With the news first reported by NFL Network's Albert Breer on Feb. 28 that the NFL set the 2014 salary cap at $133 million, the Green Bay Packers are now $34.7 million under the cap, per figures from Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
That marks a 8.13 percent increase in the cap from 2013, per Silverstein, or $10 million. Green Bay carried $9.8 million over from last season.
Per estimates by ESPN's Kevin Seifert (which were based on a salary cap figure of $132 million), Green Bay has the sixth-most cap space in the league and the most in the NFC North.
What does this unexpectedly high figure mean for the Packers, both in terms of re-signing their own free agents and pursuing outside talent?
Green Bay only needs to use 89 percent of their $133 million cap, or $118.37, per Silverstein. While the time seems as right as ever for Ted Thompson to spend more money in free agency than usual, in a draft-and-develop system like Green Bay's, it behooves the organization to retain the key players it has developed.
Thompson will surely spend a large chunk of the $34.7 million available doing just that. It doesn't necessarily mean that Ian Rapoport's report on NFL Network on Feb. 12 that the Packers planned to "spend big" in free agency is untrue—but it may mean the team only pursues one big-name free agent at a key position.
|Green Bay Packers Impending Free Agents|
|Player||Position||2013 Base Salary|
|Milwaukee Journal Sentinel|
Of the team's 19 impending free agents, highlighted in the table above, the Packers may want to prioritize cornerback Sam Shields, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and one of their four free-agent defensive linemen in B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly or C.J. Wilson.
Of course, the Packers may not get the opportunity to re-sign Shields, per a report from ESPN's Adam Schefter that Green Bay and Shields would not reach a deal before free agency begins on March 8 and that Shields will test the market.
Green Bay could choose to use the franchise tag on Shields by the end of the day Monday, but at $11.834 million, it would cost a third of their available cap space.
If they weren't willing to meet Shields' asking price—which was likely in the neighborhood of $8-10 million a year considering fellow corner Tramon Williams' base salary of $6.9 million in 2014 and recent deals like Jason McCourty's five-year, $43 million extension from Tennessee—it's doubtful they'll commit nearly $12 million to him for one year.
In addition to impending free agents of their own they may want to re-sign, the Packers might also use this year's cap space to restructure the contracts of Williams, Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb, all of who are set to become free agents next offseason. Doing so could take up another $10-$20 million of cap space, even if those contracts are front-loaded with hefty signing bonuses up front.
In other words, if Green Bay opted to re-sign Shields and restructure Williams, Nelson and Cobb, that could be most of their $34.7 million spent right there, without taking any of their other 18 impending free agents into account. It's not likely all those transactions occur, but it goes to show how quickly the money could be spent.
Thompson will consider each of those players before turning to the free-agent market. Green Bay would have to release most of its own players to the open market to make a splashy acquisition like free safety Jairus Byrd—who, remember, reportedly demanded to be the highest-paid safety in the league last offseason before he was tagged.
That would take a deal amounting to an average of about $9 million per year in base salary.
But if the Packers play their cards right in free agency, they could end up with a veteran who could instantly contribute in 2014 for a minimal cap hit.
It's hard to believe that the Browns, who have more than $56.8 million in cap space, would let such a low cap-hit like T.J. Ward walk. Ward only made $630,000 in the last year of his rookie contract. Then again, perhaps with all that cap room the Browns let Ward walk in favor of someone like Byrd, meaning the Packers could make a play for him without having to spend more than a couple million.
Miami's Chris Clemons could also be a cost-effective acquisition at safety, though he's not the ball hawk the Packers need.
Green Bay could also use free agency for areas of need like linebacker, defensive lineman and tight end, but with such a deep draft class at all three positions, will they actually? It seems unlikely.
The rumblings about Green Bay being interested in DeMarcus Ware, if he were to be cut by Dalls, are based on fans' pipe dreams more than substantiated reports, considering the linebacker is due a base salary of $12.250 million in 2014.
If current and former nose tackles Pickett and Raji aren't re-signed, the Packers could consider up-and-comer Giant Linval Joseph to anchor the line. Having made just $1.077 million in 2013, the 6'4", 323-pound defensive tackle would be a great addition to a Packers line looking to get younger and faster.
At tight end, it's unclear whether Green Bay will re-sign Jermichael Finley, whose physician expects him to be medically cleared to play by the time free agency begins.
Being conservative as they are with neck injuries of Finley's nature, and with top free-agent tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Dennis Pitta being retained by the Saints and Ravens respectively, perhaps the Packers look to the deep 2014 tight end draft class.
$34.7 million sounds like a lot of money—and it can be, if used correctly. That's why, rather than blow it all on outside free agents or on simply retaining pricey home-grown free agents, look for Thompson to spend the money on a mix of the Packers' impending free agents, restructuring current players and perhaps an affordable veteran acquisition or two.
All salary information courtesy of OvertheCap.com unless otherwise noted.