Joel Corry is a former NFL agent. With that background, he is perfectly positioned to serve as a football business analyst, particularly in the areas of contract terms and negotiations, as well as salary cap management. That is precisely his role at CBS Sports, and this week he listed out the five NFL teams that he feels manage the league’s salary cap and player contracts in general the best.
Under Ted Thompson’s leadership, the Packers were rarely in salary cap trouble. In part, this was due to Thompson’s reticence to dip into free agency; as Corry notes, “Thompson almost strictly preferred a draft-and-develop approach.” Of course, Brian Gutekunst’s two offseasons with the team have seen him take a different approach, signing five free agents to deals worth $7 million or more annually in that time.
Starting with Andrew Brandt last decade and continuing with Russ Ball as the team’s primary contract negotiator, the Packers have a defined strategy when it comes to contract structures, an approach that Corry refers to as “vanilla” for its simplicity. “The only guaranteed money in Packers contracts is a signing bonus,” Corry says. “Bigger deals contain a third or fifth day of the league year roster bonus in the second and third years. The roster bonuses are supposed to be substitutes for additional contract guarantees.” Beyond that, the team protects itself against injuries by implementing active roster bonuses for each game.
It’s easy to look back at the Packers’ big-money deals and see these concepts in practice. A quick spin through the contracts at Overthecap.com shows that whether it’s a homegrown player like Davante Adams or a new big-name free agent signing like Za’Darius Smith, this is how the Packers operate. There are no base salary guarantees; only a signing bonus and those offseason roster bonuses which operate as pseudo-guarantees.
Corry contrasts the Packers’ approach with that of the Pittsburgh Steelers, however. While Pittsburgh uses similar structures when signing deals, they have landed themselves in salary cap trouble, while the Packers have avoided major cap issues. Both a reason and a functional result of not being in cap trouble is the Packers not pushing off big cap hits into future seasons, something the Steelers have done extensively. Corry mentions Antonio Brown’s contract, which seemingly got reworked every year to move money from base salary into a signing bonus and thus spread it out over the remaining length of the deal. In the end, when he was traded to Oakland, Brown ended up costing the Steelers over $21 million in the 2019 cap — over $6 million more than his cap hit on a reworked contract in Oakland this year.
It’s a chicken-and-egg problem; teams in cap trouble may shift salary to a bonus as a strategy to stay under the cap in the current year, but that just causes more issues down the road and forces the team into a vicious cycle. The Packers instead tend to pay as they go, being careful not to overextend themselves. Occasionally, the team does miss on a big-value signing, as they did with Nick Perry. However, even in that case the Packers chose to absorb the full brunt of Perry’s dead money in 2019 rather than pushing any of it off to 2020 with some creative accounting.
Given the team-friendly nature of the contracts and the team’s careful accounting to avoid cap trouble, it’s easy to see why Russ Ball is revered as one of the best football financiers in the game today.