Monday, January 13, 2014

Building The 53 - Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53

As I discussed in my first installment of this seven-part series, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson projects to have at least $35 million in cap space in 2014.  That seems like a ton of money but at least $5 million of that will be spent on rookies drafted in the 2014 NFL Draft.  Add in that the Packers have 20 players currently on injured reserve or The 53, (restricted and unrestricted), that are set to become free agents and all of a sudden that is not that much cap space.  That means that every dollar under the salary cap must be used very wisely by Packers general manager Ted Thompson.  Even if Thompson uses every salary cap dollar wisely, he might still need to create some cap space by cutting or restructuring contracts of players currently on The 53.

Advice for Ted Thompson
How to Handle Players on 8-Man Practice Squad
How to Handle Players on Injured Reserve
How to Handle 2014 RFA's on The 53
How to Handle 2014 UFA's on The 53
Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53
First Look at the 2014 NFL Draft
Locks for The 53 for 2014
Before the season I broke down the five worst contracts on The 53.  A number of guys off that list are strong candidates of becoming salary cap casualties before the start of the 2014 NFL season.  Thompson strongly favors "pay-as-you go" contracts, which would allow him to walk away from some bad decisions he made in the last few years.  The most glaring of those bad decisions involves A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, the two current starting middle linebackers.  Unless both guys are willing to take significant pay cuts, Thompson needs to replace both guys before the start of the 2015 NFL season.

I know Jones just finished the first year of the three-year, $11.25 million deal with $3 million guaranteed but I would start by cutting Jones after June 1st.  Jones made $2.5 million in 2013 but his cap number jumps to $4 million next season and $4.75 million in 2015.  Jones has $2 million guaranteed left on his current deal so if Thompson cuts Jones after June 1st, the Packers would have $2 million in dead salary cap space that they could spread over 2014 and 2015.  It would be a rarity for Thompson to cut a guy less than a year after signing him to a three-year extension but given that Jones looks like just another guy on the field, I think it makes sense in this case.

With the plan for how to handle Jones, the next step is to sort out how to phase out Hawk.  Let me be the 10,000th person to say that if Hawk was even a late first round pick that he would be celebrated as one of the best linebackers in franchise history.  Since Hawk was the 5th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, expectations overshadowed his accomplishments in his eight seasons in Green Bay.

Although Hawk put up some nice single-season stats in 2013: 118 tackles (2nd highest of his career), 5 sacks (highest of his career), 1 forced fumble (second highest of his career), and 1 interception (tied for highest of his career); it is the general lack of overall big plays that have undermined Hawk's career.  Over eight NFL seasons Hawk only has 18.5 sacks, 3 fumble forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 9 interceptions, and zero defensive touchdowns.

Following the 2010 season Hawk used his leverage after becoming a free agent to get overpaid when Thompson signed Hawk to a ludicrous five-year, $33.75 million contract with $8 million guaranteed.  There is no question that Hawk is durable but that is way too much money to pay a ho-hum middle linebacker.  Luckily Thompson was able to renegotiated Hawk's deal last off-season, which involved Hawk taking a $7.5 million pay cut so he carries a salary cap charge of $5.1 million with $1.6 million guaranteed each of the next two seasons.  If the Packers cut Hawk this off-season it would result in $3.2 million in dead money and only $1.6 million in dead money if the Packers cut Hawk before the 2015 season.  Unless Jones and Hawk are willing to take pay cuts I would cut each of them after the June 1st over the next two years, Jones this year and Hawk next year.

Moving from middle linebacker to place kicker.  Mason Crosby is coming off his most productive season in the NFL, which means he is a strong candidate for regression next year since many studies have shown that kicking accuracy, good or bad, does not tend to continue year-to-year.  Crosby is signed through 2015 but restructured just the 2013 portion of his contract before the season to make it incentive-based.  Crosby ultimately earned every dollar he was owed before the restructure.  Crosby holds salary cap charges of $3.4 million in 2014 (8th highest in the NFL) and $3.55 million in 2015 (6th highest in the NFL).  If the Packers cut Crosby this off-season it would result in $1.2 million in dead money and only $600,000 if the Packers cut Crosby before the 2015 season.  I say draft a kicker late in the 2014 NFL Draft and cut Crosby after June 1st, which will give Thompson over $1 million more in cap space that he desperately needs.

Cornerback Tramon Williams is due $9.5 million with $2 million guaranteed in 2014.  That is the final year of the four-year, $33 million with $10.9 million guaranteed that Williams signed in November of 2010 when he was in a contract year.  Unless the Packers can get Williams to accept a pay cut, he will have the 8th highest average salary of all cornerbacks in the NFL, which is way too rich for Williams.  I would be shocked if the Packers kept Williams past 2014 given all of their young depth at cornerback but keeping Williams in 2014 might preclude Thompson from offering cornerback Sam Shields the big money deal he earned this off-season.  I would much rather have five years of Shields than one more year of Williams so unless Williams accepts a pay cut, I would treat Williams just like the Packers treated Charles Woodson last off-season.

Given all of the cuts I advised Thompson to make above, make sure to check back tomorrow for my initial thoughts on what Thompson should do in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

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