GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers, who like many teams are scrambling to get under the salary cap in time for the start of the league-year on March 17, have an easy path to $8 million of cap relief.
Release outside linebacker Preston Smith.
That doesn’t appear to be the direction general manager Brian Gutekunst is going to go, though.
“Preston’s played a lot of really good football for us and certainly we’d like to have him back next year,” Gutekunst told beat writers on Tuesday. “He’s under contract, so we certainly expect him to be back.”
Smith signed a four-year, $52 million contract in free agency in 2019. Along with fellow outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, they helped lead the charge as the Packers went from 6-9-1 in 2018 to 13-3 and a trip to the NFC Championship Game in 2019.
Smith, however, had only four sacks last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he went from 23rd with 55 total pressures to 61st with 26. With Green Bay about $12 million over the $180 million salary-cap floor, releasing Smith would get the team most of the way out of the remaining hole.
While Gutekunst could turn to Smith for a cap-saving restructure, he will find other ways to get necessary cap space beyond an outright release. Smith’s down season isn’t unusual. Oddly enough, in odd-numbered years, Smith has averaged 9.3 sacks and forced five fumbles. In even-numbered seasons, Smith has averaged 4.2 sacks and not forced any fumbles.
He did have five tackles for losses on running plays last year compared to only one in 2019, according to Sports Info Solutions. And his length can make life miserable for quarterbacks, especially on bootlegs.
“I think we ask a lot of Preston. He plays a lot of roles for us,” Gutekunst said. “He’s such a versatile athlete. He can do so many different things. So, while those (pass-rushing) numbers might’ve been down, I think he affected our football team in a very positive way. So, I think there are some things between the numbers there where his value doesn’t always show. But he’s kind of been that way all his career. If you go back to Washington, his sack numbers were always a little bit up and down. But the way he affected the game with his length, not only as a pass defender but in the run game, as well, he’s a really good player for us and he’s got a lot of good years left, that’s for sure.”
Smith’s history with new defensive coordinator Joe Barry could be an asset in the defensive transition. Moreover, if the Packers were to get rid of Smith, there would be no depth behind the new starting tandem of Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary.
Finally, while the Packers would save $8 million against the cap, they’d also have $8 million of dead money on the cap. That would be 4.4 percent of the total cap being used on a player sacking the quarterback for another team.
The Packers historically have avoided having a lot of cap space used on players no longer on the roster. That’s even more important with the cap down by perhaps $18.5 million compared to 2019. Green Bay absorbed some dead cap by releasing linebacker Christian Kirksey ($2 million) and right tackle Rick Wagner ($1.75 million), but Kirksey had been passed on the depth chart by a pair of rookies and Wagner is contemplating retirement.
The Packers had $8.7 million of dead cap money all of last season, with $3.67 million of that being Jimmy Graham.
“Yeah, it always is” important to avoid an excess of dead cap money, Gutekunst said. “Sometimes you can’t avoid it. It’s just kind of the cost of doing business at times. But I think you want to try and avoid that at all costs if you can, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I think there’s times where making the best decision for your football team’s going to require you to carry some dead cap. And if that’s the case, we’ll do it.”