Possible Cap Troubles Leading to Fork in Road

While the immediate focus is building a team under the restraints of the 2015 salary cap, perhaps the larger issue is keeping this team together in 2017. Even with Ted Thompson's conservative fiscal approach, rough waters seem to be approaching due to some out-of-character contracts. (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY)

The Green Bay Packers are more than $21.3 million under the salary cap.

That’s a lot of financial firepower for a team that was tantalizingly close to playing in the Super Bowl last season. With his team oh-so-close to playing for the championship, general manager Ted Thompson has ponied up big money to retain Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga. However, his team has taken a step backward by losing cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency.

That’s the view right outside the window.

What’s more interesting — and perhaps troubling for a team that is going on two decades of being championship contenders — is the view through binoculars.

What Thompson has done during his tenure is incredibly impressive. Every year, the Packers win. Yeah, he’s got only one Super Bowl to show for it but he keeps giving his team a swing with the bat by building a perennial playoff team. In a league in which teams bob up and down in the standings like a raft on the open sea, the Packers are as stable as a kayak on a small pond. Contrast that to the salary-cap fire sale going on in New Orleans, which put star tight end Jimmy Graham on eBay.

How has Thompson done it? How have the Packers avoided the ups and downs that provide motion sickness for just about every other team in the league?

Through shrewd and, at times, unpopular financial management.

Thompson, of course, doesn’t partake in the silly season of free agency. Signing unrestricted free agents from other teams costs money Thompson would rather use on retaining his own players. Not handing $7 million per season to 32-year-old cornerbacks, like the Browns did with Williams, is another way to keep the financial house in order. By skipping the free-agent insanity every year, the club was able to keep Cobb and Bulaga when so many top free agents switched teams this offseason.

Nonetheless, even with this conservative approach, rough waters seem to be approaching.

Thompson has never been one to put all of his eggs into a one-year basket. While the Saints were screwed by a bunch of back-loaded deals that came due, Thompson has avoided kicking the salary-cap can down the road. Just look at quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ deal, which had a cap number of $17.5 million in 2014 and never rises past the $21 million of its final season (2019). Clay Matthews’ deal had a cap number of almost $11 million in 2014 and never rises past $15.2 million. In fact, in his final season (2018), the cap charge goes down to $11.4 million.

It’s the same story for several other high-priced players. Josh Sitton’s cap numbers for 2014 through 2016 are basically the same. Morgan Burnett’s cap number rises in a steady trajectory from $4.8 million in 2014 to $7 million in 2017. T.J. Lang’s cap number rises from $5.1 million in 2014 to $6.2 million in 2016.

Contrast that to some recent contracts. Take Sam Shields’ contract, for instance. Last year, his cap number was just $5.6 million. However, it swells to $9.1 million in 2015 and $12.1 million in 2016 and 2017. Jordy Nelson’s cap number was $5.9 million last season and actually declines to $4.6 million in 2015. Then the pain kicks in: $8.8 million in 2016, $11.6 million in 2017 and $12.6 million in 2018.

It’s even more pronounced for Cobb and Bulaga. When you hear the term “cap-friendly” for those contracts, it’s true — but only at the start. Cobb’s cap number rises for $5.4 million in 2015 to $9.2 million in 2016 and $12.8 million in 2017 and 2018. Bulaga’s cap number starts at $3.6 million in 2015 but increases to $5.6 million in 2016, $7.9 million in 2017 and $8.4 million in 2018 and 2019.

Why the change? That’s where you need the binoculars to look ahead two years.

Next offseason should be free of drama. The list of upcoming free agents, which includes Mason Crosby, Nick Perry, Mike Neal, Casey Hayward and Mike Daniels, shouldn’t cause too much heartburn. It’s the following offseason that looks like a fork in the road for the franchise. The list of free agents is led by Sitton and Lang. The 2013 draft class will be up, which means Datone Jones, Eddie Lacy, David Bakhtiari and Micah Hyde. With Sitton, Lang and Bakhtiari — an absolute steal as a fourth-round pick playing a high-priced position on his rookie deal — that’s three-fifths of the offensive line.

Could it be that Thompson is doing his version of “all-in,” knowing what lies ahead financially in two years and that his team might have to do some rebuilding, whether it’s not re-signing some of his top free agents or letting go of guys like Nelson, Shields or Burnett? Or is he saving cap space to be rolled into the 2017 offseason so the team is in position to keep the roster together?

Who knows, but what is certain is the 2017 cap is not a pretty picture. According to OverTheCap.com’s 2017 projections, the Packers have $96.7 million of cap dollars tied up in just 17 players who are under contract. That’s the third-highest figure in the league; and it leaves just $63.3 million (based on a possible cap of $160 million) for the rest of the team. The Packers have 45.0 percent of the projected 2017 cap wrapped up in five players, which is up from 41.2 percent in 2015. Compare those figures to last year’s Super Bowl teams — New England, 26.8 percent in 2015 and 31.4 percent in 2017; Seattle, 31.2 percent in 2015 and 34.9 percent in 2017.

Tough financial decisions are being made this year, no doubt because much tougher decisions are ahead. The Packers have mostly avoided them over the years, but this is the cost of putting together — and keeping together — a consistent winner.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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