GREEN BAY − The Green Bay Packers will get out of salary-cap jail at some point.
In fact, depending on how far they’re willing to go with contract restructures this offseason, they probably can participate in a meaningful way in free agency as early as 2024.
But they won’t be free and clear from the double whammy of COVID-19 revenue losses and going all in with Aaron Rodgers and Co. until the 2025 season. Rodgers will be off their books after this season, but other costly cap bills remain.
David Bakhtiari, for instance, will be their biggest salary-cap hit in 2024 even though he very likely won’t be on their roster.
There are a lot of ways to look at the Packers cap space for ’24, but the most realistic isn’t the salary-cap space that shows up today on websites such as Over The Cap or SpoTrac. Those don’t account for many built-in costs (practice squad, the draft, an in-season piggy bank and the like) that won’t show up until next offseason or even after final cuts.
The more accurate take comes from Ken Ingalls, an independent Packers cap analyst who regularly posts his data on social media (@KenIngalls on Twitter/X). According to his numbers, using an estimated and generous $31 million increase in the cap next year (that number won’t come out until the offseason), the Packers are effectively about $15 million over the ’24 cap.
They have easy ways to get under, starting with cutting Bakhtiari, which will save them about $20 million in cap space, or, in other words, get them $5 million under. Then again, they are looking at a major contract this offseason with Jordan Love, which probably will add another $5 million to his cap figure for ’24.
So they’ll need to create more space if they’re to re-sign any of their own free agents and perhaps add a couple of new players in free agency. That means restructuring the contracts of some highly paid players (Rashan Gary, Jaire Alexander and Elgton Jenkins) and cutting other veterans.
With that in mind, here’s a thumbnail look at the key players general manager Brian Gutekunst will be making performance and financial decisions on this offseason, with a prediction on whether they’ll back:
David Bakhtiari, left tackle
Never say never in this league, but it’s very, very (very) hard to see the Packers bringing him back at any price after paying him $86 million since mid-November 2020. By season’s end, he’ll have played in only 17 of a possible 58 games in that time because of ongoing knee issues.
Theoretically, if they like how his knee is recovering from two more surgeries this year, they could work out a contract that pays him near the minimum plus incentives for ‘24. But it’s hard to imagine him signing that kind of low-wage deal. Regardless, they’ve been down this road before thinking he’ll be healthy enough to play, then suffering the disappointment and cost when the knee flared up and he couldn’t get on the field. It’s time for the Packers to move on and draft a new left tackle.
Even if cut, Bakhtiari will cost $20 million in dead money on the Packers ’24 cap, but his release also will save about $20 million on their cap because they’d be wiping his 2024 salary off their books. It’s a very good bet that’s the way this goes.
Aaron Jones, running back
Players don’t get a whole lot better than Jones on the field and in the locker room, but injuries and age very well could make this his final season with the Packers. He’s 29 years old, which is ancient for a running back in the NFL, especially a small one. He’s missed five games this season and could be out another week or two more because of injuries (hamstring, then MCL sprain). Those two things don’t bode well for his health or play next year. Also, the Packers just beat the two best teams on their schedule (Detroit and Kansas City) without him.
Cutting Jones would save $5.4 million on the Packers cap next year. He’s due $12 million in salary and bonuses, so there’s always the possibility Gutekunst would ask him to take a big, cap-saving pay cut, perhaps to the range of $4 million or $5 million. But the risk of injury and/or decline in his play would be high, and Gutekunst might just want to start over at running back by drafting three next year. The guess here is the Packers move on from Jones, but you never know.
AJ Dillon, running back
The one thing that seems almost a given is Gutekunst won’t bring back both Jones and Dillon, and there’s a real chance he won’t bring back either.
Dillon is a free agent after this season, so re-signing him would add to the Packers ’24 cap. His play has improved after a bad start, and if Gutekunst decides to move on from Jones, the GM might try to bring back Dillon (he’s 25) with a low offer, maybe in the $2 million or $3 million range. That might be enough to get him, because he probably won’t have a strong market as a free agent.
But it’s worth remembering that running backs play early, and recent history shows teams can find them almost anywhere in the draft. The Chiefs won the Super Bowl last year with a rookie seventh-round draft pick, Isiah Pacheco, as their primary back.
It would hardly be a surprise if Gutekunst moved on from Jones and Dillon and went ultra-young and cheap at running back by drafting three next year to go with Emanuel Wilson, who was an undrafted rookie this year. In fact, the guess here is that’s the way Gutekunst will go.
Preston Smith, outside linebacker
He’s a tough call because of his age (31), but he has a great history of durability (only one game missed in his nine-year career) that figures to help his longevity. He’s also playing good all-around football this season and has 5½ sacks. On the other hand, the Packers drafted Lukas Van Ness in the first round this year, and he should be ready to start at outside linebacker next season.
Cutting Smith would save a relatively modest $2.5 million on the ’24 cap. He’s scheduled to make $12.4 million in salary and bonuses next season, so the Packers could offer him a cap-saving pay cut in the $6 million to $8 million range. He might take it, because who else would pay him more on the open market? That’s how they got Jones to return this year. The guess here is the Packers make that offer and Smith takes it.
De’Vondre Campbell, inside linebacker
Age and injury make it a good bet this will be the inside linebacker’s final season with the Packers. Campbell will be 31 by the start of training camp next year, and he’s missed seven of 29 games over the past two seasons because of injuries, including four (ankle) this season.
The Packers will pick up $2.8 million in ’24 cap space if they cut him. Hard not to think that’s the way this will go.
Keisean Nixon, cornerback/returner
He figures to be the Packers’ highest-priority re-sign among their free agents this offseason. He’s improved as the nickel cornerback as the season has gone on, including a spectacular interception of Patrick Mahomes last week, and leads in the NFL in average yards per kick return (27.0).
Nixon, 26, is making $4 million in cash and bonuses this year. The guess here is the Packers will sign him to a multiple-year deal that has a low cap number in ’24 ($3 million?) and averages around $5 million per season.
Nixon is probably one of the only free agents the Packers will re-sign.
Other Packers free agents
It’s hard, for instance, to see them bringing back the biggest name on the list, safety Darnell Savage, because of his uneven play and likely contract expectations.
Safety Jonathan Owens is playing for the minimum salary this season, and maybe the Packers will bring him back on a similar deal next year. Or maybe they’d re-sign Rudy Ford at the same price. The two have started a combined 14 games this season. But Gutekunst figures to draft a safety high to start immediately and might see seventh-round pick Anthony Johnson Jr. as a likely starter in ’24 as well.
Other free agents the Packers are likely to let walk are starting guard Jon Runyan (Sean Rhyan is a good candidate to start in his place), tackle Yosh Nijman and tight end/fullback Josiah Deguara.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Predictions on Packers 2024 salary cap, free agent decisions