The NFL is a tough business when it comes to roster management. Often tabbed as the acronym “Not For Long”, players in the league who aren’t rising young talents or solidified stars in their prime have to be prepared for the worst at a moment’s notice, having the chance to be cut by their respective franchises due to salary cap constraints, other depth options to fill their spot, or to simply bring in another player to fill their roster spot.
Every offseason, we see team rosters expand upwards to 90 players only to be cut down to the newly implemented 55-man roster thanks to the new CBA that was signed this past offseason. Still, this leaves 35 players on the street looking to be signed to the team’s practice squad or get picked up by another team.
While there are many players that we can expect to not make it past final cuts at the end of the preseason, I wanted to present three names that could come as surprise releases and why each one could be a logical release candidate.
Chris Wormley/DL — 6’5″, 300 lbs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers elected to resign DL Chris Wormley to a two-year contract this offseason for $4.5 million. So why would Pittsburgh look to release a player they saw as a priority to bring back this offseason? I’m glad you asked. First, the contribution compared to the cost should be considered here. Wormley played in 13 games last season and tallied eight combined tackles, one TFL, three QB hits, and one sack on 148 defensive snaps (14% of total defensive snaps on the season).
Wormley played mainly as a rotational player for the likes of Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu, being an average run defender and generating little to no pressure as a pass rusher. As a guy that is average against the run and is only a pocket pusher on passing downs, having his best season with Baltimore register only 1.5 sacks in a full season, a $4.5 million investment over the next two seasons can be tough to swallow for a player who will be 28 years old this season and is who he is at this point.
The Steelers could cut Wormley and incur $600,000 in dead cap in both 2021 and 2022 but save $1 million against the cap this season and $2.3 million in 2022, a nice chunk of change to use on re-signing players in 2022 or more impactful FA signings at OL or in the secondary.
Secondly, Pittsburgh boasts a deep DL room with the likes of Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Isaiahh Loudermilk, and Henry Mondeaux also behind the entrenched starters.
Given the fact that Pittsburgh will likely carry six on their regular season roster, should the likes of Davis or Buggs show improvement for a bigger rotational role with another year in the system or Loudermilk, who has the same body type as Wormley, be able to competently play a few snaps a game as a rookie reserve, giving Wormley the boot could be a move that frees up more cap space for Pittsburgh in 2022. It’d also give them a little more wiggle room this season to bring in someone who gets cut from another roster or sign a current free agent at a more pressing area of need.
Justin Layne/CB — 6’2″, 192 lbs.
This would be a tough pill to swallow, seeing as the Steelers invested a third-round selection in Layne only two years ago. However, it’s understandable given the lack of improvement on the football field in his first two seasons and that feeling of still being that raw player he was coming out of Michigan State. While he has had flashes of utilizing his traits in limited action, I did recently post an article highlighting his struggles in coverage and inability to process what is going on from a coverage perspective on a consistent basis. James Pierre currently seems like the favorite to take on a larger role on the defense behind the likes of Joe Haden and Cam Sutton. UDFA Shakur Brown also has impressed and looks to be a natural fit in Pittsburgh’s slot role as its nickel corner, with his ability to be sticky in coverage and his natural ball skills to generate takeaways.
Now this turn of events would push Layne into CB #5 on the depth chart and a reserve to play the boundary position. But Pittsburgh also signed Arthur Maulet who can play safety, but has experience playing both outside corner and in the slot, who could push for reps as a key reserve or potential starter for that slot role.
Factor in the likes of Mark Gilbert, Tre Norwood, and even DeMarkus Acy and Stephen Demark as also long, tall boundary corner options, Layne could be looking at a competition to keep his roster spot here in year three. Cutting Layne would incur a little over $230,000 in dead cap while saving $850,000 in 2021 and $965,000 in 2022 without factoring in roster displacement like the great Dave Bryan would bring up here.
While the cap saving compared to one of the other UDFAs isn’t enormous, every little bit helps with managing the cap in-season. When factoring in Layne’s recent off-season arrest, Pittsburgh may be more willing to move on from what seems like another whiff at a mid-round CB selection at the end of the preseason if one of the young options they brought in via UDFA provides similar, if not better play and upside than what they have seen in the former third-round selection.
Vince Williams/LB — 6’1″, 233 lbs.
Steelers Depot’s very own Dave Bryan would agree with this possible surprise cut given his comments on the last several Terrible podcasts episodes. I would personally be surprised if the Steelers would give Vince the axe, but the more I have looked into the possibility, there is a realistic scenario where this does occur. It all comes down to whether the team is indeed set on Robert Spillane starting alongside Devin Bush at the second level of the defense. Should this be the case, Vince would likely serve as a backup for one of the two should they go down or hope to spell them.
However, if the intention is to play Spillane on a majority of run downs, it is very unlikely Vince would come in on passing situations given his lack of ability in pass coverage unless he is a designated pass rusher from the LB spot. Factor in the likes of Marcus Allen, who provides more from a coverage aspect, and the youth and special teams contributions to be expected from rookie Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert III, Vince could have a tough time factoring into the rotation, especially if UG3 can stay healthy and Johnson shows he is ready to contribute snaps on defense sooner rather than later.
Releasing Vince Williams would save only $850,000 on the salary cap before roster displacement, but moving on with the old and allowing younger, more athletic options to get playing time and experience could be the way Pittsburgh decides to go if Vince cannot hold of Spillane for the starting job.