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Dougherty: Packers can score in free agency despite salary-cap constraints

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GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers still figure to harbor hopes of retaining Aaron Jones, and if they’d resigned themselves to letting All-Pro center Corey Linsley walk in free agency, David Bakhtiari’s ACL injury might be giving them second thoughts there.

They might still be trying to persuade J.J. Watt to sign at a big home-state and Super Bowl-chase discount.

And general manager Brian Gutekunst has already said he’d like to do some bargain shopping in what figures to be a buyer’s market in free agency this offseason.

The question is, can the Packers do at least some of those things even though they’re still about $12.5 million over the salary cap, according to independent Packers salary-cap analyst Ken Ingalls, after releasing Christian Kirksey and Rick Wagner last week?

The short answer is, yes. Gutekunst, team president and CEO Mark Murpy and vice president Russ Ball have the wherewithal, though they’ll have to push serious money into future salary caps and rank among the league’s biggest cash spenders over the next two years. That will create their share of cap problems in 2022, as well, but a healthy war chest ($411 million in their reserve fund as of last July) plus knowledge that new TV deals will cause the cap to spike by 2023 give them license to spend more in the short term and waning years of Aaron Rodgers’ career.

No doubt, the Packers, among other things, will have to engage in serious salary-cap manipulation that will cost future cap room though no extra cash. This is the kind of thing they’ve avoided historically but is necessary to give them their best chance to win a championship in the pandemic era of the NFL. It also bears remembering that while the salary-cap restraints are real, cash spent is more important. As long as a team has the budget, it can almost always create cap room.

That means in the next few weeks the Packers will probably have to do major restructures with their two highest-paid players, Rodgers and Za’Darius Smith. Rodgers is due $21.85 million in cash and roster bonus, and Smith $15.75 million. By paying them the NFL minimum and converting the rest of their money to a signing bonus, the Packers can gain about $21 million in cap room without spending any cash they weren’t already going to spend.

They’ll also have to extend Davante Adams’ contract, something he was in line for this year anyway. That will cost extra cash because it will include a big bonus, but also will lower Adams’ cap number by $5 million and perhaps more.

Cutting outside linebacker Preston Smith would save $8 million in cap room and $12 million in cash. Cutting defensive lineman Dean Lowry would save $3.3 million on the cap and $4.8 in cash.

Those moves combined create about $38 million in cap room, so the Packers would go from $12.5 million over to about $25.5 million under.

But they’ll also have built-in costs that eat away at that total. You can take about $7 million off for the cushion to carry into the regular season, and another $6 million for the rookie draft class and Robert Tonyan’s second-round tender in restricted free agency. There also are possible RFA tenders to Tim Boyle and Chandon Sullivan.

On the other hand, the Packers can pick up an extra several million dollars in cap room by restructuring Adrian Amos’ and Billy Turner’s contracts, and also by cutting veterans such as Devin Funchess, Oren Burks and Josh Jackson.  

So let’s say with all those moves the Packers have $16 million or so to work with. That’s still not exactly swimming in cap room.

If they re-sign Jones and Linsley to cap-friendly deals before the start of free agency, they’ll be set at running back and center but have only a few million dollars left for free agency. They might be more inclined to bring back one of the two and leave a little more money for stopgap free agents. Or they could let both walk and have an awful lot more work to do finding good players.

Likewise, signing Watt for anything more than about $5 million looks like a pipe dream unless they choose him over both their own players. Considering Watt’s injury history, that’s unlikely.

As for prioritizing Jones and Linsley, there’s a lot to consider, including what they add to your offense and how hard it will be to replace them.

Before Bakhtiari’s injury I’d have gone for Jones over Linsley. Bakhtiari’s injury makes that a tougher call. He’ll be doing well to be back 10 months after his Dec. 30 ACL tear, and losing him for at least half of 2021 plus Linsley for good would be a big blow to a line that was a strength of the Packers’ offense last year.

Gutekunst probably was planning for Elgton Jenkins to replace Linsley, but now, who knows what the Packers’ starting line will be if Linsley moves on? Jenkins could play any position, including left tackle. Lucas Patrick would have to be a starter somewhere on the inside three, and Turner would be a starter on the outside. Then maybe two from among Jon Runyan, a draft pick and Lane Taylor (if the Packers re-sign him on the cheap after season-ending injuries the last two years) would fill the other guard and tackle.

Retaining Linsley, on the other hand, solves a lot of problems.

Then there’s Jones, who other than Rodgers was the most important player in coach Matt LaFleur’s offense in 2020. Letting him walk also would cost a difference maker, and those are hard to find.

The franchise tag on running backs will be cheap this year – franchise tenders are based on a percentage of the cap, and Over The Cap projects the running back tender will be about $8 million – but that’s still a big chunk of the Packers’ remaining cap. So if Gutekunst and Ball don’t work out a cap-friendly deal that satisfies Jones, they might skip the tag and roll with AJ Dillon plus a draft pick in LaFleur’s run-centric offense.

No matter how you cut it, it looks like the chances of the Packers retaining both Linsley and Jones are shaky. Not if Gutekunst wants to grab a couple of stop-gap free agents in a favorable market as well.

Still, the Packers can have a decent offseason despite their cap issues as they stand now. It's just a question of whether they're willing to go well outside their salary-cap comfort zone for a couple years to do it.

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