GREEN BAY - By the end of next week, tight end Jimmy Graham will be part of the 2019 Green Bay Packers and edge rusher Nick Perry likely won't.
Barring any last-minute negotiations or unforeseen circumstances, that appears to be the plan.
A question that will carry all the way through the regular season will be: Did the Packers keep one when they should have gotten rid of both or should they have kept Perry and gotten rid of Graham?
Predicting the future isn't easy, but weighing risk vs. reward is what president Mark Murphy, general manager Brian Gutekunst and negotiator Russ Ball are paid to do. Gutekunst is in charge of the 53-man roster, but he doesn't control the purse strings and if Murphy and Ball think it's a bad idea to keep Perry, then he's gone.
Whether or not it was a group decision, the Packers are set to keep Graham and cut Perry.
The Packers head toward the NFL’s new calendar year slightly less than $35 million under the recently set $188.2 million salary cap, according to a source who has seen NFL Players Association salary data. That's a healthy amount of cap space with which to operate.
Both Graham ($5 million) and Perry ($4.8 million) are due roster bonuses on the third day of the league year (March 16). If the Packers don't pay them, the player becomes a free agent and his 2019 salary is wiped off the books.
All that remains is any pro-rated portion of the signing bonus he received when he signed his contract.
Gutekunst all but confirmed at the NFL scouting combine that Graham would be back. He did not say for certain that the Packers will pay the $5 million roster bonus so it’s possible his terms will be renegotiated, but don't count on it.
On the other hand, very little has been said about Perry.
This won’t be a popular opinion, but the Packers are making a big mistake if they keep Graham over Perry.
All we’ve heard about since the end of last season is how badly the Packers need edge rushers. Gutekunst has said publicly that he plans to be very active in pursuing – he didn’t say signing – free agents this offseason and his priority will be pass rushers.
The part that doesn’t make sense when it comes to releasing Perry is that he’s an edge rusher and he's only 28 years old. He has been an injury waiting to happen for much of his career, but over the past five years, he has averaged just over three missed games.
Over that span he has had 26 sacks, one interception, nine passes broken up and four forced fumbles. Altogether, the output wouldn’t seem worth the $11 million in cash he’s due this season. But when you see what lesser athletes with fewer sacks are about to get paid, you’ll think Perry is a bargain.
All the top edge rushers have been taken off the market because their team slapped a franchise tag on or signed them, so all that is available is a second- and third-string class of pass rushers who are going to break the bank simply because they are all that is available.
Look at some of their recent totals:
Preston Smith, Washington (26 years old): four seasons, 24 sacks, four interceptions, 13 pass break-ups, four forced fumbles.
Dante Fowler, Rams (24): four seasons, 17 missed games, 16 sacks, six passes broken up, four forced fumbles.
Trey Flowers, Patriots (25): four seasons, 18 missed games, 21 sacks, six pass break-ups, five forced fumbles.
Cameron Wake, Dolphins (37): five seasons, 11 missed games, 46.5 sacks, one interception, seven pass break-ups, 13 forced fumbles.
Ziggy Ansah, Lions (30): five seasons, 14 missed games, 40 sacks, one pass break-up, eight forced fumbles.
Za’Darius Smith, Ravens (26): four seasons, six missed games, 18.5 sacks, five pass break-ups, three forced fumbles.
It’s going to cost a lot more than $11 million to sign Preston Smith, Flowers, Ansah and possibly Za’Darius Smith. The market is flooded with cap space and not a lot of pass rushers so you can bet some teams will fall in love to the tune of $12-15 million per year with three or four in that group.
Even if the number is closer to $9 million a year for some, it’s still not that far from the $11 million the Packers are set to pay Perry.
The Packers should have a pretty good idea of Perry’s condition heading into the offseason. He was confident after suffering a hyperextended right knee against Miami in Week 10 that he would not need surgery, which means he should have a full offseason to prepare for 2019.
If his knee is troublesome or he can't pass his physical, then the decision is easy, and the Packers should let him go.
But how much less of an injury (or production) risk is Graham than Perry?
One reason the Packers are sticking with Graham is that they're desperately undermanned at the tight end position with converted wide receiver Robert Tonyan the only other option with NFL experience. The draft is full of tight ends, but in coach Matt LaFleur's first year, he's going to need some veterans.
The thing is, Graham isn't really a tight end. He's a wide receiver and LaFleur can't count on him being an effective blocker in the wide zone rushing attack he'll use. So, he'll be in search of tight ends anyway.
Another reason is that the Packers feel they can better manage Graham's health next season with more time off. He missed only two days of training camp last year and practiced every day during the regular season until his knee started flaring up. At that point, they were working uphill with him.
The same could be said of Perry. He had offseason surgery on his ankle in 2018 and had to take some days off during the regular season to rest it. He never really got ahead of the injury. He suffered the right knee injury against Miami in Week 10.
If the Packers pay Perry's $4.8 million roster bonus, it doesn’t mean they have to pay him the rest of the $6.2 million he’s owed. If he’s beat up again in training camp, let him go and the $7.4 million in pro-rated signing bonus left on his deal goes onto the 2020 salary cap (cap hits are pushed into the following year if the move is made after June 1).
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Cut him now and the Packers take on the $7.4 million right away. Their net gain ($11 million in salary minus $7.4 million in pro-ration) would be just $3.6 million in salary-cap space. They do have the option of designating him a post-June 1 cut, which would allow them to net all $11 million this year and push off the $7.4 million into next year.
The reasons to hang onto Perry aren't that different than the ones to keep Graham: The Packers have only one legitimate edge rusher on their roster (Kyler Fackrell) and they can manage Perry's workload in camp and the regular season to lessen the injury risk.
Because pass rushers don’t grow on trees and anybody the Packers take in the draft is unlikely to have an immediate impact, they need to think twice about cutting him loose. Even if he doesn’t finish with double-digit sacks, he’s a powerful run defender who isn’t limited to rushing on third downs.
If the Packers were to cut Graham and Perry and make a splash in free agency, then at least they’ll be able to do it with some salary-cap room to spare. But cutting only Perry doesn't net them enough cap space to go nuts in free agency and leaves them with a $9 million 32-year-old tight end on the books.
If you're going to risk that kind of money, risk it on an edge rusher.
When you understand what the rest of the league is doing to keep from losing a pass rusher in free agency, then you know how difficult it will be to find someone at that spot who can help this season. There’s just as much risk betting $11 million on some second-tier free agent as there is on Perry.
If the Packers were in bad cap shape, then cutting Perry would make more sense. But they are not. Even if they were to make $2.025 million restricted free agent tenders to receiver Geronimo Allison, safety Kentrell Brice and safety Ibraheim Campbell, they’d still be $28.5 million under the cap.
Their best players – quarterback Aaron Rodgers, receiver Davante Adams, tackle David Bakhtiari, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark, cornerback Jaire Alexander and linebacker Blake Martinez – are all under contract this year.
Next year, Daniels, Martinez, Fackrell, kicker Mason Crosby and defensive tackle Dean Lowry are the top players set for unrestricted free agency. That presents very little problem to the Packers’ salary cap and makes it less of a risk to pay the roster bonus to Perry.
And given the importance of the position, the Packers certainly should do it before they do it for Graham.