This post mostly deals with “releasing” players who are still under contract with Green Bay beyond March of 2021. I’ll take up players who are about to become free agents in a separate post.
Packers players under contract past 2020 with the highest cap hits are: Aaron Rodgers (37.6M), Za’Darius Smith ($21.5M), David Bakhtiari ($19.3M), Davante Adams ($16.8M), Preston Smith ($16.0M), Adrian Amos ($10.05M), and Billy Turner ($8.03M). While Preston Smith is vulnerable, most analysts think the other six top-dollar guys are safe – though this is where contract restructuring is most likely to occur.
In a group with cap hits from $4M to $8M are: Christian Kirksey ($7.6M), Kenny Clark ($7.0M), Dean Lowry ($6.3M), Rick Wagner ($6.0M), Mason Crosby ($4.5M, and Rashan Gary ($4.3M).
Those with lesser salaries, who seem most likely to be released include: Devin Funchess ($2.4M salary cap); Josh Jackson ($1.99M), and Oren Burks ($1.15M). As for Funchess, consider this disloyal slacker gone. Enough time has been spent on trying to develop Jackson and Burks, second- and third-round draftees in 2018 – releasing them would reduce the team’s salary cap number by $2M or $3M – every little bit helps.
I would note that a team’s salary cap is based on the contracts of the top 51 players. As the 2020 season nears its expiration, the team has 61 players under contract. Fourteen players have cap hits of $780,000. The team’s fifty-first highest-paid player, tackle Zachary Johnson is in this group.
The question immediately becomes fairly simple: are there any players on the above lists that either are greatly overpaid versus how they performed in 2020, or have a backup(s) on the team who is less expensive and nearly as good.
After I had drafted this post, using “cap hits” as the primary reference, I saw that Packers Wire had published something similar, but using a unique calculation for “cap savings,” which is a much better measuring stick than cap hits. So, when I now refer to cap savings, credit Ken Ingalls and Packers Wire for those figures.
Foremost of those in the cross hairs for possible outright release would seem to be Preston Smith. Smith’s stat line on last season: 42 tackles, 4 sacks, 11 QB hits, 3 passes defended. In 2019, Smith had 56 tackles, 12 sacks, and 23 QB hits. In his 4-year contract, Preston Smith got a $16M signing bonus and a $16M guarantee. Ken tells us that releasing Smith would result in $8M in salary cap savings.
Someone else in the top-seven pay group who could be in some jeopardy is Billy Turner, who just finished the second year of his 4-year deal. His contract features a $9M signing bonus, a $9M guarantee, and an average annual salary of $7M – and his cap hit is $8.03M. Ken adds that a restructure for Turner could create up to $2.2-3.6 million in savings.
In that next 6-player group, with cap hits from $4M to $8M, I could foresee the Packers releasing Christian Kirksey, Dean Lowry, and/or Ricky Wagner – but probably all three. Against the Bucs, the team preferred Krys Barnes, with a club cast over his hand, over a healthy Kirksey. Ken says cutting Rick Wagner would free up $4.2M, whereas cutting Lucas Patrick would only free up about $2 million.
Adrian Amos has the team’s sixth highest cap hit, but Ken says cutting him would create a savings of only $4.4M. Amos arguably had his best year as a pro in 2020.
Another strong possibility for release is Dean Lowry ($6.03M cap hit). Consider his competing interior defensemen, and their PFF player grades and rankings among 130 NFL interior defenders: Kingsley Keke 69.1 and 46th ranking; Billy Winn 68.9 (unranked); Tyler Lancaster 66.4 and 61st; and Montravious Adams 63.1 (unranked). Lowry’s grade was 60.0, and his ranking was a dismal 81st. Ken says that letting Lowry go would only create $3.3 million in cap space.
There will be some options regarding the Packers O-line players. It is hoped that David Bakhtiari is back by mid-season, and that Lane Taylor will fully recover, and return as a starter, in 2021. If Elgton Jenkins is moved to center, Billy Turner and Lucas Patrick are retained, and Jon Runyon competes for a starting or top substitute job, the Packers might be able to manage losing Corey Linsley in free agency.
Ken says that cutting Lucas Patrick would save only $2M, so that is unlikely. Lane Taylor, after winning a starter’s job last season, is still recovering from a knee injury incurred on Week 1. He’s about to become a free agent.
The team has a surplus of tight ends. Robert Tonyan is a restricted free agent, so he will be retained. Marcedes Lewis had a salary of $2.25M in 2020, but I don’t believe much in the way of cap savings will be realized if he is let go.
The foursome of Tonyan, Lewis, Deguara, and Dafney makes up a potent group of tight ends. I think Deguara and Dafney have passed Jace Sternberger on the depth chart. No big cap savings are available from this group.
Interestingly, there is very little disagreement among analysts as to which players, across the league, are going to be the focus of cuts, restructures, or trades. I believe that this has much to do with Pro Football Focus’s player grading system, which has gained wide acceptance as an invaluable tool in assessing the worth of players.
Even if it means parting ways with some of their loyal foot soldiers, the Packers need to do all they can to retain their best players. Don’t be surprised if most of the following players depart in 2021: free agents Corey Linsley and Aaron Jones, and contracted players Devin Funchess, Preston Smith, Christian Kirksey, Dean Lowry, Josh Jackson, and Oren Burks. On the bubble are Rick Wagner and perhaps Billy Turner. That’s quite a haul, but not the end of the Packers’ world
Everyone agrees that restructuring of contracts will be attempted by most teams that have salary cap problems. While it is easy to guess who the Packers’ front office will be approaching (including Rodgers), there’s no way of knowing how receptive the various players will be to tampering with their wages. Restructuring usually involves by shifting some of the payments to the latter years of a contract. Sometimes it involves getting a player to agree to settle for less money than his current contract calls for.
Trades are of course always possible – we’ve already seen a glimpse of that with the Goff-Stafford deal.
If the Packers are somehow able to keep either Aaron Jones or Corey Linsley, I’d count that as a great blessing – but I doubt that it’s doable. The best hope is for the team and player to extend these existing contracts in the next few weeks – before these players actually enter free agency. If Jones departs, the Packers should get a third-round draft choice in 2022 as compensation – which helps ease the pain a wee bit. No compensation would be forthcoming if Linsley departs, as he is a 7–year NFL veteran.
The matter becomes a bit more complex for players who have an amount of pay contractually guaranteed by the Packers in 2021, whether or not the player is still on the roster. Many of the team’s best players are in this position.
Going by cap hits, I had estimated that releasing Preston Smith, Kirksey, Lowry, Jackson, and Burks would slash about $35M from its salary cap total. It is much more accurate, however, to go by a player’s cap savings, as did Ken of Packers Wire. In this case the savings of letting the above five players go is only about $20M. If Jones departs, there’s not much cap savings there, as he’s finishing up his cheap rookie contract. I’m not sure about the cap savings re Corey Linsley, though his average annual salary has been $8.5M.
The salary cap for the 2021 season will be announced before free agency commences. Until that is known, teams are in the dark about how much roster trimming they’ll have to do to get under the salary cap.
Next up: the 2021 free agency period will be a frenzy.