long-term deals, though, the Cowboys can't immediately realize those savings. The Prescott deal mostly just allows them to stay afloat, at least for now. Dallas is $3 million over the 2017 cap, and while it will restructure the deals of contributors such as linemen Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick to create cap space, the Cowboys are perpetually playing a dangerous game.
Things will begin to clear up once the Cowboys get rid of one of the veterans who is sure not to return. Despite suggestions that the Cowboys will look to trade Tony Romo or hold onto him until the summer before finding a new destination for their former franchise quarterback, those moves don't really make financial sense. The Cowboys would incur a $19.6 million dead money charge on this year's cap by trading Romo, who is likely to attract a limited market thanks to his injury history. If they designate Romo as a post-June 1 release, they can eat $12.7 million of the dead money this year and save $6.9 million for 2018, which would be a more palatable financial situation in terms of allowing the Cowboys to rebuild their secondary next season.
The Falcons are in great shape for the foreseeable future. There's not really much to say about their offseason turnover: Their notable free agents are all in their mid-30s and replaceable, and there aren't really any veterans under contracts likely to require cap relief outside of Tyson Jackson, whose departure would create only $2.6 million in room. They'll work on finding depth at tight end, and with more than $35 million in cap space, they should have plenty of money to work out new deals with quarterback Matt Ryan and cornerback Desmond Trufant, their best players on either side of the football.
Unless safety Earl Thomas decides to retire, the Seahawks can choose to bring back just about everybody who played a meaningful role on their roster. They'll also have about $37 million in cap space to work with pending defensive end Michael Bennett's extension, which might come in handy if the Seahawks want to finally invest in their offensive line after allowing it to rot over the past two years.
There's not a pressing need to create cap space, but if the Seahawks do want room, the obvious candidate is tight end Jimmy Graham, who is owed $10 million in non-guaranteed money in 2017, which is the final year of his deal. The Seahawks might also choose to offer Graham an extension to lower that number and lock him in for 2018 at a lower cost. Otherwise, the only other significant candidate for release is Jermaine Kearse, but the Seahawks could realize a meaningful cap savings ($2.2 million) only by designating him as a post-June 1 release.
It's frustrating to run through all of these well-run organizations without much to talk about in terms of bad contracts, but the Packers continue to do what they do under general manager Ted Thompson successfully. They'll have in excess of $42 million available heading into 2017 and will likely spend it on retaining some of their free agents, with Lang the obvious priority. Cook's usefulness as a downfield threat and his struggles to find a role in other organizations makes another one-year deal for modest money a good fit for both sides.
On the other hand, the Packers might choose to let Perry go after an 11-sack season that isn't remotely in line with the former first-round pick's established level of production. Perry recorded a sack once every 33.8 pass rushes in 2016 after recording just 12 sacks on 653 pass-rush attempts over his previous four seasons, an average of one for every 52.2 tries. Peppers could be brought back on a one-year deal.
If Thompson wants, he can clear out additional cap space by cutting cornerback Sam Shields, who missed 15 games with a concussion and would make $12.1 million in 2017. The Packers would save $9 million by releasing Shields and an additional $3 million by cutting backup halfback James Starks. The $12 million dollar question, then, is whether Thompson will re-invest those funds in a free-agent corner such as Trumaine Johnson or Logan Ryan.
Even after last year's free-agent spending spree, the Giants still have about $34 million in cap room entering the 2017 season. Some of that will be earmarked for years to come, as they'll want to roll over that space to help squeeze in the massive extensions to come for Odell Beckham Jr. and Landon Collins over the next two offseasons. After paying top dollar for Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison last offseason, though, the Giants will have to decide whether they can feasibly afford to continue spending on their defensive line and retain Hankins and/or JPP. The Giants badly need to fix the right side of their offensive line, so even if they do free up cap room, expect them to target guys on the other side of the line from Hankins and Pierre-Paul.
They can squeeze out some additional money by extending guard Justin Pugh, who is in his fifth-year option with an $8.8 million base salary. There's more money to be created by releasing Victor Cruz, who sadly isn't going to justify a $9.4 million cap hit as a third wideout even after battling back from his serious knee injury. Cutting Cruz would free up $7.5 million. The Giants can up that to $11.5 million by releasing cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who lost his job to Eli Apple midseason. General manager Jerry Reese could also create an additional $9.3 million by releasing Shane Vereen ($3.8 million), J.T. Thomas ($3 million) and Rashad Jennings ($2.5 million).
With the $12.9 million in dead money the Lions owed after Calvin Johnson's retirement coming off their cap this season, Detroit should be in sound financial shape, with more than $47 million in cap space. Like the Giants, the Lions have big deals coming soon, with quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah both entering the final years of their respective deals. The difference is that Beckham and Collins will make less than $4.5 million combined in 2017, while Stafford (on his second contract) and Ansah (in the fifth-year option of his rookie deal) have a combined cap hit of nearly $35 million. Their new deals won't jump enough to dramatically affect Detroit's cap situation.
After investing in receiving weapons for Stafford the past three offseasons, the Lions need to rebuild their defense and work on what was a dismal running game. They won't be able to clear out a ton of cap room with cuts. They could choose to designate injury-riddled linebacker DeAndre Levy as a post-June 1 release to create $6 million in cap room, but general manager Bob Quinn is more likely to try to renegotiate Levy's deal. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, ticketed for a $7.8 million cap hit at age 33, might also be on the chopping block. Detroit would free up $5 million in cap room if they moved on from the former Pro Bowler.