Looking at Potential Roster Turnover in 2021

Now that just about everyone has completed three weeks of the season some fanbases begin to panic about a team’s prospects for 2020 and immediately start looking toward 2021. One of the things that we often talk about is roster turnover and releasing players to overhaul a roster. In the last two years we have seen the Dolphins and Jaguars enter historic rebuilds where they dropped most veterans from their rosters to basically start over. That got me to thinking about just how much turnover is possible for each team in 2020.

One of the big impediments to releasing a player is dead money in a contract. While the cash component of it is usually a bigger consideration than the sunk cost aspect caused by bonuses those dead money numbers often can give us a gauge as to the likelihood of release of a player. In grouping the listing of dead money in every year since 2016 by salary range we had the following releases.

YearOver $15M$10-$15M$7.5-$10M$5-$7.5MUnder $5M

The numbers give us a reasonable idea of how dead money correlates with a release. The $15M category represents in the ballpark of 4% of all players whose dead money is that high in a given year. The next group jumps to about 7%, then 12%, then 20%. The under $5M numbers are huge (its about 45% if we broke it down to $2.5M as a floor) and I don’t think causes anyone to think twice. The 2020 under $5M aggregate numbers are lower than the other years for two reasons- UDFA signings were way down and a number of players will be released during the year.

Now part of the reason why the percentages are low for these releases is because the players with the most dead money are usually considered the best players and teams chase those performances after a bad year. Still this can provide a good guide as to what type of roster turnover can be expected simply based on the dead money we see in a contract.

What I did was look at every teams 2021 roster and broke their roster up by dead money ranges. Since we are looking at the “rock bottom” scenarios I added a few percentage points to the $5M+ category as to the likelihood of release and considered anyone under $5M to be a possible cut. The first set of numbers are based on players under contract in 2021. The second set is based on letting every free agent walk in 2021 to put roster size on a more equal footing. Here is the list I came up with.

Roster Turnover Index

TeamUnder ContractPotential TurnoverLikely ReturningPotential Turnover (inc. FAs)Likely Returning (inc FAs)
Football Team4388.0%12.0%92.0%8.0%
NFL avg38.387.0%13.0%92.1%7.9%

Based on this analysis the Eagles would have the least flexible roster in the NFL with 25% of the players under contract for 2021 most likely safe and a whopping 16.2% of their 2020 roster likely returning. That’s fine if the Eagles turn things around but a bad thing if they don’t. The Cardinals ranked number 2 at just under 20% with the high priced Chiefs and Falcons in the 17% range. I didn’t expect the Panthers to be number 5 but they did sign a lot of free agents last season. If we factor free agency into the equation the Saints jump into the top 5 as do the Steelers.

The Colts have the most flexibility in the NFL with really only 5% of their roster protected by contract structure. The Bengals are at 6.7% in part because they don’t do future guarantees. However, they also don’t usually release players that they recently signed. New England not surprisingly is in the third best shape while the Bucs are 4th and the Jaguars round out the top 5.

Based on the early season results I would imagine that the Colts, Patriots, Buccaneers, Bills, and Ravens have to be thrilled with their setup. The Eagles, Vikings, Texans, Giants, and Falcons all have to be more concerned for the future. If you are a bad team this year you at least have some hope if you are the Jaguars or Jets to continue to redo the roster.

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