If you want a road to your destination, the first thing you need to know is where you are. We’ve combed the far reaches of the Internet and brought together everything you need to know about the Green Bay Packers salary cap situation. After mapping that out, we’ll go through the options Ted Thompson has in front of him.
The 2012 salary cap is expected to be between $120 and $125 million. Teams will also be able to roll over $2 million dollars into the next season. Therefore, if you include the rollover in the cap, most are considering $124 million to be a good estimate for the 2012 salary cap.
Loading up for the start of their offseason program, the Packers currently have 60 players under contract. With the top 51 counting against the cap, that number is estimated to be about $118 million. This gives the Packers near $6 million in salary cap space right now, which is in the bottom third of the league, but the second most in the NFC North. The Chicago Bears lead the division with about $8 million in cap space while the Detroit Lions have a mere $2 million to play with. The Minnesota Vikings are reaping the free agent seeds they sowed in the past, have an aging defense, a 13-loss team, and only $2 million in cap room themselves.
Since every team is required to save at least $5 million in cap space to sign their draft picks, the Packers can’t even sign their own free agents without first dumping some salary. However, a perusal of the Packer 2012 cap hits reveals several opportunities to do exactly that, depending on how aggressive, or draconian, Thompson wants to be.
The Easiest Fix — One thing the Packers have going for them is that two of their top eight cap hits for 2012 can both be fixed: Chad Clifton and Donald Driver. Only Driver is owed a roster bonus, but a clean wipe of their contracts would clear about $11.4 million in cap space for the Packers. The easiest and cleanest PR move Thompson can make here is to wish Clifton a happy retirement, and then renegotiate Driver’s contract, which the receiver has said he’s open to. Give Driver the same salary as James Jones — $2.3 million. That move would free up over $9 million, which should be enough to re-sign Jermichael Finley and Scott Wells.
Of course, many Packers fans may be happy with that, but this option would still mean no big action in free agency for the Packers. They simply wouldn’t have the money to do it.
The Aggressive Approach — Thompson does have some options if he wants to clear more cap space to either pursue someone in free agency or re-sign more of his own free agents. These options would be less player and fan friendly, but the fans would be forgiving if the moves lead to a significant signing.
The most obvious thing Thompson can do is cut Clifton and Driver. Beyond that, the Packers have 15 players who are scheduled to make more than $1 million in base salary. Thompson could offer bonus money to any of those players in exchange for salary. The bonus money would be prorated throughout the remaining years of the player’s contract and therefore reduce their cap hit in 2012.
The pitfall to this strategy, and the main reason a long-term oriented GM like Thompson doesn’t do a lot of this, is that doing so makes that player more difficult to cut in future seasons without amassing what general managers call dead money. Dead money is money that counts against the salary cap for players that no longer play for the team. The Dallas Cowboys and “GM” Jerry Jones are currently sitting on $24.5 million in dead money.
There are 10 Packers, besides Driver and Clifton, contracted to make over $2 million in base salary in 2012. Since it would take at least that much to make the move worth it, I’ll quickly go over the options for all 12 in reverse order of cap impact.
James Jones — $2.3 million — Extremely doubtful that Thompson would do anything with Jones. For one, it would hardly be worth it, and secondly, the nice thing about Jones’ contract is the lack of bonus money makes him an good candidate to cut in future years. Until a receiver other than Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson steps forward, Jones is easily worth his salary.
Tramon Williams — $2.3 million — The Packers already owe Williams $3.8 million in bonus money. If he doesn’t improve from last year, they won’t want to be any further indebted to him.
Desmond Bishop — $2.8 million — Bishop already gets $1.8 million in bonus money a year, and he is easily worth what the Packers pay him.
B.J. Raji — $3.4 million — Raji presents the first real opportunity for Thompson to do something. He’s in the last two years of his five-year rookie contract, and this is the first year where his salary significantly jumps, while his bonus number sits at a mere $480,000. The Packers are not going to cut Raji before his contract is up; therefore, there would be no risk to giving him more bonus money and reducing his salary. Of course, since he only has two years left on this contract, adding bonus money won’t create a lot of cap room. To really create some more space, Thompson would have to extend Raji’s contract with another substantial bonus. However, even a move like that would only create about another $2 million in room.
Nick Collins — $3.5 million — The good news in his situation is that the Packers owe him no bonus money. That means if Collins never plays again, the Packers would get this entire amount in cap space. However, that’s not likely to be determined by the March start of free agency, and this still isn’t enough cap space to sign a player of Collins’ quality. So, it’s about 99 percent certain that this money will still be on the books when free agency starts.
Greg Jennings — $3.85 million — The Packers are currently paying Jennings more in bonuses than in base, and his contract is up next year. So, nothing to do here.
A.J. Hawk — $4.4 million — Hawk is actually the second-most untouchable player on the Packers. By that I mean the Packers owe him so much in bonuses, $6.4 million, that they would gain nothing by waiving him. It also makes no sense to give him more bonus money because that would only increase his cap hit in future seasons. Face it. The Packers are stuck with his cap hit of $6.5 million this year. They would gain about $2 million in cap space if they cut him in 2013, but that would still mean swallowing $4.8 million in dead money.
Ryan Pickett — $5.2 million — I’m sure there are few Packers fans who would guess Pickett is third on the Packers in base salary. Pickett is entering that dangerous time for a player. He’ll turn 33 next season. He has just two years left on his contract and like Raji’s it was back-loaded, meaning his base salary has significantly jumped while his bonuses have nearly dried up. Thompson has the same options with Pickett that he has with Raji, except Pickett’s age make an extension more unlikely. Pickett is still the Packer’s best defensive lineman against the run, which means you take the cap hit unless you have a definitive plan to replace him.
Charles Woodson — $6.5 million — The good news is the Packers no longer owe Woodson any signing bonus money. The bad news is that he’s still due a $4 million roster bonus, which means his cap hit for 2012 is $10.5 million. It’s a near certainty that if the Packers waived Woodson, he wouldn’t find that kind of money on the open market. Thompson could aggressively pursue a restructuring of Woodson’s contract, which has three years left at the same base salary, but that would be seen as counter to what the Packers preach in the locker room. My guess is Woodson gets one more year of big money.
Aaron Rodgers — $8 million — The Packers already pay Rodgers over $3 million in bonuses every year, and he already has a salary cap friendly contract. It’s possible up to $1 million could be saved with further restructuring, but that would hardly make it worth it.
What this tells us is there are basically only four other contracts, besides Clifton and Driver, that provide the opportunity to gain more cap space. If Thompson aggressively addressed all four, he would do well to create even $6 million in additional cap space. If you add that to the $11.4 that can be gained by cutting Clifton and Driver, then the Packers could amass as much as $17 million in cap room. That would be enough to sign both Finley and Wells, and enough to make one other significant signing, likely a second-tier free agent.
What I expect the Packers to do is stay the course. A 15-1 regular season is not an indicator that anything needs to change. Anything can happen in the playoffs. You can assemble the 2007 Patriots, but if they play a bad game in the playoffs, they lose. Obviously the Packers would like to play better on defense, but winning games is what matters. The Packers don’t have the salary cap space available to make big changes to their defense.
Their primary hope will be that the players currently under contract play better. I would expect the Packers draft to focus on the defense without getting too far away from Thompson’s draft the best player philosophy.
The easiest fix is most likely: cut Clifton and renegotiate with Driver, freeing up enough cap room to re-sign Wells and Finley.
Thompson could forget Finley and pursue a defensive player in free agency instead, but he would still have limited cap room to work with. Plus, the tight end franchise tag is worth a paltry $5.4 million dollars. This presents a rare opportunity that would be almost foolish to pass up. Once the current group of elite young TEs gets to free agency, that franchise tag will skyrocket.
On the downside, Finley may decide to hold out if the Packers franchise him, and he isn’t worth $5 million if he doesn’t improve his game. And, of course, signing Finley and Wells without making any moves elsewhere, would mean that the Packers are left with only the draft as a means to improve the defense, a unit that direly needs it.
Don’t be surprised if Thompson decides to save some cap room either. The Packers have three key players who will be free agents after the season is over: Jennings, T.J. Lang, and Sam Shields. One disadvantage of being a young team is there aren’t a lot of older players ready to come off the books. With Clifton and Driver’s contracts gone, the only obvious cap space the Packers will gain next year is a $4 million reduction in Woodson’s cap hit. Otherwise, the rest will have to be carved out from younger players.
Don’t expect the Packers to spend a lot of money in free agency.