NFL Stars Who Could Soon Become Salary Cap Casualties

Chris HayreContributor IIFebruary 28, 2014

NFL Stars Who Could Soon Become Salary Cap Casualties

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    Tim Sharp/Associated Press

    The days leading up to the NFL's new year can be a cruel period of time for players whose salaries are perceived as roadblocks to a franchise's future prosperity.

    Throw emotional attachments out the window; feelings are rarely spared when a player is released. The memories of front office executives are short when the focus shifts towards finding younger, more productive players in free agency. Past accolades—team or individual—are often meaningless if they interfere with the bottom line. 

    It's not personal though, just business as usual in the NFL.

    Let's examine the situations of some high-profile players—currently under contract—who could be playing in another city in 2014. Feel free to add to this list in the comments section.

    Cap savings courtesy of overthecap.com

DeMarcus Ware, DE, Dallas Cowboys

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    Layne Murdoch/Associated Press

    2014 Cap Number: $16,003,750

    Cap Savings if Released: $7,432,250

    USA TODAY Sports' Tom Pelissero reported Thursday that the NFL salary cap will fall somewhere in between $132 million and $133 million in 2014approximately $10 million more than last season.

    Even with the sizable increase, the Dallas Cowboys are still a mind-boggling $18,920,690 over the salary cap, via ESPN.com's $132 million estimate. It's a situation so dire that releasing arguably their best player, defensive end DeMarcus Ware, is on the table.

    Earlier this week, owner and general manager Jerry Jones talked about Ware to ESPN's Sportscenter (via Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News):

    There’s no question when you are where we are on the cap, even though we’ve had some new cap space added, and you have a defensive player that’s your highest paid defensive player, and he hasn’t been on the field much the last two years, that has to be considered. You can't have it all.

    While the 31-year-old Ware has missed only three games in the last two seasons, he hasn't been healthy when it's mattered most. The seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro was largely ineffective in the Cowboys' last two "win or go home" NFC East title games because of injuries.

    If both parties can't come to terms on a restructured deal, Ware will be saying goodbye to Big D.

    And while it's premature to even speculate where he could end up, players with a lot to prove typically prefer to go to a place where they can get a crack or two at their former team. Think NFC East.

Troy Polamalu, SS, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    2014 Cap Number: $10,887,500

    Cap Savings if Released: $8,250,000

    It's cringe-worthy for Steelers Nation to think about safety Troy Polamalu donning any NFL colors other than black and gold.

    For a perennial Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl Champion, it cannot be easy to have your skills slowly start to erode, forcing the organization to make a difficult decision about your future.

    If the new league year started today, the Cowboys—and yes, the Steelers—would be the only two teams non-compliant with the salary cap.

    Pittsburgh would be $6,748,066 over the cap, according to ESPN.com's estimation. That's a deep hole to maneuver out of, especially if the Steelers want to re-sign unrestricted free agent defensive end Jason Worilds, or make any other note-worthy moves, all while holding on to the 32-year-old Polamalu. 

    Last month, Steelers team president Art Rooney II said on a conference call that he wanted Polamalu "to retire a Steeler" via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Alan Robinson.

    It's a tough row to hoe, but if any organization can find a way to take care of one of their all-time greats without jeopardizing the future, it's Pittsburgh. Polamalu, though, will have to swallow a little bit of pride and take a realistic pay cut.

Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    2014 Cap Number: $10,000,000

    Cap Savings if Released: $6,000,000

    When new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt spoke to reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine last week, he didn't sound like a man who's been locked in his office devising ways to get his speedy running back Chris Johnson the football.

    In fact, when asked if he was optimistic that Johnson would be on the roster in 2014, Whisenhunt did the Tennessee Shuffle (via titansonline.com):

    Am I optimistic that he’ll remain on the team? Well, it’s a process that you go through with everybody on the team. This is a part of it, the draft, the combine, and then free agency. Putting together the team is not an exact science. We’re under no deadline to do it. We still have a lot of things that we have to evaluate going forward. Chemistry is a big piece of it. We haven’t even spent any time with our team yet. Like I said, there’s no rush to make a decision.

    The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt reported this week that Titans brass met with Johnson's agent in Indianapolis and as of now everything remains status quo. Wyatt also noted that Johnson has repeatedly said that he will not take a pay cut.

    Stay tuned. If Tennessee ends up severing ties with CJ2K, teams like Miami, Arizona and the New York Giants could be potential suitors.

Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    2014 Cap Number: $7,000,000

    Cap Savings if Released: ($2,000,000)

    Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman poked the wrong Panther.

    Gettleman's vague and non-committal comments last week regarding the future of 34-year-old wide receiver Steve Smith has generated media buzzand a response from Smith himself, who spoke to WBT-AM’s Keith Larson (via Pro Football Talk's Darin Gantt):

    To be honest, I’m not really sure what to make of it. That’s the first time I heard that being said. I wish I would have been afforded an opportunity to be given a heads up from our G.M. . . .

    The unfortunate part is, I had to hear it second hand. No one spoke to me face to face. It’s a little discouraging. I guess as they say it’s part of the business.

    Gantt also noted Thursday that Smith and Gettleman didn't speak when they were in the same room for tackle Jordan Gross' retirement press conference.

    It's icy, son.

    What's more curious is why this whole situation has become so public. The Panthers don't necessarily benefit by releasing Smith this offseason.

    Cutting ties with the most recognizable player in the franchise's history will cost $9.84 million in cap space and $3.84 million in cash over the next two seasons.

    Smith deserves the simple courtesy of open communication but as previously statedthis business can be cruel.

    If No. 89 does get released, you can bet he'll latch onto a team that plays Carolina in 2014. That'll be a day that Panthers cornerbacksand Gettlemandread.