Another in a series of important offseason issues facing NFC North teams:
We have detailed the deep list of expensive contracts the Green Bay Packers must extend to retain some of their core players, from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to linebacker Clay Matthews to defensive lineman B.J. Raji. That conversation leads to the inevitable question: Where will the Packers find the salary-cap space to absorb their presumed deals?
At the start of the offseason, ESPN's John Clayton reported the Packers had $7.1 million in salary cap space. Salary cap figures are fluid this time of year for accounting reasons, but speculation has centered around two and perhaps three players whose cap figures could make them targets for offseason moves.
Defensive back Charles Woodson, linebacker A.J. Hawk and tight end Jermichael Finley are scheduled to count a combined $25.8 million against the Packers' 2013 salary cap. Releasing them before June 1 would save $20.5 million, but none of those Big Decisions are simple.
We'll start with Finley, whose upcoming $3.5 million roster bonus means his status must be determined in the next two months. (The money is due on the 15th day of free agency, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.) The Packers were reportedly fed up with Finley's approach at midseason, but coach Mike McCarthy spoke glowingly of his progress earlier this month. You would have to question the wisdom of releasing a 25-year-old playmaker as he presumably approaches a greater level of maturity.
Finley is due to count $8.75 million against the 2013. Releasing him before his roster bonus is due would save $8.25 million against the cap. Perhaps a contract adjustment could be forthcoming, but you wonder if the Packers would reconsider any decision they might have made last fall about his status for 2013. Finley remains a unique and valuable player even if he hasn't reached the elite levels the Packers once envisioned.
Woodson and Hawk represent different situations. Woodson will turn 37 during the 2013 season and will count $10 million against the cap. It's not unprecedented for a player of his age to account for so much cap space, but it would require a unique commitment from the Packers to do it.
The Packers, of course, got a preview of post-Woodson life in 2012 after playing nine games without him while his fractured collar bone healed. During that time, rookies Casey Hayward and Jerron McMillian developed and filled the hybrid cornerback/safety role the Packers once envisioned for Woodson. Rodgers has campaigned for Woodson's return, but business is business. Releasing him would save $10 million against the cap. We'll find out exactly how much the Packers value Woodson's leadership and experience.
Hawk's contract, on the other hand, doesn't provide the opportunity for a huge cap savings. He is set to count $7.05 million against the 2013 cap, but releasing him would create a modest $2.25 million savings because $4.8 million in pro-rotated signing bonus would accelerate. The Packers could wait until after June 1 to release him and push a portion of that acceleration into 2014, but that would only delay the crunch.
That makes Hawk as much of a football decision as anything. On the one hand, the Packers need to do something to elevate their run defense, a role inside linebackers are critical for. But without Hawk, the Packers would be assuming the healthy return of two players -- Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith -- who suffered season-ending injuries in 2012. All indications are that Bishop and Smith will return, but in essence the Packers can use Hawk as a $2.25 million cap insurance policy. It might be worth it to them.
All told, the Packers have the opportunity to save $20.5 million in cap space if they release Woodson, Finley and Hawk by mid-March. It's a Big Decision, to be sure.