GREEN BAY, Wis. – In the quest to not only to get to the salary cap by the start of the league-year on March 17 but have enough cap space to make some moves, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has grabbed all the low-hanging fruit.
Restructure left tackle David Bakhtiari? Check.
Release linebacker Christian Kirksey, who was signed to be the every-down linebacker but lost the job to an undrafted rookie? Check.
Release offensive tackle Rick Wagner, who is contemplating retirement? Check.
Those moves left the Packers about $11.45 million over a projected salary cap of $180.5 million, according to OverTheCap.com. While there is optimism the cap will be higher than that, there is no guarantee the cap will be greater than the $180 million minimum the league announced this week.
The easiest big-dollar move remaining would be releasing outside linebacker Preston Smith. Smith signed a four-year, $52 million contract in 2019 and recorded a dozen sacks in a smashing debut season. However, he plunged to only four sacks in 2020. With a $6.85 million base salary and $4 million roster bonus, his cap number for 2021 is $16 million. Releasing him would save $8 million – the amount of prorated signing bonus remaining on his contract. Moreover, 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary is trending upward after a solid second season and needs more playing time.
Those factors could make Smith the next cost-cutting move made by Gutekunst. While that very well could happen, here are five reasons why the Packers might defy conventional wisdom and keep Smith.
1. Don’t Forget: Smith’s a Good Player
Not only did Smith go from 12 sacks to four, but he went from 23 quarterback hits to 11 (official stats) and from 55 total pressures to 26 (Pro Football Focus).
However, while Smith was one of the defense’s biggest disappointments in 2020, he was a driving force behind the team’s run to the NFC Championship Game in 2019. And it’s not as if his 2020 was a lost cause. He recorded a team-high eight stuffs – a tackle at or behind the line vs. the run – compared to seven in 2019. Of his four sacks and five tackles for losses, 3.5 sacks and four tackles for losses came during the second half of the season.
In a statistical oddity, Smith has 28 sacks and five forced fumbles in his three odd-numbered seasons and 12.5 sacks and zero forced fumbles in his three even-numbered seasons. So, maybe he’s due for a strong bounce-back season.
2. Where’s the Depth?
Releasing Smith would turn one of the team’s best position groups into one of its thinnest. The depth, in fact, would be practically nonexistent. Rookie Jonathan Garvin, a seventh-round pick, was inactive for the final eight regular-season games and both playoff contests. Even with one of the worst special teams in the NFL, Garvin couldn’t get on the field. Former undrafted free agent Randy Ramsey emerged as a key weapon on special teams but was a minimal factor in 75 snaps on defense.
Outside linebacker is a demanding position. While Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary have battled through aches and pains to play on Sundays, Preston Smith seemingly is impervious to injury. The greatest ability, as coaches like to say, is availability, and Smith has played in all 96 career games. If Smith is on some other team’s roster and something happens to Za’Darius Smith or Gary, who on earth is going to step into the lineup?
3. Meet the New Boss
Smith was a second-round pick by Washington in 2015. His first defensive coordinator was Joe Barry, who’s the Packers’ new defensive coordinator. Sources said Barry liked Smith and Smith liked Barry. While that certainly doesn’t guarantee a place on the roster, having a player on the practice field and in the locker room who knows what his coach is looking for would help ease the transition.
4. They Aren’t That Desperate for Cash
For all the doom-and-gloom talk about the Packers’ cap situation, they’re actually not in awful shape. A restructure of Aaron Rodgers’ contract alone could get the Packers below the salary cap. A contract extension for Davante Adams could push the team significantly into the black. Roster bonuses of $5 million for Za’Darius Smith and $4 million for Preston Smith could be converted to signing bonus, which would create another $4.5 million. An additional $4 million could be gained by releasing Josh Jackson, Oren Burks, JK Scott and Hunter Bradley – all members of the disappointing 2018 draft class.
5. Reading Between the Lines
Having seen Kirksey and rookie Krys Barnes all season, Gutekunst went with the player who’s younger, cheaper and has higher upside and dumped Kirksey. Having seen Smith and Gary all season, Gutekunst could have done the same by releasing Smith and elevating Gary into the starting lineup. But he did not. If it was a courtesy to release Kirksey and give him a head-start on free agency, why not do the same with Smith, who had a bigger impact on the franchise? Perhaps that’s a sign Smith’s spot on the roster is secure or, at the very least, Gutekunst would like to renegotiate once there’s an official cap number.
Of course, Smith Could Get Cut
There are a lot of balls in the air. First and foremost, what will be the salary cap for the start of the league-year on March 17? Will it be the floor of $180 million, closer to $190 million or something in between?
The pursuit of J.J. Watt could be a wild card. Is it possible that Watt is Plan A and Smith is Plan B? Only Gutekunst knows the answer to that question, but it could explain why Smith wasn’t released with Kirksey this week.
Finally, as one executive pointed out, this might be the wildest offseason in NFL history because of COVID-19 and the shrinking salary cap. It could be a merry-go-round of mid- to high-priced veterans being released and resurfacing elsewhere with dramatically lesser contracts. The Packers could release Smith and hope to find a competent replacement for a fraction of the cost.
The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and Smith's latest wasn't anywhere close to his greatest. But there is a strong overall track record.
Ultimately, Gutekunst has only one question to consider. What’s worth more: Having Smith with a $14 million cap charge (with the roster-bonus restructure) but uncertainty over what he’ll produce in 2021, or creating $8 million in cap relief but absorbing $8 million in dead money and having uncertainty over the depth?