GREEN BAY, Wis. — For years, the Green Bay Packers have been rewarded for their fiscal prudence with a certain regularity and peacefulness when it comes to coping with the salary cap.
Adopting a pay as you go philosophy under negotiators Andrew Brandt and now Russ Ball, the Packers almost always have had a wealth of room beneath the cap. In turn, there were precious few players that they couldn’t afford to retain.
That harmonious picture could be about to change in 2013.
Presently, 20 players count about $91.4 million against the team’s adjusted salary cap of $128.51 million, or 71.1 percent.
The way it stands now, there are 20 players under contract to Green Bay for next year who are to count about $98.36 million. The unadjusted cap for 2012 is $120.6 million, and projections are that the cap will remain almost flat until 2016.
That doesn’t include wide receiver Greg Jennings, either. That’s because the two sides are so far apart that it’s almost a fait accompli he will depart as an unrestricted free agent in March if he isn’t traded first.
Jennings’ current cap salary is $7.5 million. If the Packers place the franchise tag on Jennings, the immediate charge on their cap would be about $10 million. If they re-sign Jennings, the cap hit could be massaged in 2013 before the full force of a deal averaging maybe $13 million begins to take effect in 2014.
The gorilla in the board room is David Dunn, the agent whose client list includes quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and nose tackle B.J. Raji.
Indications are that the Packers would like to have the contracts of all three players extended by early 2013, quite possibly by the start of the National Football League year in early March.
After this season, Rodgers will have two years left on a 2008 contract that ranks him 12th among quarterbacks in average per year at $12.7 million.
Matthews’ original deal expires after the 2013 season. Ditto for Raji, whose option for 2014 will become void.
Using rough estimates, let’s say the cap salaries for Rodgers, Matthews and Raji climb by a total of $18 million for 2013. How the Packers decide to accommodate such an increase could impact the team significantly.
“It’s a challenge being a good organization like this,” defensive end Ryan Pickett said. “They draft well. Pick up good players. Then it’s time for everybody to get paid.
“So they have a tough road ahead of them. It’s going to take some hard work because we’ve got so many good players. I hope we can keep everybody together, man, because we’ve got a chance to keep doing special things around here.”
Beyond Jennings, it shouldn’t be overly expensive for the Packers to retain their six other unrestricted free agents come March. Running back Cedric Benson will be 30 in December, Erik Walden has Nick Perry in front of him and Donald Driver, who turns 38 in February, probably won’t be back.
The crunch will come with Rodgers, Matthews and Raji, three of Ted Thompson’s first-round draft choices that have blossomed beyond most expectations.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees signed a five-year deal in July with a $37 million signing bonus and $60.5M in guarantees. The Saints held his cap charge to $10.4M in 2012, but it will swell to $17.4M next year and then up to $27.4M in 2016, if he’s still playing.
Matthews’ current cap charge is an economical $1.98M. Once he’s re-signed, his cap charge probably will look like these cap salaries for 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014: Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware ($15M), Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs ($12.4M), Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley ($12.2M) and Kansas City’s Tamba Hali ($11.5M).
Raji’s cap number for 2012 already is a hefty $5.46M. As the 18th ranked defensive tackle in average per year at $5.2M, it’s likely that his cap hit two years from now will about double.
Cornerback Sam Shields, who will be a restricted free agent in March, grimaced when he spoke of the impending crunch.
“Guys come, guys leave,” he said. “That’s the way it is in this business. But that’s something the older dudes tell you not to worry about.”
Assuming that Jennings isn’t back, the Packers might be forced to sacrifice some players. It’s something they haven’t had to do much of since guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera departed within three days in March 2005.
Safety Charles Woodson will be 36 in October and has two years left on his contract. The Packers would realize $10M in cap savings if he were released early in 2013.
Tight end Jermichael Finley will be entering the final year of his deal next year. If he was cut, the Packers would gain $8.25M beneath the cap.
Other cap savings in 2013 would be $4.8M for Pickett, $3.75M for center Jeff Saturday and $650,000 for linebacker A.J. Hawk provided the Packers take on the full load of his remaining three years in 2013.
Some of those players could be asked to take pay cuts, but how does a team ask players such as Woodson and Pickett to take pay cuts?
It wouldn’t be easy, that is for sure.
During the 2012 off-season, several teams felt compelled to make similar moves.
Houston reluctantly waved goodbye to linebacker Mario Williams and tackle Eric Winston. New Orleans let guard Carl Nicks walk in free agency, as did Tennessee with cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Kansas City with cornerback Brandon Carr.
“It’s always difficult to keep a good group of core guys together for a long time,” guard Josh Sitton said. “But the way Ted does things, he’s smart and they’ve been pretty successful in his time here.
“I think they’ll figure out a way here to get things done.”
Come March 2014, the list of unrestricted free agents is expected to include tackle Marshall Newsome, safety Morgan Burnett and Finley.
Depending on how they perform, Newhouse might be looking at $8M per year, Burnett at $5M and Finley at an increase from his average of $7M.
The coach, Mike McCarthy, has told Thompson and Ball that it’s best for him to stay completely away from financial discussions until the off-season.
“They trust me to coach the football team and call fake field goals on fourth and 26, so I have to have the same faith in them,” McCarthy said. “Very rarely do I talk business with our players. I don’t think I’d be very good doing their contracts and also coaching them.”
Because the Packers were so flush with cap room for so many years, they usually front-loaded the contracts with huge base salaries and roster bonuses to consume cap space immediately and not damage their future.
Only in the last year or so has the team gone back to using signing bonuses, which can be pro-rated over the length of the contract.
Beginning in March 2011, the signing bonuses included $8M to Hawk, $3M to kicker Mason Crosby, $1.5M to wide receiver James Jones, $6M to Sitton, $3.5M to wide receiver Jordy Nelson, $1.2M to punter Tim Masthay and $5.5M to guard T.J. Lang.
The use of signing bonuses and more back-loaded contracts suggests a move to more of a win now, pay later philosophy.
“We’ll see,” Sitton said, gazing around the locker room. “Only time will tell.”
Presently, the Packers are $8.08M under the cap, giving them the 12th-most room in the NFL.