INDIANAPOLIS – Sometimes in NFL contract negotiations, you have to read between the lines.
For instance, seeing Packers contract negotiator Russ Ball together with power agent David Dunn in the lobby of the Westin Hotel Friday would leave you to believe the two were meeting about free agent Clay Matthews.
Asking the two parties directly won’t get you the answer, given the level of secrecy with which the Packers and Dunn operate when working together. The two wouldn’t admit they were in the Westin even if they were standing under a Westin logo in the middle of a Westin.
General manager Brian Gutekunst said this week at the NFL scouting combine that he couldn’t say for sure whether the Packers were very interested in bringing Matthews back.
“We’ll kind of get to that a little bit the next two weeks,” Gutekunst said.
Dunn, who represents Matthews and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, needs to find out what the Packers might want to pay to retain his client and the meeting with Ball might have been just about that. Dunn could also mention a few free agents he has this offseason, although the NFL strictly prohibits (wink, wink) any contract talks before the free-agent negotiating period begins.
Gutekunst said in deciding whether to re-sign both Matthews and receiver Randall Cobb, the Packers were still "putting that puzzle together." With Matthews, it probably means finding out how much less than the $11.4 million he made in 2018 he is willing to take in ’19.
When Matthews signed his five-year extension in 2013, he had registered double-digit sacks in three of his first four seasons (42 total). Since then he has reached double-digit sacks only once (2014) and had only 3½ last year.
Matthews did create some pass-rush pressure. He led the team with 11 quarterback hits and trailed only Mike Daniels in pressures with nine. He just didn’t make many splash plays and finished 12th on the team in tackles with 41. He had just one forced fumble.
Gutekunst said Matthews is still “playing at a very, very high level,” but the Packers could let Matthews hit free agency and allow the market to determine his worth. Given the dearth of available pass rushers in free agency and a lot of salary-cap money to throw around, Matthews’ value could skyrocket.
On the other hand, this year’s draft is flush with quality defensive linemen and possesses a decent amount of edge rushers, so Gutekunst could fill some of his pass-rush needs there.
The likelihood of the Packers paying outside linebacker Nick Perry the $4.8 million roster bonus he’s due in mid-March doesn’t seem great, which means they will need to sign Matthews or an unrestricted free agent to bolster the ranks beyond Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert and Kendall Donnerson.
If the Packers cut Perry it would clear $7.3 million from their 2019 cap, and if they also let Matthews go they would have more than enough salary-cap room to compete for top free agents such as Houston’s Jadevon Clowney, Kansas City’s Dee Ford, Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence and Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith, provided their teams don’t slap the franchise tag on them.
If the Packers strike out with the top guys, they could always match whatever price Matthews has attracted and focus their attention on the draft.
Whatever the case, the free-agent wheels are in motion. Or at least they appear to be.
An NFL source said league officials told clubs that the salary cap would rise about $10 million to $187 million, but it’s possible it could reach $190 million.
The salary cap has been increasing by $10 million or more each of the last five seasons and teams who treasure cap space — like the Packers — usually have money to burn in free agency.
Gutekunst said he would be aggressive again this year in contacting free agents, but it’s possible he won’t sign anyone. However, there aren’t a lot of his own players whose contracts need to be extended this year, so the money will be there for him to do whatever he wants.
The official numbers aren’t in, but the Packers are expected to be somewhere around $35 million under the salary cap. They could use a good portion of that on free agents if they choose.
When the Packers put safety Ibraheim Campbell on injured reserve in December, they did not specify the injury.
It turns out he tore his ACL.
Campbell is an unrestricted free agent and it appears the Packers are interested in bringing him back. He played for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in Cleveland and was able to jump right into action in the middle of the season after being picked up on waivers from the New York Jets.
SILVERSTEIN: Aaron Rodgers must do things Matt LaFleur's way
In the three games he played he had 20 tackles (16 solo), a forced fumble and a pass broken up.
Campbell’s aim is to be ready for training camp, but that is still in question. It’s possible he won’t be signed until he’s healthy.
Other free agents
The Packers don’t have an interest in re-signing cornerback Davon House, who landed on injured reserve last year and wound up having shoulder surgery, a source said.
The agent for linebacker Antonio Morrison said he expected to speak with Ball this week to see if the Packers have interest in bringing him back for the final year of his deal. The problem is Morrison is due $2.02 million base salary and the Packers probably don’t want to pay that much for a backup.
The Packers could cut him and try to re-sign him at a lower salary or work out a salary reduction with his agent, if he’s willing.
The collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from beginning offseason workouts until mid-April, but coach Matt LaFleur gets to start a week early because he’s a first-year coach.
He’s also allowed a second veteran minicamp and he’ll probably schedule it for draft week at the end of April. After the draft, he’s allowed a rookie orientation camp and a full-team minicamp.
April, May and June are going to be important months for him.
“I’ve learned you’ve got to make every second count because at the end of it, it still doesn’t feel like enough,” said LaFleur, who was part of a first-year head coach’s staff in the two years prior to this one. “We’ve got to have a great plan and work with a great sense of urgency in order to get everything we want to get accomplished.
“What we’re trying to do is prepare our team for the season and really how can we get them prepared for Week 1?”