Here’s the Packers’ Path to Ample Salary-Cap Space

Brad Spielberger, a salary-cap analyst for Pro Football Focus and contributor to OverTheCap.com, shows us the way to financial freedom.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers have cleared a lot of salary-cap space but there is a lot of work to be done by the start of the league-year on March 17 to get beneath the cap and even add to the roster.

To help plot the path, we turned to Brad Spielberger, who is a salary-cap analyst for Pro Football Focus and contributor to OverTheCap.com.

1. There’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom talk about the Packers’ salary cap, and understandably so considering they were close to $30 million over OverTheCap's projection just a few weeks ago. Now that the easy stuff is done, they’re about $11.45 million over. It’s obviously not ideal and you’d rather be $11.45 million under the cap but, if you’re general manager Brian Gutekunst, your hands aren’t totally tied, are they?

Gutekunst still has various avenues to clear cap space, so his hands aren't completely tied by any means. This is the unfortunate reality that every franchise is dealing with, and the Packers are no different. Two (perhaps three) obvious ways to clear cap space also present good news, as opposed to releasing players. Extensions for Davante Adams, Aaron Rodgers and maybe Za'Darius Smith make a lot of sense for all parties. We'll get to those later. There are also some cuts that make sense, namely Dean Lowry and Preston Smith.

2. The Packers have two money trees when it comes to not just getting beneath the cap but having the ability to sign/re-sign some key players. One is Aaron Rodgers. Can you walk us through where there is flexibility? And, using OTC’s handy tools, could you come up with a couple of renegotiated contracts – one that’s super-aggressive but pushes a lot of money into the future and one that’s more modest in scope?

The Packers may prefer a restructure with Rodgers, but he doesn't seem too enthused by that idea. The Packers can clear $13.6 million with a maximum restructure, so that is always in their back pocket if an extension can't be worked out. Going the extension route, here are two possibilities:

Aggressive:

RodgersAggressive

Modest:

RodgersModest

I know they don't seem all that different, because there really isn't a huge range. The modest one is a bit smaller and is more front-loaded and leaves less dead money going into 2023, which is really what this whole thing is all about (Love’s last season of rookie deal).

3. The other money tree is Davante Adams. This is the no-brainer, considering he’s going to be a free agent after the 2021 season and you’d want to extend him under any set of circumstances, let alone his ability to free up cap space. I know we talked about this the other day but can you give us a new deal for Adams and tell us how that would impact the cap?

A new deal for Adams could clear up to a maximum of about $7 million on the 2021 salary cap, and seems like a foregone conclusion. The team would drop his 2021 base salary down to the minimum (for his years of service) of $1.075 million and give him a big signing bonus prorated over a total of five years (2021 and a projected four new years). Here's the full deal:

Courtesy Brad Spielberger via OverTheCap.com

Courtesy Brad Spielberger via OverTheCap.com

4. For the sake of the upcoming question, let’s take your super-aggressive Rodgers contract, your new Adams deal and release Preston Smith, which would create $8 million of cap space but put $8 million of dead money on the cap. And let’s turn Za’Darius Smith’s roster bonus into signing bonus to create another $2.5 million. About where would the Packers be at cap-wise? Is there enough money to sign J.J. Watt or re-sign Aaron Jones or Corey Linsley? Maybe even two of the three?

Those four moves would clear roughly $25 million, so the Packers would be about $14 million under the cap (with Over The Cap's $180.5 million 2021 salary cap projection).

Restructuring Za'Darius Smith may not be enough if we want to get super-aggressive. An extension for Smith could clear a substantial amount, as well, up to $10 million depending upon how far they're willing to go in pushing cap down the line. I also think Preston Smith could be designated as a post-June 1 release, which means the Packers wouldn't gain cap space until June 2, but that move would clear $12 million in 2021 with just $4 million in dead money (with the remaining $4 million in dead money hitting the 2022 cap).

Regardless, I think it’s still unlikely that two-thirds on the above list are on the roster. While Linsley had a career year, I think he's now priced himself out of Green Bay and the Packers will turn to Elgton Jenkins at center or fill in the interior of the offensive line another way. If J.J. Watt is willing to take a decent-sized discount, maybe he and Jones could both be Packers in 2021, but I wouldn't count on that. To be clear, there would be enough money to make it possible, but I just don't think this front office would go there. Strangely enough, at this point, I think Watt may be the most likely Packer in 2021.

5. Speaking of Jones, everyone knows the peril in paying running backs. And yet, several top backs signed big extensions. In a COVID world, any guess on Jones’ contract?

Yes, for whatever reason, teams continue to make the same mistake over and over again, even with plenty of evidence suggesting it's not a smart idea. Jones seems intent on becoming one of the top paid running backs in the NFL this offseason, making a big move before free agency even begins by switching representation to mega-agent Drew Rosenhaus. There was the report from ESPN's Rob Demovsky that the Packers made Jones an offer that would've paid him among the top five running backs in terms of average per year, but that the guarantees were not strong enough from Jones' perspective.

If he does reach free agency, he will easily be the top talent available at the position, which should create a solid market for his services with multiple suitors. I'd expect a four- or five-year contract in the range of $14 million per year (total of $56M or $70M), with about $30-$35 million in total guarantees.