Silverstein: Salary-cap growth eases Packers' free-agency risk

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson watches during practice inside the Don Hutson Center Wednesday, November 15, 2017 in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

GREEN BAY - Those who think Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson doesn’t know how to evaluate talent have it all wrong.

Thompson still is one of the shrewdest personnel evaluators in the NFL, even if his 2017 team was exposed for being too young and too thin to stay afloat while quarterback Aaron Rodgers recuperated from a broken collarbone.

The problem with Thompson isn’t that he’s a poor judge of talent, it’s that he has refused to accept that the NFL financial landscape has changed and that it is not as risky as it used to be to participate in free agency.

Salary-cap management has changed dramatically during the second half of the 10-year collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011. Thompson still is operating under the assumption that free agency can bankrupt you and compromise your ability to sign your very best players to second and third contracts.

Thompson’s philosophy has allowed him to pay big contracts to Rodgers, Clay Matthews, David Bakhtiari, Mike Daniels, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Nick Perry without compromising the future.

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As long as they were winning the NFC North or qualifying as a wild card with Rodgers under center, the Packers had a chance to go all the way.

It was a solid way of doing business until the salary cap went up $17 million in 2006 and the risk of being stuck in cap purgatory due to one or two bad free agent decisions went away.

One even could excuse Thompson for being conservative early this decade when the cap went up only $3 million total from 2011 through 2013. But in ’14 it went from $123 million to $133 million. The next year it went up $10 million again. The next year, $12 million. And last year, $12 million again.

Estimates have the cap going up another $10 million this year to around $177 million.

The likelihood of being hamstrung due to a free-agent mistake or two is minimal. Only the teams who have taken the biggest risks face uncertainty with their salary cap; the rest can eat a bad contract and not even spit out a seed.

“This is not like it was when the cap was going up 2, 3, 4 million a year and people were always up against it,” said an agent who has signed numerous big-money, free-agent contracts in recent years and will negotiate some others this offseason. “It steadily moves up $10 million a year now.

“You can afford to make a mistake now.”

Teams are much shrewder now also. They structure free-agent contracts so that if the player bombs, they’re out from under the cap obligation in three or four years.

“That’s where guaranteed money comes into play,” the agent said. “When you’re negotiating a deal, you’re thinking three years only because the team is thinking, ‘How long before I can get out of this contract?’ That’s why the first thing you’re dealing with is length of contract.”

Thompson has built a solid team around Rodgers, but it’s very difficult finding impact players when you are picking 29th, 27th, 30th, 21st, 26th, 28th or 32nd in the draft, as has been the case starting in April and working back to right after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV.

His yearly refusal to take chances in free agency continually leaves the Packers short of talent and experience and results in them having to play undrafted rookies late in the year when injuries strike.

Thompson has made the argument that he’d prefer to sink money into the players he drafted, but there’s evidence now that you can both sign your own and sign others. And if you trust your personnel staff to evaluate mercurial 22-year-olds, why wouldn’t you trust them to evaluate players who have been in the NFL four or more years?

The Packers got burned with unrestricted free-agent tight end Martellus Bennett this past offseason and haven’t gotten much out of street free agent Lance Kendricks. But unrestricted free-agent guard Jahri Evans has been a solid starter and street free agents Ahmad Brooks and Quinton Dial have contributed enough to be worth their modest salaries.

Even if the Packers can’t get Bennett’s $4.2 million pro-rated signing bonus off their cap next year through a grievance they have filed, it’s not going to kill their salary cap.

According to a source with access to NFL Players Association salary-cap data, the Packers have 39 players under contract for 2018 at a cost of $145 million. They will carry over $10 million in leftover cap space from 2017 and thus will have an adjusted cap number of around $187 million.

It means that they’ll go into the offseason with about $42 million in salary-cap room.

Yes, they must make Rodgers the highest-paid player in the NFL again, but if they want, the Packers can make his salary-cap number go down if they structure it a certain way. They might have to devote $17 million or so to the cap if they have to use the franchise tag on receiver Davante Adams, but they eventually will sign him to a long-term deal that will spread the cap obligation out over multiple years.

They have other free agents such as center Corey Linsley, tight end Richard Rodgers, safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Davon House they might want to sign, but none should require blockbuster deals.

The bottom line is that they can afford to sign free agents to bolster their talent level.

When asked about his team’s use of free agency earlier this year, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said adding veterans helped increase competition up and down the roster. The Steelers are known as a draft-and-develop team, but they supplement their ranks when they feel it is necessary.

This past offseason, they signed wide receiver Justin Hunter, cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and end Tyson Alualu and then gave former Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden a three-year, $27 million deal in August after Cleveland released him.

All four of those players are playing contributing roles for the AFC North champions.

“I think more than anything, that's what it's about for us, to create an environment that's competitive,” Tomlin said in a conference call before his team played the Packers. “I think that brings the best out of everybody and I think largely, usually that comes in the form of someone that's played a little football.”

If you look at the list of free-agent signings from the 2017 offseason there are more than a dozen that have been well worth the money, including 10 in which the player’s yearly average is $8 million or more.

Ask Jacksonville if end Calais Campbell ($12 million) and cornerback A.J. Bouye ($8 million) have made a difference. Ask New England if cornerback Stephon Gilmore ($13 million) has made a difference. Ask Minnesota if tackle Riley Reiff ($11.75 million) or the Los Angeles Rams if tackle Andrew Whitworth ($11.25 million) have made a difference. Ask Baltimore if safety Tony Jefferson ($9 million) has made a difference.

All of them will say yes.

There have been some free-agent duds, but that’s part of the same risk you take when you select a 22-year-old kid in the draft.

This offseason the cornerback free-agent class is going to be pretty good. Wide receiver is strong, too. A lot will depend on how many players re-sign before they reach free agency.

Thompson can’t sulk because the Bennett deal didn’t work out. He has a team that is desperate for more talent and needs to stop sitting on its hands in free agency if it wants to do more than ride Rodgers’ coattails.

The risk isn’t as great as it used to be.

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