GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers are already delivering on their publicly stated desire to be more aggressive in pursuing veteran free agents. But if they’re going to put their money where their mouth is, they’re going to have to figure out where the requisite salary-cap space is going to come from.
An NFL source confirmed that the Packers were scheduled to host ex-New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson on Wednesday. ESPN.com reported that the visit had been slated for Tuesday but Green Bay’s snowy weather postponed the visit by a day.
The Packers reached out to Wilkerson right away after his release became official on Monday, and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine – the Jets’ coordinator in 2011 and 2012, Wilkerson’s first two NFL seasons – will get the first crack at signing him.
But in order to do so – and add other pieces, as the Packers have other glaring needs on their roster – first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst will have to conjure up more salary-cap room.
The NFL announced Tuesday that the 2018 salary cap will be $177.2 million, meaning the Packers have $15.4 million in cap space at the moment, according to the NFL Players Association. Only nine other NFL teams – including three who currently are above the cap – have less salary-cap space than the Packers, according to OverTheCap.com.
The Packers closed deals with their top two in-house free-agent priorities – wide receiver Davante Adams (four years, $58 million) and center Corey Linsley (three years, $25.5 million) – before the 2017 season ended.
Gutekunst has vowed to be more “aggressive” than former general manager Ted Thompson, who was more inclined to re-sign his own players than court outside free agents during his 13-year run as GM. But Gutekunst, a disciple of Thompson, emphasized at the NFL scouting combine last week that being aggressive wouldn’t mean spending money willy-nilly, either.
“We’d like to be really aggressive and see if we can be in every conversation,” Gutekunst said in Indianapolis. “Now, whether that leads to us ending up signing a bunch (of players) or not, we’ll see. Like I said, there’s limitations there. But we’d like to be as aggressive as we can to try to improve our football team.
“At the same time, (the free-agent market) is a smaller market and it’s a little bit riskier market. So I think as my mentor and predecessor would say, you have to be very cautious as you enter that. But I think we’d like to look at every option we can.”
It’s unclear how much money the 28-year-old Wilkerson, who was scheduled to make $16.75 million this season – the third of what had been a five-year, $86 million deal he signed in the summer of 2016 – and entered the league as the 30th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, will be looking for. Wilkerson had two double-digit sack seasons before getting his new contract (10.5 in 2013 and 12 in 2015) but managed just eight total sacks over the past two seasons.
While Wilkerson could boost the Packers’ anemic pass rush – something Gutekunst called a priority at the scouting combine, saying that good teams “have to have a dominant pass rush” – the Packers are deeper on their defensive line than they are at outside linebacker and cornerback, two other crucial positions on defense.
And if they get a deal done with Wilkerson, they’ll have to create more cap room to sign other players or bring back their own free agents. That list includes safety Morgan Burnett, guard Jarhi Evans, tight end Richard Rodgers, and special teams ace Jeff Janis.
The Packers have several veterans who could be asked to restructure their current contracts or take pay cuts for the 2018 season, including wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry.
Gutekunst expressed some reservations during the combine about asking longtime contributors like Nelson, Cobb and Matthews to accept reduced salaries – “You need to keep really good players, and you don’t let them walk out the door just for that reason,” he said – but something will have to be done if Gutekunst wants to deliver on his talk about being aggressive.
Gutekunst indicated that if the Packers are going to alter those players’ contracts, he would want to do it before the free-agent negotiating window opens on Monday.
“We all understand if you do this, it affects this, and if you want to do this, you might have to do this,” Gutekunst said. “With the salary cap and the way things are set up, acquiring experience and staying under the cap can be a difficult challenge at times.”