Last offseason, the Green Bay Packers had a difficult decision regarding former first-round pick Darnell Savage’s fifth-year option. I argued that not exercising it was the best approach since the option is now fully guaranteed, according to an adapted rule. It means the Packers would have to pay Savage a $7.9 million salary, and there was no more option to cut him and free up the space.
It would have been wiser for the Packers to decline the option, especially since Savage had come off a down season in 2021. If the safety bounced back, Green Bay would still have the option to extend him or apply a franchise tag, which isn’t a big difference for safeties. However, the Packers exercised the option, and now it’s a tough situation to decide what to do with Savage. He is a decent player with a high ceiling, and general manager Brian Gutekunst clearly appreciates his talent. However, his salary and cap hit for 2023 are detrimental to Green Bay’s roster-building.
Therefore, there are now three realistic options.
Keep things as they are
The first option, and probably the most likely knowing how the Packers tend to operate, is to keep Savage under his $7.9 million cap hit. After all, Green Bay’s front office has already accounted for his contract, and he’s undoubtedly a valuable piece for the roster. In other words, it’s better to have him than not, and even though the salary is higher than it should be, the Packers have little incentive to move on.
Last season, it was clear that he isn’t a great fit for Joe Barry’s two-high system. That’s why his best moments in Green Bay were under Mike Pettine. Savage was benched in favor of Rudy Ford, but he played much better as a slot corner down the stretch.
“I still totally believe in Darnell Savage,” Barry said during the season. “We’re built on competition. Everything that we do, every single day, we’re built on that. I think the more people you have that you can play and deploy, the better. He got hurt [on] the third play of the Philly game and then was hurt the last game (at Chicago). He’s come back healthy. I think that bye hit right at the right time for him to heal up from the injury he got against Philly.”
“We’ve moved Darnell around to some places,” said safeties coach Ryan Downard. “These are conversations that when we all talk in here, we’ve had them multiple times about how we can use him in different ways. Obviously, you guys may view it as good, bad, rise, fall. I view it as every single day, there’s going to be ups and downs.”
If the Packers consider moving on from Savage, it’s impossible to release him because his contract is 100% guaranteed. But everything is base salary on the fifth-year option, so if Green Bay trades him, every dollar on the contract moves to the acquiring team, and there would be no dead money. The problem is, who would want to pay that to a player who hasn’t lived up to his draft stock?
There are two realistic scenarios in which it might happen. First, a team with a lot of cap space and a lack of talent who liked Savage before the draft or in his first year in the NFL could take a swing. The Atlanta Falcons, projected to have $56.6 million in cap space, are a good example. Atlanta has just hired former Packers defensive backs coach Jerry Gray as an assistant head coach. His input might be helpful, and if Savage doesn’t fit well into Barry’s system, Gray also had schematic disagreements with the defensive coordinator.
The second option is a salary dump-off. The Packers wouldn’t make an NBA-style trade and give up a pick for any team to absorb Savage’s contract, but they might involve Savage in a bigger trade. Let’s say Green Bay decides to move on from Aaron Rodgers. They could trade Savage alongside Rodgers as part of the package to alleviate their cap situation. The acquiring team could even send a safety back to the Packers. New York Jets defensive back Jordan Whitehead comes to mind.
The last scenario is to reach a medium- or long-term extension. If the Packers really believe Savage can be a solution for the secondary, be it as a safety or a slot corner, they can find common ground to get a new deal in place. If that’s the case, Green Bay could spread Savage’s cap hit beyond 2023, helping the team navigate a complicated financial situation this season.
The Packers are projected to be $4 million over the cap even after restructuring Aaron Jones’ contract and need to be under on March 15. Green Bay could still restructure Savage’s contract, adding up to four void years. The defensive back would still be a free agent in 2024, but his cap hit in 2023 would be much lower. However, the downside is that every remaining dollar would hit the 2024 cap as dead money.
Analyzing every possibility, the best scenario for the Packers would be a trade. It could be with a desperate team or as part of a potential Aaron Rodgers trade, with another player coming back. However, this is also the least likely scenario. If Green Bay can’t find any deal, the most prudent alternative is to keep Savage and try to find his best position in Barry’s defense, hoping he can return to the promising days when he was selected to the All-Rookie Team in 2019.