The Green Bay Packers are traditionally a team that does not get into trouble with the salary cap. Thanks to Ted Thompson's draft-and-develop philosophy, the Packers only rarely sign big-name free agents from other teams to big-money contracts, preferring simply to retain their own key players before they hit the open market and, sometimes, signing some players to contract extensions early on and betting on future production.
This year, the Packers' top upcoming free agent was defensive end Mike Daniels, who signed a contract extension in December. That deal keeps the number of Packers hitting free agency down to 18, and shifts Thompson's priorities somewhat when dealing with his players.
Currently, projections put the NFL's 2016 salary cap at somewhere between $150 and $153.4 million, according to ESPN reports from December. Right now, Overthecap.com assumes that it ends up on the bottom end, and we'll take a flat $150 million as our estimate for now. The Packers are also able to roll over just over $7 million in cap space from 2015, and combined with the $136 million in cap charge on the books right now, that projects to just under $22 million in cap space for 2016.
With the Packers estimated to receive two supplemental picks in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Overthecap's draft pool estimate for Green Bay is just over $6 million. However, when subtracting league-minimum salaries from that number (since only the top 51 highest contracts count towards the cap in the offseason), the overall charge required to account for the draft class is just about $2 million, giving Thompson a shade under $20 million to work with this offseason.
Which players have the biggest contracts?
The biggest cap hits among the Packers' players are the names you would expect: Aaron Rodgers leads the way with a cap charge of $19.25 million, Clay Matthews is next at $13.75M, Sam Shields carries a $12M hit, and Julius Peppers is the only other player in eight figures at $10.5M. After that, seven other players have cap hits of $5 million or more: Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Daniels, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Morgan Burnett, and Bryan Bulaga.
With numerous free agents to be retained but few huge stars among them, it is possible but unlikely that one of them would crack the $5 million number for 2016.
How can the Packers make more room?
This is one of the tough questions that always plagues good General Managers - how can we make more room this year? There are essentially two options to do that: cut players and take the hit of their remaining prorated signing bonus or restructure a player's contract to shift more of the cap load to later years.
Thankfully, the Packers have not had to do that with many players in recent years, as they have not needed to free up room to stay under the cap. However, there are a few options at Thompson's disposal that could help him free up some space.
Julius Peppers is one candidate for a release or restructure. Many people following the Packers believed that Peppers' deal would be effectively a one- or two-year contract, as the structure allowed Green Bay to release him last offseason or this spring and save a significant amount. Last offseason, it never seemed to be an option on the table for the team, and 10.5 sacks plus a Pro Bowl appearance suggest that Peppers will be a Packer in the fall.
Still, if he were to be cut, the Packers would take a hit of $2.5 million against the 2016 cap, but since he carries a $10.5 million cap charge, that would represent a net savings of $8 million. He could also be restructured if the Packers feel he is likely to play beyond 2016, but that seems less likely than the team allowing him to simply finish out his contract and revisit the situation in 2017.
Another possibility is restructuring the contracts of one of the Packers' starting guards, Josh Sitton or T.J. Lang. Both players have contracts that expire after 2016, and it would be advantageous for the Packers to extend them and maintain continuity on the line.
Sitton's contract is for $6,850,000 in 2016, all consisting of base salary and likely-to-be-earned bonuses. Thompson and Green Bay's cap guru Russ Ball could certainly rewrite the terms of Sitton's deal to add a couple extra years and convert some of his 2016 compensation into a signing bonus, which would be prorated equally over the length of the deal.
The same goes for T.J. Lang, who has $1.1M tied up in prorated bonus money and about $5M in salary and bonuses. Lang, who is about a year younger than Sitton, could get a similar treatment to spread out some of that $5 million over the next few years.
The Packers certainly have options to free up some additional space, and in the case of their guards it makes sense to do so and keep more of the starting offensive line together beyond 2016. However, even if they do nothing with those two players, the team still has around $20 million to play with this spring and summer, which should be more than enough for Ted Thompson to do what he usually does: sign a handful of Packers draft picks who are hitting the market, draft nine or ten rookies, and maybe add a quiet street free agent signing or two after another team cuts players loose.