The reports on upcoming free agency are trickling in and suggesting the Green Bay Packers could have a problem re-signing Randall Cobb.
Bill Williamson of ESPN.com says the Oakland Raiders, with salary-cap room galore, are expected to make a run at the 24-year-old receiver who will hit the free agent market in about two weeks. Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com reported the Packers think that Cobb's market could get "out of hand" and are prepared to move on if that's the case.
Such difficulties would be a surprise and could drastically alter the Packers' plans for March and April, because going into the offseason Cobb appeared to be their highest priority to re-sign. His departure would move receiver to or near the top of the draft needs list. It also would improve the chances the Packers would re-sign right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
But it's not a given Cobb's market will blow up. And regardless, general manager Ted Thompson will have the cap room and cash to re-sign Cobb and Bulaga, several other of his own free agents and a player or two from another team as well. That's if he chooses, though, because Thompson also places a premium on maintaining the team's salary hierarchy and sticking with his assigned value to players when deciding how far to go in negotiations.
Last week the NFLPA projected this year's salary cap to be at least $143 million, so we now know how much cap room Thompson has to work with this offseason. After cutting A.J. Hawk on Wednesday, the Packers have about $32 million in cap room, according to data obtained from sources with access to NFL salary information. According to OverTheCap.com, that puts the Packers at Nos. 7 or 8 for most cap room in the league.
They also have 11 unrestricted free agents and three restricted free agents, plus their 2015 draft class, and any players they might sign from other teams when free agency opens in March. Yes, Thompson is a good bet to dip into free agency this year, at least for a mid- to low-level inside linebacker to compete for a starting job with the player or players he drafts at that position.
Thompson's list of free agents includes four who will command high salaries: Cobb, Bulaga and cornerbacks Davon House and Tramon Williams. It's hard to see the GM re-signing more than three of them, at most, and to estimate how much money he'll have to work with on those deals it's instructive to go through some of his other impending cap costs.
We'll start with the other free agents Thompson is likely to re-sign.
Last year, he retained defensive lineman B.J. Raji for $4 million, and after Raji missed all last season because of a torn biceps, the best guess is the Packers can get him even cheaper on a one-year deal this season. Perhaps for around $2 million.
Defensive lineman Letroy Guion's recent marijuana arrest kills his value on the open market, so he's probably a minimum-salary player now, which means the Packers probably can re-sign him for the seven-year veteran minimum of $870,000. With the veteran's minimum salary benefit, he'd count only $515,000 against the cap, with up to $80,000 in signing bonus allowed as well, though he might not even have the leverage for a bonus.
Backup quarterbacks Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn will be minimum-salary type players also, though it's unclear whether the Packers will re-sign both. If so, Tolzien ($745,000 plus bonus) and Flynn ($870,000 but with the veteran minimum benefit of $515,000 cap charge plus bonus) combined still will cost less than $1.5 million on this year's cap. And if the Packers sign only one, it will be half that.
Of the Packers' three restricted free agents, offensive lineman Don Barclay and safety Sean Richardson probably will get the low tender, which is projected to be about $1.5 million. That would give the Packers the right to match any deal they sign with another team. It's hard to see receiver Jarrett Boykin getting a tender after the drop-off in his play last season, but the Packers could re-sign him for the fourth-year minimum of $660,000.
So just for the sake of argument, let's assume the Packers re-sign Guion, Kuhn and Bush for minimum deals ($515,000 cap charge) plus both backup quarterbacks at a combined $1.5 million cap charge, and handle the restricted tenders as suggested ($3.66 million combined). That's a combined $6.7 million, lowering their cap room to around $25.3 million.
Their rookie class will cost another $4.5 million, though for the offseason only the top 51 salaries count on the cap, and only the first four picks probably will rank among the top 51 when they sign. So the rookie class will count only about $3 million more.
That lowers the cap room to about $22.3 million for Thompson and his cap manager, team vice president Russ Ball, to re-sign Cobb, Bulaga, Williams and House, and any free agents from other teams.
As for guessing who's back and who's not among those four, I still think the Packers will get something done with Cobb before free agency starts, and they'll retain Bulaga as well. But La Canfora's report on Cobb gives pause.
House and Williams are even tougher predictions. House is the younger of the two (26 in July), and the Packers like him. But I'm not convinced they like him $5 million to $7 million a year, which he just might command on the open market.
Williams probably can be had for less than that – maybe $3.5 million a year or so – though the worry there is he turns 32 next month, and at that age his play could slip dramatically in one offseason. I'm inclined to think he has some Donald Driver in him, which means enough springiness in his legs for another good season or two. But that's not a given.
My guess is Williams is back and House signs a big contract with another team. If both leave, then Casey Hayward becomes an outside cornerback, Micah Hyde the full-time nickel back, and cornerback shoots way up the draft priority list.
Re-signing Cobb and Bulaga will be much more expensive.
With Cobb, the contract to look at is Jordy Nelson's. Last August, Nelson signed a new deal that by NFLPA calculations averages $9.762 million. But that's counting only the new money and four years added to the one year he had left his deal. In reality, Nelson signed a new five-year contract that averages $8.51 million and included an $11.5 million signing bonus and $13.5 million in first-year pay.
Though Nelson is more important to the Packers' offense because of his ability to make plays down field, Cobb has a good chance of topping that deal. In fact, Thompson should be willing to pay Cobb a little more without worry of locker-room fallout.
Nelson opted for the security of a contract extension — you can't blame him for that — rather than risking serious injury by playing out the season. If Cobb surpasses him on the Packers' pay scale because he has more leverage after taking the risk, well, that's the price Nelson paid. He should have no beef.
Cobb probably would be worth re-signing in the range of $9 million a year because he's uncommonly young (24) for a free agent and a big part of the Packers' offense, even if his size (5-10, 192 pounds) leaves him susceptible to injury. If the price gets much higher than that, though, I suspect Thompson would drop out.
But even if he re-signs Cobb in the $9 million range, Thompson could do it without taking that big a bite from the $22.3 million we're projecting he has in cap room. He could structure the deal similar to Nelson's, which pays $16.55 million in '14 and '15 combined, yet counted only $5.925 million on the '14 cap and $4.6 million on the '15 cap.
Bulaga is the best right tackle on the open market, so he'll likely become one of and maybe the highest-paid right tackle in the league. That player for now is Indianapolis' Gosder Cherilus, whose five-year deal averages $7 million a year and included $15.5 million guaranteed. One longtime agent I talked to at the NFL scouting combine last week predicted Bulaga's average will top Cherilus, but that the guarantee will be less because of Bulaga's season-ending injuries (hip, knee) in '12 and '13
With the cap projected to rise from at least $143 million this year to as high as $160 million in 2016, according to a report on ProFootballTalk.com, Thompson could opt for light cap charges this season with Cobb, Bulaga or both, and still have $12 million to $15 million in cap room for his dealings with Williams or House and any free agents he'd pursue at, say, inside linebacker.
The Packers' don't have any other obvious candidates for cap relief now that they've cut Hawk and Brad Jones. If Thompson needs more cap room, he could convert some of the 2015 pay for Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews or Julius Peppers into a prorated signing bonus.
But that doesn't appear likely. Thompson and Ball like to pay as they go, and they should have the cap room this year and in the near future to stay on that path.
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