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Restructure or release? Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott headlines NFC 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 2023 season and beyond. With the salary cap increasing by $16.6 million to $224.8 million per club, some teams are sitting pretty (the Bears, Falcons and Raiders are flush with cash), while others have tough decisions to make (the Buccaneers and Saints are deep in the red).

Welcome to restructure/release season. Some franchises simply need to straighten out their books, while others will aim to free up cash in order to target specific players in free agency or on the trade block. And on that latter front, this offseason is shaping up to be another one with momentous movement at quarterback, the priciest position in the sport, making cap space all the more important.

These are fun times for me. I love setting projected performance to salary metrics. It's how I got into this industry in the first place. 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 realistically could be spent in order to earn wins ... That's my kind of party! Because this is where the analytics really come into play.

Consider, 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 in a vacuum, only considering one end of the discussion (the top-end running back) without seriously exploring the available options behind Door No. 2. That's bad process. Responsible team-building thoroughly examines every possible avenue.

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 2023 contract information with my models' estimations of 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 respective contracts that they could be due for a restructure or release.

Below you'll find nine NFC players who fall into this category. Click here for the AFC rundown.

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

Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys · RB · Age 27
  • Elliott's 2023 cap number: $16,720,000
  • Elliott's dead cap number: $11,860,000
  • Cowboys' estimated cap space: -$7,008,743

It's my professional opinion that you'd be hard-pressed to find a data-focused analyst who would recommend against at least restructuring -- if not fully releasing -- just about any soon-to-be 28-year-old back with the highest cap number at the position. There are exceptions to this kind of pronouncement -- I would count Derrick Henry, a 29-year-old back with the second-highest cap figure, among them -- but Zeke didn't even lead his own team in rushing this past season.

Tony Pollard emerged as Dallas' top back in 2022, averaging a robust 5.2 yards per carry en route to his first 1,000-yard campaign and Pro Bowl nod. While the 25-year-old's contract season abruptly ended with a broken leg in the Divisional Round, he'd still garner plenty of attention on the open market. In fact, speaking to general managers and coaches around the league, my current best estimate for what Pollard could make in a free-agent deal sits at around $11.5 million per year -- and that'd be for what those GMs and coaches would consider to be a lead back, not a shared-backfield contributor. This is just to provide context on where the market for a lead back seems to be levelling off at. And with my colleague Jane Slater saying she's confident Pollard will be on the Cowboys' roster in 2023 -- whether via a franchise tag (which would be about $10 million) or a multi-year deal -- you have to wonder what's next for Elliott, who doesn't have any more guaranteed money on his contract.

I am not saying Zeke's no longer useful to Dallas -- he just scored eight touchdowns against stacked boxes, per Next Gen Stats, the highest total since his rookie season of 2016 -- but the price tag is off. In his age-27 season, Elliott just set career lows in carries (231) and yards per carry (3.8). NGS also shows that he posted negative figures in rushing yards over expected (-58) and receiving yards over expected (-21) in 2022.

Leonard Floyd
Los Angeles Rams · OLB · Age 30
  • Floyd's 2023 cap number: $22,000,000
  • Floyd's dead cap number: $19,000,000
  • Rams' estimated cap space: -$14,872,570

Over The Cap has the Rams at 24th in terms of cap space, with Los Angeles nearly $15 million in the red. After counting for just $8 million against the cap in 2022, Floyd's cap number almost triples this year.

Now, the former top-10 pick of the Bears was productive this past season, racking up 54 QB pressures (the second-highest total in his career, per PFF) and nine sacks. In fact, his top three seasons in terms of pressures and sacks have all come over the past three years with the Rams. The hard part here is that L.A., with Les Snead's "Eff them picks" approach, does not have as many rookie salaries at key positions to mitigate the cap damage of the teams' top-end deals. In a related vein, the Rams also have depth issues, which further hamstrings the club when the injury bug inevitably strikes, as we saw this past season.

Leonard Fournette
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · RB · Age 28
  • Fournette's 2023 cap number: $8,470,588
  • Fournette's dead cap number: $5,000,000
  • Buccaneers' estimated cap space: -$56,531,921

Tampa Bay currently has the worst cap situation in the entire league. And in the wake of Tom Brady's retirement, this is a franchise in transition, having already made a change at offensive coordinator this offseason.

While Fournette actually turned in his best season as a receiver -- posting career highs in yards (523), touchdowns (three) and receiving yards over expected (83) -- he was ineffective in his primary role as a ball carrier. His -67 rushing yards over expected in 2022 is the worst figure he's recorded since NGS started tracking this statistic in 2018. The former top-five pick averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, which was tied for the lowest figure among rushers with at least 50 carries last season.

To be fair, Fournette certainly was not helped by the spate of injuries along Tampa Bay's offensive line, but still, it's hard to justify rostering the 28-year-old back for his current price in 2023.

Eric Kendricks
Minnesota Vikings · LB · Age 30
  • Kendricks' 2023 cap number: $11,430,000
  • Kendricks' dead cap number: $1,930,000
  • Vikings' estimated cap space: -$24,424,174

Kendricks has one season left on a five-year, $50 million contract, but the Vikings can save $9.5 million by releasing him. Although he's been a stalwart in Minnesota since joining the Vikes as a second-round pick in 2015, Kendricks' play has fallen off of late, particularly in pass defense. Last season, Kendricks earned a 46.4 coverage grade from PFF, the 11th-lowest mark among linebackers.

With Brian Flores joining the team as its new defensive coordinator, that entire side of the ball will be under review. Remember, Minnesota ranked 28th in scoring defense and 31st in total D in 2022, so you'd expect a fair amount of turnover. Kendricks appears destined for a restructure or outright release.

Shaq Mason
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · OG · Age 29
  • Mason's 2023 cap number: $9,576,000
  • Mason's dead cap number: $4,304,000
  • Buccaneers' estimated cap space: -$56,531,921

First, the good: Mason allowed just one sack on 834 pass-blocking snaps last season, including the playoffs. The not-so-good? PFF charted him with a 3.3 pressure percentage allowed (postseason included), ranking 21st among all guards. Not horrible, but not great. And that's when his cap figure sat at just $3.2 million. In 2023, that number triples.

Trading for Mason last offseason made perfect sense for Tampa Bay -- especially considering it only cost a fifth-round pick -- but the way this contract was structured always indicated that this offseason would be a hinge point. Turning 30 in August, Mason should still have productive years left, so a restructure could be in order. Or maybe he'll be a cap casualty in the Bucs' post-Brady rebuild.

Harrison Smith
Minnesota Vikings · S · Age 34
  • Smith's 2023 cap number: $19,127,647
  • Smith's dead cap number: $11,747,648
  • Vikings' estimated cap space: -$24,424,174

Certain contracts are essentially designed to be revisited, and Smith's pact certainly appears to fall into that category, with a massive increase in the cap hit ($7.4 million in 2022, $19.1 million in '23) and base salary ($2.95 million in 2022, $14.7 million in '23). You get it -- it's part of the caponomics game.

Having just turned 34, Smith is still a productive safety, as evidenced by his five interceptions and 10 passes defensed in 14 games last season. That said, Next Gen Stats had him allowing 5.8 receptions over expected as the nearest defender in coverage last season, which was the second-worst mark in the league.

On the whole, Minnesota's secondary mightily in 2022. Restructuring Smith's contract could free up more dough for the Vikings to address serious issues at the corner position, even if it's just adding better depth.

Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints · WR · Age 29
  • Thomas' 2023 cap number: $13,358,588
  • Thomas' dead cap number: $26,174,352
  • Saints' estimated cap space: -$47,402,318

I wrote about Thomas in this space last season, a restructure promptly occurred ... and then Thomas barely saw the field in another injury-riddled season.

Thomas racked up 22 targets in the first three games of the 2022 campaign, averaging a career-high 10.3 air yards per target in the process. (From 2016 through 2021, he averaged 8.5 air yards in this area.) But a foot/toe injury in the Week 3 loss to the Panthers shelved him for the rest of the season. And although it was a highly limited sample size, with just 99 total routes run, Thomas averaged just 1.7 yards per route run, the lowest mark of his career.

With New Orleans so far in the red, it's hard to justify using six percent of the cap on a receiver who's played in just 10 games over the past three seasons. But with Thomas' massive dead cap figure, he could be heading for a contract restructure or a post-June 1 release.

Carson Wentz
Washington Commanders · QB · Age 30
  • Wentz's 2023 cap number: $26,176,471
  • Wentz's dead cap number: $0
  • Commanders' estimated cap space: $8,352,246

After trading for Wentz last offseason, the Commanders didn't get much return on investment, as the veteran quarterback went 2-5 in his seven starts, missing nearly two months with a broken finger. NGS had him posting a completion percentage over expected of -4.2, among the worst figures in the league among starting quarterbacks. Same story with his passer rating (80.2) and yards-per-attempt figure (6.4).

With no dead money left on his deal, Wentz is a prime cut candidate, as the move would clear up more than $26 million in cap space. Considering the franchise has a number of big contracts to figure out -- particularly on the defensive line, where Daron Payne's a pending free agent right now and Montez Sweat is heading into the final season of his rookie deal -- Washington has a pretty easy decision on its hands here.

Jameis Winston
New Orleans Saints · QB · Age 29
  • Winston's 2023 cap number: $15,600,000
  • Winston's dead cap number: $11,200,000
  • Saints' estimated cap space: -$47,402,318

The NFC South is the most interesting division to me this offseason, with grand-scale change coming across the board -- particularly at the game's most important position, where all four teams appear in flux.

While Winston has some absolute positives in his game (SEE: his Next Gen Stats mark of +5.2 completion percentage over expected on 115 attempts last season), he also has some shortcomings and injury issues that make a $15.6 million cap number pretty untenable.

One more NGS note from last season that stands out: Winston's 95.2 passer rating on quick passes (time to throw under 2.5 seconds). His teammate, Andy Dalton, posted a 112.1 rating on such throws -- the second-highest figure in the league in 2022, behind only Patrick Mahomes (113.3). For context, Dalton carried a $3 million cap hit last year.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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