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Roster cuts target middle class

The 2013 cut-down to reach the 53-man roster limit further illustrated how the tight salary cap negatively impacted the middle class of players.

For the past two years, the talk of the "haves" and "have-nots" has been broached, particularly with elite quarterback salaries in the $20 million-a-year range. Because of the increasing quarterback salaries, it's hard for a team to keep more than eight $6 million-a-year players under a $123 million salary cap.

The pattern of releases over the weekend showed how most teams were thinking about the salary cap.

More teams decided to go young with their marginal starters and role players. That may explain why 77 undrafted rookies were on rosters after the initial cuts to 53. That's about 50 percent more than usual.

The spot hit hardest was quarterback, which is considered the most important position on a team. Even though the Buffalo Bills have $21 million of cap room, they decided to go with two rookie quarterbacks -- EJ Manuel and Jeff Tuel. Over the past week, the Green Bay Packers rid themselves of veterans Graham Harrell and Vince Young. At least for now, they are staying with B.J. Coleman as the backup. He's a seventh-round pick from last year.

The New York Giants joined the youth movement by letting David Carr go as the backup in favor of Ryan Nassib and Curtis Painter.

The trend of going with only two quarterbacks on the roster continues. Fourteen teams ended up with two quarterbacks after cuts were made before Saturday's deadline.

It seems as though when teams were deciding between veterans and younger, lower-priced players, the option was to go young and inexpensive. On Saturday, 72 veterans had their contracts terminated, opening the door for more undrafted rookies to fill their roles.

General managers know how quickly cap room can vanish. Practice squad players cost $6,000 a week. That puts the practice squad budget at $800,000. No one knows how to plan for players getting hurt, but teams almost have to set aside $4 million in case of injuries.

As of Sunday, there were 228 players on reserve lists that go beyond the 53-man roster. Figuring that is about seven players per team and the base salary of a rookie is $405,000, the cap money can go fast.

Several teams tried to renegotiate contracts on fourth-year players. In most rookie contracts, there is an escalator clause that takes the base salary to the restricted free-agent number in the fourth year. This year, for example, the escalators came to $1.323 million.

Teams asked some of those players to take a pay cut to the minimum base of $630,000. Some took the cut. Others didn't and were cut.

The middle class has become a target.

From the inbox

Q: When players go on the season-ending injured reserve list, do they still take part in team meetings? Provided the injury isn't serious, is the players' rehab under team supervision but away from the players on the active roster?

Michael in Tallahassee, Fla.

A: There are only rare occasions when the injured player isn't allowed to be at the facility. He can take part in the meetings. He can rehab in the facility. He can feel as though he is part of the team. Players who have been waive-injured and then go on the injured reserve list might not be there. They are on the roster only until the team can reach an injury settlement.

Q: I know that there has been talk about how the Hall of Fame voters are going to deal with the uptick in receivers' numbers because of how the league has turned into a pass-happy league. But what about the uptick in sacks that are happening because of this as well? How are they going to vote in guys like Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware and eventually Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt and Von Miller?

Chris in Shakopee, Minn.

A: That's a great question. Defensive players with 100 sacks usually have a better chance of making the Hall of Fame than receivers with great numbers. The increased number of passes is pumping up the sack numbers. Now it is not uncommon for a player to get 20 sacks in a season. Some of the top pass-rushers now are eyeing 30 sacks in a season as a possibility. Voters should be aware that the increased number of passes should inflate sack numbers. I just wish we as voters would accept more of the receiving numbers.

Q: Thirteen out of 32 quarterbacks are elite in your rankings. John, you are too nice. You list four criteria for being an elite quarterback, and personally I don't think all 13 make it. Would you be confident in Philip Rivers or Tony Romo to make a game-winning drive in the playoffs? Personally, I think there is a pretty clear line between the Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks -- and, if you want, Matt Ryan -- and everybody else. To get to the heart of the matter in today's pass-happy NFL, yardage might be overrated. And based on your list, I think you undervalue TD/interception ratio. The Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks all have at least a 2-to-1 TD/interception ratio, and it's often much higher, while the guys who cannot get it done don't. Also, an elite quarterback should add at least 2-3 wins to a team. Are the Lions a one-win team without Matthew Stafford, San Diego a four- to five-win team without Rivers? Dallas a five-win team without Romo? These guys are not elite.

Eric in Framingham, Mass.

A: An elite quarterback should add 2-3 wins to a team, and that's why I include Rivers, Stafford and Romo. Stafford has been to 10 wins once. The Chargers had a nice run of playoff years with Rivers behind center. It may be frustrating for Cowboys fans to be 8-8, but they would be 5-11 without Romo. It's a quarterback-driven league, but not all teams are talented enough to win Super Bowls. If you limit the top rating to just Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, Dan Marino wouldn't be considered elite because he didn't win a Super Bowl. John Elway wouldn't have been elite until his final two years, when he won two Super Bowls.

Q: DuJuan Harris going on IR had me thinking about the structure of player contracts. Why can't there be language in the contract that would add an additional year to the contract if a year is lost to injury? Also, rather than signing a player for X amount of years, wouldn't it be more beneficial to sign a player for X amount of games? This way, if a player goes on IR, no games come off his contract and he could still have a contract with the team. It could also be used in bridging that gap in contracts if/when the NFL ever moves to the 18-game season.

Rick in Dartmouth, Mass.

A: Such a change would be unfair in a physical league that is always going to have injuries. Plus, it would be unfair to the players. The team determines who goes on the injured reserve list. What would prevent a team from trying to squeeze extra time away from free agency for a player by just placing him on the IR list? Draft choices sign for four years. Why should they lose a year or so in free agency because of an injury? Not fair.

Q: The next game I coach will be my first, but I just can't figure out exactly what the Cincinnati Bengals coaching staff sees in Rey Maualuga. He is consistently slow to the ball, doesn't wrap up, misses tackles and simply doesn't make any impactful plays. Three sacks and three interceptions in his career just doesn't cut it. The national sports media seems to be more focused on Andy Dalton's shortcomings, which is certainly a legitimate focus point of the 2013 season. My question is: Even with the ringing endorsements from the coaching staff, is there any chance the 2013 season ends with a different Bengal in the middle?

Kevin in Erlanger, Ky.

A: He brought his tackle total up to 122 last year, but you are right in saying he isn't a linebacker who catches your eye a lot. The Bengals' defense doesn't need linebackers to be stars. The success of this defense is along the defensive line and in the secondary. As long as Maualuga doesn't screw it up, I think the coaching staff is happy with him. That's why he is still starting. I don't think he's terrible, but he hasn't lived up to his billing. His level of play still works on a good defense.

Q: You recently said something along the lines of putting Andy Dalton in the "Chad Pennington group" of QBs. Yes, Dalton's arm is nothing to write home about, nor is his mobility. But have you, or any other writer who is quick to criticize AD, looked at Joe Flacco's numbers from last year? Both QBs had an 87.4 rating. Flacco had all of 148 more passing yards than Dalton. Flacco averaged 7.2 yards to AD's 6.9, a .03 difference. If you're going to throw AD in the "average" QB grouping, you may want to start including the reigning, over-paid Super Bowl QB.

Brandon in New York

A: Being in the Chad Pennington Division isn't an insult. Pennington took enough teams to the playoffs, which is exactly where Dalton is heading. He's two-for-two in playoff runs. But you would have to agree he has yet to show he is elite and can carry the team. That's where he needs to advance. His arm is good enough. You know the Bengals are trying to work with him on throwing deeper passes. But Flacco has had the edge on him for the past couple of years. Dalton's challenge is to respond and start to be Flacco.

Q: I don't understand why a team like the Detroit Lions, who could use any positive media attention, cut Kickalicious for David Akers. Wouldn't keeping a YouTube sensation like Havard Rugland possibly bump up ticket sales (I know it's a kicker, but still) and almost certainly create some fan buzz over such an interesting player? Not to mention, if he's bad, just cut him and pick up any one of a dozen free-agent kickers on the street. I don't understand the logic there.

Matthew in Seattle

A: The Lions sell out their games. They need to keep the best players. The worst thing the Lions could do is go with a young kicker who isn't ready just for publicity. Akers is solid. Winning games creates the fan buzz, not YouTube sensations.

Q: I've long thought the three-game preseason could be a viable compromise. Let teams play one home and one road game and the third game at a neutral site (Seattle/Oakland playing at Oregon or Oregon State -- no viable Portland option -- or the Cowboys in San Antonio). Season-ticket buyers are off the hook for a game, and the other game presents a rare opportunity for fans in those locales to see any game, which should drive good ticket sales.

John in Spokane, Wash.

A: That would appear to be the logical solution, but the league would have to come up with a revenue replacement to make that work. I don't know if expanding the playoffs would create enough replacement revenue. Players would like to eliminate a preseason game, but they also wouldn't want to stunt any growth in the salary cap by losing revenue. The cap is based on a percentage of revenue. Your suggestion has merit, though.