GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Not that Ted Thompson needs an excuse to stay out of the free-agent game, but perhaps he has one eye on 2017.
The Green Bay Packers general manager might need all the salary-cap space and cash he can muster to keep together the group of players who enter this season in the final year of their contracts.
According to the NFL Players Association, the Packers currently have $15.057 million in unused salary-cap space. Last year, they needed $5,123,244 in cap room to sign their eight-player draft class. This year, they go into the draft with nine picks.
Thompson might not be done with this year’s group, but there’s no one on his 2016 list that will require a monster contract.
The 2017 group, however, is a different story.
If Lacy shows he has taken coach Mike McCarthy’s ultimatum to get in better shape seriously -- and considering he’s been working out with P90X founder Tony Horton, it appears that he has -- then the Packers might find it hard to let their starting running back leave after his rookie contract expires.
More pressing, however, might be the offensive line situation. Bakhtiari, forced to play the most difficult position on the line as a rookie, has rounded into an important piece at left tackle as was evident late last season when he missed the final two regular-season games plus the playoff opener because of a sprained ankle. Without Bakhtiari, Aaron Rodgers' protection crumbled.
The top left tackles in the league make more than $10 million per season, but it’s unlikely the Packers would want to let a young, ascending player like Bakhtiari go after just four seasons.
Lang and Sitton, however, could be different stories. Sitton turns 30 in June, and Lang 29 in September. Both have thousands of snaps to their credit and the ailing bodies to prove it. Lang underwent shoulder surgery this offseason, while Sitton has battled back problems in recent years.
While Bakhtiari is finishing his rookie deal and will make just $1.671 million, Sitton and Lang are finishing more lucrative long-term deals. Sitton’s $6.75 million average per year ranks him as the 24th highest-paid guard in the NFL. Given that he’s a three-time Pro Bowler and a three-time second-team All Pro pick, Sitton is probably underpaid, although it’s more of a product that he signed way back in 2011. Lang, who signed in 2012, averages $5.2 million per year, which ranks 35th among all guards and has been as dependable as they come on the offensive line. He missed only one game last season and just two games in all since the start of 2011.
It might be difficult for Thompson to keep all three of those pending free-agent linemen together. Another backup linemen, the versatile JC Tretter, also will be a free agent next year. That could be why he signed backup guard Lane Taylor to a two-year, $4.15 million deal earlier this month.
In all, the Packers' 2017 free-agent class currently includes 15 players (see list below).
That group of 15 players accounts for $39.286 million on the 2016 salary cap, although $10.5 million of that is Peppers’ number, and it’s possible this will be his last season.
Packers’ 2017 free agents:
David Bakhtiari, T
Eddie Lacy, RB
T.J. Lang, G
Josh Sitton, G
JC Tretter, G/T
Sam Barrington, LB
Josh Boyd, DE
Micah Hyde, DB
Nate Palmer, LB
Julius Peppers, OLB
Nick Perry, OLB
*Chris Banjo, S
*Jayrone Elliott, OLB
*Mike Pennel, DT
Tim Masthay, P
*Restricted free agent