Packers' cap looks like great fit

Pete Dougherty
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It's hard to look at the Green Bay Packers' football finances for at least the next couple of years as anything other than excellent.

The health of receiver Randall Cobb will be key in determining if the Packers offer him a contract extension before he hits free agency in the offseason.

The Packers have about $8.5 million in salary cap room now, and that's after signing Jordy Nelson to a contract extension in August.

They signed their two mega-contracts — Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews — last year, and don't have any other deals close to that magnitude on the horizon.

Going by salary-cap projections for next year, they figure to enter next offseason about $30 million under the salary cap unless they do a significant contract extension or two this year, which is far from a given.

And they're coming off a fiscal year in which they made $25.3 million in net income despite paying huge upfront money to Rodgers and Matthews. With the NFL's TV contract spiking and much of the Rodgers-Matthews costs already paid, net income only will go up in the next couple years.

Yes, the Packers have managed their money well under team President and CEO Mark Murphy, general manager Ted Thompson and vice president of football administration Russ Ball. How Thompson will use that potential largess next year is another issue.

But his philosophy of re-signing his young core players and rarely dipping into free agency has left the team on strong financial footing as it hits the second half of Rodgers' career.

"It's working for them," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "They have a winning program."

In most years, the Packers use some of their remaining cap room on in-season contract extensions, but there might not be any more coming after they signed Nelson to a new five-year deal that averages $8.51 million. If they don't extend any other deals, they can carry over their remaining $8.5 million to next year's cap.

The Packers will have 13 unrestricted free agents in the offseason, including receiver Randall Cobb, tackle Bryan Bulaga, defensive lineman B.J. Raji, cornerback Davon House and Williams.

Cobb is the closest on that list to a must re-sign, but after he missed 10 games last season because of a broken leg, the Packers appear to be making sure he stays healthy and productive before investing big. There are no signs the sides have talked contract recently, but if Cobb plays well and stays on the field, the Packers are a good bet to approach him in November or December about an extension.

Cobb has the youth (age 24) and production (80 receptions in 2012) to think he'll do fine on the free-agent market if he doesn't like what the Packers offer, whether that's later this season or before the free-agent market opens in March. So unless he gets injured, he has some leverage, too.

A decent comparison might be New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, who in 2013 signed a new six-year deal that averages $7.167 million and included $15.629 million fully guaranteed. Cruz is a little bigger than Cobb — he's 6 feet and 204 pounds to Cobb's 5-10 and 192 — but he's still on the smaller side for the position. He's had better health and sustained production with three seasons of 73 or more receptions, compared to Cobb's one.

But Cobb is two years younger than when Cruz signed his deal. Cobb's health this season will be the key.

After him, the Packers have no other players who will cost big money to bring back.

Williams has been a core player for several years, and dating to the second half of last season has been playing some of his best football since 2010. If Williams continues performing at that level, the Packers surely will be interested in re-signing him.

But Thompson is cautious about signing older players, as are most teams. And at age 31, Williams falls into that category. He's finishing a contract that averages $7.2 million — it paid him $36 million over the past five years — but his next deal, whether with the Packers or another team, in effect will be year-to-year and likely will include relatively limited guaranteed money.

The Packers also will be deep at cornerback if they re-sign House, who has been a backup in his three NFL seasons and will this year barring injury to one of the three corners ahead of him. Still, he's good enough to be at least a No. 3 cornerback and maybe even a starter, so he could draw interest in the free-agent market in a cornerback-starved league.

Thompson probably would be trying to sign Bulaga to a contract extension now based solely on his play. But Bulaga's injury history — he's missed 27 games the past four seasons because of knee and hip injuries — makes a contract extension almost impossible for now. So next year Bulaga probably will have to sign a "prove-it" short-term deal with the Packers or another team.

And Raji's value will be limited in free agency because he'll be coming off a serious injury (torn biceps) that landed him on injured reserve in training camp. He also is looking at a "prove-it" deal.

The Packers' other unrestricted free agents next offseason are quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, linebacker Jamari Lattimore, cornerback Jarrett Bush, fullback John Kuhn, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, tight end Ryan Taylor and tackle Derek Sherrod.

Regardless of whether the Packers sign Cobb to a contract extension, their prospects for the 2015 cap look bright in part because the cap is expected to spike. Last March, reported that the cap could go up from $133 million this year to at least $145 million next season.

Based on calculations of salary-cap data obtained from a source with access to NFLPA salary information, the Packers have between $120 million and $121 million committed to next year's cap. Including whatever they carry over from the remaining $8.5 million on this year's cap, they'll probably have $30 million or more in cap room next spring.

That number will go down slightly with cap adjustments, including possible tenders to restricted free agents Jarrett Boykin, Don Barclay and Sean Richardson. Next year's draft class also will take several million dollars in space. But Thompson also could end up clearing cap room by releasing a player or two who don't perform up to their contracts.

So depending on which of his free agents he re-signs, including Cobb, Thompson probably will have anywhere from $15 million to $25 million in cap room heading into free agency in 2015.

Thompson never has been a fan of free agency but showed in signing Julius Peppers this year that he's at least still open to the idea.

Exploring the list of potential free agents at this point isn't worth the trouble. Most of the best impending free agents won't hit the open market — their teams will sign them to contract extensions or tag them with the franchise designation — and at least a few interesting players under contract in 2015 will become available in the offseason as cap-casualty cuts.

The smart bet always says Thompson won't spend much on other team's players. But next offseason he'll have some money for a target or two if he chooses.

— and follow him on Twitter@PeteDougherty

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