Regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its effect on the salary cap, the Packers were going to be in a pickle this month.
The crisis that the Packers are days away from resolving dates back to March 14, 2019. On that day, new General Manager Brian Gutekunst inked contracts with four free agents totaling $183 million. The repercussions of those daring deals are being keenly felt at the moment, and will continue to affect the team for at least the next two years.
While some might now be questioning Gutekunst’s deal-making, it’s hard to conceive of the Packers playing in two consecutive NFC championship games without the services of Adrian Amos, Billy Turner, and the Smiths.
The fact is that Gutey had and has very few alternatives in getting from about $30 million over the cap to under the cap. It was clear that he had to release Christian Kirksey and Rick Wagner, just like he’ll have to do to Preston Smith. At this point no one believes that Corey Linsley will still be a Packer in a couple weeks. The same is almost sure to happen to Dean Lowry, Josh Jackson, and the semi-retired Devin Funchess.
It’s also clear that contracts of some of the team’s top six or so earners still need to be restructured. To date, there’s been just one such adjustment, to David Bakhtiari’s deal, which freed up about $8.3 million. Two or three similar deals might still be forthcoming.
The Great Unknown
The only significant salary cap cliffhanger is the fate of Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones. Most forecasters originally didn’t see a way for Green Bay to retain him, but the league’s announcement that this year’s salary cap would be a minimum of $180M gave fans of Jones a glimmer of hope.
In the past few days, both Gutekunst and Jones himself have indicated they are trying mightily to keep Jones in Green Bay – even if only for one more year via the franchise or transition tag. Whether this happens might well hinge on what the salary cap for 2021 ends up being. We’ll find out by March 9 if the Packers use the tag on Jones or anyone else.
In view of recent comments, my belief now is that Jones will remain with the team for at least one more season. If the tag is not employed, the only way I can see the Pack keeping Jones would be to first release Billy Turner. Should it come down to that difficult choice, I’d elect to keep the running back, as it is the more impactful and game-changing position.
Once it is known whether Jones can be re-signed, there will be some other adjustments to be made, but I think that retaining Jones would give the team its best chance of reaching the conference championship for a third straight time under Matt LaFleur. The Packers should do whatever it takes to open the season with Jones and A.J. Dillon in the backfield next to Rodgers.
Should the Packers retain Jones, that choice could quickly have repercussions on about a half dozen current Packers: Jamaal Williams (if Jones stays, he goes), Lane Taylor, Marcedes Lewis, Oren Burks – maybe even Mason Crosby. It could even lead to trading Jordan Love, though I can’t imagine Gutekunst taking such a step so soon after making that chancy investment.