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Silverstein: How taking a pass on free-agency splashes can pay off for Packers


Tom Silverstein   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY – General manager Brian Gutekunst tried to tell people that free agency was going to be different for the Green Bay Packers this year.

He said flat out that he wasn’t going to be able to make the splashes he did a year ago when he signed Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Billy Turner and Adrian Amos to a combined $182 million in contract terms.

Gutekunst and executive vice president Russ Ball didn’t spend the early part of the offseason sleeping through league updates on collective bargaining and miss that a new agreement would affect every team’s salary cap because of increased minimums.

And they probably didn’t have their heads in the sand about how much cap space they’ll need to re-sign some of the critical players on their roster who are scheduled to hit free agency in 2021.

So, they knew their limitations.

But the biggest reason why they’re choosing not to be big spenders this year is because nose tackle Kenny Clark, who is one of those ’21 free agents, is going to command a lot of money. Before the 2020 season gets started — whenever that may be — they need to have him signed to an extension.

Failing to do so would probably convince Clark he should test the market, which would in turn cause the Packers to slap the franchise tag on him, which would in turn put his salary-cap number at $16 million to $18 million next year. He would join the two Smiths, Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams in having a cap number of at least $16 million.

All totaled, they would account for $104 million in cap charge and they would still need to get a long-term deal done with Clark.

Even with the cap expected to go up next year, having a little less than half of it devoted to five players is not ideal. So, you can see why Gutekunst didn’t want to pile on with another big-money addition.

As for this year, there are mechanisms for the Packers to gain cap room.

If they sign left tackle David Bakhtiari to a long-term deal, they can cut down his salary-cap number of $14.7 million considerably by shearing down his $10 million base salary and replacing most of it with double or triple that in a signing bonus. For cap purposes, that bonus can be spread out over the length of the deal.

(Had a new 10-year CBA not been signed there would have been some limitations on pushing cap charges into the future, so the Packers were undoubtedly happy the players voted in favor of it.)  

With their cap space around $13 million, there should be plenty of money to sign Clark if Bakhtiari gets his deal extended. The only issue is how much do they pay and how do they structure the deals.

There’s no question that Clark is a premium player.

He may not have been elected to the Pro Bowl or been named All-Pro, but around the league he is respected. He entered the league at age 20 as a first-round pick out of UCLA and each year his numbers have gotten better.

This past season, he set career highs in snaps (879) and tackles (60), tied a career high in sacks (six) and pressured the quarterback about as well as any nose tackle in the NFL (31 pressures).

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One NFL scout said he’s in the top five among all nose tackles but has added value because he’s only 24. Another pro scout said his team had Clark rated as the No. 1 nose tackle in the league.

If Clark’s value is relevant to the free-agent deals signed this offseason, his pay range has increased.

Cincinnati paid Houston’s D.J. Reader a reported $53 million over four years ($13.25 million average) and Philadelphia paid Pittsburgh’s Javon Hargrave what is essentially a three-year deal (two voidable years) for $39 million, including $26 million guaranteed. The breakdown on Reader’s deal has not been reported, but essentially the two come in at $13 million per year.

Reader, who turns 26 in July, is a 6-3, 347-pound run stuffer who has 6½ career sacks but had an impressive 10 quarterback hits last year. Hargrave, 27, is a 6-2, 305-pound combination nose and three-technique who has 10½ sacks over the last two seasons.

Clark has accomplished more than either statistically and probably would prefer comparing himself to defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who signed a four-year, $84 million extension ($44 million guaranteed) after being traded from San Francisco to Indianapolis for the 13th pick in the draft.

Buckner had 12 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hits total last year. Those are pass-rush numbers Clark probably won’t ever get to and are the reason Buckner eclipsed the other two free agents. He also is not a nose tackle and at 6-7, 287 pounds can rush the passer from just about anywhere.

Were Clark to get to free agency next year, however, there’s no telling how high a team might go given the paucity of play-making defensive tackles. Buckner got that money despite not being on the open market and Clark could eclipse it if he comes through with another big season for the Packers.

It wouldn’t be outrageous to start Clark’s negotiations at $16 million per year given that is what the franchise number is for defensive tackles. Neither Reader nor Hargrave were considered good enough for franchise or transition designations, so it’s fair to assume Clark will get more than them.

“With how these interior D-linemen are getting paid this free agency, Green Bay is going to have their hands full extending Clark,” one of the scouts said. “Reader's contract might be the floor now.”

The one thing the Packers have going for them is that Clark is under contract for $7.69 million this year, so even if he were able to squeeze a four-year, $80 million extension out of the Packers, it would probably be on top of this year, making it effectively a five-year, $87.69 million deal.

The Packers could pay half of it in a signing bonus and thus spread $40 million in cap charges over five years.

More than likely, Clark’s cap number of $7.69 million is going up this year. How much will depend on them.

They will need to balance the Clark and Bakhtiari contracts in a way that uses up as much space as they can this year, so there’s not an excessive amount hanging in future years. In just two years Rodgers’ cap number will be at $39 million, Za’Darius Smith’s at $20 million and Preston Smith’s at $16 million. Expect Bakhtiari’s to be in the range of the two Smiths.

Anything they can do to keep Clark’s number down in future years should be done.

Whatever the case, the Packers must do everything they can to keep Clark. And they will.

That’s why Gutekunst hasn’t spent a dime on other teams’ players in unrestricted free agency, choosing only to sign two “street” free agents — Christian Kirksey and Rick Wagner — and a couple of his own.

It shouldn’t be surprising. He told everyone it would be this way.

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