The number of Green Bay Packers with contracts expiring after the current season is staggering.
No less than 18 players are entering a year that will help determine their future earning power.
At the top of the list are high profile players such defensive lineman B.J. Raji (a former Pro Bowler), wide receiver James Jones (who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns last year) and tight end Jermichael Finley (who already has a cap figure in excess of $8 million in 2013).
After them are starters like cornerback Sam Shields, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and fullback John Kuhn.
The defensive line is well represented with Ryan Pickett, Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson and Johnny Jolly.
And role players like Marshall Newhouse, Andrew Quarless, M.D. Jennings and James Starks also populate the list that’s rounded out by Graham Harrell, Jamari Lattimore, Matthew Mulligan and Rob Francois.
If you think it’s going to be difficult to keep all these players under contract beyond 2013, you’re probably right. The type of money it will take to retain these Packers will be a significant chunk of cash, and money is in short supply following the recent contract extensions signed by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Morgan Burnett.
But the ability to keep a majority of the above-listed players shouldn’t be impossible.
According to Bill Huber of Packer Report, the Packers are roughly $14.7 million under the salary cap this season. Of the remaining cap space, approximately $1.4 million will be taken up when the Packers officially sign first round pick Datone Jones, the team’s only draft choice that remains unsigned.
There’s no hurry for the Packers to use the leftover cap space, because as part of the NFL’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, they can rollover the unused portion to the following year.
The NFL’s salary cap is set at $123 million in 2013, will probably rise somewhere in the neighborhood of $125 to $126 million in 2014, and the rollover amount should increase their spending limit another $10-plus million, assuming they don’t sign any more players to contract extensions during the 2013 season (not a given).
A big source of salary cap relief in 2014 will come in the form of Ryan Pickett’s salary being wiped off the books. Pickett has a base salary of $5.4 million and a cap figure of $6.7 million in 2013.
While Pickett will become a free agent and it’s possible the Packers may re-sign him, there’s no way at 33 years old he’ll command anywhere near the same amount of money in the future.
In theory, one could imagine the money set aside for Pickett going to fellow defensive lineman Raji. At 27 years old, Raji is sure to pull in a sizable next contract, and the Packers could use the franchise tag as a fallback option to ensure he doesn’t sign with another team.
Kuhn’s salary cap figure of over $2.5 million also goes away after 2013, and it’s questionable whether the fullback will be back in a Packers uniform beyond 2013.
The player with the most uncertain future is probably Finley. He’s already the fourth-highest paid player on the team in terms of average salary per season, and the Packers may not be able to afford to give Finley a hefty raise.
There’s no doubt that this is an exercise in crystal ball gazing, and a lot will depend up how each individual player performs in 2013.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on two more players who have large contracts and have underperformed compared to the money they’ve earned in recent seasons, namely cornerback Tramon Williams and linebacker A.J. Hawk.
However, Williams’ contract doesn’t expire until after the 2014 season and following 2015 for Hawk. If the Packers were to cut ties with either of them prematurely, they’d be on the hook for the dead money that would still count against the salary cap regardless.
Finally, don’t forget about Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga. They’re two young, ascending players who could be deserving of extensions before their current contracts expire. It’s possible they’ll become among the highest paid players at their respective positions if they play at a high level this upcoming season.
Note: Much of the salary data comes courtesy of Spotrac.com.