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Brian Gutekunst: Packers are flexible enough to add ‘right player’ or use Franchise Tag

Preston Smith also came up in discussions on Tuesday, as the GM appears prepared to bring back the veteran pass-rusher.

NFL: FEB 27 Scouting Combine Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“Leave no stone unturned.” That was how Brian Gutekunst said he would approach building the Green Bay Packers’ roster when introduced as the team’s general manager a little more than three years ago. This year, that mantra may be even more apt than ever before as the Packers face a difficult offseason from a financial perspective.

With the team as much as $12 million over the salary cap (depending on where the final number comes down), Gutekunst and Russ Ball have their work cut out for them. Restructured contracts are likely to be in the cards for this team, and there will likely still be some painful cuts coming as well.

But one tool in Gutekunst arsenal that he has not used — a stone he has left unturned, so to speak — is the franchise tag. In media availability on Tuesday, Gutekunst took a question about whether the team is fundamentally opposed to using tags, having not done so since 2010.

“It’s very much case-by-case; there’s no philosophy to not use it,” Gutekunst replied. “It’s always something we’ll look at and if that’s the best situation for us, then we’ll go ahead and use it.”

The only strong candidate to receive a tag this season would be Aaron Jones, both based on the financials of the tag — running backs are among the lowest-priced positions in the NFL — and his caliber of play over the past few years. When asked directly about Jones being a tag candidate, Gutekunst actually acknowledged that this was a real possibility, saying “we certainly could (tag Jones), it’s something we’re working through.” While he would prefer not to go that route — saying “there’s usually better ways to go about it” — Gutekunst left the door open. “I think as we go down the road here over the next week or so, if that becomes in the best interest of the Packers, we’ll do that.”

The franchise tag amount for a running back is currently projected at about $8.5 million, based on the expected salary cap. However, the Packers would then need to clear about $20 million in cap money from the books before the start of the league year if they use a tag on Jones. While that is theoretically possible, it would probably require some significant contract restructures or extensions for the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams or cuts involving players like Preston Smith and Dean Lowry.

However, the Packers’ financial situation does not preclude them from going after a big fish on the free agent market if the fit is right. Despite the financial challenges, Gutekunst said that the team still expects to be able to make a big signing or two in the right circumstances.

“I do think we’ll be able to do that if the right player is there,” Gutekunst said, before alluding to the need to restructure some big cap numbers and make some cuts. “A lot of that will be determined over the next couple weeks as we figure out this puzzle and decide on some of our own guys, which is the first step. But if we think the right player is out there and we think he’s the right thing for the Green Bay Packers, we’ll be able to do it.”

Importantly, though, the Packers’ flexibility is still limited, as the GM added that “we won’t be able to do a lot.”

In terms of providing that flexibility, no player has been more heavily discussed among Packers fans than outside linebacker Preston Smith. Smith’s contract carries a $16 million cap hit in 2021, but cutting him would save the team $8 million in cap space. However, Gutekunst told local beat writers in a private call that “we certainly expect (Smith) to be back.”

As our Peter Bukowski has noted, Gutekunst said something similar in 2019 when asked about Jimmy Graham’s status amid speculation that he would be released that offseason. The team held on to Graham for another year — which appears to have been a mistake, given a 447-yard season while leading all NFL tight ends in cap hit — and this suggests that they may do the same with Smith.

If Preston returns, however, it’s still difficult to imagine him doing so at that $16 million cap number. The team may need to ask him to take a pay cut of some kind, especially given his down year in 2020. Still, Smith is the only player on the roster with experience playing for new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, which could earn him some level of additional consideration for a return.

Keep your browsers locked at Acme Packing Company in the next 15 days as we approach the start of the 2021 league year, which begins on March 17th.