It’s probably fair to say most NFL coaches would try to convince you the league is a meritocracy – and in some of the league’s cities (Baltimore, Foxborough, Seattle among others) that holds pretty true.
But this is professional football, and financial considerations are usually part of the equation when teams are so often trying to get younger players who can do the same job as a veteran who gets paid more.
Monday was a perfect example, left tackle Charles Leno Jr., a Pro Bowler in 2018, tweeting that the Chicago Bears are releasing him even though he’s started 93 games in a row. The move, which will be designated to take effect after June 1, will save $9 million against this year’s salary cap. Friday, Chicago traded up in the second round for Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins, who was expected to play on the right side but apparently will now go to the left.
Life in the NFL often isn’t fair, and, with the 2021 draft now complete, other veterans will share Leno’s fate sooner or later. Here are 21 who are officially on notice moving forward:
San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo
He’s effectively been on notice since March, when the Niners traded up for the draft’s No. 3 pick. Thursday, it was finally revealed that Trey Lance will be Jimmy G’s eventual replacement – though the question becomes … when? Garoppolo already reached out to Lance, so it seems their relationship is off to a good start. But now it’s up to Garoppolo, who’s under contract for two more years, to hold off Lance for as long as he can – and if it’s a protracted period, all the better for San Francisco. But if Garoppolo struggles or goes down again – he’s only started more than six games in a season once in his career – he could find himself on another roster in 2022.
Denver Broncos RB Melvin Gordon
It’s only been a few weeks since he expressed to a local TV station that “I get overlooked a lot and I am kind of sick of it.” Welp. Fan favorite Phillip Lindsay is gone, but second-rounder Javonte Williams may become the anointed one after new GM George Paton traded up to get him. Despite a rocky season on the personal front in 2020, Gordon still finished with 1,144 yards from scrimmage and 10 TDs and remains a valuable performer … but one who might bring something nice back in a trade, which would also save Paton about $7 million if done before the season.
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BIGGEST STEALS:Patriots, Jets add top value with hauls in 2021 class
Dallas Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch
He looked like a long-term defensive staple as a first-round rookie in 2018. But he’s missed 13 games over the past two seasons, a concerning neck surgery one of the reasons for an extended absence. The writing now appears on the wall given Dallas declined Vander Esch’s fifth-year option after drafting LBs Micah Parsons (Round 1) and promising Jabril Cox (Round 4) as potential wingmen for Jaylon Smith.
New York Giants WR Sterling Shepard
He’s consistent – but that means about 60 catches and 700 yards per year. When you’re making $10 million a year, that doesn’t seem like much, especially for a team that signed free agent Kenny Golladay to a four-year, $72 million deal, picked Kadarius Toney in the first round and has a more explosive receiver, Darius Slayton, on a rookie deal for two more years. Trading Shepard in a few weeks would save GM Dave Gettleman $7 million this season and might bring back a nice player or another draft pick to add to his newly won 2022 haul.
New York Jets WR Jamison Crowder
Another nice Big Apple slot receiver who suddenly seems extraneous given the second-round pick just invested in Elijah Moore. The NYJ can save $10.35 million by trading or releasing Crowder, who’s entering the final year of his contract and only started seven games in 2020.
Jets RB Tevin Coleman
He was signed for 2021 to add some life to a rushing attack led by antediluvian Frank Gore’s 653 yards in 2020. But Coleman isn’t a workhorse or particularly durable, and the Jets might quickly decide they’re best served by youth – Lamical Perine, Ty Johnson – and perhaps even anchored by fourth-rounder Michael Carter, who had nearly 2,700 yards from scrimmage over his final two years at North Carolina.
Atlanta Falcons TE Hayden Hurst
A first-rounder of the Ravens in 2018, he was traded to the Falcons last year and now seems likely to be leaving Atlanta in 2022. Hurst established new career highs in 2020 –56 catches, 571 yards, six TDs – but with highly regarded TE Kyle Pitts coming to town as the No. 4 overall pick and nary a buck of salary cap space, it’s little surprise Hurst’s fifth-year option was declined. Still, not a bad place to showcase your skills for your next employer.
Cincinnati Bengals K Austin Seibert
One kicker was selected in the 2021 draft … and that would be Cincy’s Evan McPherson in Round 5. Good luck with that, Austin.
Tennessee Titans LB Rashaan Evans
Another 2018 first-rounder whose option was not picked up. Per NFL Network, Evans could still earn an extension before reaching free agency. Yet he hasn’t exactly lit the league on fire in his first three seasons and could soon finding himself competing with third-round LB Monty Rice.
49ers RBs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson
Both are entering a contract year and both had durability issues in 2020 as the Niners ground game sputtered to a No. 15 ranking after pacing the NFC during their 2019 Super Bowl season. Third-round RB Trey Sermon must still prove he can handle a bellcow role, but he is intriguing given he averaged better than 7 yards per carry each of the past two seasons, spending 2019 at Oklahoma before transferring to Ohio State and emerging as the Buckeyes’ lead back. Wouldn’t be surprise if rises to the top of the depth chart.
Chicago Bears QBs Andy Dalton and Nick Foles
Dalton signed a one-year deal in March and was publicly assured QB1 status from GM Ryan Pace. That was before the Bears traded up for Ohio State star Justin Fields in the draft and gave him jersey No. 1. Dalton may still begin the season under center, but the chances he keeps the role now seem beyond remote. As for Foles? He should be a great mentor to Fields, as Dalton will likely be, and perhaps the most decorated QB3 of all time. But if Pace can find somewhere to unload Foles’ contract this summer, he could add $4 million to the salary cap after June 1.
Arizona Cardinals WRs Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella
Kirk was a second-rounder in 2018 and Isabella was a second-rounder in 2019 … neither has been exceptionally productive, particularly Isabella. Enter another Round 2 receiver, Rondale Moore, to further crowd the depth chart behind veterans DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green. Seems like there could be an odd man out here – especially if the Cards and still-unsigned Larry Fitzgerald decide to reunite at some point.
Jacksonville Jaguars OTs Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor
Over the the past two seasons, they’ve formed a durable – if underwhelming – tackle tandem. But Walker Little was drafted in the second round to ride the pine forever. With Robinson on a $13.75 million franchise tag in 2021, decent chance he could be playing his final year in Duval County.
Jaguars RB James Robinson
Undrafted in 2020, he had a remarkable rookie year – 1,070 rushing yards, 49 catches, 10 TDs in 14 games – for a really bad team after beating out Leonard Fournette in training camp. But since then, new coach Urban Meyer has signed former Ohio Star star Carlos Hyde, then drafted Travis Etienne in the first round. There’s nothing wrong with a stacked running back room … but if the Jags can potentially trade an undrafted backup downstream for, say, a third-round pick, wouldn’t they have to strongly consider it?
Denver Broncos C Lloyd Cushenberry
Last year’s third-round pick almost certainly isn’t in danger of losing his roster spot. But after starting all 16 games as a rookie and winding up – by far – as Pro Football Focus’ 36th-ranked center out of 36 qualifiers … well, there’s a reason Paton snatched Division III demigod Quinn Meinerz in Round 3 this year, even if he goes to guard and forces veteran Graham Glasgow into the pivot.
Los Angeles Rams WR DeSean Jackson
He projected as the No. 4 receiver behind Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Van Jefferson … and that was before LA drafted Tutu Atwell, who essentially provides Jackson’s skill set in a body that’s 13 years younger, in the second round.
New England Patriots QB Cam Newton
Wouldn’t it make sense for the Pats to trade him to the Bears for Dalton? Because designing an offense for Newton with first-round pocket QB Mac Jones waiting in the wings makes about as much sense as bringing multi-dimensional Fields in behind pocket-bound Dalton … but I digress. The point being, everyone knew Newton’s second contract in New England was only for a year with $3.5 million guaranteed. If it quickly becomes apparent that Jones is jibing better with all of the free agents also just coming aboard this offense, what’s the point of trying to force things with Newton when it might behoove him and the Patriots if he goes elsewhere sooner than later?
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.