The beginning of the offseason is upon us. NFL teams generally have a good idea of what they are going to do with their rosters at this point, but each step toward improvement comes with sacrifices. For most teams, that means the end of blind loyalty: It's time to find a new salary-cap number or a new home for players who saw an unexpected decline.
Here are five big-name candidates who are likely to find themselves in a new city or with a much smaller contract come August.
As long as you are willing to throw out the idea that Chris Johnson is ever going to be the Chris Johnson of 2009 again, there is nothing inherently wrong with having him as your starting running back. He is never going to be a superstar in the eyes of success rate, which thinks he piles up way too many short gains and losses to make up for his explosive plays. However, this year Johnson had his best DVOA since 2009 by getting up to a respectable 1.3 percent. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)
Johnson's problem is simple: The age of the highly paid superstar running back is over, and he is a relic from its past. It would be a difficult decision if Johnson still was producing at a superstar level, but since he's not, it makes all sorts of sense to cut him now and save money. Cutting Johnson would save the Titans about $6 million against the 2014 cap, but they have played it pretty close to the vest as to whether they'll actually do that.
It's hard to remember the full extent of any Jets media circus when new plot arcs pop up faster than Peyton Manning legacy articles, but these two were big players in the carnival atmosphere that defined the Jets in the early Rex Ryan years. Injuries caused by meaningless preseason snaps and leadership squabbles aside, neither player is worth the time or money at this point.
Sanchez cratered in Tony Sparano's offense in 2012. He hasn't always been that bad, but in his high-water mark in 2010, he had just a minus-4.3 percent DVOA, which ranked 28th among qualifying quarterbacks. Then-general manager Mike Tannenbaum decided, based on this body of work, to give him a large extension. This will go down as one of the biggest NFL punchlines of the decade.
Holmes has the ability to be an NFL starter when he's healthy, but he has played just 15 total games over the past two seasons. Foot and hamstring issues limited him in 2013, and Lisfranc surgery shortened his 2012 season. He would be a nice flyer for a receiver-needy team provided he can bounce back and not become too much of a distraction.
Releasing Sanchez will save the Jets $8.3 million, and releasing Holmes will free up another $8.25 million. It seems almost certain that both will go, and it has been widely reported that they'll be released as soon as possible.
Even the greats eventually run out of steam. It was a terrific run for Bailey, but between his foot injury and his advanced age, he finally became a nonfactor for the Broncos this season. He was benched multiple times and probably wouldn't have factored into the Super Bowl as prominently as he did had Chris Harris not been hurt. What everyone saw in the Super Bowl was a player who just couldn't keep Doug Baldwin or Jermaine Kearse from getting separation.
Our charting stats aren't complete, but they show Bailey having a lower success rate than any of the Broncos' top three cornerbacks. Granted, this was a small sample size, but he was also spotted some fairly choice assignments. Coming off injury and at his age (36 in June), it's hard to believe he has more than a dead-cat bounce in him.
With zero cap hit for releasing him, the Broncos stand to gain $10 million in cap space by cutting the cord on Bailey. With Harris, Tony Carter and Kayvon Webster already on the roster even before the Broncos make their decision on whether to pay Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Bailey is expendable. The Broncos will have tough decisions to make in terms of their receiving corps. Cutting Bailey may be the only no-brainer move they make this offseason.
The Bears already got out ahead of the free-agent market this year, re-signing Jay Cutler and Tim Jennings. One move they couldn't make yet, but probably will, is releasing Peppers after his subpar season.
Falling from 11.5 sacks in 2012 to 7.5 sacks last year does not even begin to tell the story of how much he regressed, as his pressures fell drastically and he was at best a neutral factor in Chicago's poor run defense. Highlighting their struggles, the Bears achieved a 10 percent or higher run defense DVOA for 11 straight games, spanning Weeks 5 to 16, and allowed a 20 percent or higher run defense in seven of those games. The Bears and Chargers were the only two teams to average worse than a 6.8 percent run defense DVOA.
With Peppers declining and turning 34 a few weeks ago, it makes all the sense in the world for Chicago to help revamp its defense with the money it would get from cutting him loose. Of all the players on this list, Peppers is the one I would be the least surprised to see have a bounce-back season because the physical skill is still undeniable even if the speed has declined. But at that figure, when cutting him would save about $9.82 million for the 2014 cap, he's not likely worth the money next season. Given the number of holes that popped up in Chicago's defense last year, it would be hard for the Bears to hold on to him at that figure.
Note: Information from Spotrac.com and Overthecap.com was used in this article.