In 2021, the Green Bay Packers took some uncharacteristic steps to find their way to a tenable position with respect to the NFL’s salary cap. The dropping cap, which fell to a $182.5 million base value for the upcoming season, puts most teams in a tough position, but the Packers especially so.
General manager Brian Gutekunst and financial guru Russ Ball have been creative over the past few months, shifting cap space from the coming season into future years to free up enough space to first get under the cap for the offseason. With the need to maintain some additional flexibility to sign draft picks and other players during the 2021 season, the Packers will still need to free up additional space at some point in the coming months.
However, another tough cap year is looming in 2022. After the gymnastics that the team has performed to get under this year’s cap, a difficult situation is likely to arise next season as well. On Monday during comments to the media ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, Gutekunst acknowledged that the Packers’ plan to handle the dropping cap is in essence a two-year plan for 2021 and 2022. Because of the heavy reliance on those voidable years in some of the contracts and bonus conversions, Green Bay will face a difficult period next offseason as well.
But while that is true, Gutekunst’s words reflect a general manager who is intent on keeping Aaron Rodgers around as his quarterback through those difficult financial times.
Rodgers’ cap hit is just over $37 million for 2021 and $39 million in 2022, a massive number for any single player. And while much digital ink has been spilled questioning why the Packers have not extended Rodgers or performed a similar bonus conversion on his deal, Gutekunst seems unfazed by the chatter.
“That’s kind of something we’re working through — it’s something we’ve talked about quite a bit as we’ve worked through the salary cap situation,” Gutekunst said of Rodgers’ contract. “We’ve worked through a number of different things and that’s one of them.”
Gutekunst would go on to use a familiar phrase about Rodgers, later saying “Aaron’s our guy, he’s going to be our QB for the foreseeable future. We’re excited about the kinds of things we’re going to try to accomplish over the next few seasons.”
Still, the team has not taken any steps yet this spring to further ensure Rodgers’ future in Green Bay. But according to a later comment, it is a matter of if, not when the Packers do adjust Rodgers’ contract, and they will most likely need to do so with an extension:
“There are a lot of contracts that we will need to address over the next 4 to 5 months, and (Rodgers’ is) certainly one where we will probably address that as well.”
While only the Packers truly know if they want to commit to Rodgers beyond 2021 or even 2022, comments like this indicate that they are telling the truth when they say that they do. If the Packers would simply convert some of Rodgers’ base salary to a signing bonus and spread it out over the next three years, they would be first ballooning his already-brutal $39 million cap hit in 2022, a year that is already established to be a problem. That would create more difficult conversations next offseason and, depending on Rodgers’ play and the team’s status, it could lead to tensions that would be far worse than those perceived this spring.
Instead, the Packers converted money to bonuses for other players, knowing that those decisions would be easier to execute and doing so for players who are admittedly less integral to the franchise. That bought them the time to get under the cap by the start of the league year on March 17th, allowing them to focus on free agency and the NFL Draft before likely diving full-bore into negotiations with Rodgers and probably Davante Adams in the summer to give the team the cap flexibility to manage the regular season.
Furthermore, it’s not hard to imagine the team taking the same approach with Adams, if he were signed for another year beyond 2021. The Packers could have even worked out a deal with Adams in March to convert base salary into bonus money by using voidable years starting in 2022. However, they did not, a sign that the team still intends to sign him to a long-term contract extension that will help keep his cap hits lower in 2021 and 2022 as well.
Managing the salary cap is a year-long puzzle. In the case of the Packers, it appears that when up against a tight deadline, the team played with the figures that had to be negotiated immediately (like a new deal for Aaron Jones, for example), were relatively simple to negotiate, or that required no negotiation at all. That then left them the ability to wait on the the tougher, longer negotiations for a later time — this summer, in all likelihood — when all parties would be better able to put in the time and the work to come to agreeable solutions.
Perhaps the Packers’ decision to wait to restructure Rodgers’ contract is in fact a stronger sign that they want to keep him around long-term than if they had already done so.