We now have a glimpse into what each team will begin to look like as training camp soon approaches as rosters have rapidly inflated to their near-capacity following the cycles of free agency, the draft process, and the signing of undrafted free agents. While the summer annually offers us surprises and standouts from each facility, the transaction window to rid of once notable names, former high-draft selections, and once looked upon stars ushers in the reality of slowly narrowing to the final 53-player roster threshold.
There were many candidates to highlight, only a select few meet each of the criteria I focused on when identifying the veteran players that could soon find themselves searching for a new team as we trudge through the summer months.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
Let’s start with the obvious, shall we?
As the rebuild of sorts has begun in Philadelphia with the hiring of head coach Nick Sirianni to pair with second-year, dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts, Zach Ertz has found himself on the outside looking in. Dallas Goedert eyes the TE1 role within a youth-infused Philadelphia offense. While many believe Ertz should have been gone long ago, it doesn’t require question when considering the remaining talent of Ertz, who is just one season removed from three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. The 2020 season was an abysmal year by Ertz’s standards; and if it’s a look towards the future, the Eagles would be wise to cut the nine-year veteran, saving the team roughly $8.5 million in salary-cap space.
Sony Michel, RB, New England Patriots
When New England chose to decline Sony Michel’s fifth-year option, it was clear head coach Bill Belichick felt comfortable with the potential scenario where Michel could suit up elsewhere. After Rhamondre Stevenson’s selection in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Michel’s officially been put on notice.
His career so far has been a rocky road. While he served as an integral part of New England’s Super Bowl run in 2018 as a first-year talent, he appeared in just nine games last season, recording career lows in all categories. With Damien Harris expected to garner the majority of the carries, and James White still in town as the de facto do-it-all back, it’s difficult to envision a future role for the former first-rounder in Michel who has slowly begun to slip into the background of the Patriots running attack.
Josh Rosen, QB, San Francisco 49ers
As little noise that Josh Rosen has made on the field, his dramatic career path as the former 10th-overall selection off the field has garnered all the wrong attention. Now on his third team in his first three seasons, Rosen, again, has yet to gain traction as he eyes a starting role. After seeing the lack of production from Jimmy Garroppolo, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan traded up to ultimately select Trey Lance third overall in the 2021 draft, again raising questions surrounding Rosen’s future. While a release often coincides with saving cap space, this would be a scenario of Lynch allowing Rosen to seek greener pastures where he could attempt to rejuvenate a disappointing career.
Leighton Vander-Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys
In a similar situation to Michel, Leighton Vander-Esch finds himself in a contract year. While his ability to produce is unquestioned, Vander-Esch’s lack of consistency in staying on the football field has been his Achilles heel as he enters his fourth season. Appearing in just 19 of a possible 32 games the last two seasons, the Cowboys addressed their need for a consistent punch at the second level via the selection of former Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons in the first round and versatile speedster Jabril Cox on Day 3.
With Sean Lee now retired, skeptics have begun to make their way out of the woodwork surrounding the play of Jaylon Smith and the second-level as a whole. If Dallas envisions a role for Vander-Esch, Smith, Parsons, Cox, and safety-turned-corner addition Keanu Neal, Vander-Esch and his ongoing injury concerns could find himself on the outside looking in.
Josh Jackson, CB, Green Bay Packers
The Packers’ lack of talent within their secondary was exposed on a national stage via Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; it continues to be the weak point of a rather formidable chain in Green Bay. General manager Brian Gutekunst wasted no time in addressing the need, drafting Eric Stokes and Shemar Jean-Charles in late April. While Jaire Alexander has developed into one of the top pure cover corners in all of football, the introduction of Stokes, especially, into Green Bay’s defense could spell the end of Josh Jackson’s career.
Jackson, a former second-round selection, has failed to integrate himself into the Packers’ defense after three seasons, and patience could soon run out.
Hayden Hurst, TE, Atlanta Falcons
With Kyle Pitts now in the fold, Hayden Hurst’s lack of consistent production could ultimately be the nail in the coffin for the 2018 first-round selection. Although Hurst, who’ll be 28 years old before Week 1, enjoyed a decent 2020 campaign totaling six touchdown catches for 571 yards in nine starts, he’s not in the same stratosphere as Pitts, who will look to fill a massive role within the Falcons’ offense now without Julio Jones. With new head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot in place, Hurst’s fifth-year option was ultimately declined, confirming Pitts’ apparent herculean role moving into future seasons.
The Falcons could opt to use a flare of 12 personnel packages with Hurst and Pitts, but the future in Atlanta stems from the former Gator, and Hurst has found himself caught between a rock and a hard place.
Landon Collins, S, Washington Football Team
After signing a massive six-year, $84 million deal just a few offseasons ago, Landon Collins’ subpar play has raised questions to his ultimate fit in Washington’s fast, active, and young defense. The arrival of seventh-round selection Kamren Curl did no favors to Collins who missed nine games in 2020. Curl was outstanding, to say the least in filling the role of Collins, who now finds himself in a precarious spot as Curl has surely played himself into a starting role at the apex of the defense.
Collins’ unwillingness to adapt and slide up to the second level resulted in the selection of sideline-to-sideline talent Jamin Davis in 2021; Davis will slot in nicely within an experienced Washington front seven. With below-average cover skills coming off a horrendous Achilles tear, the former All-Pro could be let loose, saving Washington upwards of $8 million in cap room.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Chicago Bears
Justin Fields’ selection has ushered in a new era of football in Chicago. At tight end, it’s also denounced the increased role of Cole Kmet, who will look to develop a long-lasting relationship with Fields who, despite his ability to create with his legs, will be slinging the rock around Soldier Field without hesitation in his first season. Graham, now 34, just doesn’t slot into the youth movement now underway in Chicago. His $10 million salary-cap hit is an unwelcoming number, and it could be wise to release the 12-year pass-catcher to free up $7 million in cap space as increased flexibility moving forward.