There’s no better example of the ups and downs of NFL free agency than the recent news of Devin Hester’s departure from the Chicago Bears.
According to numerous reports, the 31-year-old return specialist will part ways with the only NFL team he’s known since entering the league in 2006 from Miami.
Some Bears were expected to be casualties this spring, with the franchise owning just $8.9 million in salary cap space and defensive stars James Anderson, Major Wright and Charles Tillman each hitting the open market.
Ultimately Chicago made the difficult choice of letting the player tied for the all-time record in return touchdowns go for the chance to keep the corps of its defense together. Hester represented a $2.9 million cap hit last season, and was probably seeking a raise.
The Bears are not alone as many teams chose more cap space over veterans. Denver will reportedly part with veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, and Philadelphia let quarterback Michael Vick loose.
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Hitting the open market doesn’t mean the end of a player’s career or a significant pay cut either. It in fact proved fruitful for linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who was cut by the Cleveland Browns less than two weeks ago. On Thursday Jackson inked a four-year deal worth $22 million with the Indianapolis Colts.
Not every player could get a deal as lucrative as Jackson’s, but there are rebuilding teams with plenty of cap space. The Oakland Raiders own the most cap space this offseason with $64.9 million available, followed by the Jacksonville Jaguars ($59.3 million), Cleveland ($56.3 million), the Colts ($40.9 million), and the Minnesota Vikings ($36.4 million), according to Spotrac.
Veterans like Hester, Jackson and Vick are cut to make room for up-and-coming stars like the 10 players below. This year defensive players rule the roost, especially in the secondary and on the edge.
Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals, DE
The Bengals have a solid amount of space ($27.5 million) and Johnson is the top priority this offseason. But they’ll have to keep some for receiver A.J. Green next year. Johnson’s been one of the most durable players in the league, missing just one game since he entered in 2009, and he helps draw attention away from Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins.
Alterraun Verner, Tennessee Titans, CB
The contracts of Chris Johnson and Andy Levitre limit the Titans cap space, but Verner’s quickly on track to be one of the top five corners in the league. Last year he was tied for fifth in the league with five picks, and at the age of 25 there’s plenty of time for Verner to be even better.
Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills, S
Buffalo has tried to negotiate an extension for more than a year and nothing came of it, and the team also decided not to franchise tag Byrd. On Wednesday the team also gave safety Aaron Williams a four-year extension, which could be the end of Byrd’s tenure in Buffalo.
Byrd can play all over the field, and could be the most coveted free agent this summer.
Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks, DE
He led the team in sacks in the regular season, and was just as excellent in the Super Bowl run. Bennett is lucky since he enters the free agent market a year ahead of fellow defensive ends Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril.
T.J. Ward, Cleveland Browns, S
Ward was second on the team in total tackles, fourth in passes defended, and returned a fumble for a touchdown. Of the eight free agents on Cleveland’s roster Ward is the only one who could get a huge pay day. But if Byrd is available the Browns might make a huge play.
Lamarr Houston, Oakland Raiders, DE
The lone bright spot in Oakland’s porous pass rush, Houston led the team with six total sacks and only represented a $1.07 million cap hit last season. Houston will get a pay bump, but as he’s entering his prime could wind up elsewhere.
Henry Melton, Chicago Bears, DT
Melton’s recovering from a torn ACL, which will hurt is value, but there’s no denying the Bears missed him last season. Chicago was dead last against the run, but it’s unclear if they’re willing to take the risk for next year and beyond.
Eugene Monroe, Baltimore Ravens, OT
The Ravens were fourth-to-last in sacks allowed last year, but it wasn’t on Monroe. The 27-year-old is a cheaper alternative to Michael Oher, as the Ravens look to maximize their $24.9 million in cap space.
Aqib Talib, New England Patriots, CB
Talib’s injuries and history with off-field issues, not to mention the Patriots aversion to shelling out huge contracts to anyone not named Tom Brady, present a problem. Considered one of the best young corners and still in his prime, Talib wants a big pay day but it may not come from New England.
Karlos Dansby, ILB, Arizona Cardinals
Arizona’s defensive resurgence was directly from Dansby’s dominance along the frontlines, leading the team in tackles, passes defended, and interceptions, including two for touchdowns. He signed a one-year deal last season with Arizona, and the team reportedly offered him a contract the day after the regular season ended. He should stay in Arizona, but they’ll need to save space for their offensive line as well.