The cap casualties have begun, The Green Bay Packers released linebacker Christian Kirksey and tackle Rick Wagner this afternoon. Releasing these two players has cleared $10.2 million in salary cap space.
And there’s much more to come.
Kirksey and Wagner were expected cuts to alleviate the Packers’ cap crunch. While a case could be made for either of them staying, their release is not surprising.
Kirksey did what was expected of him in his one year in Green Bay. It was nothing overwhelming, just good linebacker play. Because of that, it’s tough to see him get released considering he played to the level of expectations but, hey, that’s the nature of the NFL.
He was going to count as $6 million against the cap. With undrafted rookie Krys Barnes piecing together a solid year, along with flashes from Kamal Martin when he was healthy and active, it made this move all the easier. The Packers obviously felt comfortable going forward with Barnes and Martin and without Kirksey — and will probably address inside linebacker in the draft. But let’s be clear: The move about the cap. Nothing more, nothing less.
Wagner played in 16 games and started in nine this past year. He was so reliable for Green Bay as a fill-in he eventually turned into one of “the guys” at the tackle spot. His release comes as more of a surprise than Kirksey’s from a depth standpoint.
David Bakhtiari will be coming off a torn ACL and likely won’t be ready for the start of the 2021 season. All-pro center Corey Linsley is a free agent and might be headed elsewhere. Wagner’s release suddenly raises a lot more questions on what was one of the best offensive lines overall in 2020. The decision to cut Wagner couldn’t have been easy.
Sure, he was less than stellar in the NFC Championship, but few could slow down that Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass rush this year. His salary cap hit was set for $4.25 million and the Packers opted to release him, opening up another hole on the line. As a result, Green Bay will be in the market for offensive linemen either in free agency or through the draft.
The cap cutting was expected and necessary for Green Bay to be able to operate in the free agent market. The question was when would it begin. We now have the answer, and harder decisions await.
The next easy decision is extending Davante Adams. He’s approaching the end of his current deal, and the Packers can offer him a fat extension with the idea of backloading it to free up more space for this offseason. That’s an easy choice.
Smith had a good year in 2020 but didn’t match the output from 2019. There were far fewer impact plays. In fact, he had four fewer tackles for loss in 2020 than in 2019, 12 fewer quarterback hits, and eight fewer sacks while still playing in all 16 games.
The trump card in this scenario is that the Packers have someone ready. Rashan Gary, a former first-round pick from Michigan, will be entering his third year. And Gary started to showcase his skill-set last season. He even replaced Smith in the starting lineup on a few occasions. He’s more than ready to take over if the Packers opt to cut Smith.
The Rodgers decision is fascinating for a lot of reasons. If you restructure his deal and turn a lot of the roster bonus money into signing bonus money and spread it thin over the next few years, it doesn’t exactly bode well for the chances of Jordan Love to take over anytime soon.
And by soon I’m talking in terms of years, not games, folks.
Restructuring Rodgers’ contract would signal the Packers are going to go all-in right now to build this roster up even more while committing to him for the next few seasons. It wouldn’t take away their option to move on from him at some point — even if he is under contract — but it would cost them a lot more.
The Kirksey and Wagner cuts were the first of what will be many moves in a busy offseason. They have so many pieces in place now. Will they go all in to complete the roster and round out their depth as best they can?
Or will they make some more conservative moves and try for the best of both worlds: enough to win now but don’t put the future in jeopardy?
We shall see.