The 2021 NFL offseason may feature quite a few cautious approaches in free agency, with teams set to navigate a reduced salary cap and pandemic-related uncertainties that could continue to linger. But a handful of teams are likely to be quieter because of their own doing. Unlike the Jets and Jaguars of the league, who are eager to spend big with all kinds of cap room entering the new year, a dozen different franchises are projected to be over the cap at the official start of the offseason.
Below, we've listed the 10 teams with the least amount of projected 2021 cap space, as well as some ways each club can help itself ahead of free agency:
Note: Projected cap totals are courtesy of Spotrac.
Projected over the cap: $65.6 million
No one is in a deeper hole than the Saints, who are going to need creativity, as well as some tough goodbyes, to get through their predicament. According to Joel Corry, CBS Sports contributor and former agent and cap expert, the biggest and quickest path to cap relief for the Saints is quarterback Drew Brees officially retiring, which can clear nearly $24 million. Then, it's a matter of axing veteran deals for a little savings here and there: linebacker Kwon Alexander ($13.2M), defensive tackle Malcom Brown ($4.9M), cornerback Patrick Robinson ($2.6M) and punter Thomas Morstead ($2.5M) all feel like prime cut candidates. The Saints could also look to restructure or extend players like wide receiver Michael Thomas, defensive end Cameron Jordan and offensive guard Andrus Peat in order to free up short-term space. Either way, a mass exodus is in order.
Projected over the cap: $41.5 million
The Eagles will need to do just as much trimming as the Saints considering they don't have the luxury of a big-money QB coming off their books. (Trading Carson Wentz, which still seems very possible, if not likely, would only save the team about $800,000 in 2021.) That means some big-name veterans are almost guaranteed to be cut or traded: wide receivers Alshon Jeffery ($8M), DeSean Jackson ($5.1M) and Marquise Goodwin ($4.5M), as well as tight end Zach Ertz ($4.7M), are expected to go. The Eagles can also save money by extending or restructuring big-money vets like Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson. Don't rule out Philly at least exploring a trade of Cox, whose departure would save the club nearly $3 million, if teams call about his availability.
Projected over the cap: $25.2 million
The Rams will carry some big dead-money hits thanks to their unloading of Jared Goff and Todd Gurley the last two years, but their cap situation isn't impossible to navigate. It may, however, require a tough decision or two. Restructuring lucrative extensions for Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods could free up a few million, and tacking an additional year or two onto Matthew Stafford's deal could do the same. The Rams stand to gain the most money by parting ways with one or both of their tackles, as Andrew Whitworth ($5.3M) and Rob Havenstein ($5.2M) represent potentially substantial savings. That would be a tough pill to swallow, but if they can identify cheaper alternatives via trade or the draft, it could prove wise.
Projected over the cap: $23.2 million
The savings for potential blockbuster trades of QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones would be minimal, if not downright nonexistent, hence Atlanta's commitment to both entering 2021. What's left, then, is the Falcons likely cutting veterans they were rumored to be shopping during the 2020 season: guard James Carpenter ($4M), defensive end Allen Bailey ($4.5M) and safety Ricardo Allen ($6.25M) are three easy examples. From there, Atlanta could approach several big-name vets about restructuring extensions, whether it be Jake Matthews, Deion Jones or longtime defender Grady Jarrett.
Projected over the cap: $18.1 million
The Chiefs could instantly get back under the cap by cutting big names like Tyrann Mathieu and Tyreek Hill, but the more likely scenario is Kansas City surrendering its 2019 Super Bowl title. Instead, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is likely due for a big restructure after an injury-riddled season (cutting him would net more than $6M in savings), while linebacker Anthony Hitchens ($2.2M) and running back Damien Williams ($2.2M) are logical cap casualties. Backup QB Chad Henne ($1.3M) could also be replaced for some additional savings, while pass rusher Frank Clark is another big-money veteran who could be restructured.
Projected over the cap: $14.2 million
This one hinges a lot on whether QB Ben Roethlisberger returns for his age-39 season. If he does, he'll almost assuredly be doing so at a significantly lower 2021 cap hit than currently projected ($41.25M), unless Pittsburgh intends to strip the entire roster around him to bare bones. If Ben hangs it up, the Steelers would instantly save about $18.125 million. Otherwise, the team could approach cornerbacks Joe Haden and/or Steven Nelson about pay cuts, or part with relatively costly vets like TE Eric Ebron ($6M).
Projected over the cap: $13.5 million
Fresh off a restructure of OT David Bakhtiari to save more than $8M, the Packers figure to approach several other veterans about new deals, including star WR Davante Adams and pass rusher Za'Darius Smith, who's due $21.5 million in 2021. Green Bay can pretty easily make up the rest of its cap hole by parting ways with guys like Christian Kirksey ($5.6M), Rick Wagner ($4.25M) and Dean Lowry ($3.3M). The draft should provide them opportunities to replenish at those positions.
Projected over the cap: $9.7 million
Don't fret, Raiders fans: The team is already well on its way to freeing up money to spend. By wisely planning to cut WR Tyrell Williams ($11.6M), who saw injuries wipe out his role in 2020, Vegas will put itself in the green. The team can save an additional $8.7 million by releasing safety LaMarcus Joyner, as well as a whopping $10.725 million by cutting or trading backup QB Marcus Mariota. Offensive lineman Richie Incognito ($5.475M) and DE Carl Nassib ($3.75M) are additional cut candidates.
Projected over the cap: $5.1 million
The Vikings can clear all their negative cap room by cutting veteran TE Kyle Rudolph ($5.1M), which seems like the most likely money-saving move of their offseason. Otherwise, there are plenty of veterans ripe for restructures, including safety Harrison Smith (who can be released for a savings of $10.25M), left tackle Riley Reiff and linebacker Anthony Barr. Should Minnesota outright release Reiff and go younger at LT, the team would instantly save $13.75 million.
10. Detroit Lions
Projected over the cap: $1.8 million
They don't have a long way to go to get under the cap, but chances are they'll also want to spend a bit in Dan Campbell's first season at the helm. That could mean parting ways with some of Matt Patricia's final gambles, like CBs Desmond Trufant ($6.1M) and Justin Coleman ($5M). Cutting vets like TE Jesse James ($2.2M) and backup QB Chase Daniel ($2.3M) could also give them breathing room.