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Pete Dougherty analysis: Late-season extensions no longer a priority

New cap rules provide flexibility for handling Rodgers, Matthews

Dec. 18, 2012
 
GPG_ES_Packers vs. Bears_12.16.12
After this season, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has a year left on his rookie contract. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

The Green Bay Packers were among the many NFL teams who under the previous collective bargaining agreement routinely extended the contract of a player or two late in the season to use up their extra salary cap space.

In the final five weeks of the 2010 season, for instance, they signed four players to extensions: Tramon Williams, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Desmond Bishop and Brett Goode.

But the league’s latest CBA, completed in July 2011, eliminated the urgency to spend that extra cap room, or to manipulate cap rules to push that space to the next season. Instead, the CBA allows teams to roll over their extra cap room from year to year, no questions asked.

Last season, the first year with the new rollover rule, the Packers extended the contracts of guard Josh Sitton and receiver Jordy Nelson in September and none thereafter. When the 2011 season ended, general manager Ted Thompson rolled over his $5.28 million in excess cap room to the 2012 cap.

This year, Thompson extended punter Tim Masthay’s contract just before the start of training camp, then extended guard T.J. Lang’s contract in August. Thompson has extended no contracts since, and there’s a chance he won’t over the final two weeks of the regular season, either.

The Packers have about $7 million in cap space. So they’ll be able to carry that over to next year’s cap if they don’t use it by the last regular-season game. The 2013 cap is projected to grow only minimally, perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars per team, from this year’s base cap of $120.6 million.

Thompson is going to need the money and cap space, because he has three ultra-expensive players who will be up for contract extensions in the offseason: quarterback Aaron Rodgers, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive lineman B.J. Raji.

Thompson generally waits until a player is in the final year of his contract before broaching an extension. In the offseason, Matthews and Raji will be going into their final years.

Rodgers will have two years remaining on his deal, but policies don’t apply to quarterbacks in general and elite quarterbacks in particular. Rodgers is probably the most underpaid player in the NFL with combined salary and bonuses of $9.75 million due next year and $11 million in ’14. The league’s top quarterbacks average about twice that.

There’s always the chance Thompson will extend the contract of one of the three before the season ends, but there’s no indication that’s likely.

The Packers also could use the extra cap room to extend contracts of a less expensive player or two who are at the end of their deals. The two best candidates are cornerback Sam Shields, who will be a restricted free agent in the offseason, and linebacker Brad Jones, who will be unrestricted.

The Packers essentially can ensure Shields’ return in 2013 with, say, a first-round tender that probably will be in the range of $3 million. With that leverage, they don’t have urgency to sign Shields to an extension and might not want to expend more cash when they have Rodgers, Matthews and Raji on the horizon.

However, that leverage makes this a good time for them to negotiate; it’s usually cheaper to do a deal now than in a year. Shields entered the league as an undrafted rookie, so he might find a guaranteed good payday enticing after playing the last three years at the league minimum.

On the other hand, Shields is back to playing at the level at least of his rookie year and perhaps better since his return two weeks ago from an ankle injury. He’s performing like a starting-caliber cornerback, which is a valuable commodity in the NFL, and might be willing to risk playing next season for the tender salary so he can test the free-agent market in 2014.

The Packers couldn’t have hoped for Jones to be any better than he has been as an every-down inside linebacker after season-ending injuries to Desmond Bishop and then D.J. Smith. Especially if they expect to part with linebacker A.J. Hawk in the offseason, they might be willing to offer Jones a multi-year deal. Jones is better in pass coverage than Hawk, is their lone inside linebacker on the field in dime personnel and presumably would have a shot at one of the starting jobs at inside linebacker next season even with Bishop and Smith returning from their injuries.

Hawk is scheduled to make $5.45 million in salary and bonuses in 2013, which is high for a linebacker who will turn 29 in January and doesn’t play every down. Judging by Thompson’s past personnel moves, he probably will ask Hawk to take a pay cut in the offseason or release him outright.

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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