Dougherty: Four takeaways from Packers' opening days of free agency
GREEN BAY - Here are four observations about the Green Bay Packers’ start to 2021 free agency:
1. Aaron Rodgers’ contract hasn’t been restructured yet, and there's a lot of wondering whether that’s a sign the Packers don’t think he’ll be their quarterback beyond 2021.
No reason to think that yet. Based on Rodgers’ play last season, the best bet is he’ll be their quarterback at least through ’22, and it could be longer. If he keeps playing anything like last year, why would the Packers want to move on? But of course, Rodgers will have something to say on that too. As we're seeing this offseason, if a highly paid quarterback wants out for whatever reason, he can force his way out.
General manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur likely have a plan for their quarterback succession, but plans change as circumstances change, and circumstances usually change. New England's did when Tom Brady outplayed the Jimmy Garoppolo plan. And in the other direction, DeShaun Watson and Russell Wilson could be forcing Houston and Seattle to move on much sooner than those teams wanted. The Rodgers-Jordan Love succession will be fluid until it’s resolved, whether that’s in one year or four.
As for Rodgers’ contract, it’s a given the Packers will restructure it to clear cap room in the coming days, but we don't know if it will say anything about his future.
Their best move might be offering a signing bonus that includes several million dollars more than the $23.2 million he's scheduled to make this year -- taking it from his '22 pay -- just to show commitment to him for '22 as well. That might be what he was looking for with his comment about his "uncertain" future after the NFC championship game. The Packers can do that, tack on voidable years with his OK, and still take a huge chunk (maybe $15 million) out of their '21 cap.
They also can do a straight restructure without his permission — a small one to pick up, say, $5 million in cap space, or a big one to gain around $15 million. Either way on a straight restructure, Rodgers would make the same money he's scheduled to this year — about $23.2 million, according to SpoTrac. It’s just a matter of how much he’s paid now as opposed to during the season.
But if he's looking for a sign of commitment to '22 as well, the straight restructure might not go over well. That could be what's holding things up for now. Or maybe the team is just waiting until it needs the cap room to create it.
Regardless, a deadline is coming up fast. His $6.8 million roster bonus is due on the third day of the league year, which is today (Friday) by 3 p.m..
If they want to include that money in a signing bonus to clear cap room, they'll have to do it by the deadline, or get his permission to postpone payment while continuing talks with his agent.
2. The biggest surprise to me was the Packers didn’t cut Preston Smith to clear $8 million of cap space and leave no cap obligations for the future. Instead, Smith accepted a pay cut ($4 million) and restructure that saved $7.25 million on the Packers’ cap, which is nearly the same space as cutting him would have created. But it also pushes some of his cap costs into 2021.
Rashan Gary needs to play a lot more — he was in on 44% of the Packers’ defensive snaps last season — so in an offseason when salary-cap room is especially precious for Gutekunst, cutting Smith looked like a natural place to save a big chunk of cap space and cash.
The decision to keep Smith at the lower salary tells us a couple things.
Though Smith took a $4 million pay cut, the Packers still are paying him $8 million. That’s still a big salary for a guy coming off the season Smith had. Gutekunst obviously thinks the outside linebacker will be better this year than he was last, when his 16 combined sacks, hurries and knockdowns were less than half his ’19 total (34), according to Pro Football Focus.
Joe Barry, the Packers’ new defensive coordinator, must have had some say in this too. Barry was defensive coordinator in Washington for Smith’s first two seasons there (2015 and ’16), so he knows Smith well.
It also makes me think Barry has a plan to get Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Gary on the field at the same time a lot more than they were last season. Last year Za’Darius Smith played 83.5% of the Packers’ defensive snaps, Preston Smith played 79.2% and Gary only 44.4%.
The three played together on obvious passing downs, but that was it. It’s hard not to wonder if Barry plans to do that a lot more, with either Gary or Preston Smith moving inside on a five-man front, and the other two playing the edges.
Barry is coming from a Los Angeles Rams scheme that last year usually played five-man fronts (three defensive linemen and two outside linebackers) with only one inside linebacker and five defensive backs. Retaining Smith makes a lot more sense if he or Gary plays a decent amount inside, with all three (the Smiths and Gary) on the field at the same time.
3. It’s looking like the Packers can get about $10 million in cap space to sign free agents with maneuvers on their two remaining big-ticket contracts.
As of Thursday afternoon they were about $1 million under the cap, according to independent Packers cap analyst Ken Ingalls. But as Ingalls notes, that doesn’t include $9 million or $10 million of built-in costs to come (the draft and cap space for emergency moves during the season).
The Packers can create $10 million or $11 million for free agents by doing a max restructure with Rodgers (about $15 million in cap room) and a true contract extension with Davante Adams (maybe $5 million in cap room). After that, the biggest savings would be either restructuring Dean Lowry’s contract or cutting him outright (anywhere from $1 million to $3.3 million in savings).
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If they nickel and dime the cap in other ways, they can make a little more room or push less of Rodgers’ money into the future. But with those two big moves, they could pick up about $20 million. Minus the aforementioned built-in costs, $10 million to $11 million for free agency is a good ballpark figure.
The Packers surely don’t want to max restructure Rodgers, because they’ll have to live with those costs down the road. But if Gutekunst wants to do anything in this year’s free-agent buyer’s market, he’ll need all the cap relief he can get from his quarterback’s contract.
4. One position that everybody seems to think is a huge need for the Packers but makes little sense for them to pursue in free agency is inside linebacker.
Yes, Gutekunst spoke earlier this year of his hope to upgrade talent there. But with his cap limitations, the priorities should be defensive line and cornerback. That’s where they can get the best bang for the buck.
The Packers already have decent young talent at inside linebacker in second-year pros Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin. Also, if Barry plays the same 5-1-5 defense the Rams used last season, he’ll have only one inside linebacker on the field for many or most snaps anyway.
There’s no free-agent inside linebacker who can help Barry’s defense as much as a defensive lineman or cornerback would. If Gutekunst wants to upgrade his speed at inside linebacker, the place to do that is the draft.