Despite his roster entering the 2013 offseason in possession of a number of positional needs, Ted Thompson has once again remained especially frugal in free agency.
The reasons why the Packers general manager has so far left a Goodwill market of free agents empty-handed have always been readily available, but are just now coming to be respected. The money needed to retain his two best players—quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews—is going to be astronomical.
And with those looming millions in mind, Thompson has sat idly by as veterans at positions of need have signed cost-efficient deals elsewhere.
Steven Jackson, a jackhammer at 6-2 and 240 lbs who fits exactly what the Packers should want at running back, flirted with Thompson briefly before signing a three-year, $12 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons that included just $4 million in guaranteed money.
Chris Canty and Cullen Jenkins, both of whom could have added much-needed depth along a thin defensive line, signed dirt-cheap deals in Baltimore and New York, respectively. Canty received just $8 million over three years and $2.8 million guaranteed, while Jenkins signed essentially the same deal with $3 million guaranteed.
Michael Huff, an athletic, versatile safety who reportedly drew interest the Packers, bluffed a visit to Green Bay before inking a three-year deal worth just $6 million with the Ravens.
Even receiver Greg Jennings, one of Thompson’s own draft picks, eventually signed a deal worth $9 million annually in Minnesota after the Packers were reportedly still in the running.
The reasons for passing on such available players hasn’t been a matter of current cap space. As of Thursday, the Packers have the NFL’s sixth-most cap room at $17.8 million, per the NFLPA’s salary numbers.
Soon enough, however, that available money is going to transition from the Packers’ vault to the wallets of Rodgers and Matthews.
Rodgers, already complete with a regular season and Super Bowl MVP at the ripe age of 29, will eventually become the highest paid player in the history of the NFL. Not even the recent mega-check signings at the quarterback position can prevent that eventual reality.
Fresh off his own Super Bowl win and without a contract in 2013, Joe Flacco held as much negotiation leverage as the NFL has seen in recent history, and he used it to secure $120.6 million over six years from the Ravens last month. The deal also included $52 million in guaranteed money.
Tony Romo, possessing his own abundance of leverage against the cash-strapped Cowboys, swindled Dallas into giving him a six-year extension worth $108 million, plus a ridiculous $55 million in guaranteed money. Romo will be 33 later this month, is four games under .500 the past three seasons and has just one playoff win.
A year earlier, Drew Brees fought through a growingly public dispute with the New Orleans Saints and still wound up with $100 million over five years and a record $60 million in guarantees. Like Flacco and Romo, most of the leverage was solely in Brees’ corner.
For now, Flacco—a fellow Super Bowl MVP— holds the title of the game’s highest paid player.
But not for long. In the case of Rodgers, who still has two years left on the $65 million deal he signed just seven starts into his reign, one-sided leverage isn’t the driving factor for a mega deal.
Various reports peg Rodgers’ extension—which is almost certain to be completed this offseason—at a value at or richer than $25 million per season. Flacco’s deal averages $20.1 million.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter speculated that four years and over $100 million is a very likely scenario for Rodgers’ new money, and his guaranteed money should also set a new bench mark, likely meaning a number in the $60-70 million range.
Even the most savvy cap manager—in this case, Russ Ball—would struggle to lessen the impact such a deal will have on the Packers cap. Unless the cap suddenly balloons, Rodgers will cost the Packers nearly a sixth of their total salary cap over the next few season. It’s certainly a worthwhile investment, as players of Rodgers’ caliber at the game’s most important position don’t just grow on trees, but Ball’s job over the next few years will grow infinitely more challenging once the ink dries on Rodgers’ contract.
The offseason checklist for Thompson and Ball doesn’t end with Rodgers, however. While one history-making extension would be difficult enough for most franchises, the Packers have the luxury of negotiating two.
Matthews, who turns just 27 in May, would enter 2013 on the final year of his rookie contract if the two sides somehow failed to agree on an extension. Escalators in his original deal bumped Matthews’ salary next season to $3.73 million, but he’s still woefully underpaid. The Packers will remedy that situation, likely sooner rather than later. It’s in their best interest to do so.
In fact, Matthews’ new deal could come down the wire before the Packers put the finishing touches on Rodgers’ history-making extension.
Both Tom Silverstein and Schefter have reported over the last 10 days that Green Bay is close to agreeing on an extension for Matthews. Schefter, who is clearly one of the few in contact with Matthews’ agent, David Dunn, reported earlier this week that the extension is likely to cost the Packers $13 million or more per year in new money.
If correct, Matthews would trampoline from one of the game’s most underpaid defenders to one of its highest.
An annual compensation of $13 million or more would grant Matthews the title of the NFL’s highest paid linebacker, well ahead of DeMarcus Ware and his $11.14 million average. Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams makes $16 million a season and is the game’s richest defensive player.
Like Rodgers, Matthews has earned his looming extension. Over four years in Green Bay, Matthews has 42.5 sacks in 58 regular season games. He’s missed just six total games, with four coming in 2013. By all accounts, Matthews has been one of the NFL’s most disruptive defensive players since the Packers drafted him 26th overall in 2009.
The impact of the two extensions will be significant.
When each deal is finalized this offseason—and chances that both aren’t before the start of 2013 are growing increasingly more slim—Green Bay’s nearly $18 million in cap room will likely be reduced by at least two-thirds.
Rodgers’ cap number in 2013 should inflate from $9.75 million to around $15-17 million, while Matthews’ number of $4.9 million should increase into the $9-10 million range. The resulting cap space will be left primarily for the incoming class of drafted and undrafted rookies.
These contract realities for Rodgers and Matthews are not breaking news. The need for both to receive monster extensions has been well-documented for months now, but the enormity of the numbers needed to secure both long term have made it crystal clear why Thompson was so willing to let even cost-efficient free agents sign elsewhere over the last month.
Call him unnecessarily frugal at your own peril. While Jackson, Canty, Jenkins and Huff each made varying amounts of sense, Thompson obviously had a prophetic understanding of what locking up his two superstars would ultimately cost.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at email@example.com.