In my most recent post, I mentioned early on that the Packers have “more top talent than we can afford.” I wasn’t exaggerating.
Back in 2017, I did a post titled “Have the Vikings Over-Invested in their Defense?“ At that time I prophesized:
“So, I’m willing to concede the Vikings have a lot of stars, primarily defensive ones. The problem is: they have too many of them, and this house of cards is soon going to come falling down in the next year or two – just like it has in Seattle.”
Sure enough, all those Viking stars were soon spread around the league, and 2017 was the last time the Vikes won the NFC North. The Packers are facing a similar dilemma: they have, almost all of a sudden, assembled an imposing group of fine top-tier players. Restructuring contracts might be Green Bay’s salvation – or it could plague the Packers for years to come.
The Restructuring Option
Restructuring contracts applies only to those with large multi-year deals. Typically, a team gets a player to renegotiate his pay deal by spreading around a huge signing bonus (or a guarantee?) over the length of the contract, thereby reducing the team’s salary cap for the current year. The Packers had restructuring in mind when they wrote up the contracts for the Smiths, Amos, and Turner.
Green Bay just concluded their first such deal of 2021, whereby David Bakhtiari agreed to have his signing bonus of $30M spread over the four years of his humongous $92M deal. In David’s case, it’s reported that his $11M roster bonus has been converted to a signing bonus – making his cap hit under $11M and saving more than $8M in salary cap money in 2021.
The Packers would undoubtedly like to do more such deals – enough to erase all of their remaining salary cap deficit. It will likely take three more such maneuvers to get there, with the most likely candidates being Aaron Rodgers, Za’darius Smith, Adrian Amos, Billy Turner, and Kenny Clark.
Plus, the NFL recently issued a memo saying the 2021 salary cap will be a minimum of $180M, which is a small increase over what most people were forecasting, though it would still be a decrease from 2020, when the salary cap was $198.2M. Still, it’s good news for the Packers and the many other clubs who currently are projected to have a salary cap deficit.
I’m not so sure that most players would be amenable to such financial juggling. Some players might already have big investment strategies underway, or are about to close on their mega-house or yacht. Rodgers, however, previously has shown his willingness to help his team out financially, when he restructured his contract in December 2019.
GM Brian Gutekunst spoke to the restructuring issue on February 3:
“We’ve done that in the past, we’re going to have to do that this year, for sure. The situation that our football team is in now, I think we have one goal in mind. And if there’s an opportunity to take some risks to help us win now, we’re certainly in that mode. . .Obviously, with this year’s situation, I think most teams are going to be kicking money out to try to keep their teams together, and we certainly will be no different.”
Of course restructuring has a sizable downside. While it would ease the stress on the current year’s cap, it commits more money to future caps.
Too Many Stars?
This last point brings me back around to the notion that having an abundance of talented players can be as much a curse as it is a blessing.
The Packers currently stand to have big cap hits, beyond 2021, on these stars: Rodgers (contracted through 2023); Za’Darius Smith, Adrian Amos, and Billy Turner (all contracted through 2022).
But these aren’t the only “stars” on the current roster. Davante Adams’ 4-year $58M deal ends after 2021. Corey Lindsley’s modest deal is ending in less than a month. I’m assuming that Preston Smith is about to be released outright, and it’s likely that Lindsley will be joining up with another team.
In Smith’s case, wherever he goes, he’s going to experience a big drop in salary. Why haven’t the Packers already announced his release? It could be they are negotiating to keep him but at a greatly reduced salary – which would result in a significant salary cap savings, though not as great as would an outright release.
A quick thought on Aaron Jones. Given the league’s recent announcement that the salary cap floor has been moved up a bit, the chances that Jones will stay with the team increase ever so slightly.
In my mind, however, the worry over losing Jones is not due solely to financial reasons. In four years, Green Bay never utilized him as if he were one of the league’s premier running backs. How a team can so under-value a guy like Jones, and Jordy Nelson before him, will forever remain a mystery to me. I frankly don’t know why Jones would want to stay with Green Bay – that’s a question I wish someone at those press conferences would ask Matt LaFleur.
Even with all that’s been said above, the Packers have no shortage of emerging or future stars. Elgton Jenkins will become a rich man when his rookie contract expires after the 2022 season. I believe that Robert Tonyan will also join that club in 2022.
Three Green Bay players, being first-round draft choices, are subject to the NFL’s (complicated) fifth-year option policy. Jaire Alexander won’t be a UFA until 2023. Budding stars Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage won’t become UFAs until 2024. It’s going to require mucho dinero to retain this threesome long term.
Am I putting too much faith in guys like Savage and Gary? I don’t think so, because they are guys with high ceilings – which is just another way of saying they have exceptional athleticism. And you can include A.J. Dillon in this category.
I foresee two members of the 2020 draft class also becoming NFL stars by the time they reach free agency in 2024: Dillon and TE Josiah Deguara. Will we still be kicking the restructuring can down the road in 2023 and 2024? It’s a habit that becomes hard to break. Yes, the Packers are likely to be facing salary cap crises for the next several years.
It’s undeniable: restructuring a contract amounts to delaying a financial problem rather than solving it. However, with good drafts in 2021 sand 2022 – and by that I mean having a couple of draft choices quickly becoming starters in each year (unlike in 2020) – the Packers might just be able to continue to put an impressive number of stars onto the field over the next four years. Packer fans should have plenty of reasons to remain excited about their players, and the team’s prospects for several years to come.