Ever since Ted Thompson returned in 2005 to take over as general manager of the Green Bay Packers, the team has been in an excellent financial position. With Andrew Brandt and Russ Ball running the team’s financial division and the team putting a heavy reliance on a draft-and-develop approach, the Packers have generally avoided getting themselves into untenable salary cap positions.
The 2021 season, however, is going to be a different story thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The drop in league revenues in 2020 is widely expected to cause the salary cap to drop this offseason, which will put many teams, including the Packers, in a bind.
On Monday in his season-ending press conference, general manager Brian Gutekunst acknowledged that teams have been given initial estimates for the 2021 cap number, saying “we don’t really have an exact number, (but) we have a pretty good idea of where it’s going to be.” However, he noted that the team expects the cap to drop from the $198.2 million value it held in 2020, suggesting that this is the general assumption by the league as well.
How much lower the cap will be than last year’s $198.2 million is still unknown. The league and players union negotiated that the cap would not fall below $175 million this year, but any extra million or two bump up from that would help the Packers, whose current cap liabilities for 2021 sit at about $211.5 million according to Overthecap.com. With free agency and the draft still coming and the Packers having only $4 million or so in rollover cap space from 2020, it’s clear that this team has some hard work to do in order to get under any cap value, even if the number stays flat and just south of $200 million.
For his part, Gutekunst acknowledges that the Packers will probably have to do something that they are generally loath to do: back-load existing cap money into future years with the expectation that the cap will rebound in 2022 and beyond. “We’re going to have to do that this year for sure,” Gutekunst said about offloading cap money into the future. “If there’s an opportunity to take some risks to help us win now, we’re in that mode.”
One of the most obvious moves to free up cap space is to reconfigure Aaron Rodgers’ contract, shifting base salary and roster bonus money into a signing bonus to spread it out over the next three seasons. That could free up around $15 million and although it would cause Rodgers’ cap hit to jump to an arguably unsustainable level in 2022, that could be the kind of risk Gutekunst is alluding to.
Yes, that would almost certainly require another contract restructure for Rodgers next season, but that may be the price of doing business in 2020. And with Gutekunst’s comments about Rodgers being integral to the Packers’ long-term plans — saying he will “absolutely” be around and that the team is “excited not only for next year but the years to come” — it’s clear that the team is committed to making sure #12 remains under center.
Other options for shifting cap hits into future years include extensions for Davante Adams, who enters a contract year in 2021, and Za’Darius Smith, who has two seasons left on the four-year deal he signed in 2019. Both of those players could end up lowering their 2020 cap hits with new deals that would offload cap space into the next few seasons.
Even if the Packers push off cap money until tomorrow, there will almost certainly be difficult cuts coming, despite Gutekunst saying that the front office feels it can make it through this offseason without gutting the roster. Christian Kirksey, Rick Wagner, and Dean Lowry appear to be logical cap casualties, with Preston Smith potentially among that group as well depending on how low the cap drops.
Letting those big cap hits go might not be enough to reach the required number, however. And if it’s not, the Packers must be comfortable with kicking the can down the road a bit if they want to stay in the hunt next fall.