It’s the nature of the NFL that, inevitably, the old is removed to make way for the new. As unpleasant as it might be, teams around the league go through the perennial process of having to shave their roster down from 90 men to a more manageable count of 53 in late August, and that means making tough decisions that doesn’t always involve simply shooing away the obvious. Sometimes, the roster casualties are those most don’t see coming, while others are admittedly a tad more obvious.
With training camp rapidly approaching around the league, there’s at least one notable veteran on each team that is on a hot seat for their job in 2021, and it’s time to take a look at who they might be. If these 32 NFL veterans don’t have a fantastic training camp, they could be looking for new jobs when September rolls around.
Tebow had to know this was a long shot when he signed on, and his only saving grace might be his relationship with Urban Meyer — the reason he’s getting this shot in the first place. That said, even Meyer is claiming Tebow will be evaluated like others on the roster with no special considerations. Time will tell if that’s true, but if it is, Tebow’s experiment at tight end could end soon. The Jaguars have several tight ends already on the roster who have a ton of experience at the position, headlined by Chris Manhertz, who was also invited to the famed “Tight End University” instead of Tebow. Headlines aside, this is the most sensical cut to be made by the Jaguars, unless they want to sacrifice a seat on their 53-man roster for a 33-year-old who’s never played tight end before and came out of retirement to try.
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Cowboys: Jaylon Smith, LB
Smith did himself no favors by telling everyone to “watch the film” on the back end of his disappointing 2020 campaign and incoming defensive coordinator Dan Quinn apparently did, leading to the selection of Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox in the 2021 NFL Draft — along with the addition of Keanu Neal in free agency as a linebacker. Smith has no choice but to be on high alert this coming season, as he also competes with Leighton Vander Esch for the right to stick around beyond 2021. Be it for rotation and/or salary cap implications, Smith is a prime candidate for either a trade or a release in the coming months and for all of his optimism, he knows he’s on the bubble.
Seahawks: Aldon Smith, DE
In 2020, the Seahawks attempted to trade with the Cowboys to land Smith and were met with a dial tone. So when the Cowboys decided to part ways with Smith in 2021 free agency, the Seahawks jumped in and signed him without interference — at least from another team. The interference turned out to come from Smith himself, who turned himself in following allegations of second-degree battery. Granted, Smith isn’t signed to a big-money deal, but rather a one-year contract at just around $1 million. But if he’s going to be a distraction on a team that had an offseason filled with them, and if Roger Goodell deems it necessary to suspend him for any amount of time, the Seahawks might start thinking twice about a player they almost traded for but might not pan out in Seattle.
Washington: Landon Collins, S
Collins broke the bank in 2019 when he agreed to terms on a six-year, $84 million deal in Washington. And while that’s wonderful for him as a player, it’s time to begin assessing if his production supports a continuation of such a mammoth deal. Collins was available for only seven games in 2020 because of a torn Achilles and wasn’t exactly dominating before he went down with the season-ending injury. This means Washington has to be damn sure he’ll not only return to form physically after a devastating injury, but that he’ll also return to an All-Pro level in the process. Otherwise, they won’t be able to justify his $16.92 million cap hit in 2021 (second-highest on the team). An outright release wouldn’t yield enough savings to outweigh his presence, but trading him would see Washington net $12.72 million in savings.
Packers: Kevin King, CB
It was all good just a year ago. King opened a lot of eyes in Green Bay when he hauled in a career-high five interceptions in 2019, making it appear the Packers made the right call when they selected him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. The problem is he had only one interception prior to 2019 and he grabbed none in 2020, combined with the fact he battled injury that cost him five regular-season games last year and a total of 22 regular-season games in his four-year career. King was also exposed badly in the NFC Championship Game, and the Packers made the decision to select Eric Stokes and Shemar Jean-Charles with their first- and fifth-round pick, respectively. This means their patience with King may be at its end.
To be fair here, Ertz doesn’t fear the chopping block in Philadelphia. If anything, he welcomes it. The problem is nobody knows if the Eagles will be able to work out a trade to land assets in return for him, but what is clear is how his career with Philly is likely at its end in 2021. He wants out and to a team he feels values what he brings to the table, and the Eagles instead have googly eyes for Dallas Goedert as their TE1 for the future. The relationship between Ertz and the Eagles truly could end at any moment.
Chiefs: Anthony Hitchens, LB
The Chiefs know the value of having Hitchens around, but they also diminished it by adding Nick Bolton in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The best plan would see Kansas City allow Bolton to learn under Hitchens this coming season, but with Hitchens approaching a contract year in 2022 and $6.44 million in cap savings to be had if he’s traded or released in 2021, the veteran might be in very real trouble if Bolton hits the ground running in camp and beyond.
Bears: Jimmy Graham, TE
Graham is rapidly approaching the dusk of his NFL career. The 34-year-old is on the books for the Bears this season to the tune of a $10 million cap hit, and his inability to consistently stretch the field — albeit still being a quality red zone target — makes it difficult to fathom Chicago being willing to take such a financial hit. He’s set to earn $6.9 million in base salary in 2021, which all converts to cap savings if the Bears decide to show him the door and instead give his reps to other talent on their roster like Cole Kmet.
Patriots: Sony Michel, RB
Michel entered the NFL with a ton of promise that’s since been consistently derailed by injury. That’s led to the Patriots declining to pick up the fifth-year option on the former first-round pick — leaving his future drenched in uncertainty. With the emergence of Damien Harris, the decision to re-sign James White, and Rhamondre Stevenson being selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, all signs point to the horizon approaching for Michel in New England. If they’re not looking to keep him around for the longterm, he could be moved or released outright at some point.
Rams: DeSean Jackson, WR
If this were the same Jackson that took the NFL by storm, it would be a different conversation, but he’s not and it’s not. Jackson’s return to the Eagles was unceremonious and wholly derailed by injury, something that’s plagued him wildly in recent seasons. Jackson was available for only eight games over the last two seasons combined, and grabbed just 395 receiving yards and three touchdowns when on the field during that time. Once also a dynamic returner, that’s no longer on the table for a 34-year-old that had only two return yards in 2020. The L.A. kid returning home is definitely a romantic headline, but there’s a reason the Rams only gave him a one-year deal and if he gets injured and/or doesn’t show up and show out, he’ll be shown the door.
Bills: Mario Addison, DE
No one is pretending Addison can’t contribute, because that would be a lie. But while he’s coming off of a solid 5.5-sack season, the reality is the Bills used their first two draft picks on defensive ends — namely Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr. — after having used a second-round pick on A.J. Epenesa a year ago. They’re stockpiling premium edge talent and Addison, who’s now in his mid-30s, would save the Bills $2.1 million as a post-June 1 release and $6.17 million as a post-June 1 trade — numbers that can’t and likely won’t be ignored following the recent draft acquisitions.
Jets: Jamison Crowder, WR
Zach Wilson is expected to be the savior of the franchise, but it’s to-be-determined what Crowder’s future holds as the regime changes quarterback hands for the umpteenth time in his NFL career. Corey Davis landed big money from the Jets and Keelan Cole joins the roster as an upgrade at slot receiver, with second-round pick Elijah Moore ready to make an early impact as a rookie in tandem with Wilson. For as solid as Crowder continues to be, going young at the position and moving on from Crowder would’ve yielded a hefty cap savings of $10 million prior to him reportedly accepting a pay cut. The fact he had to do that to save his roster spot lets you know he’s in jeopardy, and he’ll still need to beat back the newcomers to get off of the hot seat.
49ers: Wayne Gallman, RB
This is a team that adores having a loaded backfield, but they’re officially in the territory of overkill. After signing Gallman in free agency one year ago, the 49ers have now selected not one, but two running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft — Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon. What that hints at is Gallman being on the bubble, considering Raheem Mostert got the restructured contract he wanted in 2020. Add in how Kyle Shanahan uses fullback Kyle Juszczyk and not everyone in the backfield will survive roster cuts, with a target seemingly being on Gallman’s back going into training camp. He’s coming off of a career-best season, but that might not be enough and if he’s gone, it won’t be a money thing.
Saints: Tre’Quan Smith, WR
This is going to be a boom or bust year for Smith, whom I listed as a candidate to have a breakout season in 2021. The stage is set for the former third-round pick to finally step up and be the complementary piece to All-Pro wideout Michael Thomas, and the fact Smith is entering a contract year only adds that much more pressure on him to do so. If he doesn’t impress quickly, he could find himself an afterthought of Sean Payton, and then wholly expendable as a potential trade piece — or worse.
Falcons: Hayden Hurst, TE
Much like Smith, I have Hurst as a candidate to do plenty of damage for his team in 2021. But also like Smith, Hurst is up against the wall this coming season — with fourth-overall pick Kyle Pitts applying pressure. The Falcons aren’t going to waste a single second in trying to make Pitts the second coming of Julio Jones, the latter having been traded away this summer. The saving grace for Hurst will be if the Falcons make the mistake of trying to bottle up Pitts as simply a tight end and not an overall receiving target, but that’s not expected. And entering the final year of his contract, unless he’s in the Falcons long-term plans, it’ll likely take a career-best season to see them award him a new deal.
Steelers: Benny Snell Jr., RB
Snell is hoping to level up in 2021, but now he’ll have a more difficult time doing it. With James Conner and the Steelers parting ways in free agency, Snell was set to have a shot at landing the RB1 job, but then the club selected Najee Harris in the first round. That immediately torpedoes any chance of Snell being seen as anything more than a rotational piece, and his struggles in short-yardage situations aren’t exactly helping his cause, either. Snell isn’t exactly a throwaway after delivering just under 400 yards with four touchdowns in 2020, but that could also be viewed as having some trade value as well.
Dolphins: Jakeem Grant, WR
It’s not necessarily the presence of rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle that puts Grant in a tough spot, although that will require an assessment to see how many wideouts the Dolphins are willing to carry in 2021. The true issue for Grant is the fact his value as just that — a receiver — may not be enough to help justify his coming salary cap hit. Grant’s true value lies in his ability to be a game-changing returner, and that will be enough to give the Dolphins pause when considering who should be shaved from the WR room in a few weeks. But if they don’t believe paying $4.7 million this season to a player who’s mostly a return specialist, they could look to make a move and see who else on the roster might be able to replace him at returner — at a lower cost.
Ravens: Brandon Williams, DL
Everybody can’t stick around, and that means the Ravens have some difficult decisions to make in the next few months. They have several key players set to hit free agency in 2022 — including Calais Campbell — and Williams’ salary could make it difficult to begin maneuvering in contract talks with others. Williams is set to hit the team’s salary cap for a robust $12.9 million (third-highest on the team) in 2021, yet played in only one-third of the team’s defensive snaps in 2020 and missed three games, to boot. Already being a couple years on the wrong side of 30 doesn’t help his case, along with the fact his trajectory isn’t aimed north.
Colts: Jack Doyle, TE
Doyle might be a victim of the newcomers in Indy. Mo Alie-Cox is already showing promise and the Colts have added Kylen Granson with the 127th-overall pick in this year’s draft, creating direct competition for Doyle going into training camp. The 31-year-old has been mostly solid for the Colts in his eight seasons with the club, but he’s been uneven since his career-best campaign in 2017, and his 251 receiving yards and three touchdowns in 2020 don’t inject a ton of optimism for anyone thinking he will suddenly become an All-Pro this season. He’ll hit Indy’s salary cap for $5.69 million in 2021, and the team can save most of it if they go young at the position.
Chargers: Linval Joseph, DL
Joseph is still a good player in the NFL. That much isn’t up for debate, but there are other variables to consider here if you’re the Chargers. As they begin building what they hope will be a championship-caliber team around Justin Herbert, they’ll need the cap flexibility to do so. This is where the evaluation of Joseph takes center stage, because he’s set to hit the salary cap this season for $11.9 million as he enters the final year of a two-year deal signed in Los Angeles last offseason. In his first year with the Chargers, he produced no sacks in 16 games — the first time that’s happened since he was a rookie in 2010 — and while he’s never been a sack beast, he’s expected to at least contribute there; and the Chargers can free up $7.9 million in savings by cutting bait.
Giants: Will Hernandez, OL
One of the most highly-touted lineman of his draft class, Hernandez has been a combination of flash and disappointment over the course of his rookie contract in New York. He’s gone from being full-time starter to missing time due to COVID-19 and returning as a rotational player. In his absence, it was Shane Lemieux who plugged in and played admirably, something that caught the attention of both head coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett — two individuals who weren’t around when Dave Gettleman drafted Hernandez and, as such, don’t have any “draft loyalty” to him. Entering the final year of his deal, there’s enough value to potentially trade Hernandez and use the cap savings elsewhere, especially if undrafted rookie Jake Burton raises some eyebrows.
Broncos: Bryce Callahan, CB
They needed help in the defensive secondary this offseason and got it, to say the least, when they grabbed cornerback Patrick Surtain II with the ninth-overall pick. This makes for quite the potential tandem with safety Justin Simmons, but also carves a potential path to see Callahan pushed out of the door. Callahan has done some good things in Denver but missed several games with a foot injury recently, and the team can’t shrug off the fact they’d net $7.2 million by letting him walk in 2021. These are funds that could go elsewhere on the roster, and seeing as the secondary looks deeper than it did a few months ago, you couldn’t blame the Broncos if they pulled this trigger.
Bengals: C.J. Uzomah, TE
A good blocking tight end isn’t easy to find in the NFL, and Uzomah is definitely one you’d like to hold on to. The problem is the bell will soon toll on his three-year deal, with Uzomah entering the final year that would see the Bengals save $5.08 million toward their salary cap if they released or traded him. This likely wouldn’t be a decision made any time soon, as they’d first want to see how others in the TE room perform with the possibility of replacing him, but it’s not outside the realm of logic to consider the 28-year-old suiting up for a different team before the season is over. What happens here might largely be rooted in if Drew Sample and Mason Schreck can step up, among others like rookies Cheyenne O’Grady and Pro Wells.
Texans: Bradley Roby, CB
This team is a mess, and that’s not a secret. Nor is the fact Roby — while being one of the better players on their roster — hasn’t himself played up to standard lately. To make matters worse, he’ll miss the first six games of the 2021 season due to an NFL suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Roby is approaching the ripe age of 30 and additionally wasn’t the most durable player even before he readies to hit that mark, having not played an entire season in his last three tries. He’s under contract through 2022, but the Texans aren’t going to contend for anything in 2021 and they could use the $8 million in cap savings from parting ways with Roby on one or several of the other glaring roster holes.
The defending Super Bowl champs have retained every single key player in free agency, and that was not an easy feat. In doing so, they’re reloaded to potentially repeat this coming season, but also have a serious crunch with their salary cap that could stand to be addressed. This puts Gholston front-and-center as as potential cap casualty, seeing as they’re due to pay him $5.5 million in 2021. And with none of that being guaranteed, a release or trade puts every penny of it back in the Buccaneers pocket. The team is absolutely loaded on the defensive line and Gholston is a now a luxury piece they can afford to say goodbye to. It’d be wise to keep him onboard for insurance against camp injuries, but barring any, it makes sense to part ways in the final year of his deal.
Cardinals: Devon Kennard, LB
Kennard was viewed as an addition to the Cardinals pass rush when he signed three-year contract in 2020. Things didn’t go as planned in his first year, however, with Kennard logging only four starts en route to three sacks and only 19 combined tackles — the latter being a career-low by a large margin (-22). The team has since stunned the NFL by wooing J.J. Watt into the mix and will see the return of perennial pass rush terror Chandler Jones from injury, and they’ll need money to help make sure the latter is happy and in place for 2021. To that end, the Cardinals can garner just over $2 million in savings by getting out from under Kennard’s deal as an outright release — a number that balloons to $6.63 million in savings if he’s traded.
Vikings: Stephen Weatherly, DL
Weatherly has unfortunately seen this movie before. It’s not his first dance with the Vikings, having been released after the 2019 season when he didn’t deliver as they had hoped. Two years later, he’s back with the team and facing another potential out — this time before he takes the field in Minnesota. The 27-year-old was recently released by the Carolina Panthers after struggling to perform in Charlotte as well, and must now contend with added competition that wasn’t present in Minneapolis when he signed his one-year deal in March. Rookie third-round pick Patrick Jones II and fourth-round pick Janarius Robinson bring a ton of promise to the Vikings defensive front, and the signing of Weatherly could easily be viewed as draft insurance — which is no longer required — that gives the Vikings $2 million back in savings if they cancel it.
Panthers: Juston Burris, S
In Carolina, it’s not simply about figuring out the quarterback situation and the offense as a whole. Matt Rhule is also trying to upgrade his defense in a big way, and that’s why Jaycee Horn got the call with the eight-overall pick. But as they’re trying to level up the secondary, it comes time to decide if Burris is a capable starter to protect the back end behind Horn going forward. The Panthers might do well to instead lean more heavily on Jeremy Chin and to see what Sam Franklin can truly do if fully unleashed than to eat Burris’ salary in 2021. The 28-year-old will punch the Panthers cap for $4.83 million this season, but $3.78 million can revert to savings if they divorce him.
Raiders: Jalen Richard, RB
Richard initially did well as a third-down back, but not so well that the Raiders didn’t go searching for a more dynamic complement for Josh Jacobs in free agency. In doing so, they were able to add Kenyan Drake to the roster — a halfback who can be just as dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield as he is taking handoffs. Drake is more or less now in Richard’s way, but so is the contract on the latter. Richard is due $3.5 million this season but with none of it guaranteed and Drake set to play in a one-two tandem with Jacobs, Richard finds himself on the chopping block in Las Vegas, and following a career-worst season in 2020. The writing is most definitely on the wall here for the 27-year-old.
Lions: Nick Williams, DL
It’s time for another reset in Detroit, and that means Dan Campbell will continue to review the roster to see what fits. It’s not to say Williams doesn’t or won’t, but he’s more of a piece specific to the Matt Patricia era than one that might slide easily into that of Campbell. Both sides are actively working on trying to stick together, to Williams’ credit, and that’s why he’s accepted a reduced salary for 2021. That helps, yes, but doesn’t guarantee him a spot, and especially if a younger player steps up in camp to make the 31-year-old seem more disposable — even at his reduced pay. At this point, considering the Lions are rebuilding, it has to be more about seeing what the young guns can do over allowing their reps to go to those who might not be around much longer anyway.
Browns: Sheldon Day, DL
There’s been a lot of turnover at defensive tackle in Cleveland, and while Day didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself in the 2020 season, he did enough after joining the team’s practice squad in December to warrant them returning him in April. He won’t enter training camp with much leverage at all, despite being a fifth-year player, and the Browns have a lot of talented bodies in front of him that he’ll need to beat out to stand a chance at sticking around. Day isn’t an NFL starter in 2021, and hasn’t been for much of his professional career, further dampening his chances. It’s best the Browns see what they have in him when camp rolls around, and if they’ll need him due to injury at the position, but the former fourth-round pick has a tough road ahead.
Titans: Brett Kern, P
Punters get cut too, you know, including those who’ve been with their respective team for quite awhile. This might be the situation soon for Kern, who’s been with the Titans since joining them in 2009. He didn’t have his best season in 2020, with his numbers beginning to show decline and having also missed several games for the first time in his otherwise durable career. The Titans shouldn’t be hard-pressed to make a decision on a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro who’s racked up 43,623 punt yards in his stellar NFL career, but it also wouldn’t hurt to at least begin having the conversation about who’ll succeed him in the near future — especially considering the Titans can save millions toward their cap if they can answer that question sooner than later.