While others celebrate Valentine’s Day, veteran NFL players are often left to spend February fearing a breakup.
Ahead of the new league year and free agency — they begin simultaneously on March 13 — teams kick off the weeks after the Super Bowl by clearing cap space. That frequently means saying farewell to notable players whose performances no longer justify their contracts.
These are some of the veterans who could be sent packing:
QB Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins: Miami looks poised to begin a rebuild under first-year coach Brian Flores and GM Chris Grier, and one of the biggest changes could come under center. Tannehill, 30, has never been more than adequate as a starter and seems like an unlikely steward for a new era.
QB Blake Bortles, Jaguars: Closing the book on one of the biggest mistakes in recent franchise history will be costly. Cutting Bortles entails taking a $16.5 million hit in dead cap space. But the main question for Jacksonville, currently over the cap, may be whether to spread that figure out by designating him as a post-June 1 release or to deal with it all at once — calculus which could be further affected by the team’s ability to acquire another quarterback.
QB Case Keenum, Broncos: Joe Flacco’s arrival should push Keenum out the door just one year after the veteran signed to be Denver’s starter. Finding a trade partner would be preferable for the Broncos. An outright release would mean carrying $10 million in dead money. But with only a few teams positioned to view Keenum as a viable starting option, engineering a deal could be difficult.
WR DeSean Jackson, Buccaneers: Bruce Arians might be eager to return Jackson, who led the NFL with 18.9 yards per reception in 2018, as a boost to his downfield passing attack. But the speedy receiver’s non-guaranteed $10 million salary might prove prohibitive, especially after a season in which he struggled to establish a consistent connection with QB Jameis Winston and requested a trade, per reports. His pre-Super Bowl posturing for joining the Rams was a telling show of his mindset.
WR Michael Crabtree, Ravens: The 31-year-old never had more than three catches or 40 yards in any game Lamar Jackson started last season. Baltimore needs to give its second-year quarterback more targets who can create their own separation, and freeing up $4.67 million by parting with Crabtree seems like the sensible move.
TE Dwayne Allen, Patriots: Regardless of whether Rob Gronkowski decides to return, Allen doesn’t figure to have a meaningful place in the Patriots’ plans at tight end. After he took took a pay cut in 2018 and caught just three passes on the season, another reduction might be needed — if he’s offered the opportunity to return at all.
DE Vic Beasley, Falcons: Since tallying a league-best 15½ sacks in 2016, the former No. 8 overall pick has seldom been able to generate pressure, posting just 13 quarterback hits in the last two seasons. Atlanta has already moved on from several veterans in DE Brooks Reed, CB Robert Alford and K Matt Bryant, and releasing Beasley would clear off the entirety of his $12.8 million fifth-year option — while potentially making it easier to retain impending free agent DT Grady Jarrett.
DE Robert Quinn, Dolphins: Despite posting four sacks in his last five games, he never justified the hefty contract Miami took on via trade with the Rams last year. The Dolphins can save $12.9 million by sending Quinn off. Fellow DE Andre Branch could be another underachiever on the outs.
DE Everson Griffen, Vikings: Playing in 11 games while dealing with mental health issues, Griffen recorded just 5½ sacks, his lowest total since 2013. Minnesota might be tempted to clear $10.2 million in cap space, especially given the rise of Danielle Hunter last season.
DT Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers: GM Jason Licht addressed the status of his six-time Pro Bowler by saying the team has “a lot of tough decisions to make.” Despite a switch to a 3-4 configuration under new DC Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay will still use a one-gap scheme that can make use of McCoy’s penetrating ability. But his $13 million salary is not guaranteed, and the organization might be inclined to free up needed spending room.
DT Malik Jackson, Jaguars: He acknowledged in December that he expects to be set loose after sinking to a rotational role just three years into a six-year, $85 million deal. Cap-crunched Jacksonville can save $11 million by dropping Jackson, and fellow DT Marcell Dareus ($10.6 million) could also be on the chopping block or at least asked to restructure his deal.
LB Vontaze Burfict, Bengals: As Cincinnati begins a new regime under first-year coach Zac Taylor, cutting Burfict could signal a cultural reboot more so than financial considerations. The oft-suspended defender’s subpar play the past two seasons have made it increasingly difficult to overlook his reckless style, and the Bengals will need an upgrade at the position regardless of what they do with him.
LB Justin Houston, Chiefs: With a whopping $21.1 million cap figure looming for next season, something has to give between Houston and Kansas City. A restructure would be the optimal route given GM Brett Veach has expressed the desire to retain fellow pass rusher Dee Ford ahead of free agency. But the Chiefs have to weigh if they can get proper value out of Houston as they switch to a 4-3 scheme, and there’s $14 million in savings on the table if a release is pursued.
LB Jamie Collins, Browns: As Cleveland stocks up on talent, it’s unclear exactly where the 29-year-old Collins fits. He’s set to earn $10.5 million next season and has not established himself as a consistent playmaker since the team swung a midseason deal with the Patriots to acquire him in 2016.
LB Nick Perry, Packers: Green Bay could undergo a significant overhaul with its outside linebackers given Clay Matthews seems headed for the free-agent market. After posting just 1½ sacks last year and missing 11 games in the two seasons since he signed a five-year, $60 million contract, Perry doesn’t have much case to stick around.
CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Bengals: It would be hard for any underperforming corner on the league’s worst pass defense to be seen as a pivotal piece, much less one who is two years into a five-year, $52 million contract and had zero interceptions in 2018. Pulling the ripcord on Kirkpatrick would free up nearly $6.8 million in savings.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz