A year too soon?

PackerReport.com's Matt Tevsh chimes in with his thoughts on the Green Bay Packers re-signing Cullen Jenkins earlier this week. Tevsh questions why the Packers are paying Jenkins big money now when they could have paid him later. Read on, premium subscribers!

Signing Cullen Jenkins to a new four-year, $16 million contract this week sent a clear message that the Packers have faith in the defensive end becoming their full-time starter. The move was based primarily on Jenkins' surging performance in 2006 and is understandable considering the Packers are trying to build a strong defense with a hard-working nucleus of players.

There is one problem, though, with the signing: It came a year too early.

The Packers could have given a one-year tender to Jenkins, a restricted free agent, before the start of the open market on Friday and been better off. It would have not only saved them money this year to be spent elsewhere (Randy Moss?), but also put them in a better position going forward with their personnel.

With restricted status, Jenkins' chances of signing with another team this off-season were slim. A first-round tender of $1.8 million by the Packers would have all but assured he stay in Green Bay. Under such a scenario, other teams would have been required to give up a first-round draft pick to sign Jenkins during the free agency period (rarely do teams give up first rounders for restricted players, let alone one with Jenkins' credentials). Even if another team made a long-term offer to Jenkins, the Packers had the option to match. Really, they had nothing to lose, and only something to gain if the asking price was too high.

By not letting Jenkins hit free agency, the Packers will instead pay him nearly $7 million in salary and bonuses this year, an amount that ranks among the top defensive lineman in the league. That is a prohibitive sum of money for a player who has never been a year-round, full-time starter in three NFL seasons.

The Packers were correct in thinking that Jenkins, 26, could be the type of player he was at the end of last season. He has always been an underdog and a hard worker, playing multiple defensive line positions. When he got his chance to start, replacing Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila against the Lions on Dec. 17, Jenkins was a major improvement. Over the final four games, the Packers' defense was the best in the league. Jenkins' increased snaps made a huge difference. He totaled 20 tackles, three-and-a-half sacks, and one fumble recovery during a four-game winning streak to end the season and gave the Packers' defensive line a strength against the run that they did not have all season.

Jenkins' contract, like many, is based on potential and has been structured to be cap-friendly in future years. The Packers, with the help of Vice President of Player Finance Andrew Brandt, have been proactive in retaining players to long-term deals and managing the cap, which is precisely what they did with Jenkins. This time, though, they may have jumped the gun.

Even with a standout season in the year ahead, Jenkins would not have commanded a much bigger contract than the one he got this year. Interest in him may have been higher among other teams, but to suggest that he would have been in line for a $10-15 million bonus or an average salary of $7-8 million a year is unimaginable. Only a marginal increase would have been foreseeable for Jenkins, thus general manager Ted Thompson and Co. could have waited a season without much difference in overall contract terms.

Certainly the tens of millions of dollars in cap space the Packers have this off-season pressed the issue with Jenkins. The structuring of his contract over the first two years indicates that. He will reportedly get more than $10 million in 2007 and 2008.

Still, the Packers must spend wisely, even with so much cap space this year, because every transaction counts. With Jenkins, they are taking a chance that he will be one of their top players. Otherwise, they risk giving away a significant amount of bonus money and not getting value in return. With no middle class in the NFL any more, the high-salary players, a category Jenkins is in now, must produce.

The Packers would have had ample time before free agency next year to work out a long-term, cap-friendly deal with Jenkins based on a more concrete evaluation of how he stood up over an entire season as a full-time starter. Instead, they will go with their gut feeling on him based off last season's strong finish because now they have the money to spend.

Matt Tevsh

Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com.

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