One aspect of the NFL's offseason that tends to fly under the radar is that of salary cap casualties. It's probably a good thing that these cuts aren't the primary focus, as some could say that that would be focusing on the negative. The truth is, however, that a lot of big-named veterans will hit the open market because of their team's salary cap situation and their lofty contracts.
Most years, the NFL will see former high draft picks and other big names hit the open market shortly before the free agency period begins. Age, a general decline in play, and hefty roster bonuses come in play when a team looks at cutting a veteran. Or, as is the cases of the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason, they may just need to get closer to the cap.
Again this year, some big names will hit the open market, adding to an already deep pool of free agents.
With the Bengals having the third-most salary cap room to spend this season, it would not surprise me one bit if opts to go to this route of "bargain shopping". We've seen the Bengals' owner go this route before with other discarded former-first round picks like Tank Johnson, Adam Jones and, most recently, Nate Clements. While this form of "bargain shopping" carries a negative connotation with it amongst Bengals fans and pundits, there's also the recent success that has come with this strategy for the Bengals. It's fortunate that the Bengals have a talented coordinator like Mike Zimmer, who can get the best out of these players that were found on the scrap heap.
There are some intriguing players that NFL.com's Albert Breer assumes will be cap casualties. With the Bengals needing a wide receiver, cornerback, safety and defensive linemen, this could be a place that the team goes "dumpster diving". The difference between this year and the others prior is that a lot of the available players won't have the off-field issues that players like Johnson and Jones carried.
In the receiver department, the casualties are limited to aging veterans who seem to be viewed as declining contributors to their old team. Guys like Hines Ward of the Steelers and Donald Driver of the Packers could be looking at getting the axe, even though they have been decade-long staples of their respective franchises. If the Bengals choose to stay away from guys like Pierre Garcon or Robert Meachem, they could look at a proven veteran from a winning organization like Driver to pair opposite A.J. Green.
I'm trying to figure out what the Oakland Raiders 2012 secondary group will look like. Recently, they released cornerback Stanford Routt from his mega-deal, and he is currently set to visit the Bengals. Their starting strong safety, Tyvon Branch, is set to be a free agent and now according to Breer, their free safety Michael Huff could be the next victim. Huff was a former high draft pick and has had his ups and downs in the NFL. He had a pretty good season in 2010, prompting the Raiders to sign him to a lucrative deal going into 2011.
If he is given his walking papers, Huff could be a good fit in Cincinnati. He makes plays from time to time and has good speed. His size and speed combination allows him to line up in the slot against receivers, which is an attribute that Marvin Lewis and Zimmer love out of their safeties. The issue with Huff over the years has more to do with injuries and effort, not necessarily talent.
With the Bengals really hurting in that area of the roster, they could look at bringing in more than one veteran. While Routt could be a pretty good acquisition for the club, there could be a number of other serviceable veteran cornerbacks that could become available. For all of the heat that he took in Dallas, Terence Newman could be a good fit in Cincinnati. First, Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys when the team drafted Newman in 2003. He's no doubt familiar with him and Newman had some of the best years of his career under Zimmer's tutelage. Secondly, the Bengals were highly interested in Newman when he came out of college. Holding the first overall pick that year, the Bengals narrowed down their selection to Newman and Carson Palmer. While he's lost a step, he could be someone that can contribute for a reasonable price.
As far as offensive linemen go, it appears that most big-money players that could be released are former tackles. With the Bengals seemingly set at those positions and possibly looking at re-signing Anthony Collins, it would seem that they'd be out of the market for guys like Marcus McNeil, Levi Brown and Jason Smith (Andre Smith's career doesn't seem so bad compared to the Rams' Smith, does it?). Future Hall of Fame guard, Steve Hutchinson could become available and that could be a cheaper route that the club looks instead of spending big money on Carl Nicks or Ben Grubbs. But due to age and a still somewhat large salary demand, I'd doubt that the Bengals would look at Hutchinson. Chilo Rachal and Grubbs could be possibilities, as well as the draft.
The Bengals themselves will have to make some decisions on who could be their own cap casualties. While they have quite a bit of room already, they do have some dead weight that they could shed to make more moves and upgrading their roster. We'll discuss that tomorrow.