Restructure Aaron Rodgers? Tag Aaron Jones? It's all on the table for Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers have plenty to accomplish before free agency to ensure they'll be able to do something when they get to that point.

And yes, general manager Brian Gutekunst thinks they'll be able to do something in free agency.

Between now and the start of the league year on March 17, his to-do list includes:

  • Restructure veteran contracts, including quarterback Aaron Rodgers' deal.

  • Make more roster cuts, although linebacker Preston Smith may not be as near the top of the list as everyone thought.

  • Decide whether to use either the franchise or transition tag on running back Aaron Jones, which would break from their decade-long tradition of not using either tag.

At this point, with two weeks before NFL teams must have their top 51 contracts under their adjusted salary caps, the Packers will need to create more than $15 million in space just to be in compliance, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But they'll need more than that to make any moves, whether it's re-signing any of their own free agents or adding others.

They were never going to pay the kind of money that defensive end J.J. Watt received this week from the Arizona Cardinals (two years, $31 million with $23 million guaranteed, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter), but that doesn't mean they won't try to add a player they deem a better fit for the money.

"I think a lot of that will be determined over the next few weeks as we kind of figure out this puzzle and decide on some of our own guys, which is always kind of the first step," Gutekunst told the media on Tuesday. "But I do think if the right particular player is out there and we think it's the best thing for the Green Bay Packers, then we'll be able to do it. We won't be able to do a lot, and there'll certainly be some restrictions, but if the right guy's there, I think we'd be able to do what we need to do."

Later, during a side session with writers who regularly cover the team, Gutekunst went into further detail about how they can get there.

It started with Rodgers, who has a $6.8 million roster bonus due on March 19. The Packers can convert that into a signing bonus, which would allow them to prorate it over the remaining three years of his contract (through 2023). That would save them more than $4.5 million on this year's cap. They could do the same with some or most of Rodgers' $14.7 million base salary for this season but the more a team pushes into a future cap years, the bigger the burden becomes down the road.

Still, the Packers could do so without Rodgers' permission. Sources said Rodgers' contract gives the Packers the ability to turn roster bonuses into signing bonuses. They converted left tackle David Bakhtiari's $11.072 million roster bonus into a signing bonus on Feb. 10, a move that saved them $8.3 million on this year's cap.

Gutekunst, however, indicated that he's been in talks with Rodgers and/or his agent, David Dunn.

"With all of our players, I keep whatever conversations we have kind of confidential, but I will say we've reached out to a number of players, obviously David Bakhtiari being one who's already, we've already gone down that route with him, working with those guys to kind of find solutions to this cap issue," Gutekunst said. "I'm appreciative of those guys. I think everybody wants to try to put the best football team out there in ‘21 that we can."

Smith's future with the Packers might not be as tenuous as first thought. Although Gutekunst said the Packers "have a lot of moves to make still" even after releasing linebacker Christian Kirksey and tackle Rick Wagner last month (moves that cut $10.25 million off their cap charges), Smith might still be in their plans despite a $12 million price tag (and $16 million cap charge) for this season. They could cut Smith and save $8 million on their cap (or $12 million if they designated him a post-June 1 release).

"Preston's played a lot of really good football for us and certainly we'd like to have him back next year," Gutekunst said. "He's under contract, so we certainly expect him to be back."

The Packers are the only NFL team dating back to 2011 that hasn't tagged a potential unrestricted free agent. They could franchise Jones for $8.074 million, according to projections by OverTheCap.com.

"We certainly could," Gutekunst said. "I think it's something we're working through. Again, it's not a philosophical thing to avoid it. I do think there's usually better ways to go about it, but certainly if I think as we get down the road here over the next week or so, if that becomes what is in the best interest of the Packers, I think we'll do that. But at this point, we haven't done that."

Jones, of course, could refuse to play for the tag and either sit out or force a trade. Fellow running Jamaal Williams also is scheduled to become a free agent.

Gutekunst made it sound unlikely that the Packers will be able to re-sign All-Pro center Corey Linsley, who should attract a deal that averages around $10 million per season.

"Finding a way to bring him back would be ideal, but at the same time obviously, at the level of compensation that he's at, he's earned that," Gutekunst said. "We certainly would never close the door on someone like Corey Linsley. We'll see as we get down what's possible and what's not."

Whether it's because of veteran salary purges or an inability to retain their own free agents, a bigger burden might fall on the coaching staff. Coach Matt LaFleur changed two of his three coordinators, with only Nathaniel Hackett (offense) returning. Joe Barry replaced departed defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, while Maurice Drayton was hired to run the special teams after Shawn Mennenga was fired. The two new coordinators were formally introduced on Tuesday.

"It's going to be important that we continue to develop a lot of our younger guys," LaFleur said Tuesday. "Because there are going to be some voids that potentially could be left there, and you know, the best way to alleviate those voids is to develop your younger guys."