2016 Could Truly Be Super Bowl or Bust for Green Bay Packers

The Packers are on what might be an unsustainable trajectory. No team in the NFL has a salary structure as top-heavy. With a challenging offseason ahead, this season could be the last, best chance for this group.

The Green Bay Packers’ mandatory minicamp begins on Tuesday and ends with a race to the airport on Thursday afternoon. When the players return to Green Bay in late July after a five-week getaway, optimism will be high that this year’s club can win a fifth Super Bowl championship and put itself in position to be the Team of the Decade.

Will it be now or never for Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers? Will the 2016 team represent the last, best chance for that triumvirate to win a Super Bowl together?

Having Rodgers, of course, gives the Packers a chance to be a contender every season. But what happens if the Packers fall short yet again this year?

A challenging offseason awaits, and the 2017 edition of the team will look strikingly different than the one that lines up at Jacksonville on Sept. 11. Three-fifths of the starting offensive line is headed to free agency, with bedrock guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang and rising left tackle David Bakhtiari entering their final seasons under contract. The productive 2013 draft class will be free agents, as well. That group is headed by Bakhtiari and includes hybrid defensive lineman/outside linebacker Datone Jones, running back Eddie Lacy, versatile offensive lineman J.C. Tretter, jack-of-all-trades defensive back Micah Hyde and inside linebacker Sam Barrington. Outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Nick Perry, tight end Jared Cook and punter Tim Masthay are among the other free agents.

“We’ve got a lot of guys up and, if I’m gambling, I’m going to bet that not all of us come back,” Bakhtiari said a couple weeks ago about the offensive line. “That’s just how the nature of the beast is. But that’s something you don’t want to think about and that shouldn’t be our topic of conversation. Our conversation should be about being the best offensive line going into this season, and that’s how we should operate and let that sort itself out. Nothing we talk about is going to change that fact. The only thing we can do is enjoy the moment, cherish the moment, get ready for the upcoming season and be the best offensive line we can be.”

Thompson will keep some of those free agents, but there’s no way he can keep them all. The team’s salary-cap structure is on an unsustainable path. Green Bay has more than two-thirds of its salary cap invested in 12 players, making it the most top-heavy roster in the league. It’s hard to quibble too much in whom Thompson has targeted with big-money contracts — those 12 players are, in order, Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Sam Shields, Peppers, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Mike Daniels, Sitton, Lang, Morgan Burnett, Bryan Bulaga and Nick Perry. Still, the middle-class has practically disappeared. The Packers have a league-low six veteran-contract players with cap numbers of $3.87 million or less.

Thompson has banked on his stars to deliver and his draft picks to develop quickly. However, the 2011 and 2012 drafts were busts, with only Cobb (2011), Perry (2012) and Daniels (2012) remaining from those draft classes. That left a black hole of fifth- and sixth-year players on the roster. The Class of 2013 was a rousing success, but the jury is out on the 2014 and 2015 drafts. The play of Davante Adams, Richard Rodgers and Jeff Janis (2014 picks who have flashed but not consistently) and Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Ty Montgomery and Jake Ryan (the top four picks of 2015) will determine the verdicts of those drafts.

More than that, their performance likely will determine the Packers’ viability as legitimate championship contenders in 2017 and beyond.
Unless Peppers is coaxed back for another season, Rodgers figures to be the oldest player on the roster at this time next year. He’ll be 33 and almost certainly will have a few more excellent seasons in him. But will Rodgers have the supporting cast capable of helping him get a second (or third) Super Bowl ring? Can the 2014, 2015 and 2016 drafts provide the infusion of talent necessary to overcome the personnel losses that are to come as the salary cap catches up to one of the NFL’s most consistent winners?

“I never thought I had 12 years as a young starter, so I looked at it every year as, ‘I’m going to try to go all-in on this year,’” Rodgers said last week. “And anything that I have to do to help any of those young players get ready to play quicker, I’m going to do. I’m going to keep on doing that and every year is not guaranteed in this league. The way our contracts are set up and the way this game is set up, the physical nature of it, you have to approach every season as you’re going to go all-in that season.”

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.

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