General manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t even wait for the NFL’s legal tampering window to open on Monday morning before going to work to address two of the Green Bay Packers‘ biggest offseason needs.
The Packers announced Tuesday morning they had signed free-agent inside linebacker Christian Kirksey on a two-year, $13 million deal and right tackle Ricky Wagner on a two-year, $11 million in an affordable pair of moves that confirms changes are coming to two major positions for Green Bay during the 2020 season. Both were eligible to sign right away with the Packers rather than wait until Wednesday’s official start to free agency, as each had been released by his previous team.
The Packers were looking at high-priced scenarios for bringing back either of last year’s two starters with an expensive market for both inside linebacker Blake Martinez and veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Martinez agreed to terms on a three-year, $30 million deal with the New York Giants late Monday night, per multiple sources, while Bulaga has been projected to earn as much as $12 million per season on his next deal as an unrestricted free agent.
In the meantime, here’s a closer look at the contract details for each of the Packers’ newest free agents as well as the salary-cap implications of bringing them both in for 2020.
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Christian Kirksey, Inside Linebacker
Kirksey played two excellent seasons for the Cleveland Browns that saw him tally more than 125 tackles and multiple interceptions in each one. The only problem? Those big years came in 2016 and 2017, while injuries over the past two years limited him to just nine games over his final two seasons with the Browns, ending each one on injured reserve. But the Packers are actually taking on a low amount of risk when it comes to Kirksey’s contract.
Kirksey is due to earn $13 million in base pay on his deal with a guaranteed $4 million signing bonus prorated over the next two years, but he will earn just $1.75 million in base salary in 2020 with a cap hit of about $4.125 million, per CPA Ken Ingalls’ breakdown of contract numbers reported by The Houston Chronicle‘s Aaron Wilson.
The deal also includes $2.25 million in per-game roster bonuses with an additional $1.5 million roster bonus for the 2021 season, which essentially safeguards the Packers from Kirksey’s injury history. But Kirksey can be rewarded if he shines, as there are incentives and escalators in place that could see him earn well beyond his $13 million — including a $1.75 Pro Bowl incentive for the 2021 season.
Kirksey only carries a cap hit of $5 million for the 2020 season, which is far more affordable than what they would have needed to take on with a top-market free agent. Should Kirksey fail to deliver in 2020, the Packers could release him next offseason and only take on $2 million of his projected $8 million cap hit for the 2021 season.
Ricky Wagner, Right Offensive Tackle
Wagner is looking to bounce back after a rough final season with the Detroit Lions, missing four games due to injuries and struggling to hold up as a pass-blocker. According to Pro Football Focus, Wagner allowed three sacks, four quarterback hits and 32 total pressures during 467 attempts during the 2019 season, which doesn’t inspire much hope, but perhaps sliding into place with last year’s top pass-blocking team in the NFL will be the boost the 30-year-old right tackle needs.
Like Kirksey, the Packers signed Wagner to a deal that offers them a good deal of security while also rewarding the veteran offensive lineman if he exceeds expectations. Wagner is set to earn $11 million over two seasons with a $3.5 million signing bonus and a base salary of $2.25 million in both 2020 and 2021. His contract is also heavy on the conditionals with $3 million tied to per-game and total roster bonuses.
Wagner carries a relatively low cap hit for the 2020 season at about $4.81 million and would cost less than $2 million to cut next offseason if he doesn’t pan out.
Per Spotrac, the Packers will take on less than $10 million in total cap hit for the two signings — and exemplification of Gutekunst’s adept negotiating skills — and are projected to still have a little more than $14 million in cap space with options available to free up more spending capital.