Keep, cut or restructure? For the Packers, much depends on whether Aaron Rodgers returns

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Russ Ball might have the hardest job in the NFL this offseason.

His title with the Green Bay Packers is executive vice president/director of football operations. That loosely translates to miracle worker given that he is largely responsible for managing the team’s salary cap.

The Packers are currently $48,910,955 over their projected cap for the 2022 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Nine teams are over the cap, but only the New Orleans Saints are worse off at $74,174,019 over their cap.

Ultimately, it will be up to general manager Brian Gutekunst to decide which players to keep, which players to cut and which players to restructure. But it’s Ball’s job to make it all fit by March 16, when teams must be under the cap.

It’s why quarterback Aaron Rodgers expressed his concerns after the season about the Packers being in a rebuilding mode, something he said wants no part of.

Coach Matt LaFleur countered by saying he believes the team can reload for another run at a Super Bowl.

“Absolutely there’s a plan in place,” LaFleur said at season’s end. “There’s ways to, I don’t want to say manipulate, but there’s ways to move money and to make sure that we get the bulk of our key contributors back.

“Are there absolutely going to be some tough decisions? No doubt about it. But I’m really confident in Russ’ ability and Gutey’s ability and us collectively to figure out a way to do this thing.”

Without offering any hint at their plans, Packers president Mark Murphy wrote in his monthly column on the team’s website: “Although we will face many challenges this offseason, I have tremendous confidence in Matt, Brian and Russ. I don't think anyone in the league knows the rules regarding the salary cap better than Russ. He will be our most valuable employee this offseason.”

Some players who aren’t in danger of being released will still have their contracts restructured and/or extended to provide maximum cap savings. Among them are running back Aaron Jones, left tackle David Bakhtiari, defensive tackle Kenny Clark and cornerback Jaire Alexander. For example, Bakhtiari has a $9.5 million roster bonus due on March 19 that almost certainly will be converted into a signing bonus so it can be spread out over the remaining years of the contract (through 2024). His cap number of $22.2 million ranks third highest on the team for 2022.

And then there’s the question of how to retain free-agent receiver Davante Adams -- with a new contract or the franchise tag? It’s hard to imagine Rodgers would want to return if Adams is not in the picture.

If Rodgers wants out, some of the decisions become easier; they would likely cut more veteran players and rebuild with salary-cap space.

With all of that in mind, here’s a look at the players the Packers will have to make those so-called “tough decisions” on, with the caveat that even making a change with each player might not be enough to get them under the cap.

Randall Cobb

Why keep him?: Rodgers loves him. Getting Cobb back was one of the things Rodgers wanted upon his return last summer, and he provided the quarterback with a security blanket. Of his 28 receptions (for 375 yards and five touchdowns), 21 of them went for first downs and 10 of those were third-down conversions. The Packers don’t have any of their other top receivers under contract for 2022; Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling will both be unrestricted free agents, while Allen Lazard will be a restricted free agent who likely will draw at least a second-round tender.

Why cut him?: At age 31, he has shown signs of wear. He ended the regular season on injured reserve for the second straight year, and he has missed multiple games in four of the last six seasons. He missed the final five games of the 2021 regular season after undergoing core muscle surgery, although he returned for the playoff game.

Financial ramifications: Cobb counts $9.6 million on the 2022 salary cap, the eighth-highest charge on the team. They would create $6.8 million in cap space if they released him (or $8.25 million if they released him after June 1).

Most likely outcome: If Rodgers insists on Cobb’s return, then Cobb would likely have to take a pay cut. If it’s not a condition of Rodgers’ return, then Cobb likely wouldn’t be part of the Packers’ 2022 plans.

Marcedes Lewis

Why keep him?: He’s another one of Rodgers’ favorites, and the tight end room doesn’t house much experience. Robert Tonyan (also a free agent to be) might not be ready for the start of the season after tearing his ACL in late October.

Why cut him?: While he hasn’t worn down yet, playing in every game last season, he will turn 38 in May and the decline could come at any time. His value is as a blocker and team leader, not as a receiver (although he caught 23 passes for 214 yards, both tops in his four years with the Packers).

Financial ramifications: He has a $2.08 million roster bonus due on March 19 and would count $4.525 million on the salary cap. They would create $2.95 million in cap space if they release him ($4 million if he’s designated as a post-June 1 cut).

Most likely outcome: Released or retire, although the latter doesn’t sound likely considering the way he talked late in the season.

Billy Turner

Why keep him?: Turner found a home at right tackle and was perhaps the Packers’ most reliable offensive lineman for the first 13 games of the season until he suffered a knee injury. He returned for the playoffs after missing four games and then surprisingly started the divisional-round game against the 49ers at left tackle, where he had not played all season, after Bakhtiari's short-lived return ended. He’s still a relative bargain given that his cap number ($9.16 million) for 2022 ranks 14th among NFL right tackles.

Why cut him?: The Packers can’t keep everyone and still get under the salary cap, and this might be one of those tough decisions that LaFleur talked about. The Packers showed they could make do with journeyman Dennis Kelly in place of Turner late in the season, and perhaps Yosh Nijman or Elgton Jenkins are options at right tackle.

Financial ramifications: Turner has the ninth-highest cap number on the team this season at $9 million. The cap savings are either $3.142 million now or $5.812 million after June 1.

Most likely outcome: Cut.

Preston Smith

Why keep him?: He teamed with Rashan Gary to form a strong pass rush pairing. They became just the second linebacker duo in team history to both register at least nine sacks in the same season (Smith had 9 and Gary 9.5), and Smith has missed just one game in his NFL career.

Why cut him?: Perhaps Smith’s uptick in performance was simply to earn the incentive money that was put into his contract last offseason when he took a pay cut. His career pattern has been a good season followed by a down season.

Financial ramifications: He has a $3 million roster bonus due March 19 and carries a $19.75 million cap number, fifth highest on the team. They would pick up $12.25 million in cap space whether they released him now or after June 1.

Most likely outcome: A contract extension to remain with the Packers.

Za'Darius Smith

Why keep him?: In his first two seasons in Green Bay, he was the Packers’ most dominant pass rusher since Clay Matthews. In 2019-20, only two players – Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt – had more sacks than Smith.

Why cut him?: He played just 18 snaps in the regular season – all in Week 1 – before undergoing back surgery. He did not return until the playoff game. He will turn 30 before the start of next season.

Financial ramifications: At more than $28 million, his salary-cap charge is second on the team only to Rodgers. They would pick up $15.75 million in cap space by releasing him.

Most likely outcome: Cut.

Dean Lowry

Why keep him?: The defensive lineman had perhaps the best season of his career and formed a productive duo with star nose tackle Kenny Clark. Plus, the Packers don’t have many other veterans in this group, and he’s still only 27 years old.

Why cut him?: He’s never been a star, and if there’s a knock on him, it’s that he’s been inconsistent.

Financial ramifications: He has a cap number of nearly $8 million and a base salary of $4.9 million. The Packers would pick up $3.9 million cap space ($5.8 million after June 1) if they release him.

Most likely outcome: Restructure/pay cut.

Adrian Amos

Why keep him?: He has started every game since the Packers signed him in 2019 and set a career high with 93 tackles this season. He was fourth on the team in pass breakups and tied for third in interceptions.

Why cut him?: He’s never put up big numbers in the splash-play department with just nine career interceptions – and never more than two in the same season. The Packers will have to make a decision on fellow safety Darnell Savage’s fifth-year option.

Financial ramifications: He has the seventh-highest cap number ($11.9 million) on the team. They would pick up $4.6 million in cap space ($7.9 million after June 1) if they release him.

Most likely outcome: Restructure/pay cut.

Mason Crosby

Why keep him?: He’s the team’s career scoring leader and has always bounced back from a down year. The Packers don’t want to get into a revolving door situation at kicker.

Why cut him?: He missed nine field goals and had the second-lowest percentage (73.5) of his career. He will turn 38 before the start of next season, and the Packers kept kicker JJ Molson on their practice squad all year to presumably groom him for a shot at the job this year.

Financial ramifications: He’s the sixth-highest paid kicker in the league at $4.3 million a year. They would save $2.9 million (or $3.4 million after June 1) if they release him.

Most likely outcome: Cut/retire.