Last offseason, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and executive vice president Russ Ball carefully put together the challenging financial puzzle pieces in front of them and assembled a team that had a real chance to get back to the Super Bowl.
That team failed. Now, the Packers are looking at the 2022 version of the same puzzle pieces.
Gutekunst and Ball will earn their paychecks this month. The two must execute a plan that requires putting a bunch of jumbled pieces back together within the borders of the NFL’s salary cap. The Packers, as of Wednesday, are roughly $50 million over the 2022 cap, so Gutekunst and Ball have about a month to shed cap and retain salary players before the start of the new league year.
Here are all the puzzle pieces the Packers are trying to put together to start this offseason:
The Packers are stuck looking at a few different plans for the offseason because separate plans are required for the various paths of Aaron Rodgers, who can either return to Green Bay, retire from the NFL or request a trade to a new team. Once Rodgers makes a decision, or the team is confident he’s going a certain way, the Packers can start executing the plan and plugging in pieces around the quarterback situation. Will Rodgers come back on a restructured deal that immediately clears a massive chunk cap space? Or will he request a trade, which would clear cap space but not until the start of the new league year? Or will he retire? The Packers are patiently waiting. It’ll be difficult to make a major decision until the team knows what he’s going to do.
The Packers don’t want Davante Adams getting to unrestricted free agency. It’s a worst-case scenario; he’d have a real chance to leave, and if he did, the Packers would get nothing back beside a compensatory draft pick in 2023. But unless Adams agrees to a new deal in the next few weeks, the Packers may have no other option than to use the franchise tag to keep him off the open market. Here’s the thing: The tag will cost around $20 million for a wide receiver in 2022, and the Packers would have to carry that extra $20 million on the cap before the start of the new league year, creating 20 million more hurdles for getting under the cap by mid-March. The tag could be used to buy time for figuring out a new deal, or as the first step in a tag-to-trade situation.
The Packers will likely find significant cap savings in the contracts of David Bakhtiari, Kenny Clark, Jaire Alexander and Aaron Jones. Alexander needs a new deal or extension before he enters the fifth year of his guaranteed rookie deal. That will almost certainly get done between now and the start of the 2022 regular season. For Bakhtiari, Clark and Jones, the Packers would be restructuring again – meaning pushing money into the future to save now. This could be a risk for a left tackle coming off a significant injury and a running back already playing on his second contract, but it’s probably a risk the Packers have to take to make all these puzzle pieces fit together.
Both Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith are cap casualty candidates. Together, they count for almost $47 million on the cap for the Packers in 2022. Both are valuable players, but both contracts must be addressed in one way or another. Will the Packers attempt to restructure both deals in an attempt to keep the two players together? Or is restructuring one and cutting the other – especially considering Rashan Gary’s ascendence – the best plan moving forward? The team restructured both deals last offseason to get under the cap. More work is required here. It wouldn’t be surprising if Za’Darius is cut and Preston’s deal is restructured or extended.
Davante Adams isn’t the only decision to make at wide receiver. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is an unrestricted free agent, Allen Lazard is a restricted free agent and Randall Cobb is another cap casualty candidate. How will the Packers prioritize building out the receiver room? Both Valdes-Scantling and Lazard could find decent money on the open market, but the Packers have an opportunity to put a restricted tender on Lazard and increase their chances of keeping him. But again: the tender – especially if it’s at a second-round level – will cost the Packers. Cutting Cobb could save almost $7 million, but he’s also close with Rodgers. Equanimeous St. Brown and Malik Taylor are also free agents. The Packers’ plan at the wide receiver will likely play a big role in Rodgers making his decision to stay or go.
Veteran stalwarts Billy Turner, Dean Lowry and Adrian Amos look like prime restructure candidates for the second straight offseason. All three are coming off strong seasons, and all three have contracts capable of offering immediate salary cap help with a restructure or extension. If the Packers can’t make a restructure work, releasing or a trade could be options. Veteran kicker Mason Crosby might also fit into this group. If the last offseason is any indication, all four could restructure their deals.
The Packers don’t win 13 games in 2021 without veteran additions and breakout stars De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas. The All-Pro inside linebacker and the team’s interception leader were terrific players for the Packers defense, but both soon-to-be free agents also increased their value to the other 31 teams around the NFL, putting the cap-strapped Packers into a tough spot. Can they carve out enough cap space before the start of free agency to re-sign one or both? Based on the financial situation, there’s a good chance they’ll lose at least one of the two.
Marcedes Lewis is under contract, but he’s going to be 38 in May and is a cap casualty candidate. Robert Tonyan’s deal will soon void, making him a free agent with a dead cap hit of almost $1.9 million in 2022. The Packers have Josiah Deguara, but he’s done little in two seasons to prove he’s ready to take on a full-time role. Can the Packers afford to keep both Lewis and Tonyan? Maybe Lewis is open to a pay cut for one last run, or Tonyan is cheaper to retain because of his knee injury. It would be difficult to start over at tight end in 2022.
Rasul Douglas is the big one, but Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan are free agents again. The Packers started Sullivan in the slot all season, and Joe Barry actually found a useful role for King in various subpackages to end the season. If Douglas departs, would the Packers want to bring back Sullivan or King or both? It’s worth noting that the deals of both King and Sullivan are voiding, meaning they’ll have dead money lingering on the cap in 2022 if they aren’t retained. That could incentivize the Packers to bring one or both back.
Last year, the Packers left themselves enough cap space to add a handful of veterans like Campbell and Douglas. Neither was particularly expensive, but the team must give itself enough wiggle room to make signings in the new league year and into the summer. The Packers will have to find a way to both get under the cap and create enough operating money to sign free agents, draft picks and the practice squad in 2022.
Salary cap expert Ken Ingalls has said it all offseason: The Packers can bring back just about anyone, but they probably can’t bring back everyone. It’s an important distinction to make when looking at all the puzzle pieces. Last season, the Packers restructured every veteran deal possible but still had to cut veterans Christian Kirkey and Rick Wagner and then lost All-Pro center Corey Linsley and running back Jamaal Williams in free agency. This roster is going to look different in 2022; maybe drastically different. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The Packers have plenty of ways to shed cap space and retain who they want to retain, especially if Aaron Rodgers is back. It’s much easier to fit the puzzle pieces around Rodgers on a restructured deal. If Rodgers wants to be traded, the Packers will have to reset course and figure out what the roster should look like around Jordan Love in 2022. As we said in this post last February: buckle up. The next month is going to be an interesting ride.