Evaluating Packers roster entering 2023 offseason
The Green Bay Packers exited another Super Bowl-less season in 2022 and are now entering another offseason full of intrigue and uncertainty to start 2023, setting the stage for what could be a franchise-altering couple of months in a little place called Titletown.
The offseason, once again, centers around the future of four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers. But the team is more than a single quarterback, and understanding the current construction of the roster helps provide a clear picture of what Brian Gutekunst and the Packers are dealing with to enter the offseason, both in terms of personnel and the salary cap.
To help evaluate the roster, we went position-by-position, highlighting who is under contract, who is a free agent, early thoughts on each position and a unique salary cap perspective from Ken Ingalls, a CPA who studies the salary cap.
Here are Ken’s initial thoughts on the cap and the Packers’ offseason:
“The Packers head into the 2023 offseason currently needing to trim between $35-40 million of salary cap cost from their current roster of 54 players under contract in order to afford their upcoming draft class, practice squad, potential incentives, and have enough money to comfortably navigate through their regular season. Each additional contract they wish to add to their current roster, whether it’s bringing back any of their own 18 pending free agents or adding new players from outside their organization, would require adding to the top of this already significant $35-40 million to-do list.
Last season the Packers were in a similar situation and said goodbye to six starters plus more key contributors via free agency, cuts, and trades. They were frugal spenders in free agency and restructured every remaining non-rookie contract veteran to get through the season with only $1.6 million in cap space to spare.
This upcoming 2023 season I expect a similar process to 2022. They have lots of expensive veteran contracts – most will be restructured, some will be cut, and maybe a few traded away. They will dip their toes into free agency but I’m not expecting a big splash, and we once again will see more household Packer names on their way out of Green Bay. The ultimate success of the 2023 version of the Green Bay Packers is deciding on the future direction of this team (Hint: See QB section below) and then executing a strategy on which players stay, which players go, finding hidden gems in free agency, and having an outstanding draft.”
Onto the position by position breakdowns:
Under contract (3): Aaron Rodgers, Jordan Love, Danny Etling
Free agents: None
Early thoughts: For the third straight offseason, Aaron Rodgers can either retire, return to the Packers or attempt to be traded elsewhere. Given his contract, the decision is essentially 100 percent his to make. Lingering behind him is Jordan Love, a 2020 first-round pick who will be entering his fourth season. The team believes he’s ready to play. Danny Etling was stashed on the practice squad as the No. 3 quarterback throughout the 2022 season. Adding another young quarterback might be a priority regardless of Rodgers’ decision.
Ken’s cap perspective
Once again, Aaron Rodgers heads into the offseason to contemplate his future in football and with the Green Bay Packers. While Rodgers is weighing his options, so will the Packers, as there are several paths forward all with significant salary cap implications. (This is a long section, but important to lay out the scenarios to appreciate the complexity.)
A consideration for the Packers here is Rodgers’ unique contract structure and escalating dead cap. His contract is so rare with each additional year Rodgers plays it becomes significantly more and more cap-punishing if/when he ultimately leaves the Packers, regardless of if it’s via retirement, trade, cut, etc. If Rodgers leaves in 2023 the Packers must recognize $40.3 million of unavoidable dead cap from past monies paid to Rodgers but not yet counted on the team salary cap. This jumps to $60.21 million if he leaves in 2024 and up to $76.80 million if he leaves in 2025. I’ve referred to this contract as a ticking time-bomb that gets bigger the longer the timer is set, and the Packers will need to weigh whether one or two more potential years is worth the extra bang for the buck, or to defuse the situation and move on from their future Hall of Famer.
If Rodgers returns to the Packers his contract comes in at a team-leading salary cap hit of $31.62 million, which cannot be restructured for savings outside of taking a pay cut. Bluntly, Aaron isn’t taking a pay cut so if he returns his cap hit is locked in. Rodgers has a guaranteed veteran minimum salary but includes a whopping $58.3 million guaranteed option bonus. In total, Rodgers would receive $59.52 million cash to play football next year.
Rodgers could choose to retire where he and the Packers would coordinate to ensure it’s effective after June 1 to push $24.48 million of the $40.31 million of dead cap into 2024, giving the Packers net $15.79 million of 2023 cap savings. Further coordination would eliminate his $58.3 million guaranteed option bonus from his contract to allow most of the $15.79 million cap savings to be recognized much earlier than June to get under the initial salary cap deadline in mid-March.
The Packers will not cut Rodgers as it would create a crippling $99.78 million dead cap hit since his 2023 salary and option bonus are fully guaranteed. Even if designated a post-June 1 cut the split would be $31.57 million in 2023 and $68.21 million in 2024. The Packers would trade Rodgers for a conditional 7th-round pick before going down this route.
The last real option is Rodgers returns to football in 2023 but is traded to another team. Lots to consider here. Just like the retirement scenario, trading Rodgers would result in a $40.31 million dead cap hit the Packers would have to recognize. There is no way to transfer any of this hit to the new team even if they would be willing to take some/all of it onto their books. The best the Packers could do is split some of the hit, just like in a retirement scenario, to 2024 if the trade is exercised after June 1. In any scenario, the new team would have Rodgers at a $15.79 million salary cap hit in 2023 so the deal would be a short-term bargain to fit into another team’s salary cap.
A big decision in a Rodgers trade is timing as both draft pick compensation and salary cap hits for the Packers would be variables depending on when they exercise a trade – trades cannot be designated post-June 1 like cuts for salary cap purposes. If traded early in the new league year the Packers would take on the full $40.31 million of dead cap in 2023 for a net loss of $8.69 million of cap space. The benefit here would be receiving 2023 draft picks in the upcoming April draft. Whereas if the trade occurred after June 1 the Packers would carry Rodgers at his $30.62 million cap hit up through the trade date before receiving $15.79 cap relief in June – while this option creates 2023 net cap savings later in the year, it would defer any draft pick compensation to 2024 at the earliest as 2023 will have already occurred in April.
Now… with all the Aaron Rodgers scenarios laid out in detail it’s safe to say from a salary cap perspective there are no great options here, just less terrible ones. Returning and playing great would be nice but comes with an enormous cash investment, creating significantly worse future cap scenarios. If he returns and plays just average or poorly it’s an unmitigated trainwreck. Retirement objectively creates by far the most salary cap flexibility, but a $40.31 million cap anchor is still extremely heavy even if spread over two years. Trading also comes with this $40.31 dead cap hit and the team can only take advantage of one 2023 benefit: cap savings or draft picks, not both. Whatever path Rodgers and the Packers take, it’s going to have a significant financial impact on this team for several years.
All this quarterback conversation and not one mention of Jordan Love, until now. Love enters 2023 on the final year of his fully guaranteed contract at a cheap $3.94 million cap hit. The Packers have up until May 2nd to exercise the 2024 fifth-year option in Love’s contract for $20+ million fully guaranteed. I feel confident by the 4th of July both Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love won’t be on the same team. If Aaron Rodgers isn’t back on the roster for whatever reason, then Jordan Love is the 2023 starter, period. If Rodgers returns, then I believe Love and his agent will go to war to ultimately get Love traded. Ideally, the Packers keep Love as a premium backup but 2023 seems like the “now or never” year for Love in Green Bay. A threatened hold-in and nonstop PR campaign blitz to build sympathy for Love while painting the Packers as the villains could be enough to force the Packers to send Love elsewhere to get his chance.
Are the Packers willing to lose Love to get one more year out of Rodgers? After three years, are the Packers not sold on Love and plan to move him anyways? Do the Packers want Love to be the starter regardless of what Rodgers intends to do? Buckle up!
Regardless of who sits atop the quarterback depth chart once all the dust settles, the Packers will need to add to the quarterback room. I’d expect to see a draft pick used here and some UDFAs brought in to compete for the backup and practice squad spots.
Under contract (4): Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Patrick Taylor, Tyler Goodson
Free agents: None
Early thoughts: The Packers expect Aaron Jones to be back, so a restructured deal that pushes cap money into the future can also be safely expected. A.J. Dillon will return for the final year of his rookie deal, but with uncertainty at the position past 2023, there is long-term need here. A mid-round draft pick makes a lot of sense.
Ken’s cap perspective
All their running backs are back under contract for 2023. However, the Packers have reached a decision point with Aaron Jones and his $20.01 million cap hit, the fifth highest on the team. When Jones signed his four-year contract in 2021 it was always viewed as a two-year then re-evaluate type deal. Jones’ cap hit more than triples from his 2022 number and will certainly not play on the contract as it is currently written. The Packers can cut or trade Aaron Jones creating $10.5-16 million, or the Packers can restructure his contract creating $10.5-$11.2 million. No doubt Jones is a playmaker, but for a team facing tough financial decisions, $16 million in cash may prove to be too much for a running back turning 29 in December who plays 50-60% of snaps. Neither staying nor going would surprise me, and the decision here may be a litmus test for how this team approaches its entire 2023 campaign.
AJ Dillon is back in the last year on his cheap rookie deal – he will stick around, and the Packers won’t think about an extension until closer to next offseason even if he becomes the full-time starter. Patrick Taylor and Tyler Goodson are on minimum contracts and will likely compete with draft acquisitions and UDFAs for the back end of the depth chart.
Under contract (5): Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Samori Toure, Bo Melton, Jeff Cotton
Free agents: Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb
Early thoughts: The Packers have established a strong young base with Watson and Doubs, but the uncertain futures of Lazard and Cobb create an obvious need at wide receiver. Gutekunst would like to have a veteran in the room, which could be accomplished by bringing back Lazard or Cobb or signing a free agent. Expect the Packers to use the draft to add at least one new long-term prospect here. Regardless of who is playing quarterback in 2023, the talent could get to better place at receiver.
Ken’s cap perspective
The 2022 rookie class of Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Samori Toure will all return for their sophomore seasons on cheap rookie contracts, but the position group is far from stable. Davante Adams isn’t walking back through the door anytime soon despite being at the top of many fans’ offseason wish lists. Allen Lazard held out last year when faced with the restricted free agent tender and now heads to free agency with limited receiver talent available. The wide receiver market exploded last season and Lazard may find a nice payday if he wishes to go elsewhere. The Packers obviously value the unique skillset of Lazard and want him back at the right price but need to be prepared to replace him. Randall Cobb’s contract is set to void and leave behind $1.4 million of cap cost as result. The Packers should likely move on from Cobb, but if Rodgers is back in 2023 the Packers could once again keep Cobb around as a condition of the quarterback’s return.
Bo Melton and Jeff Cotton round out the current depth chart on minimum deals. No doubt wide receiver is a position of need yet again this offseason and I expect talent infusion via the draft and free agency, especially if Lazard finds a new team.
Under contract (3): Josiah Deguara, Austin Allen, Nick Guggemos
Free agents: Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan, Tyler Davis
Early thoughts: Will the Packers bring back Lewis, who turns 39 in May, or Tonyan, who averaged only 8.9 yards per catch in 2022? The team will either run this back – hoping for a bounce-back season from Tonyan in his second year removed from major surgery – or begin rebuilding the position altogether. Like so many decisions needed to be made this offseason, the futures of Lewis and Tonyan might be directly related to whether or not Rodgers returns. A draft pick made at tight end is probably required no matter which roster-building path is picked.
Ken’s cap perspective
The tight end group is going to need a lot of work this offseason. The only returning veteran is Josiah Deguara in the last year of his rookie deal. Deguara has been polarizing in his first three seasons but should certainly return. He is joined by Nick Guggemos and Austin Allen on minimum-salary deals and neither has played a single NFL snap. Both Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan have contracts that void prior to free agency leaving behind a combined $1.6 million dead cap. Lewis could retire, but if Rodgers is back may give it another go. Tonyan has a better chance of sticking around regardless of the QB situation but it wouldn’t surprise me if the team moves on. Tyler Davis is a restricted free agent who won’t get a tender to return, perhaps he’s back on a minimum deal. The position needs reinforcements and should be a top free agency and draft priority.