Free agency is around the corner. Team capologists are crunching numbers and consulting their GMs on players who are a priority to re-sign and franchise tag. They also will determine others who will likely play elsewhere next season.
The truth is, teams can maneuver to keep virtually anyone they want via voidable deals, if necessary. The consequence is that they may have to eventually absorb a dead money hit.
Here’s my list of a dozen NFL players who will likely be too expensive for their teams to retain in 2024—in most cases, new teams will happily welcome them aboard:
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
Derrick Henry is a two-time NFL rushing champ and three-time Pro Bowler, but he turns 30 next month, and his production has diminished for the 4-8 Tennessee Titans. Henry, a former second-round pick, has 841 rushing yards, which, on a per-game basis, has dropped from 96 yards last season to 70 yards this season.
The Titans drafted Tyjae Spears in the third round this year, and he looks to be Henry's heir-apparent. Spears has rushed for 329 yards with 5.0 yards per carry, compared with 4.3 for Henry. Spears also has 33 receptions vs. Henry's 22.
Henry is in the final year of a $12.5 million per year contract he signed in 2020. Tennessee has plenty of cap room in 2024 ($85 million), but it’s unlikely they’ll re-sign Henry unless it’s a bargain deal, which he'll hope to avoid.
The Titans' offense is in the middle of a big change — with Will Levis replacing Ryan Tannehill at quarterback — and Henry looks to be headed elsewhere in 2024.
Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
In 2022, Austin Ekeler had his best season for the Los Angeles Chargers with 915 rushing yards, 107 receptions for 722 yards and 18 combined touchdowns. However, the league-wide devaluing of running backs made him unsuccessful in his attempt to get an extension on his $6 million per year contract.
An ankle injury cost him three games this season, and his production has dropped to 446 rushing yards, 31 catches for 295 yards and five combined touchdowns. His yards per carry has fallen from 4.5 last season to 3.5 this season.
Ekeler is a great success story as an undrafted player with close to 8,000 combined yards (and 38 touchdowns) rushing and receiving over his seven-year career. Ekeler’s backup is 2020 fourth-rounder Josh Kelley, who has rushed for 376 yards with a better yards per carry (4.0) than Ekeler. But Kelley is not as effective in the passing game — he has only seven catches for 26 yards.
The Chargers are $45 million over the projected 2024 cap, so it appears likely that Ekeler will depart in free agency. He will again have a difficult time getting paid at the level he seeks.
Leonard Floyd, EDGE, Buffalo Bills
Chicago Bears former first-round pick Leonard Floyd is on his third team and has been a terrific bargain, signing with the Buffalo Bills at $7 million (plus $2 million in incentives) on a one-year deal. He has 9.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hits and 25 tackles for Buffalo’s ninth-ranked pass defense.
The Bills are projected to be $42 million over the 2024 cap, which doesn’t bode well for them paying Floyd a market deal for an excellent edge rusher. The team has plenty of pass rushers younger than the 31-year-old Floyd and too much dead money on Von Miller’s $20 million-per-year contract to jettison him. Miller's production has been limited this season, but his recent legal issue could change things for his NFL future.
Patrick Queen, ILB, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens did not exercise the fifth-year option on Patrick Queen, their first-round pick in 2020. This decision came after the team traded for All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith, extended him for $20 million per year and drafted Trenton Simpson in the third round of the 2023 Draft as a potential replacement for Queen.
The Ravens also have 2020 third-rounder Malik Harrison at inside linebacker and will try to re-sign or franchise tag DT Justin Madubuike (10 sacks). They also have one of the league’s highest-paid quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson. So something has to give — and it’s Queen who will head out the door of a team with only $12.8 million of projected 2024 cap room.
Queen has responded with his best season. He has 102 tackles, 3.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss for the Ravens’ second-ranked defense. He’ll have plenty of suitors and should receive a free agent contract close to Smith’s deal.
Geno Stone, Safety, Baltimore Ravens
Geno Stone ranks second in the NFL with six interceptions — but like Queen, he’ll probably be too expensive for Baltimore to keep on its loaded defense. Stone, a former seventh-round pick in 2020, also has 49 tackles this season. Marcus Williams’ pec and hamstring injuries opened the door for Stone to have a career year. But Williams has too much dead money on a contract that has three more years, so he’ll stick around.
Kyle Hamilton is a Pro Bowl-caliber safety in his second season. That makes Stone expendable, but he should get a nice deal from a safety-needy team.
Mike Danna, DE, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs' defense has jumped from 11th to fourth, and its strong pass rush (39 sacks, sixth-most) has led the way. Mike Danna has played a large role, contributing a career-high 6.5 sacks along with 39 tackles in his first year as a starter.
Danna was a fifth-round pick in 2020. He has set himself up for a nice payday in March, but it likely won’t be with Kansas City, which has $31 million in 2024 cap room but only 34 players under contract. QB Patrick Mahomes' salary — his 2024 cap hit is more than $57 million — is always an obstacle.
The Chiefs have plenty of other pass rushers, led by DT Chris Jones. Jones' contract will also be up, but Kansas City will make sure its four-time Pro Bowler stays. At defensive end, the Chiefs have George Karlaftis (eight sacks) and first-round rookie Felix Anudike-Uzomah, along with Charles Omenihu.
Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys
One of the longtime anchors of so many excellent Dallas Cowboys offensive lines over the past 13 years seems to have run his course with the team. Tyron Smith turns 34 next week, and injuries have cost him three games this season and 15 games last season after he played only 11 games in 2021 and two games in 2020.
The Cowboys are $13 million over the cap next year and are unlikely to pay Smith $4 million as they did this year. He was Dallas’ first-round pick in 2011 and is a four-time First- or Second-Team All-Pro — but not since the 2016 season. He’s a future Hall of Famer, but he’ll almost certainly finish his career elsewhere if he chooses to keep playing.
Andrus Peat, OT, New Orleans Saints
Like Smith, Andrus Peat is a former first-rounder (2015) and a multiple-time Pro Bowler (three times, but not since 2020). His quality of play has declined as he finishes his $11.5-million-per-year contract.
As usual, the New Orleans Saints will begin 2024 with a league-high $88 million over the cap, which will necessitate restructures and releases. Re-signing Peat, 30, should not be in the cards because the Saints have 2022 first-rounder Trevor Penning waiting to replace him.
Chase Young, DE, San Francisco 49ers
It’s been a strange year for the second-overall pick in the 2020 draft. He played well for the Washington Commanders after his recovery from ACL surgery (five sacks in seven games) but was unloaded at the trade deadline for merely a third-round pick.
The San Francisco 49ers have essentially rented Chase Young for the last half of this season. They can let him walk in free agency and can recoup the third-round pick as a compensatory pick. Meanwhile, Young has joined forces with Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead to form a fierce front four for the 49ers (9-3). Young has produced 1.5 sacks in his four games with San Francisco and is among the league leaders in pressures.
The 49ers are $14.6 million over the 2024 cap and have too much invested in Bosa ($34 million per year), Hargrave ($21 million per year) and Armstead ($17 million per year) to re-sign Young.
He will be among the highest-paid free agents in March if he stays healthy and finishes this season strong. His target will be to equal or exceed his former teammate Montez Sweat’s four-year, $98 million deal with the Chicago Bears.
Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles GM Howie Roseman is the master of using voidable deals to keep aging stars, and the Eagles somehow enter 2024 with $28.3 million in cap space. I’m sure he’d love to find a way to keep 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox as a team leader for the immediate future.
The Eagles drafted DTs Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter in the past two first rounds. That makes it likely Cox won't be re-signed if he’s looking for anything close to the $10 million he’s being paid.
Cox is still a productive player with 2.5 sacks and 20 tackles, and he’ll get signed elsewhere as a rotational defensive lineman similar to Calais Campbell. It could happen in Philadelphia if Cox agrees to a significant pay cut. But Cox turns 33 years old next week, and it’s time for Davis (2.5 sacks, 32 tackles) and Carter (4.0 sacks, 26 tackles) to be the Eagles' long-term starters at defensive tackle.
D.J. Wonnum, EDGE/OLB, Minnesota Vikings
D.J. Wonnum was the Minnesota Vikings’ fourth-round pick in 2020, and he will hit free agency off a fine season with six sacks, 47 tackles and 12 quarterback hits. Wonnum's playing time has grown due to Marcus Davenport's continued injuries. Before the 2023 season, Minnesota signed Davenport for $13 million to a one-year deal, but he has only played in four games.
Wonnum has been a durable player in his four seasons and has 21 career sacks.
The Vikings have $38 million in projected cap room but only 39 players under contract in 2024. Their priorities are going to be a $30 million-plus per year extension for All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson and a new contract for EDGE/OLB Danielle Hunter, who ranks third in the league with 13.5 sacks. Hunter will seek close to $30 million per year after his strong season. Excellent left tackle Christian Darrisaw also will be eligible for an extension in 2024.
Then there’s QB Kirk Cousins, whose contract is expiring. Cousins could return to Minnesota after his recovery from a torn Achilles because the injury and his age (36) may limit interest in him. Cousins’ price tag will be more than $40 million per year after his fine 2023 play (103.8 passer rating) through eight games.
At 26, Wonnum is the perfect age for teams to sign him on his second contract. The bottom line is that Wonnum will be a solid free agent target, and he will likely move on to receive his market value.
Adoree' Jackson, CB, New York Giants
It’s been a rough season for the New York Giants, and injuries have been a big part of the problem — including ones that caused Adoree' Jackson to miss three games. Jackson is a former Titans first-round pick who the Giants signed in 2021 free agency for $13 million per year. He has missed 15 games the past three seasons and only produced one interception. However, he has 36 tackles this season and had 113 tackles over the past two seasons.
The Giants have $36.8 million of 2024 cap room with only 38 players under contract. They’re more likely to spend money on re-signing RB Saquon Barkley and S Xavier McKinney. They should hit the free agent market for a starting outside corner who is more durable than Jackson to pair with first-round rookie Deonte Banks.