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2019 NFL free agency: 16 potential cap casualties Detroit Lions should watch

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What potential cap cuts could interest the Lions?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

As we near the beginning of NFL free agency, many teams around the league have some big decisions to make. Teams will want to cut some inflated contracts to have more to spend in the coming months. This means that a lot of talent is about to hit the market, and some of that talent could be put to use in Detroit. Here is a quick list of potential cap cuts that the Lions may want to look into:

CB Jimmy Smith - Baltimore Ravens

Jimmy Smith has somehow flown under the radar for casual NFL fans the last few years. Smith was one of the best corners in the NFL for the past few seasons, but injuries hampered him and kept him off the field at times. In 2018, Smith was hit with a four-game suspension to start the year, and the team played well without him. Both Brandon Carr and Tavon Young both did okay in his absence though, and the team can save $9 million this offseason by moving on from Smith.

The corner is now 30 years old, though, and has only played two 16-game seasons in his eight-year NFL career. He may be expensive, but if he can stay healthy, he and Darius Slay will form one of the best corner duos in the NFL.

Other Options:

Robert Alford - The Atlanta Falcons can save $9 million and eat less than a million in dead cap if they move on from the corner. He is now 30 years old and Atlanta may want to find a younger option as they rebuild their defense.
Chris Harris - The long-time Broncos corner has clearly lost a step but still can be a formidable CB2. Denver can save around $8 million by moving on from the 29 year old, and depending on how many other players hit the market, he may not be as expensive as one may think.
A.J. Bouye - Bouye was arguably the best corner in the NFL in 2017 but he took a huge step back this season as the rest of the Jaguars defense did. The corner does not have the athletic profile of an elite corner, but his coverage instincts and football IQ may be better than any other. Jacksonville can save $9 million by moving on as they are under a rebuild of their own, but a heavy $6 million in dead cap could make the Jags reluctant to cut him.
Joe Haden - Haden was once a star for the Cleveland Browns. While his time in Cleveland ended with a whimper, he has quietly been a great player for the Pittsburgh Steelers the past few years. He changed the team’s secondary for the better. This offseason the Steelers have a chance to move on and save $10 million, though, which can be huge for a team who may renovate the entire roster this offseason.
Logan Ryan - Ryan was a player on the Detroit Lions radar during free agency in 2017. He, instead, joined the Tennessee Titans and was a member of their extremely expensive and underperforming secondary in 2018. While blaming the team’s issues on Ryan would be harsh, the Titans may want to move on from Ryan, save $10 million and find cheaper options in the defensive backfield.

LB Sean Lee - Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys may finally move on from their longtime defensive leader this offseason. Lee’s inability to stay healthy over the year combined with the emergence of the young Leighton Vander Esch as an absolute star may have made Lee expendable at middle linebacker. The linebacker was even a health scratch late in the 2018 season.

The Cowboys will save $7 million by moving on from Lee. He may be expensive but Lee’s football IQ, leadership and ability to dominate the middle of the field can revolutionize the Lions defense. He could facilitate Jarrad Davis’ development and even let the younger linebacker move to the outside.

Other Options

Bobby Wagner - If the Seattle Seahawks do release Bobby Wagner in order to save $12 million this offseason then the spirit of Henry Ford himself should show up at Wagner’s house with a literal boat full of money.
Jamie Collins - Collins was once a star of Matt Patricia’s New England Patriots defense. He regressed after being traded to the Cleveland Browns, but did remain a serviceable player. Cleveland is a young team slowly building a championship contender and can save $9 million by moving on from the aging linebacker. Collins has experience in Patricia’s scheme and will bring starting caliber talent to the Lions front seven.
Danny Trevathan - Trevathan was an important member of the Chicago Bears incredible 2018 defense, but with so much talent on that side of the ball and the emergence of Roquan Smith, the Bears may want to move on. Chicago can save $6 million by cutting the off-ball linebacker. Trevathan would bring a great veteran presence to the Lions front seven and can do literally anything Detroit could ask him to as a linebacker in this defense.
A.J. Klein - Klein is another versatile off-ball linebacker that can bring a lot to the second level of Detroit’s defense. The emergence of Alex Anzalone and the $4 million the Saints can save from moving on from him could leave him searching for work this offseason, though. He also may not be that expensive, and he has the speed and football IQ to play well against both the run and the pass.

EDGE Whitney Mercilus - Houston Texans

Mercilus is a member of the Texans fearsome defensive front, and while he is great in his own right, he is not quite the talent that is J.J. Watt or Jadeveon Clowney. The edge defender has struggled with health over the past few seasons but has been a great complement to the team’s stars. He had four sacks in 2018 and still can contribute at a high level in the league.

Houston may need to spend a fortune to hold on to Clowney, though, and the $6 million they can save by releasing Mercilus could go towards retaining their star edge rusher. Mercilus would easily be Detroit’s best edge defender, and he, Devon Kennard and Romeo Okwara would form a fearsome pass rushing room for the Lions.

Other Option

Olivier Vernon - Vernon was one of the crown jewels of the New York Giants 2016 defensive free agent haul. While he has been an okay player, he definitely has not played well enough to be worth the $19 million cap hit he is owed next season. New York can move on from him as they rebuild their defense and save $11 million in the process. Vernon has potential to be a huge boon for the Lions defense, although he may be pricey.

TE Rob Gronkowski - New England Patriots

Bob Quinn and the Detroit Lions very clearly have interest in the Patriots star tight end. The Lions apparently wanted to trade for Gronkowski last offseason but could not get a deal done. Gronkowski had a bit of a down year in 2018, and his long injury history could give the Patriots a reason to move on. New England can save nearly $10 million by releasing him this offseason.

Detroit got little production from the tight end this season. Gronkowski would be the elite receiving tight end Matthew Stafford desperately needed this year. Signing him would be a risk, though. He will definitely be a huge investment, and his injury history does not speak well for his week-to-week availability.

Other Option

Jordan Reed - Another oft-injured tight end could potentially hit the market in the coming months. Reed has been a great talent for Washington since the moment he was drafted, but he has not been able to stay on the field. Washington can move on from the receiving tight end for $6 million, and he could be a more affordable option than Gronkowski.

RB Chris Thompson - Washington

With Theo Riddick possibly out the door this offseason, the Lions will need to find another shifty receiving option out of the backfield. Washington can save $3 million by moving on from Thompson this offseason. While his release seems unlikely, the running back’s long injury history, the return of Derrius Guice and his pass blocking deficiencies could leave him expendable. Washington may undergo a rebuild sometime soon and may want the extra cap space to make a big move this offseason.

Thompson is an upgrade from Riddick in almost every facet outside of pass blocking. He is incredible with the ball in his hand and can even reliably run between the tackles. The running back would be a great complement to Kerryon Johnson and could breathe life into a boring, stagnant, offense.