Clock Ticking on Top Free Agents-To-Be

Since the announcement at the start of training camp of a new deal for Jordy Nelson, all has been quiet on the contract extension front for the Green Bay Packers. With just six weeks of the regular season remaining it’s looking like Bryan Bulaga and Randall Cobb, among other scheduled free agents for the Packers, will have to wait until the offseason. (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY)

It really is no secret that the Green Bay Packers under general manager Ted Thompson like to identify their own core players and sign them to long-term deals well before they hit free agency.

That philosophy has helped the Packers manage the salary cap as well as any team in the league and get the best value out of players who, in many cases, could hit the open market to make more. These factors are even more essential considering the prohibitive yet worthwhile cost of having a franchise-quarterback contract on the payroll through the 2019 season.

The Packers have almost $8.3 million in salary cap space remaining this year, according to the NFLPA. But since announcing the second contract extension of Jordy Nelson’s career at the start of training camp, the Packers’ front office has been quiet, even with two potential top free agents and another who could still provide value.

Worth noting is that the Packers generally get extensions done with their own core players during a period from the summer months through the first half of the regular season. Only on rare occasions have they got extensions done this late in the season. Of the 19 players on the active roster who have signed extensions with the Packers, only long snapper Brett Goode and Tramon Williams were extended late in-season.

Williams reached an agreement on Nov. 30, 2010, coming off a restricted free agent deal he struck earlier that year (June 17). With a salary cap number of $9.5 million this season (third highest on the team behind Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews) he is unlikely to see an increase in pay, but at 31 years old and in his eighth season with the Packers, he is still playing at a high level and provides value to the Packers’ defense.

Of the 10 other players scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the 2014 season, Bryan Bulaga and Randall Cobb would likely have the most value on the open market. That at least one of the two has not received a contract extension could mean the Packers are gambling or waiting for a last-minute deal to be struck like last March, when Sam Shields signed just a day before free agency began.

Bulaga, 25, could certainly fall into that last-minute category. The right tackle, coming off a season-ending ACL injury in 2013 and an MCL sprain earlier this season, has only missed one game and has bounced back to give the Packers stability along the offensive line. By keeping Bulaga at right tackle — he would have played left in 2013 — the Packers may have driven down the price tag to keep him. Left tackles almost always garner more.

In 2014 free agency, the Tennessee Titans’ Michael Oher was the big winner for the unrestricted group of right tackles on the open market, inking a four-year, $20 million deal. And this summer, the Pittsburgh Steelers extended right tackle Marcus Gilbert for five years and $30 million. Bulaga, based on grades and statistics compiled by Pro Football Focus, has soundly outplayed Oher this season and has been better than Gilbert at least by several pass protection measures.

In the last year of his rookie contract as a first-round pick in 2010, Bulaga’s cap hit of $3.829 million is the 12th highest on the team for 2014. His base salary is $2.556 million.

Cobb, too, is coming of an injury-shortened 2013 and is responding well. After saying earlier this season that he had not yet earned a contract extension with his play, he has been on a tear. Since the Week 4 game at Chicago, he has more catches and receiving yards than Nelson. His 10 receiving touchdowns are best among all NFL wide receivers.

Nelson not included, the Packers have seen three of their top wide receivers leave over the past three seasons. Donald Driver retired after the 2012 season, Greg Jennings signed an unrestricted free agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings following the 2012 season and James Jones signed a deal with the Oakland Raiders following 2013. All three, however, signed extensions previously with the Packers during the Thompson era.

By that history, Cobb, just 24, would stand a good chance of returning for a second contract. But how much will the Packers be willing to spend? How much will the dynamic Cobb demand?

Nelson’s deal averages nearly $10 million per season ($11.5 million total guaranteed) as the Packers’ No. 1 receiver. But a better comparison for Cobb might be “full-time” slot receivers around the league. The top ones, who Cobb is outplaying or at least playing at the same level as, are making much more than Cobb’s rookie deal as a second-round pick. Denver’s Wes Welker, 33, is playing out a two-year, $12 million contract. Detroit’s Golden Tate, 26, is in the first year of a five-year, $31 million deal ($13.25 million guaranteed). And Jennings, who has run more than 70 percent of his routes from the slot this season (according to Pro Football Focus), signed a five-year deal averaging $9 million per season ($17.8 million guaranteed). He was 29 at the time.

Cobb is playing at a tremendous value to the Packers this season considering his production. His cap number is just $1.021 for 2014, which is 25th among players on the active roster. His base salary is just $812,648.

The average salary for the top 10 receivers in unrestricted free agency, which Cobb could fall into should he hit the open market, was about $4.8 million in 2014. Up to 45 receivers are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after this season as opposed to just 17 right tackles so big money for Cobb could be tougher to come by than for Bulaga.

Shields aside, the Packers were lucky to mitigate losses in free agency this past spring by signing back six of their own players – Mike Neal, B.J. Raji, James Starks, Andrew Quarless, Matt Flynn and John Kuhn – after the open period began on March 11. But Bulaga and Cobb especially should draw more interest than any of the above based on their body of work.

The clock is ticking.

LETTING GO

Notable Packers unrestricted free agents lost or left unsigned during the Ted Thompson era:

2005 – Marco Rivera.

2006 – Ryan Longwell.

2007 – Ahman Green (previously signed a one-year extension under Thompson in 2006).

2010 – Aaron Kampman (previously signed a four-year extension under Thompson in 2006).

2011 – Atari Bigby, Daryn Colledge, Brandon Jackson, Cullen Jenkins (previously signed a four-year extension under Thompson in 2007).

2012 – Scott Wells (previously signed an extension under Thompson in 2006).

2013 – Greg Jennings (previously signed an extension under Thompson in 2009).

2014 – Evan Dietrich-Smith, James Jones (previously re-signed as a UFA under Thompson in 2011), Ryan Pickett (previously signed an extension under Thompson in 2010).

Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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