It seems difficult at this moment to look past the quarterback with the big red button. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers brass are going to have to decide what the future of this team is. The reality is that whether Rodgers returns or not, the Packers are going to be walking a bit of a tightrope when it comes to the salary cap. The Packers currently sit over the cap for 2023, but they have several ways to get below that number.
Most of the ways that a team can clear cap space involve either cutting a player or pushing cap hits into future years via taking some base salary or roster bonus money and turning it into a signing bonus. This helps in the short-term, but increases future cap hits in a way that is permanent. The other option for clearing salary is to do so via trade.
The problem with most NFL trades is that they often leave a dead cap of their own on the books. One of the reasons the NBA sees so many more trades is that the only cap hit a player has is their salary, which transfers in full to their new team. In the NFL, because very few contracts are fully guaranteed, oftentimes the biggest part of a players cap hit is just the proration of their signing bonus. But not all players.
Darnell Savage is in a weird contractual situation. He is going into his fifth-year option which, with some hindsight, can only be viewed as a mistake. The former first-rounder was benched for end-of-pre-season pickup Rudy Ford for much of the season, and only returned to the lineup as a dimeback and eventual slot corner once Keisean Nixon was injured. The pick has not worked out; Savage flashed early in his career, but his play has, if anything, worsened. He is too small and struggles with tackling too often to be a box player or slot corner, but also struggles in coverage too much to be relied upon elsewhere.
This leaves Green Bay in a bit of pickle, considering he is fully guaranteed $7.901M in 2023. If the Packers cut him, he will just cost them $7.901M to not be on the team. His cap hit ranks tenth highest on the team. He’s not worth that money to be on the team, and frankly, his play the past two years has been either replacement level or worse. The advantage of 100% of Savage’s 2023 money being his salary is that Green Bay can trade him away and clear him from their books entirely.
But if Savage isn’t worth the nearly eight million owed, why would anyone take him? Draft compensation. The first notable trade of this kind involved the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns with Brock Osweiler. The Browns effectively ate the $15.225M in Osweiler’s guaranteed salary and sent out a fifth-round pick n exchange for a second round pick and a seventh round pick. Utilizing a Harvard University study on the value of NFL draft picks and equating that to the projected value of the Texans pick received, the Browns received an expected +123.2 points in draft value (the value of an early third round pick) for eating Osweiler’s money.
In 2017, the NFL salary cap was $167M. That made Osweiler’s money 9.12% of the entire 2017 cap. The salary cap for 2023 is projected at $220M. That is a 24% increase. The equivalent of Osweiler’s money in 2023 would be $18.879M. In 2023 dollars, the Browns received +123.2 points of draft capital for $18.879M. This is a +6.53 draft capital per $1M of cap space in 2023 dollars. Why all this math? Because Darnell Savage provides a pretty easy route to more cap space, we just have to figure out the cost.
If Darnell Savage were considered fully dead money by an opposing team with cap space, they could expect to receive +51.59 in draft capital for him (6.53 x 7.901 = 51.59). Referencing the above chart, that equates to a mid-fourth round pick. However, Darnell Savage is probably not entirely dead money. While he certainly hasn’t had a good career, he’s still only 25 years old and a team may think they can extract a little value out of him. If the opposing team views Savage as a three million dollar player, the capital equation changes to 6.53 x (7.901-3) = 32. This would equate to a fifth round pick. If they view him as a four million dollar player this would lead to 25 points of draft value (6.53 x (7.901-4) = 25), or an early sixth rounder.
The specific math and value on the chart isn’t the point here. The point is that the Packers don’t necessarily need to harm their future cap sheets any further to clear almost $8M in space. They probably just have to dump a player they don’t really like anyway with a mid-to-late day three pick to some team that has more cap space than they can use. And if that team values Darnell Savage, all the better.