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Restructure or release? Carson Wentz, Kenyan Drake among eight AFC players to keep an eye on

As we approach free agency (and the NFL draft), coaches and front office executives are hard at work on their team-building strategies for the 2022 season and beyond. With the salary cap estimated at $208.2 million per club for the coming campaign, some teams are sitting pretty (the Dolphins and Jaguars, for example, are flush with cash), while others have tough decisions to make (the Saints and Packers are deep in the red).

This is restructure/release season. Some franchises simply need to straighten out their books, while others will aim to free up cash to target specific players in free agency or on the trade block. On that latter front, this offseason looks like it could be particularly interesting because of all the potential movement among quarterbacks, the priciest commodities in the sport.

These are fun times for me. I love setting projected performance to salary metrics. Contracts are typically based on past performance, which is, after all, the best data on individual players that we have available. But adding in the filter of possible substitutes in the open market, along with how else the money could be realistically spent in order to earn wins ... That's my kind of party! This is where the analytics really come into play. For example, a classic debate: Do you pay big money for the top-end running back ... or sign a closer-to-average RB and use the remaining dough to upgrade the offensive line? Oftentimes, people argue such matters inside a vacuum, only considering one end of the discussion (the top-end running back) without seriously exploring the available options behind Door No. 2.

I'm endlessly fascinated by this stuff and could go on about the hypotheticals forever. But in the interest of providing an article -- and not a textbook -- I'm looking to focus my lens on a more distilled group of players today.

Merging 2022 contract information with my models estimating individual win-share totals for the coming season (using computer vision, advanced data, conventional statistics, Next Gen Stats, etc.), I'm spotlighting players who are so misaligned with their contracts that they could be due for a restructure or release. You'll find eight individuals from AFC teams below. Click here for the NFC list.

NOTE: All financial figures below were pulled from Over The Cap at publishing, with the players presented in alphabetical order.

Cole Beasley
Wide receiver · Age 32
Buffalo Bills
2021 record: 11-6
  • Beasley's 2022 cap number: $7,600,000
  • Beasley's dead cap number: $1,500,000
  • Bills' estimated cap space: -$6,358,197

Computer vision shows that Josh Allen is the second-most productive QB in passing yards earned while on the run since 2020. According to Next Gen Stats, Bills pass catchers ranked 18th as a group in yards after the catch last season (1,888). Passing on the run and YAC correlate strongly with first downs and TDs, which makes sense. Now, NGS does show that Beasley's average of 3.9 yards of target separation (including the playoffs) was the best mark in NFL last season (min. 100 targets). But his 82 grabs in 2021 only netted 693 yards and one TD, compared with the same number of receptions yielding 967 yards and four scores in 2020. Considering the many different types of receivers available in free agency and the draft, along with other needs Buffalo must address, general manager Brandon Beane could look here to create some cap space, as the Bills are projected to be in the red.

Bryan Bulaga
Offensive tackle · Age 32
Los Angeles Chargers
2021 record: 9-8
  • Bulaga's 2022 cap number: $14,083,334
  • Bulaga's dead cap number: $3,333,334
  • Chargers' estimated cap space: $56,298,356

Per Over the Cap, the Chargers are currently in the third-best shape cap-wise. So why make this move? Well, Los Angeles' first-round pick from last season, Rashawn Slater, was a Pro Bowler in Year 1. So the Bolts have one edge completely locked down. Meanwhile, Bulaga just spent all but the season opener on injured reserve with back and groin issues. And in the 2020 campaign, Bulaga's first with the Chargers, Pro Football Focus gave him a pass-blocking grade of 65.1, which was his lowest mark since 2012. So that $14 million cap hit doesn't really add up.

Kenyan Drake
Running back · Age 28
Las Vegas Raiders
2021 record: 10-7
  • Drake's 2022 cap number: $8,250,000
  • Drake's dead cap number: $5,500,000
  • Raiders' estimated cap space: $18,897,443

On its face, Drake's $8.25 million cap hit doesn't look that bad. His average of 10.2 yards per reception when aligned in the backfield ranked second in the NFL last season (according to NGS, min. 20 such targets; Ty Johnson, 11.5). The problem is the overall return on investment. Drake only appeared in 12 games, posting 63 rushing attempts and 40 receptions. With new head coach Josh McDaniels and new general manager Dave Ziegler both coming over from the Patriots, you figure they'll look to be disciplined with spending. This could be a source of generating value to spend on the many other needs this team has. And actually, if the Raiders trade Drake, the dead cap drops to zero.

Marcus Peters
Cornerback · Age 29
Baltimore Ravens
2021 record: 8-9
  • Peters' 2022 cap number: $15,500,000
  • Peters' dead cap number: $5,500,000
  • Ravens' estimated cap space: $8,768,345

The Ravens currently project to have under $10 million in cap space, meaning they'll likely have to make some tricky decisions. While Peters' 74.5 passer rating allowed since 2016 ranks fifth in the NFL, per NGS, he just missed the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL. And his cap hit is the 11th-highest among all cornerbacks. So I have to imagine Baltimore, one of the savvier franchises in the league when it comes to finances, at least revisits this deal to create some cap space.

Joe Schobert
Linebacker · Age 28
Pittsburgh Steelers
2021 record: 9-7-1
  • Schobert's 2022 cap number: $9,722,000
  • Schobert's dead cap number: $1,888,000
  • Steelers' estimated cap space: $28,731,582

The Steelers are flush with cap space, but they have a major question mark at quarterback, the game's most important and expensive position. Pro Football Focus just gave Schobert the worst grade of his career in 2021, so nearly $10 million is a big price tag.

Courtland Sutton
Wide receiver · Age 26
Denver Broncos
2021 record: 7-10
  • Sutton's 2022 cap number: $13,200,000
  • Sutton's dead cap number: $16,800,000
  • Broncos' estimated cap space: $38,052,012

Sutton just signed an extension in November, so this would be a restructure. His current cap hit for 2022 is the 18th-highest among wideouts. Sutton definitely has value, as his +8.0 percent catch rate over expected on short passes ranked third in the NFL in 2021 (min. 40 such targets), but Denver could use some extra cash. Even though the Broncos have plenty of cap space at the moment, they could be in the market for a quarterback and a pass rusher -- two expensive commodities -- in an attempt to get back to the top of the ultra-competitive AFC West.

Trae Waynes
Cornerback · Age 29
Cincinnati Bengals
2021 record: 10-7
  • Waynes' 2022 cap number: $15,858,824
  • Waynes' dead cap number: $5,000,000
  • Bengals' estimated cap space: $49,257,379

My models and my eyeballs tell me that the Bengals MUST address their offensive line this offseason. My models say the best and most certain way to do this is to focus on free agents -- and then have the chance to double down in the draft if a certain prospect falls their way. The massive amount of cap space means they have flexibility, but it doesn't mean they should overpay just because they can. Waynes' 2022 cap hit ranks 10th among all corners, but he missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. And when he did play, he posted the lowest PFF grade of his career. Computer vision had his performance against slot receivers declining by about 20 percent in terms of first downs and touchdowns allowed in his coverage.

Carson Wentz
Quarterback · Age 29
Indianapolis Colts
2021 record: 9-8
  • Wentz's 2022 cap number: $28,294,119
  • Wentz's dead cap number: $15,000,000
  • Colts' estimated cap space: $35,847,327

The opportunity to WIN NOW is partially based on division opponents, and while it's unlikely the Jags and Texans will both be selecting in the top three again in the 2023 NFL Draft, they both still have enough question marks to make the 2022 AFC South the most favorable division in the conference. Wentz's -2.5 completion percentage over expected in 2021 ranked 24th of 31 qualified QBs in 2021. In fact, he's had a negative CPOE in each of the last three seasons (-4.1% in 2020, -1.4% in 2019). If the Colts want to get back to the playoffs next season, allotting 13.4 percent of the salary cap to Wentz doesn't seem like a wise approach.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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