Dougherty: Packers must find salary-cap room to make moves

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst watches practice for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Jan., 2018.

When parsing comments by new Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst at last week’s NFL scouting combine, it's best to heed the old saying about lawyers:

Judge him by what he does, not what he says.

Gutekunst conducted a couple of lengthy sessions with reporters last week in Indianapolis, and it made for interesting reading. But for all the news he made, much of what Gutekunst said was probably not as definitive as it sounded at the time.

The subject that stood out in that way was the contracts of receivers Jordy Nelson ($10.25 million in salary and bonuses in 2018) and Randall Cobb ($9.5 million). At least one could be a prime target for at least a pay cut, yet the Packers haven’t moved on either as far as we know publicly, and based on what Gutekunst said at the combine, it sounded like both might be back on their current deals.

“Those guys are good players, and you don’t want to let those guys walk out the door if you don’t have to,” Gutekunst said.

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Later, when asked about all the money the Packers are spending at receiver (Davante Adams’ cap number will be $10.5 million as part of his new deal), Gutekunst answered: “If you have really good players, you need to keep really good players, and you don’t let them walk out the door just for that reason.”

That makes it sound like Nelson and Cobb might be back at their current deals. Yet, even now it’s hard to take that at face value. The free-agent market doesn’t open for another week, and the smart money says the Packers still will end up doing something with at least one of the two (pay cut? outright release?), even though nothing has happened yet.

Really, it’s hard to see how Gutekunst doesn’t do something there.

The 2018 salary cap hasn’t been set, but it’s looking like the Packers will come in with around $16 million in cap room. They will need about $3 million of top-51 cap space for their draft class. That doesn’t leave all that much for free agency, re-signings and Aaron Rodgers’ record-setting contract, though they can structure the Rodgers’ deal to create cap space in 2018 if they’re willing to push more money into future caps (OverTheCap projects them with about $73 million in cap room in ’19).

If Gutekunst really is as committed as he says to upgrading his team in 2018, he has to sign at least one cornerback in free agency, and maybe even two (one to a good-sized contract, the other on the cheap). He’ll also be in the market for a starting tight end, possibly a stopgap starter at guard and maybe a veteran quarterback to compete with Brett Hundley for the No. 2 job.

Gutekunst also has one free agent of his own (Morgan Burnett) who will fall on the expensive side of the ledger if the GM wants to bring him back.

And Gutekunst also might want to pursue a player he likes at a lesser need. The Packers’ reported interest in defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who was released Monday by the New York Jets, falls into that category.

To do most or all of that, Gutekunst is going to need more cap room. Where’s the money going to come from?

Cobb and Nelson are a natural place to look.

That’s just the reality of the NFL. Nelson and Cobb have played a lot of good football for the Packers. But how can the team justify paying them a combined $21 million in salary and bonuses at this stage in their careers? Somewhere in there, the Packers should be able to pick up a few million dollars in cap room, if not more.

Just because Gutekunst and team vice president Russ Ball haven’t made a move with Nelson or Cobb yet doesn’t mean they won’t in the coming weeks. The Packers don’t need cap room now, and often in this league, you don’t do something until you have to, just in case circumstances change.

So I’m still betting the Packers do something with at least one of those two.

Maybe it will be just a pay cut for Nelson, who signaled late last season he’s open to a contract adjustment, which is another way of saying a pay cut.

But my guess is Gutekunst will keep one and cut the other. If so, who stays and who goes? Tough to say. Rodgers has good chemistry with both, though with Nelson it’s off the charts. Nelson is the much bigger target — he’s 4½ inches taller than Cobb — whereas Cobb is far younger (27 to Nelson’s 32) and faster.

Gutekunst has said several times he’s going to be more active in free agency than his predecessor. He has said it enough that you have to think he means it, but we’ll have to judge him by what he does there, too.

Still, if that’s the plan for 2018, he’s going to need more cap room. And that money has to come from somewhere.


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