GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If you thought the Green Bay Packers faced a challenge with the salary cap this year, wait until you see what they’re up against in 2022.
Combine that with the fact the Packers haven’t made a single adjustment to Aaron Rodgers' contract, and the 2021 season might be lining up as their last, best chance at another Super Bowl run before they turn things over to Jordan Love or whichever quarterback will succeed Rodgers.
Consider that the Packers had to rework the contracts of Adrian Amos, David Bakhtiari, Mason Crosby, Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith and Billy Turner just to be able to re-sign Aaron Jones, Kevin King and Marcedes Lewis without adding a single unrestricted free agent from another team (and no, street free agent long-snapper Joe Fortunato doesn’t count).
The Packers, as it stands now, have 20 of their 22 preferred starters from last season’s 13-3 NFC Championship Game team back for what feels like one more try with this group.
That could be what general manager Brian Gutekunst meant when he made this statement shortly before the Packers began restructuring deals to get under the salary cap last month:
“We’re going to do that this year quite a bit, push money out to give us our best chance to win in ’21,” Gutekunst said. “There’s a lot of avenues to do it, but at the same time, we have a really good football team. I think the core of our football team is going to be really strong the next few years, and we want to give ourselves every chance to compete for championships within that time.”
All but Preston Smith were simple restructures, meaning they pushed money into future salary-cap years. Preston Smith was the only one who took a 2021 pay cut.
The top eight players under contract for next season have a combined 2022 salary-cap charge of $161.14 million. If the salary cap jumps from $182.5 million this season to, say, $200 million next season, it still would mean the Packers have more than 80% of their cap tied up in those eight players.
If the cap jumped to, say, $220 million because of the new TV money kicking in (although some believe that won’t factor in until 2023), then those eight players still would count for 73.2% of the 2022 cap.
Currently, the Packers’ top eight players for this season account for $109.13 million in cap space, or 59.8% of the 2021 cap, not counting space carried over from the previous season.
The Packers already have $204.192 million in committed cap space for 2022, and that's without All-Pros Davante Adams and Jaire Alexander. Adams is entering the final year of his contract, and there's no chance the Packers let him walk. Alexander could be back on the fifth-year option, which the Packers have to exercise by May 3. The option on Alexander will cost the Packers nearly $13.3 million for 2022.
Whatever the cap number for 2022 is, the Packers can’t operate with so little space left for the rest of the roster.
Za’Darius Smith’s restructure set him up for an extension before next season if he continues to perform at the same level, and the Packers could move on from Preston Smith and save $12.225 million in cap space if he continues his decline in 2021.
“Every year is different,” Gutekunst said. “There’s so much you can’t predict. There’s so many variables that I think you have to try to build a sound, robust, all-around football team that can take on whatever challenges come your way.”
Still, it all begs the question: Why haven’t they touched Rodgers’ contract? Packers President Mark Murphy wouldn't say Monday.
Doing so would essentially force them to commit to him beyond 2021. Perhaps they want to see how Love performs this summer in a full training camp and in preseason games, assuming there are any, before they make a decision on Rodgers' deal. They did not convert his $6.8 million roster bonus into a signing bonus when they had the chance in March. That would have given them $4.5 million in additional cap space for this season but also would have increased his cap number for next year.
They still could turn some of his $14.7 million base salary for this season into a signing bonus, which would push his 2022 cap charge into the $45 million range.
As the contract stands now, the Packers would gain between $22 million and $25 million in cap space for 2022 if they moved on from Rodgers after this season.
It’s also possible Rodgers would want to go the Tom Brady route and try to win another Super Bowl elsewhere before he retires.
“You're talking about the guy that's going to win the MVP of the league,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said shortly before Rodgers won the third MVP of his career. “We're not in this position without him. I couldn't be happier with just not only his performance but how he led our football team, all the little things he does within that locker room to ensure that everybody is locked in, focused and ready to go. Absolutely he will be here for a long time. I know I've said that before, but a long time."