This is the first article in a series of posts that will examine veteran players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster who are candidates for a contract restructure or outright release due to salary cap considerations. We begin with Preston Smith.
In 2021, Preston Smith had a return to productivity for the Green Bay Packers. As he has done throughout his career, Smith followed up a big odd year performance in 2019 with a less-productive campaign. 2020 was a step back for Smith as a pass-rusher, as he landed just 4 sacks and 11 QB hits compared to 12 and 23 in 2019.
That led to the Packers restructuring his contract for 2021, converting much of his base salary into incentives to keep him on the roster. It’s a good thing that they did, too, because Za’Darius Smith’s absence for almost the entire season forced the other Smith Brother to keep a starting role all season long. But Preston’s production increased, as he bounced back with a nine-sack campaign — the second-highest total of his career behind that 2019 season — and a total of 17 QB hits.
Heading into 2022, however, the Packers have a tough decision to make. Keeping Smith on his current cap number is virtually impossible given that the team is currently about $51 million over the cap. Will they find a way to keep Smith around, spreading some salary cap money out into 2023, or will they elect instead to simply release him outright and move on?
Here are the options that Brian Gutekunst and Russ Ball will weigh over the next few weeks.
Base salary: $8,350,000
Roster bonus: $3,000,000 (due on 3rd day of league year)
Per-game roster bonuses: $500,000 total (cap hit $470,588)
Workout bonus: $650,000
Prorated signing bonus cap hit: $7,250,000
2022 Cap Hit: $19,720,588
Smith’s cap hit for 2022 is adjusted slightly from the total because of his per-game workout bonuses. He was active for 16 of the 17 games in 2021, so only 16/17 of those bonuses are considered on the 2022 cap as being “likely to be earned.”
Releasing Smith leaves only his $7.25 million signing bonus cap hit on the books. That would result in a salary cap savings of $12,470,588. With the Packers needing to clear about $51 million in cap space before the start of the 2022 league year on March 16th, this seems like a plausible option, even as Smith had a resurgent 2021 season.
If the Packers insist on finding a way to keep Smith around for next year, their only options are to restructure or extend his contract. An extension seems unlikely for the 29-year-old, so we’ll examine how a restructure might work instead.
To offload cap money into 2023, the Packers would need to restructure Smith’s contract using void years. Ultimately, the team can spread out up to $7.23 million from his base salary and his $3 million roster bonus for a total of $10.23 million. That would leave Smith’s base salary at the 7+ year veteran minimum of $1.12 million while keeping his workout and per-game roster bonuses the same.
To spread out the cap money of a $10.23 million signing bonus, the Packers can use up to four void years in the deal. Anything from one to four years is an option, and the amount of money pushed out into next season would would result in the following salary cap impacts based on how many years they use:
1 void year: Total 2022 cap hit of $14.606M, 2023 cap hit of $5.115M
2 void years: Total 2022 cap hit of $12.901M, 2023 cap hit of $6.820M
3 void years: Total 2022 cap hit of $12.048M, 2023 cap hit of $7.673M
4 void years: Total 2022 cap hit of $11.537M, 2023 cap hit of $8.184M
The 2022 cap hit includes the new minimum base salary, per-game roster bonuses and workout bonuses, and past signing bonus cap money, plus the portion of this new restructured signing bonus that hits in 2022. Cap savings in 2022 are equal to the amount of money moved out into 2023 via the signing bonus proration.
The math above is based on the way that void years work in the NFL to spread out the cap hit of a signing bonus. The calculation simply affects how the bonus is spread out — if the Packers use more void years, the cap hit of the signing bonus gets divided evenly across 2022 plus each void year (up to a total of 5). For example, if the team uses four void years, the $10.23 million bonus is divided by 5, with 1/5 of the bonus ($2.046 million to be exact) being applied to the cap in each of the next five years. However, all of the future year cap hits for 2023 and beyond will accelerate to hit the salary cap in 2023 after the contract expires.
What to do?
Here’s the big question, of course: is it worth it to carry a cap hit of $12.5 million to employ Smith in 2022? That’s the cost of keeping him, since the Packers will carry a $7.25 million dead cap hit even if they cut him. Even though he gave the Packers nine sacks in 2021 in a bounce-back season, it’s tough to make the case that he’s worth keeping at that price tag, particularly with Rashan Gary coming along as an impact pass-rusher and the team desperately needing to trim money off the cap to be compliant with league rules.
The bet here is that the Packers cut bait with Smith prior to the start of the 2022 league year to help ensure that they get under the cap. They could do so with the understanding that they might be willing to bring him back at a reduced rate, should the team’s finances allow, but Green Bay will almost certainly need to clear that $12.5 million off the books to get under the cap.