Keep, cut or restructure? Packers have moves to make before free agency

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- J.J. Watt or no J.J. Watt, the Green Bay Packers have work to do in order to get under the salary cap before March 17.

The exact cap limit for 2021 has not been announced yet, but as things stand today, the Packers are in the neighborhood of $20 million to $25 million over where they will need to be on March 17, when the top 51 contracts on rosters must be under the cap. The cap can be no lower than $175 million this season, but indications are it might be slightly higher (around $180 million). The Packers also have some unused cap space from 2020 to carry over, meaning every team's hard cap is actually different.

The Packers already created $8.304 million of salary-cap space last week when they converted left tackle David Bakhtiari's $11.072 million roster bonus into a signing bonus, which allowed them to prorate it over four years for cap purposes.

They almost certainly will do the same with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his $21.5 million in base salary ($14.7 million) and roster bonus ($6.8 million due in March). A more comprehensive restructuring of Rodgers' deal -- which could satisfy his desire to have more than just year-to-year security -- could also be in play. Receiver Davante Adams, whose deal is up after this season, also could give the Packers some cap savings if he signed an extension.

Other players who probably aren't in danger of being released but have significant March roster bonuses include pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith ($5 million), safety Adrian Amos ($1.5 million), kicker Mason Crosby ($1.25 million) and guard Billy Turner ($1 million). But all have just two years left on their deals, so the salary cap savings the Packers would gain by converting those roster bonuses into signing bonuses would catch up with them on their 2022 cap.

With that in mind, here's a look at the players general manager Brian Gutekunst might consider releasing:

Preston Smith, OLB

Why keep him?: If the Packers don't sign Watt, then they would be down to just two proven pass-rushers -- Za'Darius Smith and Rashan Gary. And Gary has only just started to prove he was worthy of the No. 12 overall pick in 2019 by his play late last season. New defensive coordinator Joe Barry might be less inclined to drop Preston into coverage as much as Mike Pettine did last season, which didn't appear to suit Preston's strengths.

Why cut him?: Za'Darius Smith backed up his 2019 performance with another double-digit sack season in 2020 (and drew double teams at the second-highest rate among all edge rushers behind Watt, according to ESPN Stats & Information). But Preston Smith's sack total dropped from 12 to four and his pressures were nearly cut in half (26 to 14). He dropped from 21.6% to 12.6% in ESPN's pass rush win rate from 2019 to 2020. At some point, the Packers will want to increase Gary's reps.

Financial ramifications: The Packers would save $8 million in salary-cap space if they cut him now. That number would jump to $12 million if they designated him as a post-June 1 release. He's due a $4 million roster bonus on the third day of the league year, which begins March 17.

Prediction: Cut (if they sign Watt). Restructure (if they don't sign Watt).

Christian Kirksey, ILB

Why keep him?: The Packers don't have an overly experienced man in the middle of their defense. Two rookies, Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin, ranked Nos. 2 and 3 in snaps played among inside backers behind Kirksey. He showed flashes of big plays with two interceptions, two sacks, and three pass breakups.

Why cut him?: He was signed in part because of his familiarity with Pettine's scheme from their time together with the Browns. Injuries continued to be a problem -- he missed five games because of a pectoral injury -- after playing in just nine games over his final two seasons in Cleveland.

Financial ramifications: The Packers would gain $6 million in cap space whether they cut him now or after June 1.

Prediction: Cut.

Dean Lowry, DE

Why keep him?: He's reliable -- he hasn't missed a game since his rookie season (2016) -- and played the second-most snaps among the defensive linemen last season at 697 (only four fewer than Kenny Clark).

Why cut him?: His production hasn't spiked significantly since he signed a three-year, $20.325 million extension in 2019. They have cheaper options in Kingsley Keke and Tyler Lancaster (a restricted free agent).

Financial ramifications: The Packers would gain $3.3 million in cap space (or $4.8 million if they designated him a post-June 1 cut).

Prediction: Cut.

Rick Wagner, OT

Why keep him?: Bakhtiari is unlikely to be ready for the regular-season opener because of the torn ACL he sustained in the final week of the regular season. The Packers need a veteran option at right tackle if they plan to leave Turner in Bakhtiari's left tackle spot until he's ready to go.

Why cut him?: Wagner was serviceable against the middling teams, but when it came to facing elite rushers -- like the Bucs' Shaq Barrett in the NFC title game -- he struggled.

Financial ramifications: The Packers would save $4.25 million in cap space whether they cut him now or after June 1.

Prediction: Cut.