Ted Thompson

With another NFL league year approaching, I’ve once again combed through the murky reaches of the Internet and even the bewildering pages of the CBA itself to bring you the complete picture of the Green Bay Packers 2013 salary cap dilemma.

On March 12, at 4 p.m. EST, the 2013 league year begins. By that time, all NFL teams are required to be under the announced salary cap of $121.6 million and stay there. This means that the projected total of all player costs “likely to be earned” during the upcoming season, including base salary, prorated bonuses and incentives, must not exceed $121.6 million.

As has already been reported on this website, the Packers are currently about $7.1 million below the cap. They have total projected costs of $121.5 million, but were allowed to carry over $7 million of cap space from last season. Teams typically like to keep $5 million of cap space for the draft, so the Packers are covered there.

However, the Packers have at least three restricted free agents — namely Sam Shields, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Tom Crabtree — who they’ll likely want to retain. As such, the Packers will need to make some roster moves to accommodate those signings.

It’s also been highly publicized that the Packers have several star players — Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji — who they will need to extend within the next two seasons. If the Packers want to make headway there or free up some money for free agency, they will have to make some significant roster moves.

To keep this as simple as possible, let’s look at who the Packers may want to spend the money on. That will give us an idea of how much space is needed, before we get into how that space is going to be created.

The following players are unrestricted free agents — Greg Jennings, Erik Walden, Brad Jones, Cedric Benson, and Ryan Grant.

It’s a virtual certainty that Greg Jennings is gone. Packers fans can only hope that his destination is as far from Green Bay as possible. The Packers may want to bring back Jones, Walden or Benson if they can get them at a salary near the veteran’s minimum. Ryan Grant‘s on-again, off-again career with the Packers will return to the off position.

In addition to those listed above, Robert Francois and Frank Zombo are also are restricted free agents. With the exception of Zombo, the Packers may want to re-sign all of their restricted free agents, with the fate of Brad Jones largely determining the fate of Robert Francois. I believe the Packers will offer first- or second-round tenders to Shields and Dietrich-Smith and a right to first refusal offer to Tom Crabtree.

Considering Tramon Williams is making over $7 million per season, the Packers aren’t going to get away with paying Sam Shields less than $2.88 million, which is the amount of the first-round tender. I consider Shields a top priority for the Packers, but there is some danger here. The 2012 season was a contract year for Shields. If he gets his deal, are we going to see the 2012 Sam Shields or the 2011 Sam Shields that nearly lost his job?

Player 2013 Cap Hit Remaining Sunk Money End Year
Aaron Rodgers $10,250,000 $2,000,000 2014
Charles Woodson $10,000,000  – 2014
Jermichael Finley $8,750,000 $500,000 2013
Tramon Williams $7,400,000 $2,400,000 2014
A.J. Hawk $7,050,000 $4,800,000 2015
Ryan Pickett $6,700,000 $500,000 2013
B.J. Raji $6,595,000 $480,000 2013
Josh Sitton $5,250,000 $3,600,000 2016
Desmond Bishop $4,964,000 $2,000,000 2014
Clay Matthews $4,910,000 $160,000 2013
Jordy Nelson $4,025,000 $1,750,000 2014
James Jones $3,750,000 $500,000 2013
Mason Crosby $3,150,000 $1,800,000 2015
John Kuhn $2,500,000 $250,000 2013
Bryan Bulaga $2,125,500 $352,000 2014
Total $87,419,500

So we know the Packers will have to create space for at least a couple of their restricted free agents. Now we can get into HOW they can go about making this space.

The above is a list of every player contracted to make $2 million or more in 2013. These 16 highest-paid Packers account for 72 percent of the Packers’ total cap space. Also included in the list, is the money already paid to these players that has not yet been counted against the cap and the last season of each contract. Any cap space the Packers create will likely have to come from changes to the contracts of these 16 players.

Aaron Rodgers — Despite some reports that the Packers are looking to extend Rodgers sooner rather than later, I don’t consider him a top priority. The fact of the matter is that he is signed through 2014 and at least ostensibly seems content with his current deal. Logically, it would make little sense to apply new contracts for Rodgers and Matthews to the same salary cap year. What would make the most sense would be to redo Matthews’ contract in 2013 and then Rodgers’ in 2014. Regardless, everyone is aware that a contract in the realm of the one for Drew Brees is in order. That means the days of Rodgers counting $9-10 million against the cap are nearly over.

Charles Woodson — Woodson’s contract gives the Packers their only no-brainer move of the offseason. Clearly, the Packers cannot afford to pay Woodson $10 million a year to play safety. Personally, I would cut Woodson and allow the market to determine his value. If Ted Thompson thinks Woodson’s status in the league would inflate his value, or that straight releasing him is too disrespectful, then he may look to renegotiate the deal rather than cutting him. Regardless, this isn’t show friends, this is show business, and Woodson’s salary ceiling for 2013 should be no higher than $5 million.

Jermichael Finley — Finley is a mystery inside a riddle inside an enigma, and as such, I can see all options being on the table here. If the Packers cut Finley, they create $8.25 million in salary cap space and it is nearly incomprehensible that the Packers would risk paying Finley $8.75 next season. However, the Packers have no other tight end on their roster who can do the things that Finley can do and do they really want to approach next season without Jennings and Finley? I think a contract negotiation is the least likely option here. If you think Finley isn’t the long-term answer, then why would you give him bonus money to be prorated into future seasons? Finley called his chances of staying with the Packers 50/50, but I’m leaning towards 60/40 that he stays and collects his $8.75 million. If the Packers are going to maintain their pass-first philosophy, then they need a tight end that scares people down the field.

Tramon Williams — Move along. There is nothing to see here. Tramon will continue collecting his contract for at least one more year. As long as he is covering Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson, then he is your recognized No. 1 corner. A poor season puts his contract on the table for next year, but not in 2013.

A.J. Hawk — Despite the fact that he has the unique-on-defense habit of playing 16 games a season, A.J. continues to fail to impress many Packers fans. However, he remains protected by his signing bonus for at least one more season. The Packers had the sixth-smallest amount of dead money in the league in 2012 — a mere $100,000. Considering that, I would put the odds of Ted Thompson creating $4.8 million in new dead money in one swoop at about 100 to 1. Plus, the men who would replace Hawk are both coming off major injuries. I think the most likely scenario is that Hawk finishes off his contract as a well-paid, but reliable, backup middle linebacker. That’s essentially the role Hawk had fallen into in 2010 before injuries to Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar helped revive his career.

Ryan Pickett — Pickett defied his age to have one of his better seasons in 2012. Not only is he worth the money he is scheduled to make in 2013, but another good season would put the Packers in a predicament for 2014. Regardless of his performance in 2013, the Packers may be forced to let him go by their need to pay younger players.

B.J. Raji – Defensive tackles that can rush the passer a little are overvalued in free agency. Thus, the Packers must do everything they can to extend Raji either before or during the 2013 season. Raji is likely to command a contract in the $8-10 million a year range. The easiest solution is to let Pickett go after this season and use that space for Raji.

Josh Sitton, Desmond Bishop and Jordy Nelson — All are worth the money they are contracted for. No options here.

Clay Matthews — The Bloodline is my No. 1 priority for the Packers in 2013. Unlike Rodgers, Matthews would become an unrestricted free agent if he were to complete the 2013 season without a new contract. The Packers must avoid this at all costs. Mario Williams scored a six-year, $96 million contract in free agency just last offseason and Matthews is younger and better. It’s possible the Packers could convince Matthews that his chronic hamstring problems should mitigate his value, but if he were to reach the open market, I’m sure there is a team that would overlook that altogether. The Packers’ best option here is to create enough space in 2013 to give Matthews a substantial roster bonus — $10-15 million — that would count against the cap for that year. This would make a smaller cap number possible for 2014, which is when the Packers will need to do likewise with Rodgers. A $15 million roster bonus, plus a $15 million signing bonus, plus a base salary of let’s say $5 million in 2013 and $10 million in 2014 would mean $30 million guaranteed the day of the signing and $45 million earned within the first two seasons of the contract. That would likely be enough to get even a top player like Matthews to sign on the dotted line.

James Jones — The Packers are loving life with Jones’ $3.7 million cap number right now. That’s going to change after 2013. If Jones has a 2013 season like his 2012 one, there are some serious doubts about whether the Packers will be able to afford him.

Mason Crosby — There is no way the Packers should pay $3 million to the least accurate kicker in the NFL. On the other hand, like Hawk, Crosby is also protected by his signing bonus. Sure, $1.8 million may not be a huge number, but when you’re only paying a guy $3.1 million, it’s a different story. Altogether, cutting Crosby only saves the Packers around $800,000 in cap space. Therefore, that option wouldn’t be a salary cap move. It would be a football move. In other words, you cut Crosby if you find a better kicker; you don’t cut him for more salary cap space.

John Kuhn — Kuhn is probably overpaid considering he is no longer a viable short-yardage option. However, he doesn’t make enough to demand attention, and Rodgers is more comfortable with him in the backfield. The Packers may consider finding a fullback in the mold of Marcel Reese, who can not only block, but is also more of a threat with the ball.

Bryan Bulaga — Still in his rookie contract and therefore underpaid.

Conservative Option – The Packers renegotiate Woodson’s contract down to $5 million for 2013 and draft a kicker. As long as that kicker isn’t a complete loser through OTAs, cut Crosby after June 1. That would save $2.5 million in 2013, though the Packers would still have to count $1.2 million against the cap in 2014. That total of $7.5 million in salary cap savings would give the Packers $14.6 million in space. After the draft, the Packers would have about $10 million to re-sign Shields, Dietrich-Smith and Crabtree. That would maybe leave a million left over for the mid-season extensions of Raji and Matthews’ contracts. Since they are scheduled to count a combined $11.5 million against the cap already, with a little contract magic — such as large roster bonuses in 2014 — the Packers can work it so that the prorated portion of their new contracts gets within the $12.5 million or so of room they have to work with. In 2014, you essentially do the same thing with Rodgers, with him getting a sizable roster bonus in 2015. By that time, Finley is likely at a smaller cap number; Hawk is at a smaller cap number or gone; Tramon, Kuhn, Pickett, Woodson and Crosby are gone, creating plenty of space.

More Aggressive Option – The Packers cut Woodson and either let Jerron McMillian play safety or draft someone else. They cut Crosby after June 1. They also cut John Kuhn and draft a young player who can actually run with the ball. These moves would gain about $15 million in new cap space. The Packers use $5 million of that for their draft. Then they use $10 million to re-sign Shields, Dietrich-Smith, Crabtree and another free agent like Brad Jones. That leaves $7 million to extend Raji and Matthews, and as explained above, if you can keep Raji and Matthews’ cap number within $15 million for 2013, then the Packers have another $4 million left over to either sign a free agent or carry over to next season.

Nuclear Option – The Packers cut Woodson, Crosby and Kuhn. They also cut Finley instead of waiting another year for him to turn into an elite tight end. The Packers draft a receiver in the second or third round again. With four quality receivers, they can get by with just blocking tight ends. This would give the Packers around $30 million in cap space. After the draft and the restricted free agents, that would leave $15 million to extend Matthews and Raji, which should leave enough money left over to either sign a free agent or two or just carry it over to next year in preparation for Rodgers’ big contract.

In any nuclear option scenario, of course, other contracts might be in play, such as those of Williams and Hawk. It’s conceivable that the Packers could go through the preseason and if they like what they see from Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith, they could force Hawk to renegotiate to a smaller cap number or cut him if he refuses. They could do something similar to Tramon, though I would hesitate to screw too much with the defense after letting Finley leave your offense.

If I had to guess as to what Ted Thompson will choose to do, I would go with the finesse option of forcing Woodson to renegotiate. That will open up enough space to cover the restricted free agents they want to re-sign. Any further cuts to open up space for extensions will likely only be done as part of their roster decisions in the preseason. That would leave no money for any extra free agents, of course, but you know the first law of holes…

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