GREEN BAY, Wis. – After assembling a roster good enough to get to back-to-back NFC Championship Games but not good enough to get to the Super Bowl, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst faces the biggest challenge of his career.
How does he get the Packers to the promised land given the financial restraints of a shrinking salary cap?
The Packers are $11.45 million over a projected salary cap of $180.5 million, according to OverTheCap.com. At this point, the league has said only that the cap won’t be less than $180 million, though two sources this week repeated their belief the salary cap will be at least $185 million and perhaps closer to $190 million. That would be a game-changing difference but, at this point, the budget has to be set at $180 million. After seven consecutive years of $10-plus million increases, that would be a decrease of $19.8 million from 2019.
“This is a unique challenge because this is the first time certainly in my history where the cap has actually gone down and not gone up,” Gutekunst said at the end of the season. “It is a unique challenge but it’s a unique challenge that the entire league is facing. The whole focus will be how do we put the best football out on the field come 2021 when we start the season in September. That’s the entire focus from the whole organization. I think we have a really good football team coming back, so the decisions we make will really be about that.”
If I were Gutekunst, this would be my plan.
1. Go “All-In”
The first decision is the one that sets the table for everything else. Do the Packers do just enough restructuring of contracts to get beneath the cap, retain tight end Robert Tonyan, sign draft picks and provide the necessary cap space for the typical in-season roster machinations? Or do the Packers push all the chips to the middle of the table and go for it? That would mean the aggressive restructuring of contracts to not just get under the salary cap but far enough beneath the cap to aggressively pursue talent?
Gutekunst can keep rolling out winning teams and stay employed forever. Or he can win a Super Bowl and have football immortality.
I’d go for immortality.
To be sure, going “all in” is one hell of a gamble. The New Orleans Saints went “all in” year after year after year to maximize the window of opportunity provided by aging quarterback Drew Brees. For their efforts, they suffered a few gut-wrenching playoff losses and a crippling $100 million hole in the salary cap. For 2021, at least, they’re toast.
With MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers leading a battle-tested team that is 26-6 the past two regular seasons, Gutekunst has stated his intention to go for it.
“If there’s an opportunity to take some risk to help us win now, we’re certainly in that mode,” he said.
But what does “some risk” mean? Just how willing is Gutekunst to mortgage away some of the future to win in 2021? Because the team’s 2022 cap, even with the likelihood of an exploding salary cap due to new TV deals, isn’t pretty. The conservative approach runs the risk of taking a step back in 2021 and frittering away another season with Rodgers, who will turn 38 late next season. The aggressive approach runs the risk of a smaller-scale, Saints-style disaster.
With a generational quarterback's career winding down and a decade distant from their last championship, I say it’s time to throw caution to the wind, play to win a Super Bowl in 2021 and figure out future years down the road.
2. Aggressively Extend Aaron Rodgers
With that decision made, it’s time to shake the two money trees on the roster. One is Rodgers, who is under contract through 2023 and has a cap charge of about $37.2 million in 2021. A rejuvenated Rodgers was as dominant as ever in 2020. Critically, this is a different Rodgers than the one who won MVPs under Mike McCarthy in 2011 and 2014 and could have won another in 2016. This version of Rodgers, working in concert with coach Matt LaFleur, could play at a winning level well into his 40s.
So, why not extend him with a deal that runs through 2025 and would create $8.8 million of cap space for 2021? The risk, of course, is the Packers would be paying top dollar to a quarterback who is 40, 41 and 42 years old. Then again, Tom Brady just won a Super Bowl at age 43. To exaggerate, a quarterback can play forever so long as he’s got a line that can give him forever to throw.
3. Extend Davante Adams
The other money tree is Adams. Extending him is the ultimate no-brainer. Adams will be entering his final season under contract and the Packers obviously don’t want him to get within a country mile of free agency.
His cap charge for 2021 is almost $16.8 million. One potential extension would knock that down to about $11.2 million, a reduction of $5.6 million. The risk, of course, is paying top dollar to a receiver who is 32 and 33 years old.
4. Talk to Preston Smith
In the court of popular opinion, the Packers will release Preston Smith to create $8 million of cap space.
Here’s an unpopular opinion. Why? Smith, with a cap charge of $16 million for 2021, would count $8 million against the cap even while wearing some other team’s jersey. It’s worth remembering that after kicker Mason Crosby’s dismal 2013 season, then-general manager Ted Thompson tore up Crosby’s contract and gave him an incentive-laden deal. Crosby had a strong bounce-back season and made all his money. Why not do something similar with Smith, who had only four sacks in 2020 but 12 sacks in 2019?
Here’s the thing: There are 12 teams over the projected cap and another three teams with less than $2 million of cap space. Because of that reality, a lot of well-paid veterans are going to be released and will have to swallow significantly lesser deals to stay in the game. To me, the middle ground is a renegotiation where the Packers can create cap space and Smith would get more money than he’d get on a flooded free-agent market. After all, wouldn’t you rather have Smith playing with a cap charge of, say, $11 million this year than to not have him but still have him count $8 million?
5. Extend Za’Darius Smith
The revamped contracts for Rodgers, Adams and Preston Smith pitched here created $19.4 million in cap savings. A simple roster bonus-to-signing bonus restructure with Za’Darius Smith would bump that to $21.9 million, which would get the Packers to $11 million beneath even the pessimistic $180 million cap. An extension for Za’Darius Smith, who will be 30 when his contract expires after the 2022 season, could create another bundle of money by turning his $10.75 million base salary and $5 million roster bonus into signing bonus.
That would put the Packers in the neighborhood of $20 million under the cap. If the cap does wind up at, say, $!85 million, there’s room for two bold moves.
6. Sign J.J. Watt
How about signing J.J. Watt to join Kenny Clark on the defensive line? With Watt, Clark, the Smith Bros. and Rashan Gary, Green Bay would have one of the most formidable fronts in the NFL. In case you forgot, Tampa Bay’s dominant front beat the Packers in the title game and the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
While sources told ESPN.com’s Dianna Russini that “the most lucrative offer Watt has on the table is believed to be worth between $15 million and $16 million per year,” one NFL source called that “nonsense.” Another called it an act of “desperation” to drive up the price after he was welcomed by tepid interest from cap-strapped contenders. Perhaps a three-year, $30 million contract, plus playing-time and production incentives to bolster the value, could be enough.
While Watt had only five sacks last year, he was double-teamed more than any other edge defender in the NFL. No. 2 on the double-team list? Za’Darius Smith. To be sure, Watt’s injury history should scare the dickens out of any team willing to open its checkbook. But, if we’re swinging for the fences, who provides a better chance for a home run? Watt facing more one-on-one blocks than he’s seen in years? Or Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster with their combined 4.5 sacks the past two seasons?
7. Use the Franchise Tag on Aaron Jones
Paying a running back is dangerous. But great players win football games and Jones is a great player. The franchise tag on a running back is $8 million. It’s a lot of money but it beats the alternative of a long-term commitment. A Jones-AJ Dillon backfield could be killer.
8. Bring Back Jared Veldheer
To me, this would be the understatedly brilliant move of the offseason. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari is coming off a torn ACL. Will he be ready for Week 1? Knowing Bakhtiari, I wouldn’t rule it out. But Veldheer would be one heck of an insurance policy.
Remember, last year’s No. 3 tackle, Rick Wagner, wound up playing more than 50 percent of the snaps. It’s a hugely important position. The Packers might not have gotten to the NFC Championship Game in 2019 if not for Veldheer replacing right tackle Bryan Bulaga against Seattle. And, who knows, maybe they would have gotten to the Super Bowl had Veldheer been available in this year’s title game against Tampa Bay.
With Veldheer having retired before the 2019 season and after the 2019 season, Gutekunst will have to use his powers of persuasion, just like he did to bring Marcedes Lewis back after the 2018 season. Having Veldheer aboard would mean Gutekunst wouldn’t be forced to draft an offensive tackle in the first three rounds in April.
9. Draft for Skill
If you’re drafting for need based on the current roster, cornerback, off-the-ball linebacker, receiver, offensive line, defensive line and running back would be the spots to target. Franchising Jones would eliminate the need at running back. Re-signing Veldheer would help solve the offensive line. Signing Watt would help solve the defensive line.
The Packers desperately need a cornerback, with Kevin King coming off a miserable season and heading to free agency and Josh Jackson and Ka’dar Hollman inactive for the playoffs. At receiver, I get it, the Packers led the NFL in scoring. But why not take some of the eggs out of the Rodgers-to-Adams basket? Besides, at this time next year, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and Devin Funchess will be free agents. With 10 draft picks, Gutekunst should go early and often at those positions while bolstering the other spots with a draft pick and/or a cheap veteran signing.
The Last Word
Aggressive new contracts for Rodgers, Adams and Za’Darius Smith would be risky business, to be sure. Ditto for signing Watt. Going “all in” is easy to say, especially from the comfort of a laptop, but much harder to pull off successfully. That approach could win a Super Bowl and make Gutekunst a revered figure in history. Or the Packers could become New Orleans Light and Gutekunst’s tenure as GM would end in infamy. There’s really not a middle ground.
Two things are certain. One, quarterbacks like Rodgers don’t come along very often. Two, teams without a great quarterback have almost no chance of winning a championship. In that context, anything short of a second Super Bowl championship would be a crushing disappointment and a black eye that could linger on the franchise for years or even decades.
Chances are, Gutekunst won’t take the all-in approach. And that’s probably smart. In time, we’ll see if whatever middle-of-the-road path Gutekunst takes was good enough to bring the title back to Titletown.