2015 Release Candidates: AFC North

Most clubs have fairly set rosters at this point, as OTA, minicamp, and preseason performances won’t do much to alter roster composition. The majority of key releases came in March, but there are still several scenarios where certain contributors could lose their roster spot in the coming months. For the most part, we’ll focus on situations where the cap savings would be in excess of $1MM.

Because free agency has already passed, financial ramifications won’t play a huge role in these decisions; there aren’t a ton of high-profile free agents on which to spend that saved money, so these calls will mostly be made based on performance. However, any cap space saved through these potential releases could be rolled over into 2016, so that’s something clubs have to consider.

After looking at the AFC East and NFC East last week, let’s dive into the AFC North…

Baltimore Ravens:

  • Arthur Brown, LB: A rare draft whiff by general manager Ozzie Newsome, Brown has failed to live up to his second-round status during his two pro seasons. After playing 436 snaps during his rookie year, Brown saw action on just 51 plays in 2014, all of which came on special teams. The 25-year-old Brown could act as valuable depth behind starters C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith if he could put it all together, but it’s hard to predict future success for a player who wasn’t trusted to see the field for even a single defensive snap. Baltimore would save less than $800K by waiving Brown at this point, but I’m guessing it’s a move that they’ll give due consideration. Brown did reportedly draw trade interest last fall, so perhaps the Ravens will try to deal him first. Prediction: waived.
  • Sam Koch, P: Koch has the 12th-highest 2015 cap charge on Baltimore’s roster, a financial oddity I would have thought rare around the league. However, six other clubs (Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, Giants, Saints, and Buccaneers) also have a punter within their top dozen cap hits, meaning nearly a quarter of NFL clubs are paying punters quite well. Cutting Koch would leave just $600K in dead money on the Ravens’ ledger (against $2.5MM in savings), but given that Koch did lead the league in net punting average last season, I think Baltimore will keep him around rather than looking for a cheaper option. Prediction: not released.
  • The Ravens traded DT Haloti Ngata and restructured CB Lardarius Webb, both of whom would have been candidates for release otherwise.

Cincinnati Bengals:

  • Leon Hall, CB: Now on the wrong side of 30, Hall has torn each of his Achilles’ in the last four seasons, and (probably in large part due to those injuries) he’s not the same player he once was. That doesn’t mean he can’t still be effective — especially in the slot, where he’s expected to spend most of his time in 2015 — but it’s not clear that he’s worth his $9.6MM cap figure (second-highest on the Bengals roster). Cincinnati has not threatened Hall with release, or even asked him to take a paycut, despite the fact that his role as the club’s No. 1 corner has been usurped. I’d guess that 31 of 32 organizations would have at least asked Hall to restructure by now, but given that the Bengals haven’t, I expect Hall to stick around for 2015. Prediction: not released.
  • Domata Peko, DT: Much that can be said about Hall can be said about Peko, in that most clubs would have cut ties long ago. The difference with Peko is that he never achieved the heights that Hall had, and his current level of play (second-worst 4-3 DT in the league in 2014, per Pro Football Focus; subscription required) is far worse than any lows Hall ever sunk to. PFF has graded Peko as a bottom-20 defensive tackle in six of the past seven seasons, but his snap count never decreases, always hovering around the 700 mark. The Bengals even signed Peko to an extension last March, but all of his guarantees have been paid out, meaning the club could release him and clear his entire $3.7MM cap figure. But there’s no reason to think Cincinnati will do so now, even if Peko does begin to lose playing time to reserve Brandon Thompson. Prediction: not released.

Cleveland Browns:

  • Gary Barnidge/Jim Dray, TE: The Browns added ex-Cardinal Rob Housler during the offseason to replace Jordan Cameron as their receiving weapon at tight end, but the club might need to decide between Barnidge and Dray for its No. 2 role, especially if it decides to keep undrafted rookie free agent E.J. Bibbs — who has drawn rave reviews from coaches — on the final 53-man roster. Barnidge is cheaper and has been the better player as of late, meaning Cleveland could be forced to cut Dray, and save $1.6MM in the process. Prediction: Dray released.
  • Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, DT: Kitchen signed his restricted free agent tender near the end of May, meaning he’s scheduled to earn $1.542MM during the upcoming season. That money isn’t guaranteed, however, and given that Kitchen is now somewhat buried on the Browns’ depth chart following the additions of Danny Shelton, Xavier Cooper, and Randy Starks, I wonder if the club might try to lower his salary. As Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap explains, once the RFA period has passed, the team — knowing the player has limited options — can use that leverage to reduce his salary, often offering a minimum salary and a few hundred thousand dollars in guarantees. I could see Cleveland using this strategy, but if Kitchen balks, he could just be cut. Prediction: released.
  • Craig Robertson, LB: The 27-year-old Robertson is entering the final season of his rookie contract, and having shown excellent improvement over the past year — he posted a -15.0 PFF grade in 2013 but moved up to +2.2 in 2014 — it’s unlikely that he’ll be cut, especially given his pass coverage skills. But he did lose snaps to rookie Chris Kirksey last season, and the Browns could save more than $2.3MM by parting ways with him. Prediction: not released.

Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Cortez Allen, CB: After agreeing to four-year extension worth $26MM in September, Allen’s play became absolutely ghastly, and his snap counts gradually dwindled until he was benched mid-way through the season; he subsequently broke his thumb and was placed on injured reserve in early December. Allen is only 26 years old, is expected to regain his starting job in 2015, and was paid a $3MM roster bonus earlier this year — all of which means it’s highly unlikely that the Steelers sever ties. But the club could still save more than $5MM by doing so, and given Allen’s struggles, it’s probably a discussion management has had. Prediction: not released.
  • Cam Thomas, DT: Thomas did nothing in his first season in Pittsburgh to justify his two-year, $4MM deal, grading as the league’s worst 3-4 defensive end, according to PFF. Steelers coaches obviously noticed his subpar production, as during the last five weeks of the season, Thomas played on just 57 of a possible 319 snaps — even for a reserve, 17% playing time is low. The only impediment to his release is Pittsburgh’s lack of depth along the defensive line, but the club simply can’t justify Thomas’ $2.5MM cap charge. I think they’ll cut him, saving $2MM of that total in the process. Prediction: released.
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2 comments on “2015 Release Candidates: AFC North

  1. Luke Adams

    I was surprised by Peko’s most recent extension — I assume the Bengals like something about his play that PFF’s grades don’t measure, or that they think he’s too good a locker room presence to part with. I agree that he’s probably not going anywhere.

    I’ll be interested to see how Cortez Allen does this season too, assuming he isn’t cut. His contract seemed to be based on what the Steelers expected from him in the future, rather than what he’d done in the past, but he certainly didn’t deliver on that promise in year one.

    • Dallas Robinson

      I’m obviously not a scout, but you can see just by watching Bengals games that Peko doesn’t get much penetration and is constantly getting blocked out of running plays. Cincinnati coaches (Marvin Lewis in particular) have spoken ill of PFF in the past; maybe they’re just keeping Peko out of spite? (Joking).

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