Clay Matthews' sack dance

It is fitting that NFL free agency begins the second week of March and runs up to the NFL Draft. For in Green Bay, that is nearly always a quiet and dead time. The snow has well worn out its novelty, as has the winter. The trees are leafless and the ground shows through the dirty snow in ugly, brown patches.

This is not an attractive time in Green Bay. It is just awakening from the hangover of the New Year and stretching partially atrophied limbs, looking for a sun that typically hides behind a translucent film of gray, like the sky itself has been covered in wax paper.

We haven’t seen the sun here in at least five days and I wouldn’t blame any would-be free agent who touched down here, took a look around and then got right back on the plane. Selling this city right now is like going to a job interview after a three-day bender — it’s an act of futility from which only comedy can ensue.

For the Green Bay Packers, this offseason has been even quieter than others. So much so that the local fish wrap didn’t post a single new article regarding the Packers on Saturday. So much so that the Packers NOT renegotiating Jermichael Finley’s contract is big news.

Yes, we are used to the inaction, but this all feels a little strange considering there are at least five players the Packers should be working on a deal for: three would-be free agents in Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and B.J. Raji; and two actual restricted free agents who are also presumed starters in Evan Deitrich-Smith and Sam Shields.

Neither EDS nor Shields have accepted the one-year tender offered to them. So, as of this moment, the Packers don’t have a starting center or one of their starting corners. Of course, at corner, the Packers have other options with Casey Hayward and Davon House waiting in the wings. However, neither bring the speed to the defense that Shields does and it was exactly this missing ingredient that was exposed as Colin Kaepernick ran around and by a Packers defense too slow to catch him.

Even though he’s aware of this, Shields holds little leverage and will likely have to either accept the tender or sign the Packers’ best long-term offer. This may explain why the Packers offered a tender well below Shields’ value. The tender is the sequester supposedly unacceptable to either side. However, we’ve all seen how that can work out.

Of the three would-be free agents, we have only heard rumors that the Packers have been working on a deal for Rodgers. Even though these are days when a drunken tweet can serve as a news “source,” I still tend to believe that where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the alleged progress on the mega-deal for Rodgers has been sighted too many times for me to write it off as fallacy.

Though anyone would agree that Rodgers is the most important player on the team, I still find this hierarchy of priorities odd, since Rodgers is NOT the player who will hit the open market first. That player is Clay Matthews (and B.J. Raji, although he isn’t as high of a priority). The media has made sure that everyone knows Rodgers is grossly underpaid. He’s contracted to make just under $10 million for 2013, which surely is less than half his value.

However, there seems to be no such concern for Matthews, who himself is scheduled to make $3.7 million, or probably about a third of his market value.

Now, mathematically at least, there could be some logic behind working the biggest contract first. Since Rodgers is the leader of the franchise on the field, it’s also possible that symbolically there is some importance to giving his contract first priority. However, the silence coming from the Matthews’ camp tweaks curiosity, if nothing else.

Is it possible that the Packers are working on Rodgers’ contract first because he is more willing to sign? Is it possible that the Packers have or will have to consider other options with Matthews?

The media loves to concentrate on the teams in these matters, as if the players themselves don’t have a say, but there are two sides to every negotiation. And what assurance has Packer Nation been given that Clay Matthews necessarily wants to re-sign with the Packers? If Matthews can make his way to free agency, his agent has likely informed him that a $100 million contract may be out there for him.

The Packers have only two weapons to prevent this — time and the franchise tag. This free agency period has shown more than any other that a player cannot count on making big money in his 30s. And anyone who knows anything about money knows that money made now is better than money promised in the future.

If Matthews were to force his way to free agency, the Packers would force him to play out two more years by tagging him. This season he would make his $3.7 million and next season, under the tag, he would make around $10 million. Fourteen million dollars isn’t money you’ll find in your couch cushions, but it still pales in comparison to the amount of money the Packers should be able to guarantee up front as part of a long-term deal. And, more importantly, that is two more seasons that Matthews would have to play, hoping to avoid any injury that would depress his value, before reaching his big pay day.

However, if the Packers don’t have Matthews signed before the start of the 2013 season, then as each week goes by that’s one less game between Matthews and his pay day. The risk goes down and his value goes up. As such, it behooves the Packers to get Matthews signed during this offseason.

Would giving a big deal to Rodgers interfere with that? It doesn’t have to. If the Packers used Joe Flacco’s contract as a guideline, they could actually lower Rodgers’ cap hit towards 2013, which could leave as much as $15 million available for a roster bonus for Matthews. Pair a $15 million roster bonus with a $15 million signing bonus and you have $30 million to offer Matthews the very day he signs on the dotted line.

That type of contract would be more in line with the Packers’ “pay as you go” philosophy, while probably offering enough up front and guaranteed greenbacks to get Matthews to sign. However, that contract is only possible if the Packers do not use the same strategy with Rodgers. Instead, they’d have to hand out large, deferred bonuses to be prorated over the life of the contract.

In other words, if the Packers do indeed sign Rodgers first, then his contract will provide clues as to what the Packers are thinking with Matthews. If the Packers front load Rodgers’ contract to safeguard their future, then they won’t be able to do the same with Matthews. And if that is the case, Matthews may indeed play out 2013 without an extension and head for the franchise tag in 2014.

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