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Restructure or release? Ryan Tannehill, Joe Mixon among AFC players who could be cap casualties

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 AFC players who fall into this category. Click here for the NFC rundown.

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

Frank Clark
Kansas City Chiefs · DE · Age 29
  • Clark's 2023 cap number: $28,675,000
  • Clark's dead cap number: $7,675,000
  • Chiefs' estimated cap space: -$3,507,834

Despite making three Pro Bowls in his four seasons with Kansas City, Clark hasn't posted double-digit sacks since 2018, his last season in Seattle. Next Gen Stats charted him with an underwhelming 1.2 percent sack rate in each of the past two seasons. To be fair, the amount of attention he and Chris Jones both command doesn't always translate to raw statistics -- yes, even those from NGS. That said, Clark has two big things working against him ...

First, Clark's cap number is skyrocketing, from $13.3 million in 2022 to $28.7 million this year. The Chiefs can save $21 million in cap space by releasing the soon-to-be 30-year-old. Secondly, Jones is heading into the final season of his contract. And seeing how he just established himself as a top-tier Defensive Player of the Year candidate -- racking up 15.5 sacks and a healthy 2.9 percent sack percentage -- Kansas City must prioritize extending the 6-foot-6, 310-pound game wrecker.

If you are a Chiefs fan, just take a lot of pride in realizing that NINE rookies contributed to the Super Bowl championship, including another edge rusher, George Karlaftis.

Bud Dupree
Tennessee Titans · OLB · Age 30
  • Dupree's 2023 cap number: $20,200,000
  • Dupree's dead cap number: $10,850,000
  • Titans' estimated cap space: $12,408,843

The Titans are an interesting case study this offseason, as they have a better roster than their 7-10 record from last season would suggest. (Remember, the injury-riddled squad finished the campaign on a seven-game losing streak.) But could this be a transitional year of sorts? Ran Carthon started his regime with some notable cuts, including LT Taylor Lewan and WR Robert Woods, but the new general manager might not be done on the release/restructure front.

Signed to a five-year, $85 million deal two free agency cycles ago, Dupree started just six games in his first season with the Titans due to lingering health issues. While the injury bug bit again last year -- limiting Dupree to 11 starts -- he did post a 12.9 percent QB pressure rate, the second-highest mark of his career on the Next Gen Stats books (going back to 2016). Still, in two years with Tennessee, Dupree has logged a total of just seven sacks. Not the kind of production you need from a player who's currently set to take up 8.8 percent of the team's cap space.

Mike Vrabel and Co. can create interesting and effective pressure fronts without committing $20 million-plus to a 30-year-old with health issues.

Shaquill Griffin
Jacksonville Jaguars · CB · Age 27
  • Griffin's 2023 cap number: $17,147,059
  • Griffin's dead cap number: $4,000,000
  • Jaguars' estimated cap space: -$22,753,686

Jacksonville signed Griffin to a three-year, $44.5 million contract back in March of 2021. In Griffin's debut season in Duval, PFF had him allowing a 69.5 completion percentage, a 110.6 passer rating and three touchdowns. This past season, he missed 11 games due to hip/back injuries. When he did play, the numbers weren't great: 68.8 completion percentage, 125.0 passer rating and three touchdowns allowed.

Deep the in red, the Jaguars must get their cap situation under control. After taking the AFC South title and winning a playoff game in epic comeback fashion, Jacksonville needs to be in position to attack this offseason, surrounding emerging QB Trevor Lawrence with the right additions via free agency and the 2023 NFL draft, in which the Jags own nine picks. While some of the team's bigger contracts carry hefty dead-money charges, that's not the case with Griffin's deal. Jacksonville can create more than $13.1 million by simply releasing the veteran corner. This could give Jags GM Trent Baalke great leverage in any potential restructure negotiations with Griffin.

Hunter Henry
New England Patriots · TE · Age 28
  • Henry's 2023 cap number: $15,500,000
  • Henry's dead cap number: $5,000,000
  • Patriots' estimated cap space: $32,448,947

Last season, Henry racked up 56 receiving yards over expected when aligned tight, per Next Gen Stats, ranking fourth among all tight ends. However, he posted a -2.8 catch rate over expected (his lowest mark since at least 2017, when NGS started tracking the figure) and a career-low 1.3 yards per route run. He also had PFF's seventh-lowest run-blocking grade among 44 qualified TEs. Seeing how Henry possesses the third-highest cap figure at the position in 2023, this contract looks like a prime target to revisit.

The Patriots can save $10.5 million with an outright release of Henry. I'm not saying they should do that; I'm saying New England's leverage is strong enough here to help the Pats achieve their overall roster goals.

Byron Jones
Miami Dolphins · CB · Age 30
  • Jones' 2023 cap number: $18,351,000
  • Jones' dead cap number: $14,804,000
  • Dolphins' estimated cap space: -$16,377,201

Vic Fangio's defenses are always among my favorites to track, and while I am sure he'd like to have prime Jones as a key weapon, the Dolphins' freshly minted DC doesn't need that expensive of an asset to yield exceptional results -- especially considering the cover man just missed the entire 2022 campaign following ankle/Achilles surgery.

Miami is in the bottom quarter of the league when it comes to cap space -- or, in the Dolphins' current case, a lack thereof. While Jones' dead-cap figure would prevent the team from clearing up a ton of money with an outright release, maybe a pay cut is in the cards.

Joe Mixon
Cincinnati Bengals · RB · Age 26
  • Mixon's 2023 cap number: $12,791,176
  • Mixon's dead cap number: $5,500,000
  • Bengals' estimated cap space: $35,553,058

On the plus side, the Bengals have about $33 million in effective cap space, one of the highest figures in the league. But here's the rub: Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins are both eligible for extensions this offseason, with Ja'Marr Chase set to reach that point next offseason. Oh, and both starting safeties -- Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell -- are about to hit the open market next month.

Long story short: The Bengals have a LOT of prominent mouths to feed.

After rushing for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns to make his first Pro Bowl in 2021, Mixon's production significantly decreased this past season. Outside of a five-touchdown explosion against the Panthers in Week 9 and a 105-yard rushing effort in the Divisional Round win over the Bills, Mixon's play left a lot to be desired.

C.J. Mosley
New York Jets · LB · Age 30
  • Mosley's 2023 cap number: $21,476,000
  • Mosley's dead cap number: $14,904,000
  • Jets' estimated cap space: -$264,487

The Jets signed Mosley to a five-year, $85 million contract in March of 2019 -- three months before Joe Douglas took over as the franchise's general manager. To Mosley's credit, the linebacker just made his first Pro Bowl since relocating from Baltimore to New York. (He earned the all-star nod four times as a Raven.) But his cap number has ballooned from $5.6 million in 2022 to a whopping $21.5 million in '23 -- the second-highest figure among all linebackers. Douglas clearly knows how to create the right blend of free agents and draftees to support what his coaching staff wants to achieve (SEE: New York sweeping the 2022 Rookie of the Year awards and astronomically improving on defense this past season), so this feels like a bit of a legacy contract from a previous regime that the current GM can improve upon.

The Jets are in the red cap-wise. If they're going to be a true player in the veteran QB market this offseason, then they need to create cap room. While there's no doubt Mosley is a contributor, his current price tag just doesn't jibe with where this team's at -- and where it's looking to go -- in 2023.

Matt Ryan
Indianapolis Colts · QB · Age 37
  • Ryan's 2023 cap number: $35,205,882
  • Ryan's dead cap number: $18,000,000
  • Colts' estimated cap space: $12,230,976

Ryan's first season away from Atlanta didn't go as planned. To be fair, the Colts had a lot going on, but the veteran passer went 4-7-1 in his 12 starts, recording the second-lowest passer rating (83.9) of his 15-year career. While he posted a 4.4 completion percentage over expected on quick passes (fourth among qualified QBs), Ryan averaged just 6.4 air yards per attempt (his lowest since NGS started tracking in 2016). To put it simply, Ryan appeared to show his age.

Now the Colts have a new head coach in Shane Steichen who just spent the last two years as Philadelphia's offensive coordinator, helping turn dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts into an MVP runner-up. How Steichen chooses to handle the QB position in Year 1 will go a long way toward determining how his Indy tenure plays out. With Ryan in the last year of his contract, the Colts can save $17.2 million in cap space by cutting the soon-to-be 38-year-old.

Ryan Tannehill
Tennessee Titans · QB · Age 34
  • Tannehill's 2023 cap number: $36,600,000
  • Tannehill's dead cap number: $18,800,000
  • Titans' estimated cap space: $12,408,843

The 2023 campaign is the last season on Tannehill's contract before the voidable years come into play, but he carries the fifth-highest cap number among quarterbacks. An outright release would save the Titans $17.8 million. Still just 34 years old, though, the tough and talented Tannehill could still have some mighty-fine football left in him. I guess it just depends on how Vrabel, Carthon and Co. see the current state of the team. And how they assess Tannehill's trajectory ...

The rose-colored-glasses stat: Tannehill's 3.9 completion percentage over expected versus man coverage was the third-highest in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats.

The skeptical stat: Tannehill's 94.9 passer rating when not under pressure was his lowest mark in the NGS era (since 2016).

Is Tannehill, who went 30-13 in his first three seasons as the Titans' starting quarterback, still able to quarterback this team to the playoffs? Or was last year's injury-abbreviated, 6-6 starting record a sign that his play is beginning to wane?

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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