Get ready for impact.
There are those around the NFL bracing for what could be an avalanche of player movement in the coming weeks, as teams maneuver to get under a COVID-19-driven salary cap reduction that, for now, is set at not less than $180 million. The expectation is more veterans than usual will be discarded, resurfacing in new football homes with free agency set to open for business March 15.
On Wednesday, the Giants pared down their roster, releasing receiver Golden Tate and linebacker David Mayo, moves that slice $8.4 million off the 2021 salary cap. The “under construction’’ signs remain up, though, with several more players to consider, as far as worth on the field vs. value against the cap.
The big one for the Giants is Nate Solder. A cancer survivor with a young son battling cancer, Solder opted out last season and is scheduled to count a bloated $16.5 million on the salary cap in 2021. The Giants cannot absorb that hit — not for a player who turns 33 next month, did not play for an entire season and had his starting left tackle spot taken by Andrew Thomas, the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Would Solder return as a right tackle, a spot he has not played in the NFL since his 2011 rookie year? If Solder wants to continue his career, he will have to take a pay cut. If he is not with the team, the Giants create $6 million in cap space but also $10.5 million in dead money.
Another decision on the offensive line is Kevin Zeitler, the most consistent lineman on the roster. He started all 16 games last season at right guard and showed no signs of slowing down, playing 943 (93 percent) of the offensive snaps. He is solid and dependable, not a star but difficult to replace, given the still-evolving makeup of the line. The Giants would save $12.5 million on the cap (and create $2.5 million in dead money) by releasing Zeitler, something that seems unlikely to happen. Perhaps lowering his 2021 cap hit by extending his contract makes more sense. Zeitler turns 31 on Monday.
The other player on the offensive line that bears watching is Will Hernandez, who was demoted to the bench by the Joe Judge coaching staff after Hernandez played every snap at left guard the first seven games. Hernandez missed two games after testing positive for COVID-19 and then played sparingly the rest of the way. He did not get on the field in the regular-season finale. If the Giants are convinced Shane Lemieux is an upgrade, Hernandez could be expendable, unless he is fitted for a backup swing tackle role. Cutting him would save the Giants only $2.2 million on the cap and create $875,000 in dead money.
A clean break from tight end Evan Engram gives the Giants $6 million on the cap and no dead money. Engram, though, is one of the few players on offense capable of causing matchup problems for the opposing defense. Taking weapons away from this often-feeble attack is not what the Giants are after, even though Engram can be exasperating, with his penchant for big drops at big times.
To pick up $2.9 million on the cap, the Giants could part ways with tight end Levine Toilolo, who was signed last year as a blocker and was no more than a spare part, playing only 25 percent of the offensive snaps. Special teams ace Cody Core missed the entire 2020 season with a torn Achilles tendon; releasing him saves the Giants $2 million on the cap. Isaac Yiadom started 10 games at cornerback and the Giants in free agency or the draft will search for a replacement opposite James Bradberry. Releasing Yiadom saves $2.2 million on the cap.
The Giants rewarded punter Riley Dixon after a fine 2019 season with a three-year deal worth $8.7 million. Dixon struggled in 2020, though, dropping to 25th in the league in net punting average. If he is replaced, Dixon’s absence would trim the 2021 cap by $2.7 million.