The NFL can be a cruel league, and this is no more apparent than during free agency.

The league’s landscape is constantly evolving, and unfortunately, not all of its players evolve with it. Whether free agents were victims of the salary cap, replaced by a younger player, or deemed unfit for the “new NFL,” a number of veterans received the short end of the stick in their quest for a new contract.

Here are three players the system failed in 2018:

Kenny Vaccaro

The safety market was a bizarre phenomenon this offseason. Deep-lying defensive backs struggled to find work, with second- and third-tier free agents being forced to wait until late in the summer to sign with a team – some, unfortunately, are still on the market as Week 1 approaches. NFL clubs are simply opting for younger, cheaper, and more athletic options at the position.

Tre Boston, Mike Mitchell, and Eric Reid were among the safeties affected by the market, with the latter two still unsigned. The biggest name of the group, however, is Vaccaro. The versatile defender spent his first five NFL seasons with the New Orleans Saints, who drafted him in the first round in 2013. Seeking a long-term contract, Vaccaro and the Saints could not agree on a deal, and the team instead signed Kurt Coleman to a three-year, $16.35-million contract.

The 27-year-old may have overestimated his value with a number of other safeties on the market. Vaccaro settled for a one-year, $1.5-million deal with the Tennessee Titans in early August. Barring a career year, he may have to endure another frustrating offseason in 2019.

NaVorro Bowman

The system failed Bowman in a number of ways, which is too bad. Once a star linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, Bowman suffered a devastating knee injury in the 2013 NFC Championship Game and hasn’t been the same since. The veteran was released by San Francisco in October 2017 and signed with the Oakland Raiders three days later.

Bowman was the Raiders’ most consistent linebacker last season, so one may wonder where it all went wrong. Jon Gruden took over as head coach in January and the team signed fellow veteran Derrick Johnson from the Kansas City Chiefs to replace Bowman.

The four-time All-Pro defender now finds himself in a free-agent no man’s land. At 30 years old and a shell of his former self, Bowman may need a major injury to another roster to find a job in 2018. He’s more of an old-school linebacker at this point – solid in run defense but mediocre in space and coverage – so teams won’t exactly be lining up for his services. It’s been too rapid a fall for a defender who was among the most talented of his generation.

Dez Bryant

It’s been a fascinating offseason for Bryant. The Dallas Cowboys released their all-time receiving touchdowns leader in April to save $8.5 million against the cap after Bryant refused to take a pay cut. His infamous Twitter rant soon followed.

The wideout was originally determined to sign with another NFC East squad, severely limiting his market. He later visited with the Cleveland Browns, as seen on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” but left without a deal. Bryant is reportedly looking for a one-year contract but has yet to find a team able, or willing, to meet his financial demands.

It’s also possible the league no longer views Bryant as an impact receiver. The market for a pass-catcher who struggles to separate from cornerbacks may not be what the veteran had hoped. Either way, Bryant probably waited too long into the summer to sign with a team as a free agent.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)