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Dougherty: Bring back De’Vondre Campbell? For cap-strapped Packers it could be a stretch


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GREEN BAY - De’Vondre Campbell has been a revelation as a bargain free-agent signing and a player the Green Bay Packers should want to bring back in 2022, even if at age 28 he’s about at the end of his prime for an inside linebacker.

But the Packers' overloaded salary cap for 2022 means general manager Brian Gutekunst and team vice president Russ Ball will have a tough decision to make on Campbell even if they go to the absolute limits of mortgaging and roster cutting. And that's not even accounting for Aaron Rodgers' possible return.

There’s truth to the notion that if an NFL team wants a player, it usually can make the cap room to sign him. But the Packers' 2022 reality is that unless they part ways with Rodgers and Davante Adams, re-signing Campbell could be a stretch.

To be sure, there are too many moving parts to state any absolutes on Campbell or anybody else right now. But it's a given that one way or another this offseason the Packers are going to run into a brick wall and have no more veteran contracts from which to squeeze extra cap room.

The starting point is the cap problem the Packers already face in 2022.

According to the detailed work of Ken Ingalls, an independent Packers capologist, the Packers are about $38 million over the projected ’22 cap of $208.2 million. But as Ingalls points out, in reality they’re a lot more over than that.

If you include their other cap costs by the start of the ’22 season – the draft class, tenders for restricted and exclusive rights free agents, futures contracts, the practice squad, the $5 million or so cap space they’ll need going into the season, and other sundry items – they’re actually more like $64 million over the cap. That's bad.

Big picture, the Packers can shave enough money to end up with about $20 million in 2020 cap space to work with, though it will require another season of pushing a lot of money into future caps. In a moment we'll get into the extensive mortgaging and roster cutting required to get there. 

But suffice it to say $20 million probably theoretically would allow room to re-sign impending free agents Adams, Campbell and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, but that's only if the Packers want all three at almost all cost. Because it also would require trading Rodgers, which would profoundly influence the Packers' approach to roster building in the first place. With him, they're shooting for the Super Bowl. Without him, they're rebuilding with Jordan Love.

It also would leave next-to-nothing for any other free agents, including cornerback Rasul Douglas, punter Corey Bojorquez and injured tight end Robert Tonyan, or a signing from another team.

As for how the Packers can get to $20 million in cap space, we'll start with a scenario Ingalls recently shared on his Twitter feed (@KenIngalls).

It includes trading Rodgers, cutting Za’Darius Smith and extending the contract of Preston Smith. All three are realistic possibilities. Rodgers may or may not be back in '22. As for the Smiths, there’s no reason to keep both under such tight finances with Rashan Gary’s ascension at outside linebacker. Za'Darius Smith, while the better player than Preston, has a back injury and offers the bigger cap savings.

Ingalls also suggests major cap-saving contract restructures with David Bakhtiari, Kenny Clark and Aaron Jones, a contract extension with Jaire Alexander and cuts veterans Randall Cobb, Mason Crosby and Marcedes Lewis.

Those moves combined get the Packers from way over their "effective" cap to about $8 million under.

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Add to that max contract restructures with Adrian Amos, Billy Turner and Dean Lowry, and the Packers get to the $20 million cap-room figure. And just to be clear, that's where the Packers hit the wall. The only cap savings they could squeeze out after that is a few-hundred-thousand dollars here or there. 

But what if Rodgers returns with a contract extension? The Packers could structure his deal in a way that still creates cap room, though not quite as much as the $19 million saved if they trade him. The best guess is they could come in around a $15 million cap savings with a new deal, so bringing Rodgers back would cost about $4 million of their cushion.

Either total – $16 million in cap room or $20 million – is enough to sign Adams, if he's the priority and willing to do a deal rather than test free agency. The guess here is a new deal for Adams would eat up $10 million on the '22 cap. That would leave another $10 million free if Rodgers were traded, and $6 million if he weren't. 

The Packers could fit a deal with Campbell or Valdes-Scantling in that $6 million range, but not both. That's also without addressing questions such as, how much should they pay Campbell, an inside linebacker who at age 28 is probably peaking this season and could decline fast? And would the money be better spent on multiple players?

These aren't decisions Gutekunst has to make now. How the season finishes out will play a big role in whether Rodgers returns as well as the GM's priority list for retaining free agents.

No matter which way it goes, though, the Packers are in for an offseason of hard roster choices and kicking-the-can cap maneuvering. That might mean another year of going all-in on all-in. But it also might mean letting a good player such as Campbell walk.

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