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Michael Perez/Associated Press
With NFL training camps slowly starting, a small sense of normalcy accompanies the summer-long proceedings.
And one of those familiar trappings is the roster bubble. Teams had the option to meet the new 80-man requirement before veterans reported and notable players like New England Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower opted out of the season entirely.
Now, the focus turns to a more traditional roster bubble, and some surprise veteran cuts could again happen as teams trim the fat. The most notable veterans carry contracts that would save the team considerable money against the cap, have diminishing production and/or roles and saw their teams think about the future at their respective positions recently.
These are the notable veterans who could be fighting for their roster lives this summer.
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Kenny Stills is a top-10 cap hit for the Houston Texans heading into the season, which carries a certain set of expectations with it.
But Stills had a muted first year in Houston a season ago, appearing in 13 games and catching 40 passes for 561 yards and four scores, his lowest output in the latter since 2015.
Keep in mind that was with DeAndre Hopkins on the field. Houston completely reworked the wideout room around Stills this offseason, trading Hopkins, signing Randall Cobb and trading for Brandin Cooks. With a coaching staff intent on shaking things up, the two new arrivals project to get on the field in three-wide sets with Will Fuller, meaning Stills could again be looking at 55 percent of the offensive snaps like he did a season ago.
With Stills sitting on a $7 million cap hit and fifth-round rookie Isaiah Coulter also joining the room, the veteran could be the odd man out.
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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press
The Atlanta Falcons need to make sure Matt Ryan is adequately protected as always, but cost has to be a consideration.
And center Alex Mack, who turns 35 this season, might be a tad too expensive given his top-five team cap hit of $10.55 million.
Besides age, Mack’s production and effectiveness have waned. He played all 16 games for the fifth season in a row, yet his Pro Football Focus grade dipped to 72.1 from 80.0 the year prior. That dip coincided with a leap in penalties to seven, the most he’s recorded since his 2012 season in Cleveland.
While Mack could always be a rebound candidate, it’s clear Atlanta has an eye on the future after adding third-round pick Matt Hennessy. If the Temple product adjusts quickly in camp, the Falcons might usher in the future early while creating some cap flexibility.
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
Brandon Williams has a reputation as one of the NFL’s nastiest interior defenders.
But sheer logistics might force the Baltimore Ravens to make a tough decision on the 31-year-old veteran. The front office only has roughly $6 million in cap space heading into camp, and Williams happens to be one of six players counting $10-plus million against the cap—and he’s the only one of the six who will net the Ravens some cap space in return.
Statistically speaking, Williams had a relatively even season compared to recent years (he had 34 tackles and a sack in each of the last two seasons), though his PFF grade did fall to 68.7. Compared to, say, his 79.7 grade from 2017, it’s easy to see which direction things are headed.
Considering the Ravens traded for Calais Campbell and added free agent Derek Wolfe, plus drafted potential interior defenders in Justin Madubuike (third round) and Broderick Washington (fifth round), Williams enters camp on the bubble.
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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Another defensive lineman whose better days seem behind him, Kawann Short of the Carolina Panthers doesn’t have a lot of time to change the narrative.
Short, 31, missed 14 games last season and enters camp as a $19.5 million cap hit for a team with under $10 million in free space trying to rebuild under a new head coach. The biggest cap hit on the team, Short wouldn’t free up a ton of space if he were released, but it’s about getting out from under the following season, too.
In 2017, the Panthers handed Short an $80.5 million extension, and he responded with a 91.8 PFF grade. That was the top of the mountain, as he regressed to 83.7 the following year and his snaps dropped significantly.
The Panthers have steadily been rebuilding the defense, using the No. 16 overall pick on edge-rusher Brian Burns in 2019 and a top-10 pick on defensive tackle Derrick Brown this year, not to mention the 38th pick on defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos in April’s draft as well. Short, a mainstay of the Luke Kuechly era, might be too costly to serve as a transitional piece.
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Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press
It’s odd to think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would remove a weapon from Tom Brady’s arsenal after going all-in to surround the veteran quarterback.
But Cameron Brate isn’t exactly operating under normal circumstances. He’s a $4.25 million cap hit for a team with barely half a million dollars in free space, and his number jumps in each of the next three seasons.
The Buccaneers are lucky to have some flexibility when the salary cap might decrease significantly next season to compensate for the loss of revenue this season. The front office predictably landed Rob Gronkowski and still rosters 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard.
It doesn’t help his prospects that after he landed a six-year extension worth $40.8 million, Brate caught just 36 passes in 2019 for 311 yards and four scores, earning him a 66.3 PFF grade while playing just 38 percent of the offensive snaps over 16 games.
Brate is far from the only potential savings for the Buccaneers this summer, but he’s one of the NFL’s most notable.
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Gary Landers/Associated Press
Shawn Williams has been a staple of the Cincinnati Bengals defense for a long time, outlasting longtime teammates like Vontaze Burfict and Dre Kirkpatrick.
But the extended run since 2013 might expire this summer.
While Williams piled up 114 total tackles in 2019, he did so as a weak link for a two-win team. He allowed a 78.4 completion percentage on 51 targets and missed 14.9 percent of his tackles, earning a 54.5 PFF grade in the process.
Williams’ Bengals only have roughly $15.9 million after getting No. 1 pick Joe Burrow and second-rounder Tee Higgins under contract after standing as one of free agency’s biggest spenders. That spree included bringing aboard safety Vonn Bell, a clear schematic fit next to the rangy Jessie Bates III.
On paper, Williams is now bumped from the lineup, and his $4.9 million cap hit would represent some nice savings for the Bengals.
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Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Adrian Peterson was one of the NFL’s best stories in 2018, arriving late in Washington and yet still putting up 1,000-plus yards and seven scores behind a struggling offensive line for a struggling franchise.
Peterson again put up eyebrow-raising numbers in 2019, too, averaging 4.3 yards per carry with 898 yards and five scores. But the 35-year-old back’s cap hit escalates to north of $3 million in 2020, so Washington might be content to lean harder on younger players.
Derrius Guice, after all, is still a 2018 second-round pick with major upside. The team used a fourth-round pick on Bryce Love in 2019 and a third-round pick this year on Antonio Gibson, not to mention the arrival of Peyton Barber in free agency.
With cap room to save and high upside to use as a big rebuilding overhaul under new head coach Ron Rivera gets underway, Peterson enters camp firmly on the bubble in Washington.
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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
Alshon Jeffery, who will start camp on the active/PUP list, has been a mainstay of trade speculation for a long time—and for good reason.
The 30-year-old Philadelphia Eagles wideout was one of the many injury mishaps for the Eagles last season as he played in just 10 games, recording 490 yards and four scores. Jeffery has played just one full 16-game season since 2014 but carries a $15.4 million cap hit into 2020, third-highest on the team.
Philadelphia’s front office clearly sees the proverbial writing on the wall. The Athletic’s Connor Hughes reported in February the team wanted to trade the veteran, and then during the draft the Eagles added wideout Jalen Reagor with the 21st pick, as well as wide receivers John Hightower and Quez Watkins in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively.
The Eagles also brought in Marquise Goodwin via trade and still roster DeSean Jackson. Goodwin, though, has elected to opt out of the season.
If the Eagles want to get speedier and potentially more consistent from an attendance standpoint while saving money for future seasons, Jeffery will enter camp on the bubble.