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Dougherty: Packers positioning for free-agency bargains in NFL's salary-dumping binge

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - One comment from Brian Gutekunst jumped out during the general manager’s Zoom news conference after the Green Bay Packers announced David Bakhtiari’s contract extension a couple of weeks ago.

“(Next) year I think is going to be a unique free-agent class, only because a lot of teams are going to be trying to get under the ($175 million salary-cap) number, whatever that comes out to be," Gutekunst said. "The players that might become available to us during the March period may be a little different than it has in the past, and we want to have some flexibility to do those things if we can.”

Gutekunst expects he’ll be able to afford a good bargain or two on the free-agent market when teams go on a salary-dumping binge to get under a shrinking cap that will be about $33 million less than NFL teams were planning for before coronavirus hit.

In other words, Gutekunst is planning to do more than the bare minimum to get under the cap in March. The bare minimum, according to Ken Ingalls, who independently tracks the Packers’ cap more closely than anyone but the team, is about $40 million. So by the sounds of it, Gutekunst is looking to cut his ’21 cap by more than $50 million.

That sounds dire. But it’s not as dire as you might think. Gutekunst and team vice president Russ Ball will have a lot of work to do in February and early March, but there’s good reason to think they can create that much room without seriously compromising budgets and future caps.

Big offseason contract restructures for Aaron Rodgers, Bakhtiari and Za’Darius Smith might look like the Packers are recklessly kicking the salary-cap can down the road. But it won’t be as bad as it looks, for two reasons: First, cash is king and matters more than cap. Second, eventually, whether it’s in 2022 or ’23, the Packers’ quarterback position will go from being one of the league’s most expensive to one of its cheapest. That will make it easier to absorb the hit for pushing cap money down the road.

In a moment we’ll get into the specific contract and roster moves to look for, and there are a lot of them. But first, there’s cash and Rodgers.

Cash is the biggest constraint on NFL teams’ spending. They have yearly budgets based on income, and the Packers, for one, need to add to their rainy-day fund yearly to ensure they can weather unexpectedly bad economic times like they’re facing this year.

But they also have the financial resources to be highly competitive with anyone in the league. They have cash, about $411 million in their reserve fund as of last July. They have to save most of it, but they have access to plenty of cash.

Just as importantly, the Packers have been an average cash spender in the league in recent years. It’s not like they have to cut back now to make up for past spending sins.

Over the last five years, according to salary information at SpoTrac, the Packers have spent about $1 million in cash more per season than the average NFL team. Go back five years and it’s actually $1.6 million per year less.

This season, even after dropping about $37 million on Bakhtiari with his recent deal, the Packers rank No. 15 in cash spent. Houston tops the league and will pay out $36 million more than the Packers in 2020. New Orleans ($34 million more), San Francisco ($33 million) and Dallas ($32 million) are outspending the Packers by a ton this season, too.

So the Packers have not blown out their budgets. They can afford to move up that list for a year or two.

Then there’s Rodgers. With the way he’s playing, there’s no doubt he’ll be their quarterback in 2021. It would hardly be a shock if he were back in ’22 as well. But his deal runs out after the ’23 season, and eventually, his huge salary ($25 million in ’22 and ’23) will come off the books. That will more than offset any extra cap hits for redoing his deal. Plus, his replacement, Jordan Love, will be making less than $3 million. That’s a huge savings at the game’s most expensive position.

Remember, too, that the NFL’s national media deals come due in the next couple of years. The NFL reliably delivers viewers (television and streaming) like nothing else in this country. Revenue, and the salary cap with it, will skyrocket, just as they have every time the league has done new media deals over the last 30 years. Bank on it.

As for Gutekunst’s roster moves, remember that while contract restructures push cap money down the road, they don’t cost extra cash. They’re an accounting move. The player gets the same money, it’s just mostly in one chunk after the restructure, rather than in weekly paychecks.

So what do Gutekunst and Ball have to do to save $50-plus million in ’21 cap room?

This isn’t the place to get bogged down in the details of cap calculations. We’re not going to show our work, so you’ll have to trust that the numbers are very much in the ballpark. They’re based on Packers salary information on SpoTrac.

First, restructures for Rodgers ($13.7 million in savings), Bakhtiari ($7.8 million) and Za’Darius Smith ($7.5 million) will get the Packers more than half the way by saving $30 million.

An offseason contract extension for Davante Adams will cost a lot of cash — maybe as much as $30 million in ’21 — but save another $5 million in cap room.

Cutting players saves cap room and cash. Parting with Christian Kirksey ($6 million cap savings), Rick Wagner ($4.25 million), Dean Lowry ($3 million) and Devin Funchess ($1.3 million) saves another $14.5 million. That gets the Packers to about $50 million.

Cutting Preston Smith would create another $8 million. Getting him to take a pay cut would save less.

Restructuring Kenny Clark could help ($3 million saved). Smaller restructures could nibble away if need be, too.

Remember, eventually replacing Rodgers with Love will absorb most of the cap money kicked down the road. You don’t want to live like this every year, but the Packers can afford it for a year or two.

With Bakhtiari signed, the offseason’s re-signings are getting clearer, too.

The Packers can afford to re-sign Aaron Jones. Putting the franchise tag on him would take a big bite out of the cap room created — the tag for running backs probably will cost about $10.8 million. But the tag also might convince Jones to accept a ’21 cap-friendly long-term deal, and if not, it’s never a bad play to go year-to-year with a running back.

It’s also hard to see Gutekunst ponying up for Kevin King considering the cornerback’s troubling injury history, including five missed games (quad) this year. And after paying Bakhtiari big, it’s a good bet Gutekunst won’t invest big in another good offensive lineman, center Corey Linsley.

So yeah, Gutekunst has a realistic path to go bargain shopping next year in what could be a buyer’s free-agent market. It will take a lot of work and a little pain, but he can do it without wrecking his team’s future.

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