The Bengals manage the salary cap in a way that rarely compels the club to have to cut a player for salary cap purposes. With that said, it's always prudent for NFL teams to evaluate every player's performance in relation to their salary cap charge, and to trim any fat (however small) whenever warranted. In fact, while the claim that the Bengals “honor their contracts” is mostly true, there are examples of the Bengals terminating the contracts of veteran players whose performances no longer justified their cap hit (Rudi Johnson – 2008; BenJarvus Green-Ellis – 2014; James Harrison – 2014; Kyle Cook – 2014; Jason Allen – 2013; Jamaal Anderson – 2013; Travelle Wharton – 2013; Robert Geathers – 2015; Antwan Odom – 2011; Levi Jones – 2009; Laveranues Coles – 2010). As the above illustrates, the Bengals are not completely averse to terminating contracts in order to free up cap room.
With this in mind, let's take a look at a few players whose contracts may be terminated this offseason, and the cap and cash savings the Bengals would realize as a result.
As an initial matter, it is important to know the difference between "cap hits" and "cash spends", which, in turn, will help with understanding the difference between "cap savings" and "cash savings." For a review of the difference between cap hits and cash spends, please read this article.
Also, it is important to note that a player's dead money (if any) is already "baked-into" the cap savings, which will be realized if that player's contract is terminated. It is often misunderstood that dead money offsets part of (or is netted against) the cap savings, but that is simply not the case. Any dead money is already accounted for in the cap savings.
Described in its most basic terms, "dead money" is money that has already been paid (e.g. usually a signing bonus) or money that is guaranteed to be paid (e.g. future year base salary or roster bonus) to a player, but has yet to be counted against the Club's Salary Cap.
When a Club terminates a player's contract, the amount of money already paid to the player, but which has not yet counted against the cap (e.g. remaining unamortized signing bonus proration), counts against the cap upon his termination in the form of Dead Money (usually in the form of acceleration of any remaining unamortized signing bonus proration). While the dead money must be accounted for on the cap, the cap savings already includes the baked-in dead money charge.
The Bengals already have approximately $131.5M committed/charged to their salary cap for the 2017 league year. Assuming that the 2017 league-wide unadjusted salary cap is $168 million, when adding the rollover amount of $6,578,866 of unused 2016 cap room, the Bengals will have approximately $43 million in cap space for the 2017 season, even before terminating the contracts of any of the following players.
LB Rey Maualuga:
- Cap Savings: $3,700,000
- Cash Savings: $3,700,000
- Dead Money: $0
A second round pick from the 2009 NFL Draft, Maualuga has twice re-signed with the Bengals as an unrestricted free agent after the expiration of his original four-year rookie contract in 2012. After signing a two-year deal after the 2012 season, Maualuga and the Bengals agreed to a three-year deal following the 2014 season, which runs through the upcoming 2017 season.
Two years into his current deal, Maualuga's overall play, and lack of playmaking, do not justify a cap hit of $3.7 million. Moreover, Maualuga's playing time severely diminished during the 2016 season, and the trend will continue based on the current state of NFL offenses forcing defenses to be in nickel defense nearly 60 percent of the time (nickel is the new base defense in today's NFL). Maualuga also doesn't play special teams, so he offers no value to the team there. In fact, Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict are the only linebackers on the roster who are not part of kick and/or punt coverage units.
Overall, Maualuga's lack of significant on-field playmaking contributions, coupled with his limited role due to not being one of the two linebackers in the base nickel defense, do not warrant his presence on the roster at his current cap hit of $3.7 million for the 2017 season.
Maualuga's status is seemingly one of the easiest roster decisions the Bengals will face this offseason. It is highly probable (likely close to 90 percent) that the Bengals terminate Maualuga's contract this offseason.
CB Adam Jones:
- Cap Savings: $6,833,334 (if cut before June 1); $7,499,999 (if cut after June 1)
- Cash Savings: $7,500,000
- Dead Money: $1,333,334 (if cut before June 1); $666,666 (if cut after June 1, with $666,666 dead money on 2018 cap)
Even before his arrest last month, a strong argument could have been made that Adam Jones’ disappointing 2016 season diminished his value to the point of making it difficult to justify his $8.2 million cap hit in 2017. After a dominant 2015 season, Jones agreed to a three-year contract with the Bengals running through the 2018 season. His play fell off considerably during the last season, and it may be an indication that Jones’ best days are behind him (at least with respect to playing cornerback). Jones will turn 34-years-old just three weeks into the 2017 season, and unlike Andrew Whitworth, Jones has started to show the effects of age on his overall performance. Also unlike Whitworth, Jones has suffered some major injuries throughout his career, (neck injuries in 2008 and 2010).
In addition to Jones’ drop-off in play, the Bengals’ cornerback position is filled with multiple first round draft picks (Darqueze Dennard, William Jackson III) and other talented players (Josh Shaw, KeiVarae’ Russell) waiting to show their worth and contribute to the team. Additionally, if free agent cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick re-signs with the Bengals, the cornerback room may become too crowded and Jones may very well be the odd man out.
Jones’ play and the talented depth behind him are two legitimate football reasons to terminate Jones’ contract. The football-related reasons alone offer strong support that Jones’ $8.2 million 2017 cap hit is not commensurate with the value that he brings to the club.
The reasons discussed above don’t even include Jones’ most recent arrest. The arrest and criminal charges alone would have been more than enough justification for the Bengals to immediately terminate Jones’ contract. The arrest, coupled with the football reasons discussed above, are even stronger arguments for terminating Jones’ contract, which would result in $6.83 million in cap savings for the Bengals.
DE Michael Johnson:
- Cap Savings: $2,875,000 (if cut before June 1); $4,000,000 (if cut after June 1)
- Cash Savings: $4,000,000
- Dead Money: $2,250,000 (if cut before June 1); $1,125,000 (if cut after June 1, with $1,125,000 dead money on 2018 Cap)
Mike Johnson has been a dependable player throughout his entire NFL career, and has even contributed his fair share of game-changing performances and great individual plays. Johnson has had some very productive seasons for the Bengals, but he’s never developed into a dominant player as either a pass rusher or a run stopper.
While Johnson has had some strong seasons, his recent play from the past season and a half has dropped off significantly, to the point where it seems to have permanently settled into the “merely serviceable” category. Add to this the fact that Johnson just turned 30-years-old, and it appears as though Johnson’s career has reached the beginning of the end.
In examining Johnson’s performances during the 2016 season, it is evident he is simply not as athletic and mobile as he used to be. While he was never a quick-twitch athlete, Johnson wasn’t as stiff and robotic as he appeared throughout most of the 2016 season. Unlike Whitworth (and to a lesser extent Jones), age has caught up with Johnson, and the resulting erosion of his skills has significantly reduced the value he brings to the Club. As a result, it is hard to justify keeping Mike Johnson on the roster with a cap hit of $5.125 million.
By all accounts, Johnson is a “pro’s pro”, and the type of “bring-your-lunch pail-to-work” player and veteran leader who earns the respect of head coach Marvin Lewis and owner Mike Brown. Because of this, it would be unwise to believe that Johnson is sure to be a cap casualty this offseason.
The results of free agency and the Draft may also determine Johnson’s status with the team this season. If the Bengals draft two defensive ends in the first four rounds of the Draft, Johnson may very well not survive a training camp roster battle. If, however, Johnson does survive this season, his contract will likely be terminated next offseason because of the even greater cap and cash savings that will be realized as compared to this season.
RB Jeremy Hill:
- Cap Savings: $931,855
- Cash Savings: $931,855
- Dead Money: $262,473
Jeremy Hill took the league by storm during the second half of his rookie season in 2014. Hill was arguably the team’s MVP that season. Since then, however, Hill has been the most disappointing Bengals player on either side of the ball.
It's impossible to know if a single incident can be identified as the sole reason for Hill's continued struggles over the past two seasons, but his fumble in the wild card game against Pittsburgh may have resulted in a near-complete loss of confidence. While it is true that Hill did not fumble last season, that fact may be attributable more to Hill becoming a less aggressive runner by wanting to ensure ball security at all costs, rather than to any added ball security measures or technique he employed. In fact, a review of his 2016 game film shows that Hill went down easily on first contact, and was seemingly afraid or unwilling to fight for extra yards, which is uncharacteristic for a 230-pound running back. At times during games last season, Hill simply looked like a defeated player. He appeared disinterested and looked like a player with absolutely zero confidence.
Overall, Hill's lack of vision, short area quickness, and change of direction have been on full and consistent display during the past two seasons for all objective eyes to see. Could Hill bounce back in 2017 in his contract year? Sure, anything is possible. However, if one honestly assesses his talent and his recent tendencies, it is truly hard to envision Hill returning to anything near his dominant 2014 rookie season.
While there have been suggestions for the Bengals to attempt to trade Hill, the reality is that running backs in general (and a running back who has struggled mightily as Hill has in specific) have a severely limited (if any) trade market. It's safe to say that no NFL team would be willing to offer more than a conditional seventh round draft pick for a running back entering the final year of his contract and who has struggled mightily during the previous two seasons.
Total Cap and Cash Savings:
- Total 2017 Cap Savings: $14,340,188
- Total 2017 cap savings if Jones and Johnson cut after June 1st: $16,131,854
- Total Cash Savings: $16,131,855
- Total Dead Money: $3,845,806
- Total Dead Money if Jones and Johnson cuts made after June 1: $2,054,139 on 2017 cap, and $1,791,666 dead money on 2018 cap.
By terminating the contracts of the four players mentioned above, the Bengals would create an additional $14 million+ of cap room (~$12 million+ after accounting for Top 51 offsets), which would result in more than $55 million of cap room for 2017.