Thompson, Packers have ample wiggle room under salary cap

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Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Monday, February 10, 2014

As a result of general manager Ted Thompson’s long-standing draft-and-develop philosophy, the Green Bay Packers enter the offseason in a different fraternity from the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints.

The Packers’ roommates are teams like the Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

Those are not exactly the teams you want to be grouped with during the regular season, but in the offseason being housemates with such a conspicuous bunch of also-rans is what you might consider a feather in your cap.

It is especially so if you have one of the best quarterbacks in the game signed to a long-term deal, a ton of offensive talent and three consecutive division titles in the bank because it means you didn’t earn the salary cap room by being one of the worst teams in the NFL.

What the Packers have in common with those bottom dwellers is that they are among the leaders in salary cap space heading into the 2014 season.

Granted, this is before any of the franchise tags are applied, restricted free agent tenders are submitted and players are signed to extensions, but the Packers are roughly $28 million under the projected $126.3 million salary cap.

As of right now, they’re somewhere in the top six or seven teams in the NFL in cap space based on preliminary numbers the NFL Players Association is working with. It is roughly $10 million more than the amount they had going into the 2013 season when they were facing the challenge of signing quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews to mega-dollar extensions.

The Seahawks, 49ers, Panthers and Saints are better teams than the Packers, but because all of them have very limited salary cap space, Thompson has a chance to get the jump on them this offseason. As has been the case every year, the Packers have been loaded with cap room—five of the last eight years they’ve had $17 million or more—it’s what you do with it that really matters.

This offseason, the to-do list isn’t centralized around two star players but rather around 17 unrestricted free agents, eight of whom were preferred starters last season.

The three big names are cornerback Sam Shields, defensive tackle B.J. Raji and tight end Jermichael Finley, but the list also includes receiver James Jones, linebacker Mike Neal, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, defensive end Johnny Jolly, fullback John Kuhn, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and running back James Starks.

The Packers were not able to sign any of those free agents to extensions during the 2013 season and in many cases they didn’t even try because they plan to elevate recent draft picks into their spots. As a result, they will carry $9.8 million of leftover cap space from 2013 and apply it to their 2014 total.

According to a source with NFLPA salary information, the Packers have about $108.5 million in salaries committed to their top 51 players this year, so if the cap comes in at $126.3 million, the figure league officials projected late last year, their 2013 leftovers will be added to roughly $18 million.

Some union officials believe the number could go as high as $128 million when all the calculations are complete, which means the Packers could have as much as $30 million of cap space for the third time in Thompson’s reign.

How did the Packers get there?

They don’t sign free agents like Percy Harvin and Sydney Rice (Seahawks), Anquan Boldin and Craig Dahl (49ers), Ben Grubbs and Broderick Bunkley (Saints) and Greg Olsen and Mike Tolbert (Panthers).

And they have avoided writing a lot of bad contracts.

“There is no question that we are primarily a draft-and-develop team—we use the draft as the main vehicle to add players to our roster,” Packers president Mark Murphy said on the team’s website recently. “We use other means to acquire players, including signing undrafted free agents, ‘street’ free agents and unrestricted free agents.

“The advantage that drafted players provide is that they are typically less expensive and are younger and ascending as players.”

To say the Packers consider unrestricted free agency to build their team would be like saying they have considered putting a roof on Lambeau Field. Maybe it has been brought up, but there are no plans to do it.

So while they have lots of cap space, maybe their passivity in free agency is a reason the Packers have not risen to the top of the NFC since winning Super Bowl XLV—something they did with the help of two key free agents, Charles Woodson and Pickett.

The Packers have been able to stay in the hunt every year, but they have not taken the chances the others have to get to the very top.

Thompson’s advantage over his NFC competition this year is that he has the flexibility to exclusively re-sign most or all of his own free agents, complement a select number of his own with some outside free agents or sign a good portion of his own and then rely on the draft to fill out the roster.

It’s pretty unlikely Thompson will re-sign Finley given he wouldn’t medically clear safety Nick Collins, who had the same neck injury. If he can’t get Shields signed to a long-term deal, he can put a franchise tag on him for approximately $10 million. And if he can sign Shields, he could use the franchise tag on Raji for maybe $9 million.

Ideally, he would get both signed to long-term, cap-friendly deals and then have plenty of money left to choose among players like Kuhn, Dietrich-Smith, Neal, Pickett and Quarless. In every case but Kuhn, he has a promising young player he can bank on if he decides to pass.

He also has to keep in mind that receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and tackle Bryan Bulaga have deals that expire after the 2014 season and will be candidates for extensions sometime this season.

Thompson doesn’t have a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason; his biggest ones—besides what to do with Shields and Raji—are draft-related. Some scouts have described the draft this year as very deep and with the 21st pick in the first round, Thompson needs to stack a very good one on top of the 2013 class, which has a chance to be among his best.

Last updated: 9:07 am Monday, February 10, 2014

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