GREEN BAY – Josh Sitton was adamant that he was not headed for a contract standoff with the Green Bay Packers and was surprised to wake up to messages on his phone telling him his eight seasons with the team were about to come to an end.
Sitton said he knew something was wrong when he picked up his phone and there were messages from the Packers and his agent, Jack Reale, He said he had no idea until listening to those calls that the Packers planned on releasing him if they could not work out a trade.
“It caught me by surprise,” Sitton told the Journal Sentinel soon after the Packers turned in the paperwork to the NFL making his release official.
The Packers attempted to make a deal for Sitton before the 3 p.m. deadline for finalizing their 53-man roster, but nothing materialized, and at 6 p.m. they issued a statement announcing they had released him.
“We want to thank Josh for his contributions during his time in Green Bay," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said in a statement. "He has been an important part of the success we have enjoyed on the field.
“While these decisions are never easy, this was done with a focus on what is best for the team and the growth of the offensive line. We wish Josh and his wife, Kristen, all the best in the future.”
Multiple sources said that Sitton, 30, had been told that the Packers were first going to work on contract extensions with some of the younger players whose deals are scheduled to expire before working on his.
Sitton was in the final year of a five-year, $33.75 million extension he signed on Sept. 2, 2011, but the Packers had not addressed a new deal with him at all during the off-season and training camp and, according to sources, were focused on the offensive line with left tackle David Bakhtiari and center JC Tretter.
The same sources said they believed Sitton was unhappy with the team’s decision not to address the three-time Pro Bowl guard’s contract and the club was aware of it.
But Sitton insisted he never expressed a word of dissatisfaction to general manager Ted Thompson or anyone else in the front office and said there would be no reason the Packers should feel he wasn’t 100 percent committed to this season.
“I was prepared to play the season,” Sitton said. “I never said anything. I have no ill feeling, whatsoever. They were just comfortable going with who they have, I guess. That’s the way it goes in this league. They like who they’ve got and saving some money.
“They weren’t planning on going forward with me. That’s business. I’m sad to leave. I’m excited with the new opportunities.”
Because he’s a vested veteran, Sitton is not subject to the waiver process and immediately becomes a free agent. That means he could sign with any team in the league and could wind up playing for one of the Packers’ contenders such as Seattle, Chicago or Arizona.
His departure leaves a gaping hole in the offensive line that fourth-year backup Lane Taylor will probably have to fill for the time being. Coach Mike McCarthy could shuffle the line around and move veteran T.J. Lang to left guard, right tackle Bryan Bulaga to right guard and second-round pick Jason Spriggs to right tackle, for instance.
Whatever the case, the Packers are losing a legitimate all-pro talent.
One of the sources said the team would try to say that Sitton’s performance had dropped as the reason he was let go, but he said it probably had more to do with financial considerations and the impending free agency of Bakhtiari, Tretter, Lang, running back Eddie Lacy, tight end Jared Cook, linebackers Nick Perry and Datone Jones and safety Micah Hyde.
Going into Saturday, the Packers were $9,682,875 under the salary cap, which ranked 20th in the NFL in cap space. They can now wipe off the $6.55 million Sitton was due in salary ($6.15 million) and roster bonus ($400,000), leaving them with $16,232,875 of cap space in which to negotiate future deals.
Sitton’s yearly average of $6.8 million under his now voided contract ranked eighth in the NFL among guards and resigning him probably would have required the Packers to move him into the $8 million or more per year range.
In addition to Sitton and Lang, Pittsburgh’s David DeCastro and Cincinnati’s Kevin Zeitler were going to be the primary free agent guards next season and both have a chance of approaching or nearing Oakland guard Kelechi Osemele’s league-best $10.62 million per year he received in a free agent deal this past off-season.
Even if the Packers were going to have to let Sitton go after the season, it doesn’t explain why they decided to cut him now. The $6.55 million they were set to pay him isn’t an exorbitant amount for someone who has consistently been considered one of the better guards in the league.
They are paying Lang, $5.1 million, Bulaga, $4 million, Bakhtiari, $1.671 million, Taylor, $1.1 million and Tretter, $675,000. Taylor’s two-year, $4.15 million deal was signed in the off-season and the Packers may feel it’s time for him to earn it.
Sitton has had his share of injuries over the years, including a balky knee in 2011, a mangled toe in 2014 and a bad back in 2015, but he only missed two games (in ’11) over his seven seasons as a full-time starter and had started 67 straight regular-season games.
At the start of camp this year, Sitton told reporters he had dropped 20 pounds since last season and had hoped to play in the 315- to 320-pound range in order to take pressure off his back. He said he thought had a very good training camp and was ready to follow it up with a good season.
Then the call came.
“That’s how this business is,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate thing.”