Dougherty: Why Packers won't be splurging in free agency again next year

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Brian Gutekunst's free-agent spending spree pushed a lot of money into future Green Bay Packers salary caps.

How much?

Enough that the Packers rank near the bottom (No. 28) in the NFL in salary-cap room for 2020, according to

That’s not to say their position will be dire a year from now with an estimated $28 million in real cap room. It’s not like the Packers general manager will have to cut guys or restructure deals to get under the cap or sign a couple free agents next year at this time.

But the league average for 2020 is about $65 million, and regardless, Gutekunst won’t be able to go on the kind of splurge he did this year. That would require pushing even more money into future caps, which would push him a lot closer to cap jail.

“This year our team was in a situation where I thought this was the right thing to do for our team moving forward,” Gutekunst said last week. “It won’t always be. It’ll be year to year, and we’ll do what we need to do to win.

“Obviously, you can’t kick the (salary-cap) can down the road forever, but at the same time, I don’t think we really did that here. If you really look at it, we didn’t really jeopardize anything in the future.”

Now that the four free agents (Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner) are signed and in the Packers’ books, it’s worth remembering that these contracts aren’t what they appear. Teams game out scenarios when doing deals, including what happens if things go south, because NFL history says they often do.

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst speaks at a press conference at Lambeau Field on Thursday, March 14, 2019 in Green Bay, Wis.

For an example of just how quickly things can change, we need look back only to last week. The Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants took mammoth salary-cap hits,  $21 million and $16 million, when they traded disgruntled star receivers Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham, Jr.

I’ll bet neither team thought there was any chance it would have to eat that kind of dead money when it did the deal.

While the Packers’ signings of the two Smiths, Amos and Turner were for four years on paper, they should be viewed – as should pretty much all free-agent contracts – as one- or two-year deals, with a team option thereafter.

To get all four comfortably under the cap, the Packers went for small cap numbers this year. That forced them to put big cap numbers in the next three seasons.

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Let’s not numb our brains by explaining the details of how the cap works. Suffice it to say, the Packers manipulated the cap numbers by paying out large signing bonuses so they could spread the cap costs over the length of the contracts.

Here are the most telling numbers: The combined cap number for all four signees in 2019 is $23.4 million; next year, it doubles to $47.75 million.

The large signing bonuses — Za’Darius Smith received $20 million, Preston Smith $16 million — all but lock in the Packers to keeping them for two years. Things would have to go terribly wrong for the team to part with either after one season.

To cut Za’Darius Smith after one year, the Packers would have to eat $15 million in dead money on their ’20 cap but gain only $2.25 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. To cut him after two seasons, on the other hand, they’d still have a lot of dead money ($10 million) in ’21 but would also free up $10.75 million in cap space.

Likewise, cutting Preston Smith after one season would cost the Packers $12 million in dead money in ‘20 and gain them only $1.5 million in cap room. To do it after the ’20 season, they’d still take a big dead-money hit ($8 million) but at least would gain $8 million in cap space.

It’s the same for Amos ($11 million bonus) and Turner ($9 million bonus), only on a little smaller scale. The Packers could more easily part with either after one season, but the dead money hits ($8.25 million for Amos, $6.75 million for Turner) would hurt.

From a salary-cap perspective, the risk of free agency isn’t so much the big money, it’s the big signing bonuses. Gutekunst and Russ Ball, the team’s vice president/director of football operations, had to push their cap costs to the future to land the four players they signed last week.

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That will cost them flexibility in 2020, because that $28 million in 2020 cap space could go fast.

For instance, former first-round pick Kenny Clark isn’t under contract for 2020 yet, but he’s a keeper. He’ll cost either the fifth-year option of about $7.5 million, or a contract extension that won’t be cheap.

The Packers’ 2020 free-agent class doesn’t have any must-signs but includes Mike Daniels (30 in May), Dean Lowry, Blake Martinez, Mason Crosby and Kyler Fackrell. You have to think Gutekunst will want at least one or two of them back.

Gutekunst has made his splash. His roster was crying out for help, so he made the big moves he thought were best.

He took his chances and paid the early signing premium. Now he needs at least two of these guys to pan out, and a really good draft to boot. Because he won’t be able to go free-agent crazy again next year.


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