Big Free Agent Class, Meet Shrinking Salary Cap

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – While keeping one eye on the 2020 season that is inching toward the real start of training camp, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has to keep another eye on next year’s free-agent class.

As many as seven of this season’s starters will be free agents at season’s end. That group includes premier left tackle David Bakhtiari, dominating defensive tackle Kenny Clark, steady center Corey Linsley and dynamic running back Aaron Jones. Keeping the gang together for 2021 would have been difficult under the best of circumstances. However, declining revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic means the 2021 salary cap could contract after several years of annual increases in the range of $10 million.

“There’s going to be some unique challenges, but every team in the league’s going through the same thing,” Gutekunst said on Sunday. “It’s pretty equal footing that way. At the end of the day, I think it comes down to choices. Russ (executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball) does a great job of kind of laying it out for me and the decisions that I’ve got to make, so there will be some tough choices moving forward, but I think we’re prepared and we’ll make those decisions when they come.”

Clark has emerged as one of the league’s premier three-down defensive tackles. He had six sacks last season and won’t turn 25 until October. Presumed to be Green Bay’s priority for a contract extension, the financial ramifications of COVID could throw a wrench into the team’s plans.

“With the contract thing it’s just, I’ll just let it fill out however it’s going to fill out, man,” Clark said on Tuesday. “I’m just worried about practicing, you know, playing these games, and just being the best me out there. And I’m letting my agent and the upstairs, all those guys handle all that stuff and we’ll see where we go from there.”

Linsley has been a bedrock of the offensive line since being thrust into the lineup in 2014. He played every snap in 2017 and 2018, a streak that stretched to 2,768 consecutive snaps. In six seasons, he has started 86 games.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Linsley said on Wednesday. “I can only control what I can control. Just playing out the year, seeing what happens, and going from there.”

In 2019, Bakhtiari collected his fourth consecutive All-Pro honor and was voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time. It wasn’t his best season by his lofty standards but he found his stride down the stretch, with just seven pressures allowed in the final seven games.

“I get paid to play,” Bakhtiari said in June. “I’m the left tackle and I’m under contract for another season and that’s what I’m focused on. Whatever the organization decides they want to do moving forward with me, we can have that conversation when it’s there. I’m not really thinking about what goes into the next step because I need to make sure I take this right step that’s happening right now.”

During a breakout third season, Jones stayed healthy and answered every question about his game. He rushed for 1,084 yards (4.59 yards per carry) and tied for the NFL lead with 16 rushing touchdowns. He added 49 receptions for 474 yards and three more touchdowns, dwarfing his two-year totals of 35 receptions for 228 yards and one score. He finished with 1,558 total yards and tied for the NFL lead with 19 total touchdowns. Jones had more touches last season than his first two seasons combined but seemed unfazed by the workload.

“I’m not really looking at the market,” Jones said in May of free agency. “I’m just focused on myself. I feel like I can play at a really high and elite level for a very long time. I’m just going to do what I can and hopefully that leads to me being a Packer for life. That’s my goal.”

Other starters or key players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season:

- Cornerback Kevin King. King finally stayed (relatively) healthy and recorded a career-high five interceptions. If he can clean up the occasional big plays, he’ll be in line for a big payday.

- Guard Lane Taylor: Taylor lost his job at left guard to Elgton Jenkins due to injury but is back and could challenge Billy Turner at right guard.

- Tight end Marcedes Lewis: At a position shrouded in mystery, the 36-year-old is the best blocker on the unit.

- Running back Jamaal Williams: The do-it-all Williams not only averaged a career-high 4.3 yards per carry but caught five touchdown passes – tied for most by a running back in franchise history.

Other unrestricted free agents are returner/running back Tyler Ervin, outside linebacker Tim Williams and defensive tackle Montravius Adams.

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