The Green Bay Packers aren't in huge salary-cap trouble in 2014. According to estimates by OvertheCap.com, the Packers have the eighth-lowest total salary in 2014 and are estimated to currently be working with a little over $26 million in cap room.
Still, that money needs to be allocated both to new draftees and also to re-signing free agents; the team has 17 players headed for unrestricted free agency, many of them key veterans. The choices the Packers make now will affect their talent and their cap space for the foreseeable future.
The following five cost-effective moves would ensure the team doesn't get into trouble with its 2014 salary cap, while maintaining some key veterans and making room for Week 1 starters from the draft.
At 34 years old, Ryan Pickett is the oldest player on the Packers roster and is headed for unrestricted free agency. He earned a $5.4 million base salary in 2013, with a cap number of $6.7 million. Meanwhile, per a report by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in November, B.J. Raji turned down the Packers' offer of $8 million, and it's as of yet unclear whether another offer is on the table.
Sure, Green Bay could likely sign Pickett to a short-term deal to keep him at nose tackle and, if Raji walks, draft another defensive tackle at a low cost to replace him. But that's not necessarily cost-effective if Pickett retires in a year or two.
What makes the most sense financially, for Green Bay to get the biggest bang for its buck, is to let Pickett walk and move Raji back to nose tackle—the position at which he has had his far greatest success—for less than the $8 million it initially offered him. On the free-agent market, Raji isn't likely to fetch more than $6 million, per projections by Bob McGinn.
If the Packers can keep him for no more than that, they would spend $2 million less than they had initially budgeted for him, could still draft a defensive tackle in this defensive linemen-rich draft and could keep a strong veteran anchor on the line at the nose.
Many Green Bay fans have a dream that general manager Ted Thompson will dip his toes into the free-agency waters this offseason and make a splashy veteran acquisition—like free safety Jairus Byrd, who is likely to leave the Buffalo Bills unless they use the franchise tag on him again.
Still, the Bills—and any other team interested in Byrd this offseason—will have to make an offer in the realm of at least $7 million per year to sign him, if not more. The Packers are still building their safety corps, and drafting a young talent like Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor will be both more cost-effective and a better strategy over the next few seasons.
It's very unlikely the team would tie up so much of its 2014 cap on a free-agent player when there are Week 1 starters at the position on the draft board. If Thompson were interested in acquiring a veteran free agent this offseason, it's not likely to be Byrd, as the Packers will have a hard time matching other offers.
Ted Thompson doesn't use the franchise tag often, and 2014 is not the best year to do it. Unfortunately for the Packers, the two players who could prove to be the most necessary to tag—Sam Shields and Jermichael Finley—would prove to have two of the largest possible hits on the 2014 salary cap.
According to former sports agent Joel Corry, writing for CBS Sports, the 2014 franchise tag value for cornerbacks is projected to be $11.256 million. Though tight end can be a huge value when using the franchise tag, with a projected cap hit of just $6.066 million in 2014, Jermichael Finley would actually be owed 120 percent of his prior year's cap number. In Finley's case, that amounts to $10.14 million, as his 2013 cap number was $8.75 million.
As for another possible tag recipient, B.J. Raji, the tag value for defensive tackles is projected to be $9.182 million in 2014, or more than $1 million more than the $8 million offer he turned down in November. Green Bay won't pay him more than their initial rejected offer.
Because the entire franchise tag value counts against the cap when it is issued, the Packers are unlikely to take such a huge hit to their cap space for just one player by using the tag, regardless of how much they need to keep him. Instead, it's more likely they try to work on re-signing one or two, but not all, of these expensive free agents rather than use the tag.
His injury changed everything. But even in 2012, when Jermichael Finley was healthy, the Packers were balking at bringing him back for the 2013 season, with his $8.750 million cap hit, per this report at the time by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Though McGinn was all but convinced the Packers and Finley would part ways, he of course returned in 2013 and suffered what may turn out to be a career-ending neck injury—at least his career in Green Bay.
Last offseason, Finley insisted that he would be unwilling to return to the team at a reduced cost. Clearly, his position may be different now that he may not be medically cleared to return to play.
The conservative Packers medical staff, which did not clear Nick Collins after he underwent spinal-fusion surgery on reportedly the same vertebrae as Finley (the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae), per Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin, may not see enough improvement after Finley's surgery to allow him to return.
Even if Finley were healthy and able to play, he's an expensive player in a year with 16 other unrestricted free agents to consider. His base salary in 2013 was $4.450 million, and the team would have to offer him a contract to compete with other offers he may receive if he's allowed to get to free agency. The franchise tag is likely not a valid option; as previously mentioned, it would be a one-year cap hit of $10.140 million.
It's extremely likely Finley has played his last days as a Packer. Brandon Bostick and Andrew Quarless (another unrestricted free agent) haven't yet shown the ability to replace him as a pass-catching tight end, but perhaps with more starting reps, one will emerge. Or, of course, Green Bay could look to draft and develop a tight end and groom him to replace the hole Finley's departure would leave in the offense.
Green Bay shouldn't wait until both Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson are set to become unrestricted free agents in the 2015 offseason to think about how to address the situation and keep both their star receivers on the team...without a debilitating cap hit.
Rather, the Packers should think about offering Cobb an extension this offseason.
Cobb is developing into a multidimensional threat for the Packers and can look forward to a bright future as one of the best slot receivers in the game.
His contract extension would certainly cost the Packers in the long run. But in terms of what helps them both get through this offseason, in which they have 17 players ready to walk if they don't get paid, and next offseason, in which their two star receivers are set to become free agents, it would be a wise move.
What will that deal look like for Cobb?
It's reasonable to think that Cobb's deal would be worth more than the recent precedent his agent is sure to be considering in Danny Amendola's five-year, $31 million deal with the New England Patriots (with $10 million in guarantees). He's simply worth more to the Packers and is a favorite target of Rodgers'.
The key for Green Bay to make this move cost-effective, however, would be to back end Cobb's payday. If, for example, they wanted to sign him to a five-year extension, the Packers would want to give him a signing bonus that would not count against the cap in 2014 and structure the majority of his base salary to hit the cap in the final two or three years of the deal.
Because Amendola received $10 million in guarantees, it's likely Cobb's representation could negotiate a hefty up-front signing bonus. This move would help the Packers immensely with their cap management in both 2014 and 2015.
Salary cap numbers courtesy of OverTheCap.com.