Clay Matthews and the Franchise Tag

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Packers linebacker Clay Matthews' sack dance

Clay Matthews' sack dance

It is fitting that NFL free agency begins the second week of March and runs up to the NFL Draft. For in Green Bay, that is nearly always a quiet and dead time. The snow has well worn out its novelty, as has the winter. The trees are leafless and the ground shows through the dirty snow in ugly, brown patches.

This is not an attractive time in Green Bay. It is just awakening from the hangover of the New Year and stretching partially atrophied limbs, looking for a sun that typically hides behind a translucent film of gray, like the sky itself has been covered in wax paper.

We haven’t seen the sun here in at least five days and I wouldn’t blame any would-be free agent who touched down here, took a look around and then got right back on the plane. Selling this city right now is like going to a job interview after a three-day bender — it’s an act of futility from which only comedy can ensue.

For the Green Bay Packers, this offseason has been even quieter than others. So much so that the local fish wrap didn’t post a single new article regarding the Packers on Saturday. So much so that the Packers NOT renegotiating Jermichael Finley’s contract is big news.

Yes, we are used to the inaction, but this all feels a little strange considering there are at least five players the Packers should be working on a deal for: three would-be free agents in Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and B.J. Raji; and two actual restricted free agents who are also presumed starters in Evan Deitrich-Smith and Sam Shields.

Neither EDS nor Shields have accepted the one-year tender offered to them. So, as of this moment, the Packers don’t have a starting center or one of their starting corners. Of course, at corner, the Packers have other options with Casey Hayward and Davon House waiting in the wings. However, neither bring the speed to the defense that Shields does and it was exactly this missing ingredient that was exposed as Colin Kaepernick ran around and by a Packers defense too slow to catch him.

Even though he’s aware of this, Shields holds little leverage and will likely have to either accept the tender or sign the Packers’ best long-term offer. This may explain why the Packers offered a tender well below Shields’ value. The tender is the sequester supposedly unacceptable to either side. However, we’ve all seen how that can work out.

Of the three would-be free agents, we have only heard rumors that the Packers have been working on a deal for Rodgers. Even though these are days when a drunken tweet can serve as a news “source,” I still tend to believe that where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the alleged progress on the mega-deal for Rodgers has been sighted too many times for me to write it off as fallacy.

Though anyone would agree that Rodgers is the most important player on the team, I still find this hierarchy of priorities odd, since Rodgers is NOT the player who will hit the open market first. That player is Clay Matthews (and B.J. Raji, although he isn’t as high of a priority). The media has made sure that everyone knows Rodgers is grossly underpaid. He’s contracted to make just under $10 million for 2013, which surely is less than half his value.

However, there seems to be no such concern for Matthews, who himself is scheduled to make $3.7 million, or probably about a third of his market value.

Now, mathematically at least, there could be some logic behind working the biggest contract first. Since Rodgers is the leader of the franchise on the field, it’s also possible that symbolically there is some importance to giving his contract first priority. However, the silence coming from the Matthews’ camp tweaks curiosity, if nothing else.

Is it possible that the Packers are working on Rodgers’ contract first because he is more willing to sign? Is it possible that the Packers have or will have to consider other options with Matthews?

The media loves to concentrate on the teams in these matters, as if the players themselves don’t have a say, but there are two sides to every negotiation. And what assurance has Packer Nation been given that Clay Matthews necessarily wants to re-sign with the Packers? If Matthews can make his way to free agency, his agent has likely informed him that a $100 million contract may be out there for him.

The Packers have only two weapons to prevent this — time and the franchise tag. This free agency period has shown more than any other that a player cannot count on making big money in his 30s. And anyone who knows anything about money knows that money made now is better than money promised in the future.

If Matthews were to force his way to free agency, the Packers would force him to play out two more years by tagging him. This season he would make his $3.7 million and next season, under the tag, he would make around $10 million. Fourteen million dollars isn’t money you’ll find in your couch cushions, but it still pales in comparison to the amount of money the Packers should be able to guarantee up front as part of a long-term deal. And, more importantly, that is two more seasons that Matthews would have to play, hoping to avoid any injury that would depress his value, before reaching his big pay day.

However, if the Packers don’t have Matthews signed before the start of the 2013 season, then as each week goes by that’s one less game between Matthews and his pay day. The risk goes down and his value goes up. As such, it behooves the Packers to get Matthews signed during this offseason.

Would giving a big deal to Rodgers interfere with that? It doesn’t have to. If the Packers used Joe Flacco’s contract as a guideline, they could actually lower Rodgers’ cap hit towards 2013, which could leave as much as $15 million available for a roster bonus for Matthews. Pair a $15 million roster bonus with a $15 million signing bonus and you have $30 million to offer Matthews the very day he signs on the dotted line.

That type of contract would be more in line with the Packers’ “pay as you go” philosophy, while probably offering enough up front and guaranteed greenbacks to get Matthews to sign. However, that contract is only possible if the Packers do not use the same strategy with Rodgers. Instead, they’d have to hand out large, deferred bonuses to be prorated over the life of the contract.

In other words, if the Packers do indeed sign Rodgers first, then his contract will provide clues as to what the Packers are thinking with Matthews. If the Packers front load Rodgers’ contract to safeguard their future, then they won’t be able to do the same with Matthews. And if that is the case, Matthews may indeed play out 2013 without an extension and head for the franchise tag in 2014.

About The Author

Shawn Neuser attended UWGB and lives and works in Green Bay. He enjoys long walks on the beach and being intimate with game film.

13 Comments on "Clay Matthews and the Franchise Tag"

  1. ay hombre

    Perfect description of GB. I used to live there and now live in SoCal. Clay used to live in SoCal and is now there. It wouldn’t surprise me if he wants out.

    Besides, what player in the entire league screams “big market player” more than Clay Matthews? The guy could make so much more coin in a big market.

    If Clay has his sights set on sailing and the Pack know this…not even he is un-tradeable. It’s a whole new league now and draft picks are the currency of choice.

    • Shawn Iltarion

      I don’t think there is any question that if the Packers can’t get Matthews signed before or during the 2013 season, then they will be looking to tag-and-trade Matthews next offseason.

      I would think a 1st and 2nd round pick are probably close to his value.

  2. the real russ letlow

    I think at this point in time, with a relatively stagnant salary cap, not even the best players can be sure they will hit it as big as they want in free agency. We’re gonna pay a good price for Clay & Aaron, rightly so. But I think agents are more willing to talk actual guaranteed bucks, so a scenario where Aaron’s $$’s are spread out a little more and Clays $$’s are front loaded to his contract makes sense & may make these two contracts fit under the cap. If it doesn’t work out, tagging Clay gets the same results.

  3. FITZCORE1252

    How many times can one team tag a guy? For some reason it seems like the pats tagged welker 10-15 times.

    GBP 4 LIFE

    • Shawn Iltarion

      Teams can tag the same player indefinitely. However, it costs more every consecutive year that you do it. The first year is 100% of the tag. The second year is 120%. The third year is 144%.

      Thus, it is pretty rare of someone to get tagged in consecutive years.

  4. Buster Bluth

    New contracts for Rodgers and Matthews are an itch the press and public want scratched. Zen Thompson sits cross legged on his desk. Auum

  5. Packer Bob

    Great article. As Packer fans, we wonder why any NFL player would want to play for any other team besides the Packers. But you hit the nail on the head. Money. I don’t think the geographical location has much do with it. While GB is not a “destination resort” I’d pack my bags and move to Gnome, Alaska for the right price.

    If Clay Matthews and his agent think they can get more money in FA (and someone will break the bank for him) then why not wait it out?

  6. Shawn Shawn

    And the morning this story breaks- blue sky and the sun!

    Maybe spring has finally arrived.

    Michael Huff, come on down!

  7. Lars

    It’s a great article, except the content related to needing to re-sign BJ Raji before Rodgers just because he comes up for renewal first.

    Writers need to decouple Mathews from Raji once and for all— for two reasons. The first is Mathews (and Rodgers) are the only true franchise players in Green Bay. Sitton being a possible third on the OLine. The second is, outside of 2010, BJ Raji has been the epitome of average and not even that in his dismal 2011 season.

    Unlike Rodgers and especially Mathews, Raji hasn’t been chronically underpaid for years. He’s making over $6 million this year which is quite generous when you consider Raji is a joke compared to the likes of JJ Watt at 5-tech and doesn’t come close to elite NT’s like Wilfolk and Haloti Ngata.

    It looks like Rodgers will get the re-worked deal in 2013, Mathews tagged in 2014 and Raji, at best for GB, will just sign another 5/$26 deal. Maybe 5/$35 is more realistic. Busari is the AJ Hawk of the DLine: Just good enough to keep around forever on a team that only uses the draft and street FA’s to acquire players. Thank you for listening.

    • Packer Bob

      While Raji certainly has room for improvement I wouldn’t not say that he is average at best. But I agree that he’s not underpaid.

    • Shawn Iltarion

      The article clearly says BJ Raji is not as high a priority.

      BJ Raji was pretty dominant in the second half of 2012, including in key divisional games against Minnesota and Chicago. Since I believe most of us would agree that the run defense is the biggest weakness the Packers have, losing one of the best run-stoppers on the defense is not the path to wisdom.

      Fortunately, the Packers have an easy out with Raji. They can simply let Pickett go after this season and give Raji most of Pickett’s contract.

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