The Green Bay Packers find themselves in an awkward position of their own devising. This morning the Houston Texans released J.J. Watt, and naturally, fans love the idea of Watt returning home to play in green and gold. But in their current financial situation, it’s nearly impossible to find an avenue for that to happen unless Watt were to take a vet minimum (he shouldn’t and won’t) or signs a multi-year short-term deal backloaded with money. The Packers can restructure contracts of players currently on their roster to free up salary-cap space.
They can opt to cut players like Preston Smith and Christian Kirksey to free up even more space. But what they do with Aaron Rodgers‘ contract will be our first glimpse into the organization’s strategy for next season, whether they push all the chips in now or plan to look ahead.
We all know the story. The Packers went 13-3 this year and scooped up the only bye in the NFC, only to lose in the NFC Championship to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the second season in a row, they came up one win shy of a Super Bowl appearance. Unlike a couple of years ago, when the Packers had money to spend on guys like Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos, and more, this offseason they are tightly pressed for money. While general manager Brian Gutekunst and team president Mark Murphy will say the Packers are in a spot to win it all now, they will signal their actual plans with their approach to Rodgers’ contract.
One option to clear space this offseason is to restructure Rodgers’ deal. No. 12 has mentioned on two separate occasions since the season ended that his representatives will certainly have a dialogue about his contract with the Packers. Here’s the issue: The Pack can turn some of Rodgers’ current contract into signing-bonus money and spread it out thinly over the next few seasons. However, doing so would sour the opportunity to transition to Jordan Love at some point in 2022 or 2023 without the Packers getting hammered by a decision made now to restructure Rodgers’ deal. If they choose not to mess with his contract this offseason, they have an out in 2022 in which they could save a ton if they trade No. 12 (nightmare fuel). Financially, that would be a smooth transition for the Packers to make at quarterback. That’s why what the Packers do in the coming months could tell us how things will look in 2023.
They could potentially keep things as is with Rodgers and look elsewhere to free up space. They could flip a lot of David Bakhtiari‘s money into signing-bonus cash spread out over the upcoming years. They could cut players like the aforementioned Preston Smith and Kirksey. Perhaps they could restructure with Za’Darius Smith. But again, the problems become evident. The Packers can choose to do all of that reshuffling now, sign a couple of free agents, and go all-in, but they would do so knowing that the decisions they made will have them tied up financially in 2022, 2023, and beyond. It’s a risk, and if they opt to throw Rodgers’ contract into the mix and restructure, it would seriously put into question the idea of Love starting anytime before 2023. It can get ugly fast.
Do you recognize that you have a roster that can win the whole damn thing now —that is so close! — and move chunks of that money to future seasons to add pieces for 2021? Or do you make a couple of minor adjustments, work primarily with what you have now, and hope that’s enough? The latter would suggest the Packers still plan to switch to Love at quarterback sooner rather than later.
Packers Twitter is drooling over the idea of JJ Watt this morning. I get it, and the storylines are there for the Pewaukee, Wi. native to come home. However, even considering his numerous injuries in recent years and that his 32nd birthday is approaching, there will be plenty of suitors for Watt. The thought of him giving the Packers some massive hometown discount to make it work is silly. If the Packers want to go for Watt or other free agents in March, they have to negotiate current contracts and make decisions about releasing players, and they have to do it soon.
What they decide will give us a much more unambiguous indication of their vision for the next few years at the most important position in sports.