As he packed up his locker for the season, a dejected Packers guard Josh Sitton pointed out the obvious that rings true at the end of each season. Each team is different than the one that came before it. As he said in his end of season comments, “It sucks walking in and seeing everybody packing up their (stuff). We’ve been hanging out with each other for a while. There’s going to be a lot of people who aren’t going to be on the team – a lot of people we can’t pay.”
He’s true to a certain extent. The 2015 Green Bay Packers will have familiar faces, but will not be a carbon copy of the 2014 model that was five minutes from coasting to the Super Bowl in Arizona. Yes, it will come down to money.
But a closer look at the numbers show prove that the Packers will have enough money to pay their top talent. And he’s right, some will not be back.
That said, it won’t strictly be about money. Monetary worth will be tempered with future impact. And it will be that intangible formula that will determine who stays and who goes.
The Packers were under the cap this year which was $133 Million dollars. That cap is predicted to balloon somewhere in the $141 Million to $144 Million range in the upcoming season. More money to go with the higher salaries that top players command.
That means big decisions are on the horizon for the Packers front office. No doubt Ted Thompson and company will be playing a Cheesehead version of Moneyball. There are big names that are entering free agency this year. Who will stay, and who will test the market? And will Ted evoke the franchise tag, something that hasn’t been utilized in years?
To get a better feel for the numbers game, it’s important to identify the free agents. Two big names come to mind–receiver Randall Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga. It is imperative that both players are resigned.
Cobb is at the end of his rookie contract. In the last year of his rookie contract, Cobb made (bonuses included) a little over a million dollars. Chump change for a player of his caliber, and a fraction of teammate Jordy Nelson’s $5.925 Million hit against the salary cap this year.
When looking at what Cobb is worth, it’s important to look at the structure of Nelson’s current contract. Signed through 2018, Nelson’s salary will mushroom up to $12.55 Million in the last year of that contract, and as of 2015, there will be over $9.0 in dead cap money. Expect Cobb and his agent to seek out a similarly lucrative multi-year deal. After all if Jordy Nelson is the gold standard for a Pro-Bowl caliber top receiver, Cobb’s numbers on the field nearly mirror Nelson’s. As a result, the Packers will be looking at a multi-year escalating scheme.
To date, Cobb has not been signed, and both sides of the deal have been pretty tight lipped. Would the Packers finally pull the trigger with the franchise tag and buy more time to work out a deal? Perhaps, but the predicted tag would be worth 8.949% of the total yearly cap. In other words, would the Packers want to really pay Cobb $12.71 Million next year when they are slated to pay Nelson $4.6 Million?
Yes, I said it was imperative that Bulaga remain a part of that offensive line that went from mediocre last year to one of the most stout in the league. If he were to come back, the entire line would remain intact, ready to function a single cohesive unit. This has not happened in God knows how many years.
But that’s not going to be cheap either. This past year, Bulaga earned $3.829 Million. If the Packer were to franchise him, he would cost more than a franchised Cobb at $12.83 Million. That bloated, inflated price is exactly why the Packers front office does not like using the franchise tag, especially when the highest RT in the league–San Francisco’s Anthony Davis–made a little more than $7.5 Million in 2014.
Needless to say, the Packers are going to have to spend a pretty penny to keep both of these players and could be looking to spend somewhere between $12 Million and $18 Million next year to retain both of them.
So how do they do it? Will the Packers cleave expensive, older players from the roster in favor of bargain basement rookies in the draft that they can sign for pennies on the dollar and have years of productivity ahead of them? Or will they ask players for a pay cut, much like they requested from AJ Hawk in the past?
The answer is probably both. After all, money doesn’t grow on trees, and it has to come from somewhere.
That means some will either be cut outright or some of the other unsigned free agents will be turned loose to test the market.
I don’t claim to be an expert in this, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to free up money when weighing monetary worth vs. what’s still left in the tank.
Let’s start with an easy choice–emotions completely removed from this one–to cleave from the team: Brad Jones. By now it’s common knowledge that the Seahawks were only going to try the fake kick if Jones was on the other side of the ball. I’m sorry, if you’re that guy, you’ve officially become a huge liability to the team, and your failings are well known. The sum of your mistakes outweigh the occasional good play, and it’s time to go.
Jones is under contract through next season. He is scheduled to make $4.75 Millon. That’s a lot of money to be the guy other teams are just banking is going to screw up. On the flip side, cutting him would only cost the Packers $1.0 Million in dead cap money. Measuring the good vs. the bad and the relatively large salary compared to training up a rookie linebacker, Jones appears to be an easy choice for the chopping block.
After Jones, it gets stickier. Who else has more value in freed up cap money than predicted talent on the field?
What about AJ Hawk? While he has been a good leader on the defensive side of the ball, and his knowledge base is extensive, it may be time to put him out to pasture. (That said, I would have no problems hiring him on as a coach, but that’s a different column for a different day.)
Let’s face it, there is less and less in this Ohio State alum’s tank. His role on the field this season was a fraction of what it had been in the past, and his playing time was slashed significantly.
Hawk is scheduled to make the same in 2015 as he did this year–$5.1 Million. But unlike last year where there was $3.45 Million locked up in dead money, there is only $1 Million this year. Sure, he’s taken pay cuts in the past, but do the dividends on the field even warrant half of his predicted salary? That’s a decision that the Packers’ front office will be weighing quite closely as they start forming next season’s team.
And then there is Tramon Williams. Currently he is the most expensive unsigned free agent on the team. Last year brought home $9.5 Million. A shoulder injury in 2011 with documented nerve damage to his arm, and the Packers cornerback has not been the same as the shutdown corner we saw during the Super Bowl run in 2010. No one questions his grit and determination, but has that weakened arm become a liability? Perhaps not enough to send him packing entirely. But is Williams amenable to a significant pay cut? With Devon House on the rise as a corner, there will definitely be a true competition for the starting position in camp. Both are free agents this year, so will the Packers try for two discount cornerbacks, or will they free up nearly $10 Million dollars and go with House opposite of Sam Shields in 2015?
For argument’s sake, let’s just say the Packers cut Jones and Hawk and let Williams walk in favor of House. If last year’s salaries (minus the dead cap money) are any indication, they look to free up a potential $16 Million–enough for a sizeable down payment, if not the full balance to keep both Cobb and Bulaga.
No, this doesn’t answer other questions: What is Davon House worth? (Likely less than a discounted Tramon Williams.) Will the Packers keep Julius Peppers around for the second year of his three-year deal? (I say yes because he proved to be invaluable this year and $7.5 Million in dead money between this year and 2016 is likely too steep for the frugal Ted Thompson to part with, though he may be willing to part with the projected $2.5 Million in 2016 dead cap money if things do not pan out in the upcoming season.)
Needless to say, the Packers will be crunching numbers and reviewing the season, weighing the strengths and weakness of its players. Like every year, there will be turnover. It is always difficult saying goodbye to beloved players (eg, Charles Woodson.) But at the end of the day, it is a business, and the transactions that occur behind closed doors have one goal in mind–another chance to play for a world championship at the Super Bowl.