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Packers should follow examples of Rams, Eagles, Bears by focusing on short-term success

Ted Thompson was a master of the long game, always with an eye on the future. With the window closing on the Aaron Rodgers era, Brian Gutekunst must adjust and maximize that window right now.

Divisional Round - New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings
Anthony Barr has high-impact upside as a pass rusher, but may not come at a pass rusher price this offseason.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With the Eagles sitting on the biggest goldmine in the sport, a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, GM Howie Roseman bet the farm twice. The first was the original bet on Carson Wentz, giving up multiple first-round picks to get the FCS prospect. But once Roseman realized Wentz had the goods, the plan was simple: aggressively spend to surround him with talent to maximize the window with Wentz still on that good-as-gold rookie deal.

Without that tact and that cap flexibility, the Eagles couldn’t afford to pay Nick Foles, wouldn’t have taken a one-year flier on Alshon Jeffrey, and wouldn’t have traded for Jay Ajayi. Philly’s cap hell starts already this offseason, as the team is set to become more than $16 million over the salary cap heading into the 2019 year.

This methodology works. Just ask the Rams and Bears, who borrowed the formula to make massive improvements to their teams with quarterbacks on rookie deals, setting the course for successful 2018 seasons. The Rams could make it 2/2 for this methodology with Super Bowl titles and these lessons can be applied to the Packers in 2019 even if the circumstances aren’t identical.

One word of caution before advancing, however. The list of 7-9 teams is strewn with offseason winners, Dream Teams, and press conference champions. Winning the offseason doesn’t guarantee winning anything in the regular season. The Bears arguably won last offseason and couldn’t even bother to win a playoff game (**doink** **doink**).

But the career trajectory of Aaron Rodgers compressed the team’s timeline much in the same way rookie contracts for Jared Goff, Mitch Trubisky, and Wentz do for their teams. It’s not that Green Bay has a financial window of opportunity — they don’t. Quite the opposite. Rodgers will likely only be Aaron Freaking Rodgers for a few more years, if that window hasn’t already passed. That leaves the Packers wondering about what’s next, but also yearning to maximize the time it has with Rodgers still in his theoretical prime.

This offseason, with its projected free agents and draft class, sets up ideally for the Packers to push its chips into the middle for 2019 and 2020. There are quality guards worth pursuing, edge rushers worth signing and drafting, as well as impact back-end defenders worth adding. Ted Thompson and Russ Ball masterfully manipulated the cap so the team was always fresh with young talent and in a financially flexible position, but never took the opportunity to truly capitalize on either. At least not since the pre-Super Bowl days.

Green Bay can not only maximize its own roster now, but can do it without crippling the future of this team in a late-stage Rodgers phase, or beyond.

Based on the latest cap projections, the Packers will have around $40.5 million in available cap space assuming they do nothing with the players currently under contract. In terms of signing their own free agents, the priority for major-money allocation is Bashaud Breeland who, being another year older after an injury-plagued season, likely can’t command the $8 million per year he’d originally received from the Panthers last offseason. Something closer to three years, $20 million could still make sense given his age and talent.

A second-round tender for Geronimo Allison would be another $3.1 million and there aren’t really any other important players to worry about allocating resource toward this offseason. That leaves Brian Gutekunst and Russ Ball around $30 million to go add pieces. If the team designates Nick Perry for a post-June 1 cut and Jimmy Graham is cut outright, they could save a little over $5 million immediately and nearly $11 million more as of June 2, giving the Packers quite the war chest to aggressively add players. Remember, the post-June 1 designation doesn’t clear the cap space right away. It stays as a cap hold until June. But that $11 million should be enough to cover the team’s draft class, so they can spend close to their cap before that point.

Starting with the biggest need, let’s say the Packers can lure one of Roger Saffold, Mike Iupati, James Carpenter, Andy Levitre, Ramon Foster, Ben Garland or Quinton Spain to town to fill the right guard spot. If that seems like a lot of names, it is, which should not only give the Packers plenty of options, but also depress the value of the position overall. The more guards available, the less each individual can demand to be paid.

The Packers can probably get someone in that $6 million range for 2019 who can come in right away and solidify that spot. None of those players likely would command the kind of major-money allocation we’ve seen for guards in free agency lately, like that Andrew Norwell $13 million range. They can find a significant upgrade for $6 to $7 million and they should seek to make that addition.

What about the ultra-soft safety market? Quality starters like Eric Reid, Kenny Vaccaro and Tre Boston struggled to find homes last offseason, having to settle for meager money and late contract offers. With Earl Thomas a near-lock to leave Seattle and Landon Collins’ future in New York unclear after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, the Packers could allocate significant financial resources to the position. Even if neither can likely command top-of-market safety money, the Packers would still likely have to spend $12 million to make the contract appealing. LeMarcus Joyner made $11.3 million on the franchise tag last season, making that the likely starting point for players of their caliber. Joyner too could be an option if the Rams can’t find the room to pay him.

Such a contract would only leave the Packers with a similar amount remaining, in that $12 million range. For an edge rusher in the modern market, that’s not a ton of money but it’s certainly not nothing. Here’s where a player like Anthony Barr becomes particularly appealing. That $12 million number would be top-of-market off-ball linebacker money, but in Green Bay he’d be a pass rusher. His current teammate Danielle Hunter, just signed a deal for $14 million APY and Barr can’t realistically insist he’s more valuable than a younger, more proven pass rusher.

That said, there will be myriad teams with massive amounts of cap space this spring, which will likely drive up prices for premium position players. Given the kind of pedigree Barr had as a pass rusher coming out of UCLA and his proven versatility off the ball, he should have a considerable market.

This is where the cuts come into play. Even simply cutting Graham would give the Packers wiggle room to pay Barr, even overpay if necessary, while still keeping some room for emergency signings with injuries. Moving on from both him and Nick Perry, likely the prudent financial decision, would give them more than enough flexibility to make a huge splash in free agency, solidify need positions, and still not cap strap the team even if Perry’s money isn’t available until June.

Though signing these big names would require longer-term deals, somewhere in the four-year range, the cap has been consistently climbing and the hit for some of the Packers current big deals will become smaller and smaller portions of the cap, easing the future burdens on cap flexibility. In either case, the players the Packers can sign this offseason, coupled with the serious draft capital they can spend, could give Green Bay the core it needs to compete for Super Bowl for the remainder of Rodgers’ prime even if it means locking that core in now.

To not waste having the best quarterback on the planet, that’s a swing worth taking. If it worked for Nick Foles, Jared Goff, and Mitch Trubisky, imagine how it could work with Aaron Rodgers.