Cap-healthy Packers have decisions to make
It won’t make headlines or garner bouquets from a fan base hungry for a big-ticket free-agent acquisition, but the NFL’s waiver period started Monday without any major news out of Green Bay.
That’s because the Packers haven’t needed to press the eject button as it relates to their salary cap under Ted Thompson. For better and for worse, the Packers’ 63-year-old general manager remains one of the most fiscally responsible personnel executives in the game.
The Packers likely will wind up with between $20 million to $23 million of cap space entering the offseason, providing enough flexibility to avoid the bloodletting that has gone on in places devoid of cap space such as Atlanta and New Orleans. According to the New Orleans Time-Picayune, the Saints could face close to $28 million in dead cap space in 2016.
The Packers? A mere $678,593. According to OverTheCap.com, the $5.47 million the Packers have had buried in dead money since the end of the 2014 season is the second-lowest total in the league, trailing only the Cincinnati Bengals ($3.55 million).
NFL mock draft: Who will the Packers pick?
You might argue the Packers are wasting resources by letting cap space build up in storage, but that’s not necessarily true. Under the most recent collective-bargaining agreement, NFL teams are permitted to roll over unused cap space to the next season.
The Packers have carried over the ninth-most space ($14,744,950) to use toward future rosters over the past two offseasons, according to the NFLPA salary database. Of the teams in the top 10, only the Bengals and the Packers made the postseason in 2015.
So does that mean this will be the offseason when Thompson goes for broke? Unlikely. The fancy high-priced signing that might appease the masses still may not be in the cards this offseason, with 16 free agents to deal with and a draft class that likely will eat up about $5 million in space.
Thompson made his big splash in December when he extended defensive lineman Mike Daniels on a four-year, $41 million contract that included a $12 million signing bonus. Then, there’s the future to consider with the contracts of running back Eddie Lacy, starting offensive linemen Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and David Bakhtiari and several others expiring after the 2016 season.
With roughly $113 million already committed toward the 2017 cap, the moves Thompson makes — or doesn't make — in the next 13 months will shape the roster entering the latter half of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ career.
When Julius Peppers signed his three-year, $25.5 million contract with the Packers in March 2014, it seemed improbable the six-time all-pro edge rusher would play out the entire agreement in Green Bay.
First, Peppers was 34 at the time he signed. Second, his $7.5 million signing bonus allowed the Packers to cut bait with him after the 2014 season ($5 million cap hit) or the 2015 season ($2.5 million cap hit) in lieu of paying $8.5 million and $7 million base salaries, respectively.
However, Peppers has maintained his productivity and durability en route to registering 97 tackles, 21 sacks, eight forced fumbles and two interceptions in 35 starts (including playoffs) the past two seasons.
Although Peppers said after the Packers’ 26-20 overtime loss to Arizona last month that he wasn’t sure whether he’d return for a 15th NFL season, he recently told Bleacher Report during his ninth trip to the Pro Bowl that he intends to play next season regardless of whether Green Bay cuts him.
The Packers and Peppers’ agent, Carl Carey, were smart in how they structured the deal, decreasing his base salary by $1.5 million in 2016. On the heels of a 10½-sack season, all indications are the Packers are prepared to pay the 36-year-old pass rusher the $8 million remaining on his contract.
Peppers was active all season with the team monitoring his reps. He missed only one practice and it came at coach Mike McCarthy’s behest during a short week. Peppers wasn’t making any guarantees when asked about his plans on Christmas Eve, but sounded rather certain of his football future.
“I feel great now. If I was making the decision today, yeah, of course I can play another year. But we’ll see. We’ll see when the time comes,” Peppers said at the time.
Presently, Peppers and former undrafted free agent Jayrone Elliott are the only full-time outside linebackers signed for the 2016 season, though McCarthy stated in his final news conference that he hopes six-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews will return to playing primarily outside next season.
Depending on the price, it’s possible the Packers could pass on both Mike Neal (36 tackles, four sacks) and Nick Perry (31 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks) when they hit unrestricted free agency next month with defensive end Datone Jones’ in-season conversion to outside linebacker increasing their depth of options.
You also can't eliminate the Packers from using another high draft pick on the position this spring. Thompson clearly has identified that as a premier position on the defense in using first-round picks on Matthews (2009) and Perry (2012).
Keeping the core
Thompson has done either an excellent or woeful job of maximizing the Packers’ window of opportunity during the Aaron Rodgers’ era depending on the prism from which you view his work.
The pro-Thompson case says the Packers have made the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons, two shy of the NFL record. He has re-signed every major free agent he has drafted and rebuilt the defense to combat the litany of pass-first offenses that the league has sprouted in recent years.
Critics of Thompson argue Green Bay’s general manager hasn’t done enough to supplement an already deep roster with the veteran additions that could put the Packers over the top. Last March, Jacksonville signed more unrestricted free agents in a day (six) than Thompson (five) has since 2007.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, though the closest the Packers have made to a return to the Super Bowl came in 2014 after he signed Peppers and defensive lineman Letroy Guion in free agency. Thompson followed up those additions by signing Indoor Football League linebacker Josh Francis last March.
Right or wrong, Thompson’s reluctance to window shop keeps the Packers in the black. The organization has around $138 million tied into the 2016 salary cap, leaving them around $20 million to work with given the roughly $7 million they will carryover and the cap estimated to be somewhere in the range of $150 million to $153 million.
Still, it’s difficult to plug every hole and the byproduct of that approach caused major problems at safety, insider linebacker and tight end in recent years. Only in extreme circumstances has Thompson delved into free agency midseason and it typically has been to bring back a former player such as James Jones (2015), Jamon Meredith (2014), Matt Flynn (2013) and Ryan Grant (2012).
Rodgers, who turned 32 in December, has plenty of years ahead of him. Last summer, the two-time MVP quarterback said he planned to play eight more seasons. The hourglass is moving faster for the other 16 remaining members of the Super Bowl XLV championship team.
Eight players are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next month. Starting guards Sitton and Lang are then scheduled to hit the open market in 2017, along with punter Tim Masthay.
“It’s two straight seasons we’ve lost in an overtime playoff game. It’s hard as hell, man,” Lang said after last month’s playoff loss in Arizona. “These playoff games, they take everything out of you. I’m a guy, I’m not young anymore. I’ll be going into my eighth year next year. You realize these opportunities become more limited. It’s tough to get back.”
Whatever decisions the Packers make with their 2016 roster, they will have to keep in mind the storm that’s brewing next offseason.
After striking out with most of their 2011 and 2012 selections, the Packers hit a home run with their 2013 draft class in netting starting running back Lacy and left tackle Bakhtiari in addition to capable contributors Micah Hyde, Sam Barrington and JC Tretter.
Overall, the last three drafts have provided the Packers a much-needed uptick after only two players from 18 selections from the 2011 and 2012 NFL drafts have received second contracts from Green Bay so far: receiver Randall Cobb (four years, $40 million) and Daniels.
Staying at the front of the pack is a difficult challenge. The Packers have a sound foundation to build upon, whereas a number of recent Super Bowl contenders such as the Saints, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens have fallen. At the same time, the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks all have made title runs after making significant free-agent moves.
Thompson, who has three years left on the extension he signed in July 2014, will speak in a group setting for the first time in six months at the NFL scouting combine in a little more than two weeks. One of the first questions he'll likely be asked is how he plans to steer the Packers back to the Super Bowl after another brutal playoff ousting.
In the end, that’s really the only question that matters.
Packers’ 2016 salaries
Cash value is how much money the Packers will pay the player in 2016. Cap is how much the player counts against the ’16 salary cap.
QB Aaron Rodgers
LB Clay Matthews
CB Sam Shields
OLB Julius Peppers
WR Randall Cobb
WR Jordy Nelson
DL Mike Daniels
LG Josh Sitton
RG T.J. Lang
S Morgan Burnett
RT Bryan Bulaga
DE Datone Jones
S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
LT David Bakhtiari
CB Damarious Randall
DB Micah Hyde
P Tim Masthay
RB Eddie Lacy
WR Davante Adams
CB Quinten Rollins
OL JC Tretter
TE Richard Rodgers
DL Josh Boyd
ILB Nate Palmer
WR Ty Montgomery
ILB Sam Barrington
C Corey Linsley
ILB Jake Ryan
CB Demetri Goodson
WR Jeff Janis
QB Brett Hundley
FB Aaron Ripkowski
TE Kennard Backman
CB LaDarius Gunter
OL Josh Walker
ILB Carl Bradford
DL William Campbell
ILB Joe Thomas
RB John Crockett
WR Jared Abbrederis
DL Christian Ringo
OL Jeremy Vujnovich
OL Matt Rotherham
WR Ed Williams
DB Robertson Daniel
TE Mitchell Henry
LS Rick Lovato
WR Jamel Johnson
DL B.J. McBryde
QB Ryan Williams