2015 Release Candidates: NFC South

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.

We’ve already looked at the AFC EastNFC East, AFC NorthNFC North, and AFC South, so let’s dive into the NFC South…

Atlanta Falcons:

  • Jonathan Babineaux, DT: The Falcons have accumulated quite a bit of defensive line depth over the past few years, signing Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, Adrian Clayborn, and O’Brien Schofield and using draft picks on Vic Beasley, Ra’Shede Hageman, and Grady Jarrett, as well as re-signing Kroy Biermann earlier this year. The lone constant has been the 34-year-old Babineaux, who has been with Atlanta since being selected in the second round of the 2005 draft. Given his age, the club’s newfound depth at his position, and the fact that the Falcons could save nearly $3MM by cutting him, he sounds like an ideal candidate for release, right? However, new head coach Dan Quinn likes to use a rotation along his defensive line, and more importantly, Babineaux was pretty good last year, grading as the league’s No. 28 defensive tackle and rushing the passer quite effectively, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Prediction: not released.

Carolina Panthers:

  • Jerricho Cotchery, WR: Spending 70% of his time in the slot last season, Cotchery nearly replicated his reception and yardage statistics from the year prior, catching 48 balls for 480 yards, but his touchdown numbers lagged far behind, as he scored just once as compared to 10 times in 2014 with the Steelers. The Panthers invested a second-round pick in Michigan receiver Devin Funchess, and the club likely hopes that he’ll ascend to the starting lineup immediately, joining last year’s first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin. Free agent addition Ted Ginn Jr. figures to take some of Cotchery’s snaps in the slot, and other than Ginn Jr., Carolina is going with at youth movement at receiver, with Jarrett Boykin, Mike Brown, and Stephen Hill fighting for playing time. Cotchery isn’t a bad player, but he doesn’t seem to fit with the team’s roster construction, and the Panthers can save $1.5MM by cutting him. Prediction: released.
  • Roman Harper, S: Harper, 32, started all 16 games for the Panthers last season, posting 41 tackles and a career-high four interceptions. Based on PFF’s metrics, Harper produced his best season since 2010, but his overall grade of +0.1 was still just barely above-average, ranking 46th among 87 qualifiers. Carolina’s issues in the secondary have been well-documented in the past couple years, but now that the club has some other options in the back end — Tre Boston emerged as a rookie last year, and the Panthers signed Kurt Coleman to a two-year deal in March — I don’t see Carolina being too desperate to hanging on to Harper, especially given that they can save $1.5MM by severing ties. Prediction: released.
  • Mike Tolbert, RB: Tolbert is an odd player in today’s NFL: He doesn’t fit the H-back mold, instead acting as a running back/fullback hybrid that doesn’t really exist in the league anymore. After suffering a hairline fracture in his left leg during Week 3 of last season, Tolbert was placed on IR/designated to return, ultimately coming back in Week 13. He’s nearly 30 years old, but given that Carolina doesn’t have a ton of depth behind Jonathan Stewart after releasing DeAngelo Williams, Tolbert should be safe. The Panthers would incur $1MM in dead money by cutting him. Prediction: not released.

New Orleans Saints:

  • Ben Watson, TE: Those around the Saints have talked up third-year pro Josh Hill as the leading candidate to replace tight end Jimmy Graham, who was traded to the Seahawks over the offseason. But Hill doesn’t have much in the way of experience, having logged just 20 receptions during his first two seasons, and earlier today Mike Triplett of ESPN.com wrote that he expects New Orleans to use a committee approach at tight end. All of which is to say that 34-year-old Ben Watson is probably safe for 2015; the club would only save $1.5MM by cutting him, and they probably value his veteran presence enough to keep him around. Prediction: not released.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

  • Michael Koenen, P: Koenen is the sixth-highest paid punter in the league in terms of annual value, and his 2015 cap hit is also sixth at his position. However, he finished fourth-worst in terms of net punting average last year, and though he finished with a positive grade from PFF, he still ranked only 23rd among 41 qualifiers. Koenen has no remaining bonus money or guarantees left on his current deal, so the Buccaneers could cut him at anytime, clearing out his $3.25MM salaries for ’15 and ’16. Maybe they’ll wait until training camp or the preseason to see how Koenen looks, but I think they’ll probably cut him and look for a cheaper (and younger) option. Prediction: released.
  • Brandon Myers, TE: Now 29 years of age, Myers has seen a swift decline since his high-water mark season with Oakland in 2012: His receptions have dropped from 79 to 47 to 22 in the past three seasons, while his receiving yards have decreased from 806 to 522 to 190. 2014 second-round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins is expected to take on a larger role next season, Luke Stocker will maintain his in-lone blocking job, while Tampa also re-acquired Tim Wright via waivers. It doesn’t look like there will be a spot for Myers, or his $3MM+ in cap charges over the next two seasons. Prediction: released.
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