Eventually, the axe falls on most everyone in the NFL. It doesn't matter how long you've contributed, whether you're a great person off the field or how much the fans care about you. If your production doesn't live up to your cap number—or if a team is in a cap crunch—you may be gone.
Stephen Nicholas unfortunately may be one of those casualties.
On paper, Nicholas had one of his best seasons last year, putting up nearly 100 tackles, deflecting four passes, coming up with two sacks and picking off one pass. A closer look at how he fared in general against both the pass and the run, however, shows you that he was average in both facets over the life of the season.
That in and of itself wouldn't be a problem, if not for cap realities. This is a deep rookie class of linebackers, Nicholas is about to hit 30 years of age and he carries a $3.5 million cap hit for 2013. When the Falcons are going to be scrounging for every penny they can to sign impact free agents and ink their draft class, $3.5 million seems like quite a bit of money. Unfortunately, they'd save less than a million by letting him go, but if they think they can upgrade, it may still be tempting.
I'll be clear: I'd hate to see Nicholas go. I think he got a bit of a bad rap from fans this last year, he's clearly a great dude and he works extremely hard on the field. But if you can replace him on the cheap—and it seems possible this year—then most organizations would part ways with him. I suspect the Falcons are at least thinking of the possibility.