Packers seeing red

Joe Johnson is like that bad drive-through dinner that keeps you up all night.

The Packers must get under the $85.5 million salary cap by Tuesday. Doing so is going to be painful, as the Packers are at about $93 million after naming tight end Bubba Franks their transition player, a label worth $2.095 million. The Packers also must establish tender offers for a group of seven restricted free agents that includes Aaron Kampman and Najeh Davenport. That's another several million dollars that will be thrown against the cap by Tuesday.

That's why standout guard Mike Wahle will be released. That's also why safety Darren Sharper could be released, as well. Wahle's 2005 salary-cap number is a whopping $11.375 million, which includes $6.375 million in bonuses. Sharper's cap figure is $8.633 million, which includes $5.233 million in bonuses.

Wahle and Sharper represent the Packers' second- and third-largest cap numbers, behind quarterback Brett Favre's $11.733 million.

Fourth on the list is Ahman Green, whose cap number is $5.625 million. Next is Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila's $3.571 million. Checking in at No. 6 is Cletidus Hunt at $3.250 million.

At No. 7 is the aforementioned Johnson, at $3.249 million, who played his last game in October 2003 and was released long before training camp started last summer.

Without Johnson's cap number — and, to a lesser extent, the $1.3 million on the books yet for first-round bust Jamal Reynolds — plaguing the Packers, cutting Wahle would probably be enough to allow the Packers to take care of business. Instead, the Packers are in dire financial straits.

Waiving Wahle will reduce the Packers' cap number by $11 million. (The extra $375,000 is signing-bonus money and, as is true in the cases of Johnson and Reynolds, is money that counts against the cap regardless of whether that player is on the roster.) That would put the Packers at about $82 million, which won't be far enough under the cap if the Packers plan on keeping Kampman, Davenport or any of the other restricted free agents.

Assuming the Packers give Kampman and Davenport the middle of the two free-agent tenders (see the story headlined "Restricted Free Agents") and the lesser of the tenders to backup tackle Kevin Barry, backup quarterback Craig Nall, backup linebacker Paris Lenon and No. 3 quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan — the Packers may not extend an offer to the seventh restricted free agent, R-Kal Truluck — it will cost the Packers nearly $5.5 million just to make offers to their restricted free agents.

With that business complete, the Packers would stand at $87.5 million, about $2 million over the cap.

No thank you, Joe Johnson.

That's why Sharper could be a cap casualty by Tuesday unless he agrees to restructure his contract. Among his $5.233 in bonuses is a $2.6 million roster bonus, and that's likely the figure the Packers are targeting for cap relief. The Packers simply may not have any other place to turn to get to the magical $85.5 million figure. The only other big-salary player on the team is Favre, and it's hard to imagine the Packers asking him to renegotiate since they don't want to do anything to push him toward retirement.

Releasing Sharper comes at sizable risk because there's a chance a team writes a contract far bigger than the Packers' renegotiated offer. Even after a substandard season marred by a nagging knee injury, a healthy Sharper is one of the better players at his position in the league. Certainly, the Packers don't have anyone on the roster able to take his place.

Then there's this history lesson: Once upon a time, the San Diego Chargers got rid of a declining, big-salaried player named Rodney Harrison. Harrison latched on with the New England Patriots, and he's starred while winning three of the last four Super Bowls.

Merely getting under the cap by Tuesday, however, is not enough. The Packers have a bunch of unrestricted free agents — namely Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera, who the Packers absolutely can't lose if Wahle signs elsewhere, and linebacker Hannibal Navies. Of course, the Packers aren't going to let Wahle go without at least making a reasonable offer. Then there's the draft; the Packers will need about $3 million to sign their draft picks. Then, of course, the Packers need to get under the cap if they intend to stick their toes in the free-agency pool to upgrade a woeful defense.

That's a lot of needs without much flexibility.

How did the Packers get themselves in such a bind? The Reynolds mistake certainly didn't help. Had Reynolds lived up to his first-round billing, the Packers wouldn't have had to sign Johnson. Instead, they missed on Reynolds and compounded that mistake by missing on Johnson. The Packers have nothing to show for either of those signings other than $4.6 million in so-called "dead" money on the salary cap.

Meanwhile, the Packers have put a premium on locking up their best players. Thus, the Packers have 14 players taking up at least $2 million on the salary cap.

Simply put, the Packers' cap problems is the price of being good. Good players cost money. Good teams, however, find a way to crunch the numbers. That's why, as you read this, new general manager Ted Thompson and cap guru Andrew Brandt are getting calluses on their fingers. And cursing Joe Johnson.

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