Packers' salary cap space could go quickly

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - By any measure, in any given year in the NFL, $40,075,817 is enough salary-cap room to make any team comfortable in its own skin.

Provide that amount to the fiscally conservative Green Bay Packers and you might see general manager Ted Thompson’s perpetual look of dread ease just a little bit.

In actuality, though, this won’t be an easy offseason.

According to NFL Players Association salary data, there was about $1.13 billion of salary cap space — about $35 million per team — floating around when free agency kicked off at 11 a.m. Tuesday with its “legal tampering” period. For now, teams can talk with free agents from other teams, but they can’t sign anybody but their own until the clock strikes 3 p.m. Thursday.

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All this cap space around the NFL — Cleveland has $104 million — means the price Thompson will have to pay to retain players — most of whom he originally identified as bona fide NFL talent — could suck up a good amount of his available cap space. It is in the three days leading up to free agency when agents earn their keep by leveraging interest in their client against that of his former team, hoping to drive the price tag way up.

The Packers are for sure facing that prospect with three of their free agents — linebacker Nick Perry, guard T.J. Lang and tight end Jared Cook — and possibly a fourth, cornerback Micah Hyde. The abundance of salary-cap money available in the league will make it easy for teams to overpay for other team's players.

According to several agents whose clients are competing with some of the Packers for free-agent dollars, the cost to retain Perry and Lang is going to be substantial. Each is in the top two or three free agents at their position and could see their compensation easily reach $10 million annually.

Perry received considerable interest at the scouting combine last week, according to one agent with an outside linebacker in the market. The Indianapolis Colts, with $52.8 million of cap space, appeared to be very interested, the agent said.

The top pass rushers slated for free agency — Arizona’s Chandler Jones, San Diego’s Melvin Ingram and the New York Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul — all were slapped with the franchise tag and won’t receive offers. In exchange, Jones and Ingram are guaranteed $14.55 million and Pierre-Paul $16.93 million on one-year deals.

That leaves Perry (11 sacks, 12 tackles for loss) and New England’s Jabaal Sheard (five sacks, seven tackles for loss) as the top two edge rushers available. Perry had his most productive season after four injury-filled disappointments, although he did miss two games with a broken hand.

The starting price is around $8 million, but teams will pay heavily in free agency for someone who can rush the passer and the Packers could see the cost to retain the 26-year-old Perry skyrocket to $11 million per year. Given they are paying Matthews $13.2 million per year, they would have to think hard about spending that much on two players who were part of a 22nd-ranked defense.

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If the Packers have plans to move Matthews inside, then signing Perry takes on greater importance. It’s a good year for outside linebackers in the draft, but as the Packers found out with first-round picks Perry and Datone Jones, there are no sure things at that position.

If the market plays out in Perry’s favor, the Packers may just have to pay the linebacker’s price.

“You’re going to see a few top guys go back to their current team,” an agent with a free agent outside linebacker said. “Their leverage is at its peak tonight or tomorrow (when they’re talking with other teams). Don’t be surprised if before free agency you see guys (re-sign).”

In Lang’s case, he is generally considered the No. 2 guard behind Cincinnati’s Kevin Zeitler, who appears to be in for a big payday, perhaps just below the $11.7 million per year Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele received in free agency last year. Lang, who at 29 is three years older than Zeitler, has to convince teams he can physically hold up after undergoing shoulder and hip surgeries and breaking his foot, all in the past two years.

Lang is more valuable to the Packers than anyone else and they know they may have to pay to keep him. But Thompson has let veteran guards like Josh Sitton, Daryn Colledge, Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera walk in the past and rather than adding another $9 million to $10 million a year guy to the roster, he could take a pass.

Once Zeitler’s deal is done, Lang’s market will be better known. Teams who don’t sign Zeitler might go for Lang.

“T.J. is second in line,” an agent said. “He’s going to get interest.”

Cook isn’t expected to break the bank despite his impact on the Packers' offense. Teams may view him as a product of having quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing to him and may figure they can do well in April with a strong tight end draft class. Still, if he comes in at $5 million a year, that's another big chunk out of the cap.

Hyde received a lot of interest at the combine and is a favorite of Thompson's and coach Mike McCarthy's. The two would not pay $5 million per year to keep Casey Hayward last season, but they may pay that much to keep Hyde.

It’s very likely the Packers will add a veteran cornerback, probably someone who has been cut. Given their issues at the position, that shouldn’t affect their decision with Hyde. Like with the others, they just have to figure out how much is too much.

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