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Could the Packers actually sign Will Fuller? Some creative accounting can make it work

It wouldn’t take Marty Byrde-level accounting tricks to land a big fish for the Packers, but even if the market for Will Fuller isn’t robust, Green Bay likely need to take advantage of tricks they rarely use to sign him.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans
Will Fuller offers the big-play upgrade at receiver the Packers have sought out each of the last two trade deadlines.
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Receivers looking to improve their stock need not open a Robinhood account or scour Reddit sites. All they have to do is sign with the Green Bay Packers. Between a Matt LaFleur offense capable of scheming players open, creating shot plays, and space to run, and the unparalleled ability of Aaron Rodgers, receivers tend to hit their ceilings or even over-perform what their talent dictates they ought to be, simply because their surroundings are optimal. In a free agency marked by a shrinking cap and a receiver market overflowing with quality players, an explosive-but-oft-injured receiver like Will Fuller could find the perfect home in Green Bay.

In an interview on ESPN’s Get Up, Rob Demovsky mentioned a familiar object of the Packers desire as a name to watch: Texans receiver Will Fuller.

The Packers pushed hard to get Fuller at the trade deadline, ultimately unwilling to pay more than a Day 3 pick for a rental player. According to subsequent reporting as well as league chatter around the deadline, Green Bay preferred to trade for Fuller and sign him to a contract extension. Once that fell apart, the two teams could not come to an agreement on compensation.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport reported the team’s interest in Fuller “goes back as far as the summer” of 2020, which means he’s a player they’ve had their eye on for longer than just one trade deadline. It’s worth remembering reports after the Packers signed Za’Darius Smith that they’d previously attempted to trade for him. What’s more, after nearly dealing for the Jets’ Robby Anderson, Brian Gutekunst showed interest in Anderson as a free agent last spring as well.

According to a team source, LaFleur spent the week leading up to the Packers’ week 7 game against the Texans raving about Fuller’s ability in game prep, emphasizing the brain trusts’ interest in the explosive receiver. And he would know, as the year he spent on Notre Dame’s coaching staff in 2014 coincided with Fuller’s breakout sophomore season.

Spotrac pegs Fuller’s market value a shade under $17 million APY, a figure far too high for the Packers and one that only factors in recent market comparisons for true No. 1 receivers like Amari Cooper, Stefon Diggs, and Brandin Cooks (at least when he signed the deal). They also use the Tyler Boyd contract, however, perhaps a better proxy for what Fuller is looking at this offseason.

Boyd took over for A.J. Green as the No. 1 in the Bengals offense, but not because that’s what his true destiny is on a good team. Boyd received 4 years and $43 million, which is $10.75 million per season. Fuller boasts inarguably the more explosive skillset, but when Boyd signed that deal he was coming off a 14-start season and had played in 40 of a possible 48 games, or 83%. To date, Fuller has played 53 of 80 possible games, just 66.3%. He’s also coming off a PED suspension and will have to miss Week 1 in 2021.

Are there better comps for him from recent markets? Carolina handed Robby Anderson a 2-year/$20M contract last season, and he was a player coming in with a very similar profile as a high-level secondary player. The difference is he’d missed two games in his career to that point.

Emmanuel Sanders’ deal in New Orleans offers a potential glimpse into what a high-end secondary piece commands for contenders who believe they’re close. Green Bay also tried to sign Sanders and reportedly made a competitive offer with the long-time Bronco opting for New Orleans the city over Green Bay. The Saints inked him to a 2-year, $16 million contract with a $6 million signing bonus and a void year in 2022 to spread out the dead cap.

Russ Ball, a hardline negotiator with a penurious approach to the salary cap, provides no track record of this type of creative accounting, but the Packers have never been coming out of a pandemic season with a shrinking cap in the waning seasons of a Hall of Fame quarterback’s prime before either. If there’s a year to break out the thinking caps, 2021 is it.

Sanders counted a mere $4.5 million on the Saints cap last year with a figure that explodes to $10.5 million this season, but with just $4 million in dead cap if New Orleans would decide to move on now. Green Bay prefers to wait on those types of hits until Year 3 of a contract, and Fuller may not be amenable to void seasons, a tact usually taken by aging veterans.

Would Fuller, with a pre-existing relationship to LaFleur and new QC coach Ryan Mahaffey—he was also on staff at Notre Dame in 2014—be willing to trade some upside for stability over a longer period of time? For a player with an injury history, betting on himself with a one-year deal poses profound risk, and though the Packers provide an appealing prove-it deal destination, such a structure prevents Green Bay from spreading the money out over several years, thus reducing the burden on this COVID-shrunken cap.

Back in 2019, Tyrell Williams signed for a shade under $11.1 million AAV, and Golden Tate for just below $9.4 million per year. In order to get to Fuller’s likely basement asking price, the Packers’ offer must come in above $10 million per year. Beyond that, the questions about what Fuller can command and what more years would be worth to him remain unclear.

Randall Cobb and Sanders each got $6 million in signing bonus money, but that wouldn’t be enough to offset a much lower base this year. The Packers would have to wade into much larger signing bonus territory to diffuse the cost over the years of the deal. Could a 2 year, $25 million deal work? It could with a big enough signing bonus, let’s call it $12 million.

Sanders’ deal, though it has that third year built in, is really just 2 years and $16M though because $2 million of that comes in a voidable Year 3. The third year exists solely to spread out salary cap, in this case $2 million in dead cap the Saints know they’re eating in 2022.

That’s just not going to be enough for a player like Fuller, but the structure could be enticing for the Packers. Let’s follow the Sanders structure and make Year 3 a void year, which Fuller could agree to, allowing him to hit the market again before he turns 30 and coming off two years playing with Aaron Rodgers. We’ll add a roster bonus to add a little incentive for both sides. A potential contract could look something like this.

Year 1: $2 million base plus $12 million signing bonus (split evenly over three years) — $6 million cap number in total

Year 2: $9 million base, $2 million roster bonus, additional $4 million cap hit from signing bonus proration — $15 million cap number in total

(Void) Year 3: $4 million cap number from signing bonus proration

If Fuller makes the team in 2022, he gets an extra $2 million on top of a $9 million base. If the doesn’t, the Packers eat $8 million in dead money, double what they know they’re going to be taking on no matter what. Fuller would count just $6 million on the ‘21 cap, lower than the franchise tag would be on Aaron Jones for example, and although his cap hit would balloon to $15 million, that would still be below what Davante Adams made last year or will make this year. If he plays out his two years, the Packers then absorb an extra $4 million in 2023, shifting that cap money out from 2021 and 2022 into a year when the cap should start increasing significantly once again.

This likely presumes there’s no longer-term market to Fuller’s liking in the offing, which may well be the case in an a bull receiver market. This would be the alternative to a prove-it deal with a worse quarterback or worse team. Playing with Watson, Fuller knows the value of an elite quarterback, but has never played in such a stable, well-run organization with a legitimate chance to compete for a championship. A deal with such a structure would become a de facto two-year prove-it deal which could become a non-starter from Fuller’s side who will want to cash in the earliest opportunity.

On the other hand, the current salary cap won’t spike off the new TV deals until 2023 even if the imminent reported deals go through before the new league year. Hitting the free agent market in a cap spike season after playing two years with Aaron Rodgers?