The Green Bay Packers were facing a major salary-cap challenge.
Releasing Josh Sitton, while a big blow for the Packers on the field in 2016, will help the Packers remain contenders in 2017 and beyond.
Before Saturday, four-fifths of the starting offensive line was slated to become free agents, with Sitton joined by fellow guard T.J. Lang, ascending left tackle David Bakhtiari and center J.C. Tretter. 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, the versatile Tretter and jack-of-all-trades defensive back Micah Hyde. Outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Nick Perry and tight end Jared Cook are among the other free agents-to-be.
“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 in May. “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.”
Before Saturday, the Packers ranked 12th in available cap space for 2016, with about $9.7 million. That’s up to to about $16 million now, with the release of Sitton creating $6.3 million. Green Bay had more than two-thirds of its salary cap invested in 12 players, making it the most top-heavy roster in the league. That reality no doubt played at least some role in the Packers keeping a whopping 13 rookies in their initial 53-man roster.
Looking ahead, though, was the greater issue. The Packers ranked 12th in available cap space for 2017, as well, with about $25.8 million, according to OverTheCap.com. That might not sound like a big problem. However, when you pair that fact with the list of upcoming free agents, it was clear that something had to give.
On Saturday, Sitton is was what gave.
By releasing Sitton, Thompson suddenly has a lot more money to use for in-season extensions and/or to roll over and add to the 2017 cap.
Now, Thompson must figure out where to allocate those resources.
The big question is at left tackle. Does he re-sign Bakhtiari? Or can second-round pick Jason Spriggs show over the next four months that he’s capable of playing that vital position at a bargain price? Bakhtiari has been a tremendous player and should be a building block at the ripe old age of 24. However, 19 left tackles are making at least $7 million per season, including 13 making at least $9 million. In other words, Bakhtiari is due to get an enormous raise with his next contract. Other high-salary re-signs could be Lang or Cook, if the tight end capitalizes on a tremendous training camp and reaches his potential.
Or, does Thompson try to strengthen the middle class? The Packers’ top-heavy roster is a byproduct of keeping key pieces of a perennial winner. That pay-the-stars approach has meant a league-low six veterans with cap numbers of $3.87 million or less, according to OverTheCap.com. Players like Hyde, Jones, Lacy, Perry and Tretter could fit in that group with the new cap space.
The likely dropoff in play at left guard is easy to explain. So is the importance of cap dollars. What is hard to explain is this: How did it get to the point where the Packers flat out lost a quality starter? Had they been able to swing a trade, they could have had a player for this year or a draft pick for next year. Had Sitton played this season and signed elsewhere with another team in free agency, the Packers would have received his services for this season and received a compensatory draft pick in 2018.
Instead, the Packers get nothing other than some cap relief. It’s hard to imagine this could have played out any worse for the Packers.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.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.