In a recent conversation about Ted Thompson’s salary-cap management and approach to free agency, a prominent NFL agent asked the salient question: When’s the last time the Green Bay Packers’ general manager let a good, young player get away?
So, if you’re looking to project impending free-agent Mike Daniels’ future, look to the case of the most recent Packers defensive player in similar circumstances, cornerback Sam Shields.
In 2013, Shields was an ascending young starter in the final year of his contract. The Packers negotiated with him on and off that year and tried to get him at a bargain rate.
Shields wouldn’t bite, risked a career-diminishing injury by playing out the season, then re-signed with the Packers just before the start of free agency to a deal that averages $9.7 million, which is the going rate for No. 1 cornerbacks in the NFL.
Similarly, Daniels is the Packers’ best defensive lineman and highest-priority free agent for 2016. The Packers haven’t been able to extend his contract so far, and recent history suggests that if they didn’t do it by the start of the regular season, it’s not happening this year.
Of course things can change with so much football to play between now and February. But the smart money says Thompson isn’t going to let the 26-year-old Daniels walk next offseason, either. So look for Thompson and his salary-cap manager, team vice president Russ Ball, to re-sign Daniels right around the start of free agency next March to a deal that averages the going rate for a player of his caliber and position, which is in the range of $10 million a year.
Assuming Daniels matches or surpasses his average of six sacks the last two seasons, he’ll be in line for a deal similar to interior defensive linemen such Arizona’s Calais Campbell, Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins, San Diego’s Corey Liuget, New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan and Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward. All five have averaged anywhere from 6.25 sacks to 7.5 sacks over the last two or three seasons, and are paid an average of anywhere from $10.25 million to $11 million a year.
If Daniels’ negotiations play out as just described, it will be the latest evidence of Thompson’s evolving strategy for retaining core players. Where Thompson a few years ago was more apt to sign a player or two annually to contract extensions while in the last year of their deals, he’s now more inclined to wait.
Since the mega-contracts for their team’s two irreplaceable players, Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, in April 2013, Thompson and Ball have successfully extended only two deals: Morgan Burnett in July ’13, and Jordy Nelson in July of last year.
Thompson and Ball appear to have decided that if they can’t get a core player to bite on an extension favorable to the team, or they have concerns about a his durability, they’ll wait him out. Then as long as all’s well, they’ll pay the premium in the offseason with the threat of imminent free agency. That’s what happened with receiver Randall Cobb and tackle Bryan Bulaga last year, and Shields the year before.
That strategy hasn’t hurt their salary cap at all. The Packers’ cap for the next couple years is in excellent shape. But then, when’s the last time it wasn’t? The franchise never has been in cap jail, and Thompson’s cap has been as healthy as any team in the league going back at least to the mid-2000s.
That’s because the Packers are entrenched in a virtuous of cycle of rolling over significant excess cap space each year to the next, and signing players to pay-as-you go contracts, rather than pushing excessive cap costs into future years.
It’s telling that their “dead” cap money – that is, money on this year’s cap for players who no longer are on the roster – ranks fifth-lowest in the NFL at $3.5 million. For context, 19 teams have $10 million or more in dead money; five have $20 million or more; and New Orleans has $30.9 million.
Also, according to a source with access to NFLPA salary information, the Packers as of Thursday afternoon were $11.689 million under this year’s cap, which is fifth most in the league. That leaves plenty of room for a contract extension or two, though the field of candidates is small and in-season extensions now appear to be the Packers’ exception, not the norm.
Whatever Thompson and Ball don’t spend of that money will carry over to the 2016 cap and contribute to the Packers’ payroll flexibility for the next few years. A report on ProFootballTalk.com estimated the NFL’s cap could go from about $143 million this year to $160 million. That’s a huge leap.
According to OverTheCap.com, the Packers have about $123 million in cap obligations for 2016, so they’ll have a little more than $35 million in cap room plus whatever they carry over from this year.
At the same time, they’ll have 16 unrestricted free agents, but after Daniels the cost and urgency of re-signings drops fast.
That’s the case in part because of the Packers’ strong rookie class of cornerbacks, which probably will save Thompson and Ball some money over the next few years.
First-round pick Damarious Randall, second-rounder Quinten Rollins and undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter all look like keepers. If that’s still the case at season’s end, it’s hard to see the Packers re-signing Casey Hayward, the 2011 second-round pick who is starting opposite Shields.
With the premium on cornerbacks in the NFL, Hayward might command a contract in free agency similar to Davon House’s deal with Jacksonville last offseason that averages $6.125 million over four years. With this year’s haul at cornerback, the Packers can thank Hayward for his service and move on with cheaper players.
The highest priority re-signing after Daniels might be kicker Mason Crosby. The going rate for the better kickers in the league is an average of $3 million to $4 million a year.
Another player who could move up the list is defensive lineman B.J. Raji, depending on his play in this crossroads season for him.
After that are players who might see regular playing time but are not priority re-signs. That includes outside linebackers Mike Neal and Nick Perry; backup running back James Starks; backup offensive linemen Don Barclay and Lane Taylor; tight end Andrew Quarless; defensive lineman Letroy Guion; and fullback John Kuhn.
The urgency and costs pick up not far down the road. Next year four core starters will be in the final year of their contracts: running back Eddie Lacy, left tackle David Bakhtiari and guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang.
But Thompson and Ball should have the money and cap room to do what they have to do.
Packers’ 2015 salaries
Cash value is how much money the Packers will pay the player in 2015. Cap is how much the player counts against the ’15 salary cap.
Player, Cash Value, Cap
Aaron Rodgers: $11.6M, $18.25M
Clay Matthews: $8.6M, $12.7M
Julius Peppers: $9.002M, $12.002M
Sam Shields: $6M, $9.062M
Josh Sitton: $5.8M, $7M
T.J. Lang: $4.7M, $5.8M
Randall Cobb: $15.1M, $5.35M
Morgan Burnett: $3.5M, $5.131M
Sean Richardson: $2.555M, $2.555M
Letroy Guion: $2.485M, $2.485M
Jordy Nelson: $2.3M, $4.6M
Mike Neal: $3M, $4.25M
Bryan Bulaga: $10M, $3.568M
Mason Crosby: $2.95M, $3.55M
Nick Perry: $1.418M, $2.391M
Datone Jones: $1.112M, $2.11M
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: $804,288, $1.9M
James Starks: $1.475M, $1.837M
B.J. Raji: $1.75M, $2.75M
Mike Daniels: $1.547M, $1.622M
Andrew Quarless: $1.575M, $1.75M
Don Barclay: $1.547M, $1.547M
Damarious Randall: $4.451M, $1.439M
Scott Tolzien: $1.35M, $1.2M
Tim Masthay: $1.1M, $1.34M
Casey Hayward: $846,212, $1.058M
Brett Goode: $895,000, $976,250
Eddie Lacy: $718,276, $930,078
Davante Adams: $604,251, $899,415
David Bakhtiari: $590,460, $704,310
JC Tretter: $590,850, $694,827
Quinten Rollins: $1.416M, $680,466
Richard Rodgers: $522,500, $649,004
Micah Hyde: $590,850, $635,377
John Kuhn: $635,000, $895,000
Josh Boyd: $590,850, $626,990
Nate Palmer: $590,850, $615,574
Sam Barrington: $590,460, $602,710
Lane Taylor: $590,850, $593,184
Andy Mulumba: $590,850, $592,518
Chris Banjo: $590,655, $590,655
Ty Montgmery: $1.041M, $586,636
James Jones: $870,000, $585,000
Corey Linsley: $515,850, $562,100
Jake Ryan: $891,676, $549,169
Demetri Goodson: $515,655, $541,443
Jeff Janis: $515,850, $528,698
Jayrone Elliott: $515,655, $517,321
Mike Pennel: $515,850, $517,016
Bruce Gaston: $515,850, $515,850
Brett Hundley: $658,632, $490,908
Aaron Ripkowski: $541,396, $461,599
Kennard Backman: $525,484, $457,621
Josh Walker: $440,655, $440,655
LaDarius Gunter: $440,000, $436,666
Alonzo Harris: $438,500, $436,166
Jermauria Rasco: $323,000, $323,000
Javess Blue: $322,000, $322,000
Christian Ringo: $202,684, $134,821
Carl Bradford: $220,325, $118,050
Justin Perillo: $118,050, $118,050
Jared Abbrederis: $154,190, $118,050
Jeremy Vujnovich: 117,855, $117,855
Matt Rotherham: $117,200, $112,200
James Vaughters: $117,200, $112,200
John Crockett: $117,200, $117,200
Ed Williams: $112,200, $112,200
Robertson Daniel: $112,200, $112,200
Significant dead money on this year’s cap
A.J. Hawk: $1.6M
Brad Jones: $1M
Jerel Worthy: $327,855
Johnathan Franklin: $202,734