The middle of February is a quiet time in the NFL, but it’s also a time of consternation for many of the league’s veteran players, particularly the ones due to be well-compensated in 2015.
The NFL’s teams have to be under the salary cap as of 4 p.m. on March 10, and while most teams shouldn’t have an issue meeting that requirement, dozens of players across the league will be released or forced to take a pay cut over the next three weeks. Colts safety LaRon Landry and Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown were the first victims last week, and many more are coming.
Last week, we wrote about the few Patriots who will likely have contract issues to sort out. And we have written about Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, whose $19 million salary becomes guaranteed if he’s still on the team March 9, and Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who would save Arizona $9 million in cap space and more than $16 million in cash if his option isn’t picked up March 10.
Let’s take a look at some of the other familiar names across the league who might find themselves on the free agent market soon because of high salaries and little to no “dead money” (money that counts against the salary cap even if the player is released):
Jets wide receiver Percy Harvin — There’s no doubt that Harvin, 26, is electric with the ball in his hands. And the Jets need all the playmakers they can get. But Harvin has a contract that is begging to be restructured or released — a $10.5 million salary with no dead money. With a new coaching staff and front office, don’t be surprised if the Jets let Harvin be someone else’s headache.
Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall — Speaking of headaches, the Bears quickly discovered what the Broncos and Dolphins did: that Marshall, while immensely talented, is a pain in the rear end for coaches and teammates. His $7.5 million salary for 2015 becomes fully guaranteed March 12, but the Bears can save $3.95 million in cap space if they cut him, and $7.7 million if they designate him a post-June 1 cut. With a new coaching staff and front office in Chicago, don’t be surprised to see Marshall playing for his fourth team this fall.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu — It might be time for this future Hall of Famer, who turns 34 in April, to call it a career. The Steelers are tight against the salary cap, and Polamalu, a liability in pass coverage, has the Steelers’ fourth-highest cap number this year ($8.25 million). The Steelers can shave $6 million of that if they designate him a post-June 1 cut.
Buccaneers guard Logan Mankins — The trade for Mankins didn’t work out as expected, with the team paying $6.25 million last year for a guard, while still finishing 2-14. Mankins played fairly well, but he’ll be 33 next month and has a $7 million contract for 2015 with no dead money. Several other Bucs veterans have high salaries and little to no dead money as well, including wide receiver Vincent Jackson, cornerback Alterraun Verner, and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald.
Saints wide receiver Marques Colston — The Saints’ all-time leading receiver might be the best seventh-round draft pick in NFL history, but his time in New Orleans may be coming to an end. The Saints can create $4.3 million in cap space if they release Colston, who will be 32 in June, and $7 million in cap space if they designate him a post-June 1 cut. Several other Saints veterans will be in danger, including guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs.
Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace — The Dolphins are a little tight against the cap, but releasing Wallace would be as much about admitting buyer’s remorse as it would creating cap space after Wallace made little impact in his two seasons in Miami. The Dolphins would only create $2.5 million of cap space by releasing Wallace, but that number jumps to $6.9 million if they designate him a post-June 1 cut. Brian Hartline, Dannell Ellerbe, Randy Starks, and Cortland Finnegan are also in trouble, although a team may designate only two players as post-June 1 cuts.
Colts running back Trent Richardson — This one seems obvious, as Richardson has been an unmitigated disaster since the Colts traded a first-round pick for him in 2013. He averaged just 3.3 yards per carry this past season, was left off the team flight to the AFC Championship game, and has a $3.2 million salary in 2015 with no dead money. Richardson seems as good as gone.
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, wide receiver Greg Jennings, and linebacker Chad Greenway — Peterson has a $15.4 million cap number, tops on the team and awfully high for a running back who will be 30 next season and is still embroiled in controversy. The Vikings can create $13 million in cap space by releasing Peterson, and at minimum should look to restructure him. The Vikings might not outright release Greenway, their defensive leader, but he has little dead money and more than $7 million in cap savings, so he might have to take a restructure. Jennings was OK this past season, with 742 yards and six touchdowns, but the Vikings can create $9 million in cap space by making him a post-June 1 cut.
Other candidates for release, pay cut, or restructure: 49ers LB Ahmad Brooks, Ravens DE Chris Canty, Cowboys CB Brandon Carr, Broncos T Ryan Clady, 49ers TE Vernon Davis, Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett, Chiefs LB Tamba Hali, Falcons RB Steven Jackson, Texans CB Johnathan Joseph, Rams T Jake Long, Jets C Nick Mangold, Bengals DT Domata Peko, Raiders QB Matt Schaub, Bills G Kraig Urbik, Bills DT Kyle Williams, Redskins T Trent Williams, and 49ers LB Patrick Willis.
Prospects prepare to impress at Combine
The annual “Underwear Olympics,” better known as the NFL Scouting Combine, will be held this week in Indianapolis as 322 draft hopefuls run the 40-yard dash, participate in position drills, and, most importantly, get poked and prodded by medical staffs as teams start to formulate their draft boards.
A look at this year’s participants:
■ Florida State leads the way with 12 invitees, highlighted by quarterback Jameis Winston, who will undoubtedly be the “star” of the news conference circuit. Alabama and Louisville are tied for second with 11 invitees each, followed by Florida (9), Miami (8), and four schools with seven each — Auburn, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Southern Cal. National champion Ohio State only has four invitees, underlining how young the Buckeyes’ roster was this past season.
■ There won’t be much of a New England presence. UConn leads area schools with two invitees, followed by one each for Boston College, UMass, Harvard, and Yale. Impressive for Harvard and Yale to not only have invitees but at non-specialist positions (Harvard defensive end/outside linebacker Zack Hodges and Yale fullback Tyler Varga).
■ Weird year for quarterbacks. The only guaranteed first-rounders are Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, although Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson and UCLA’s Brett Hundley will generate some buzz. There are several small-school invitees this year: Southeastern Louisiana’s Bryan Bennett, South Alabama’s Brandon Bridge, Nevada’s Cody Fajardo, Prairie View A&M’s Jerry Lovelocke, and East Carolina’s Shane Carden. And only 15 quarterbacks were invited, the Combine’s smallest QB class since it began tracking it in 2005.
■ Of the 322 invitees, 25 come from the Football Championship Subdivision, two from Division 2 (Harding WR Tello Luckett and Newberry LB Edmond Robinson), and even one from Division 3 (Hobart T Ali Marpet).
■ Interesting prospects include Washington LB Shaq Thompson, a first-round prospect who previously went 0 for 39 in rookie ball with the Red Sox; Florida State’s Nick O’Leary, one of the nation’s top tight ends who is also the grandson of golf legend Jack Nicklaus; Florida DL Leon Orr, who left the Gators after learning he wouldn’t get a start vs. Vanderbilt and was forced to take a Greyhound bus back to Gainesville; Michigan DT Frank Clark, who was dismissed from the team for several off-field incidents, including domestic violence and second-degree felony home invasion; and Minnesota TE Maxx Williams, who just has a great name.
Stork has proven to be a real winner
If there’s one thing we learned about Patriots rookie center Bryan Stork this past season, it’s that he doesn’t care much for pomp and circumstance. And that’s interesting, because no player has experienced more of it over the past 13 months.
Stork started in the Patriots’ Super Bowl win two weeks ago, and started in Florida State’s Jan. 6, 2014 BCS championship victory over Auburn. And it got us thinking — how often does a player get to participate in a championship game in college one year, and again the next year as a rookie in the NFL?
The answer, of course: not too often.
We analyzed the rosters of the last 16 Super Bowl champions, dating to the 1999 Rams. Why stop there?
Because college football instituted the BCS championship game for the 1998 season. Previously, the national champion was determined by pollsters, and rarely in a 1 vs. 2 bowl matchup.
And research shows that only three other players in that 16-season span won back-to-back championship rings in college and the pros.
The first to do it was former Patriots cornerback Randall Gay, a rookie starter on the 2004 team that defeated the Eagles in the Super Bowl. He also won a ring for LSU in the 2003 season. Former defensive end Marquise Hill, who died in a jet ski accident in 2007, also won a title for LSU in 2003 and with the Patriots in 2004, but only played in one game as a rookie and was inactive for the Super Bowl.
And the only other player to pull off the double is Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw. He won a college title with Alabama in 2011, then started nine games for the Ravens as a rookie (plus the Super Bowl) in 2012, totaling 1½ sacks during the regular season.
Plenty of players have won college championships and Super Bowls during their careers, and Tony Dorsett was the first to pull off the feat in back-to-back years.
But that was before the BCS championship game, which has a lot of the same pomp and circumstance (and media silliness) as the Super Bowl.
Field of candidates is getting crowded
The unprecedented election for the NFL Players Association’s executive director position — never has an incumbent been challenged by outside candidates — is getting even more unprecedented. Former defensive tackle Sean Gilbert has been vocal in his desire to run against DeMaurice Smith, and last week we wrote about Detroit attorney Jim Acho throwing his hat into the ring. Now the election might have two more candidates: Philadelphia sports attorney Andrew Smith, who has represented several NFL players over the years, and John Stufflebeem, a retired three-star Navy admiral and former NFL punter who played under Bill Belichick with the Lions in the 1970s. It is unclear if all four challengers have the necessary three nominations from the 32 player reps and if they will ultimately make it to Hawaii next month for the election.
“I think it’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to run for this,’ ” NFLPA president Eric Winston said. “But are you going to be a guy that gets to Hawaii and gets the nominations?”
Raising the stakes with playing time
One of the few clauses in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement that generally favors the players is the concept of “performance-based pay,” in which players drafted in the lower rounds that hit certain playing time markers are automatically given pay raises for the next year. But even that can backfire on a player, as Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will probably find out this offseason.
Dennard, a seventh-round pick in 2012, started 20 games in his first three years, earning a nice raise for 2015 — from a minimum $660,000 salary to $1,588,462, per NFLPA records.
But with a high salary, and only $14,000 in dead money, the Patriots are much likelier to now cut Dennard instead of paying almost $1.6 million to a player who fell to sixth on the depth chart in 2014. Had Dennard remained at a league minimum salary, it would have helped his chances of making the team.
Interesting item from TMZ last week that Julian Edelman had a meeting with Jay Z’s Roc Nation marketing company. It doesn’t sound like Edelman is looking to leave agent Don Yee, but rather the meeting highlights the newfound fame and marketing opportunities for Edelman following his Super Bowl heroics . . . The Browns continue to raise eyebrows for all the wrong reasons. This time, it’s about former Patriots quarterback Kevin O’Connell working privately with Marcus Mariota leading up to the Combine. O’Connell has been a private quarterback coach the last few years, but is widely reported to become the Browns’ QB coach for 2015. But since O’Connell hasn’t been hired yet, he’s technically still allowed to work with Mariota. The Browns aren’t in great shape to draft Mariota with the 12th overall pick, but it still appears that they’re skirting the rules to get a better picture of one of the top quarterback prospects . . . Here’s hoping Wes Welker decides to walk away a year too early instead of a year too late. Welker is reportedly mulling retirement after suffering several concussions over the past few years. He’s made his fame and money, now it’s time to think about his health . . . Here’s also hoping Tom Brady quietly slid a nice check to Malcolm Butler last week to cover the tax bill on Butler’s new truck. Brady had Chevrolet give the Super Bowl MVP truck directly to Butler, but in doing so created a $15,000 tax bill for Butler on the value of the truck, which is about $35,000 . . . The “Veteran Combine” for former players out of the league is a great idea by the NFL, but in making the prospects pay their own way to Arizona for the March 22 Combine, and pay a $400 participation fee, it’s going to scare away a lot of players who might want to give it one last shot . . . Coaching Aaron Rodgers can’t be too difficult, so the Packers gave Alex Van Pelt extra duties. His title for 2015 will be quarterbacks and wide receivers coach, a rare double duty. “The more that the quarterbacks and receivers are together, the more it will be beneficial for both groups,” Van Pelt told reporters.