One of the most frustrating situations for an NFL team executive is when they have a player whose salary has become too high for their level of production, and they drafted or signed a free agent as the likely replacement, so they’re forced to let the player go to gain needed salary cap room.
On Friday, the Arizona Cardinals made the decision to cut former All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, freeing up $7.38 million in cap space this season and getting Hopkins completely off their books in 2024.
These pending cuts may surprise fans but not general managers around the league. The obvious preference is to trade such players. However, the reality is teams know when a player soon will be released and will either offer a late-round pick as a pittance if the player agrees to a lower salary as part of the trade or more likely wait for the player to hit the open market.
Several high-profile players could be cut or traded, including Tennessee QB Ryan Tannehill, who dealt with injuries last season. The Tennessee Titans can save $27 million in cap room by releasing Tannehill if rookie second-rounder Will Levis or returning backup Malik Willis look good enough in minicamp and training camp to be designated the starter. That’s unlikely in 2023.
The status of players like Tannehill and Hopkins is debatable. Here are seven other players who should be cut — or traded for little in return — before the start of the 2023 season:
7 Players Who Should Be Cut
Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Dalvin Cook signed a five-year, $63 million extension in 2020 and carries a $14.1 million cap number this season. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler who has battled injury issues during his career. In 2022, he had 1,173 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and played in every game. But his rushing average was a career-low 4.4 yards per carry, and he had only 295 receiving yards, so he’s not a big part of the Minnesota Vikings passing game.
Cook’s $11 million in base salary, roster and workout bonuses, along with his age (28 in August), injury history and the devaluing of running backs, make him unlikely to be traded without agreeing to a pay cut. Cook probably prefers to be released so he can hit the open market. With a post-June 1 release, the Vikings will achieve about $9 million in cap savings that is needed for extensions on Justin Jefferson and possibly Danielle Hunter. It also might facilitate adding a bargain pass rusher or cornerback and providing needed cap space when all players count against the cap (vs. top 51) after the final cut in September.
The Vikings are a pass-oriented team with a superstar receiver in Jefferson and have a quality replacement for Cook (but without his speed) in Alexander Mattison, who they re-signed for two years, $7 million.
Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Like Cook, Joe Mixon was a second-round pick in 2017 who has an injury history. His production dropped last season from 1,205 rushing yards in 2021 to 814 (and his TDs from 13 to 7 with only a 3.9 average per carry in 2022). He added 60 catches for 441 yards.
The Cincinnati Bengals are in decent cap shape ($15.4 million of room), but their focus is on extending star QB Joe Burrow in a $50 million-plus per year deal and likely WR Tee Higgins (a free agent in 2024). Mixon may not be deemed to be worth the $9.6 million he’s due this season with a $12.76 million cap hit. The Bengals can save $10 million by releasing him after June 1 or $7.26 million before then.
The Bengals made an underrated pick in fifth-round back Chase Brown, who was very productive at Illinois (1,643 rushing yards last season). The team likely will move on from Mixon, who also has had several well-documented legal issues.
Corey Davis, WR, New York Jets
The New York Jets can save $10.5 million against the cap with only a $666,667 dead money hit by releasing Corey Davis now or in training camp as he enters the final year of his contract. He’s a former Titans first-round pick who had only 32 receptions for 536 yards last season and missed four games. The Jets are well stocked at wide receiver with last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson, ex-Packers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb and ex-Chief Mecole Hardman.
The Jets have $19.2 million of cap room and can keep Davis through training camp as expensive insurance against an injury to others. He is a release candidate because it’s not likely he can be traded due to his high salary.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
The former first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020 played in just 20 games over the past two seasons because of multiple injuries. He was a healthy inactive for the Super Bowl as rookie running back Isiah Pacheco took over as lead back and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. Vet Jerick McKinnon re-signed to be the relief back and primary receiving back. He made 56 catches for 512 yards and 9 TD receptions last season.
The Chiefs have the least cap space in the league ($1.1 million), and even though they only will gain $866,000 in cap room by releasing Clyde Edwards-Helaire, they probably don’t want to pay him $2.1 million to be a backup.
Coach Andy Reid talked up Edwards-Helaire in OTAs, saying, “He looks great, quick and strong.” That could be the coach trying to drum up trade interest in an underperforming player. The Chiefs declined his fifth-year option.
La’el Collins, OT Cincinnati Bengals
La’el Collins missed the final two 2022 regular-season games and three postseason games because of a major knee injury. He missed five games in his previous season in Dallas. The Bengals can gain $6 million in cap room by releasing Collins before June 1 or $7.6 million after that date.
It’s a difficult situation for Collins after Cincinnati signed Orlando Brown to a big free agent deal to play left tackle. The expectation is former first-rounder Jonah Williams will move to right tackle, Collins’ best position. Williams had a rough season in 2022 with 12 sacks allowed, but the Bengals previously picked up his fifth-year option that guaranteed $12.6 million in 2023. Williams requested a trade after Brown was signed, but that will be difficult due to his high salary. The Bengals are unlikely to release Williams and absorb the dead money hit with his guarantee.
So Collins looks like the odd man out. I doubt the Bengals want to pay his $4.5 million base salary plus an additional $2.4 million in active roster bonuses if he’s a backup tackle. A move to guard is unlikely because Collins is considered a much better tackle.
Noah Igbinoghene, CB, Miami Dolphins
Noah Igbinoghene was Miami’s first-round pick in 2020 and had his fifth-year option declined after missing 18 games over the past two seasons. He has only one interception and 29 tackles during his three seasons. He is buried on the depth chart behind starters Jalen Ramsey and Xavien Howard, along with second-round pick Cam Smith and nickel/slot corner Kader Kohou.
Igbinoghene has a cap hit of $3.58 million this season and is due $2.15 million in base salary. The Miami Dolphins are tight against the cap with only $2.6 million of room. They probably will release Igbinoghene during training camp and pick up $1.1 million in cap space if he has not made a significant step toward gaining more play time.
Jourdan Lewis, CB, Dallas Cowboys
Jourdan Lewis was the Dallas Cowboys’ third-round pick in 2017 and had several productive seasons at cornerback until he sustained a foot injury and landed on IR after six games in 2022. He’s scheduled to earn $5 million this season in his final season under contract. The Cowboys have Trevon Diggs and Stephon Gilmore as their starters, with last year’s fifth-round pick DaRon Bland playing well (five interceptions and 54 tackles) as the third corner in Lewis’ absence.
Dallas has $14.2 million in cap room but will look to extend Diggs (a potential free agent in 2024) and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who are two-time Pro Bowlers. Lewis looks like a likely cap casualty.
Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager and Titans team president. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.