After yet another lifeless performance against a bad team, the Green Bay Packers are very much in the bad place. As I wrote last week and feel even stronger about after losing to a bad backup quarterback, this era of Packers football is over. But the Packers as a franchise are, of course, not over. There will be good Packers teams again. They will just be different, and the next good one may only have a small number of players on the current roster on it.
Selling is actually pretty rare in the NFL, but like most things, the NFL is just lagging behind other sports. Bad teams in baseball and basketball routinely trade players that won’t be a part of their long-term future for a combination of prospects and/or draft picks. That is where Green Bay is at. This final swing didn’t work out, so now they need to pivot and get what they can.
The first issue that needs to be addressed is the really boring stuff: the salary cap. The Packers currently sit with $6.226M in effective cap space. For 2022 cap purposes, according to Over the Cap, the only player who would worsen that situation if traded would be Randall Cobb. Now, the Aaron Rodgers contract is incredibly weird, and I cannot imagine anyone would want to trade for him in-season, and so I advise you to read Jason Fitzgerald’s piece on how it actually works.
For 2023, Green Bay is in a tight cap spot. Currently they actually have negative effective cap space, so the post-June 1st trade designations that typically get ascribed to mid-season deals becomes more difficult for some players. The primary thing to understand is that, partly due to a bunch of talent aging out and partly due to how bad the dead cap situation is going to be in 2023 and 2024 for the Packers, this team is probably going to be quite bad for at least the next two years. So the decisions being made in the next few weeks and months should be taking that into account.
With that in mind, excluding Aaron Rodgers and David Bakhtiari, who are a combination of injured or unreliable for different reasons, the Packers should be looking to move on veteran players, particularly those on expiring contracts. Safety Adrian Amos and defensive lineman Dean Lowry both are on what are effectively expiring contracts (they only have void years remaining), and Amos in particular could potentially fetch something halfway decent in terms of draft pick compensation. While Preston Smith is not expiring, he will be due a sizable roster bonus of $7.5M on March 20, 2023, so this could be his final season with the Packers as they go into a rebuild. If you can find a team that wants to add to their edge room, Smith is going to be one of the better options available. If a team wants to take a shot on the Sammy Watkins hamstring ride, they should let them.
In addition to older players, the Packers are going to have some big decisions to make with younger players who are close to free agency. Allen Lazard has been a key player for the Packers across the past four seasons, but he will be an unrestricted free agent this spring. Lazard will be going into his age 28 season, so Green Bay will need to be thinking about what the best way to make use of Lazard will be for their long-term plan. Do they pay a market rate for Lazard to keep him around? Can they extract more in a trade than they think they would get in the compensatory formula if they just let him walk?
Similar questions arise for someone like Yosh Nijman as well, who will be going into restricted free agency, though having competent tackle play is important, especially with Bakhtiari unlikely to be on the team in 2023. The massive elephant in the room in Elgton Jenkins, who was a star performer off the bat but has not put together anything resembling that in his return from an ACL tear. It’s important to note that as of writing this, we just passed the eleven month mark since Jenkins sustained the injury on November 22, 2021. It’s not that surprising that he’s not all the way back. Both the Packers and Jenkins camp are incentivized to let this ride out.
The young stars on the team are likely going to stick around. Jaire Alexander just inked a big extension and is just 25 years old. Rashan Gary will be heading into his fifth-year option season in 2023, which is prime time for an extension, and he is putting together a truly dominant pass rushing season. Kenny Clark is still somehow only 27, and freshly 27 at that, and his extension runs through 2024 when he will still only be 29. The team will still want to have some building blocks, and these are three stars you can build around for the future.
The one star of this season from whom it seems Green Bay really should move on is Aaron Jones. Jones has been the only semblance of competent offense this year, but the financial situation for the team is not tenable. Jones’ cap hit in 2023 is slightly over $20M. The Packers could restructure it a bit or, god forbid, extend the running back well into his thirties, but that seems entirely pointless for a team going nowhere fast for the last few productive years he has. The best option for Green Bay is to move Jones on in the midst of a career year and take the draft capital received and build out the team the next two years. While Jones is unlikely to get the haul that Christian McCaffrey got Carolina (even though Jones has been both better and more reliable for the past few years), even getting a couple of day two picks would be very helpful to the team going forward.
The next couple of years are going to be painful, but it’s only going to be worse if Green Bay doesn’t rip off the band-aid sooner rather than later. Being a seller is rarely fun, but it’s a part of the circle of life in professional sports. If Green Bay gets this right, they could be a young and competitive team as soon as 2025. In the meantime, we’ll just get to watch the kids grow.