The Green Bay Packers have a lot of tough choices ahead as financial realities likely mean the departure of several top players from the roster this offseason.
Green Bay’s difficult decisions don’t just start and end with free agents like wide receiver Davante Adams and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. Top players under contract are also question marks, including the likely league MVP in quarterback Aaron Rodgers and two-time Pro-Bowl linebacker Za’Darius Smith, the latter of whom the Packers can cut ties with in the coming weeks. Unfortunately for Green Bay, choosing to keep either Rodgers or Smith is likely to lead to the departure of the other.
Smith played just one regular season game in 2021, undergoing back surgery after appearing in Green Bay’s Week 1 loss to the New Orleans Saints. He returned from the injured reserve list (IR) just in time to participate in the Packers’ gut-wrenching 13-10 home playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
As it turns out, Smith’s one-sack performance against the Niners in the Divisional Round of the playoffs may prove his last in a Packers uniform. The linebacker hinted at as much in an Instagram post made Sunday, January 23.
The post contained five photographs of Smith in a Green Bay uniform, including two from the previous night’s game against San Francisco.
In the caption, Smith wrote simply, “Thank you Green Bay 🙏🏾.”
Smith Represents Massive Cap Hit in 2022, Packers Can Exercise Out
Smith’s IG message, while somewhat cryptic, was thinly-veiled. It felt like an obvious goodbye to Green Bay fans following his third season with the team.
The linebacker signed a 4-year, $66 million deal with the Packers in 2019 and has proven well worth the investment. After four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, Smith arrived in Green Bay and was selected to the Pro-Bowl in each of his first two years in green and gold. The Packers played in the NFC Championship game in both of those seasons.
However, after missing essentially the entire year, Green Bay has the option to move on from Smith and his nearly $28 million cap hit this offseason. The team built a three-year out into the linebacker’s contract, allowing them to nullify the deal a the cost of a $12.4 million dead cap hit.
The price to part with Smith is steep, but the price of keeping him is even steeper, and not just from a salary cap perspective. The Packers have free agents on the offensive side of the ball to consider as the team must do everything in its power to keep Green Bay a viable destination for Rodgers, who has the leverage to force his way out of town after 17 wildly successful years in the NFC North.
Packers Likely to Prioritize Offense Over Defense in Free Agency
As great as Smith has been, amassing 26 sacks from the outside linebacker position over his two Pro-Bowl seasons, even pass rushers don’t rate in the NFL the way quarterbacks do.
Rodgers is the reigning league MVP. He’s also the odds-on favorite to win the award for the second straight year and for the fourth time in his career. Even at the age of 38 and coming off a weak performance against the Niners Saturday, Rodgers remains inarguably irreplaceable.
Green Bay will do everything it can to keep him, which head coach Matt LaFleur reiterated immediately following the team’s Divisional Round loss Saturday night.
“Certainly we want him back here. I think we’d be crazy not to want him back here,” LaFleur said. “This guy does so much for our football team, not just on Sundays or what you guys see every game day. In the locker room, how he leads.”
Rodgers also addressed his future in Green Bay after the game in honest, but non-committal, language. One thing he was clear about, however, is that the team needs to show the same kind of Super Bowl potential next year that it just squandered this postseason if they hope to bring him back.
“I don’t wanna be a part of a rebuild if I’m gonna keep playing, so you know, a lot of decisions in the next couple months,” Rodgers said. “There’s a lot of players whose futures are up in the air. Definitely be itching to see which way some of those decisions go.”
One of those decisions involves All-Pro wideout Davante Adams, who Rodgers mentioned by name in the postgame press conference when he called him “the best receiver in the league.” Adams is now an unrestricted free agent and has already stated he won’t settle for any long-term deal that doesn’t make him the NFL’s highest-paid pass catcher.
Green Bay could decide to franchise Adams, which is a likely outcome considering their financial position heading into the 2022 regular season. But he’s not the only offensive weapon of note to consider.
Rodgers also invoked the names of tight end Robert Tonyan, an unrestricted free agent currently on the IR, as well as wideout Allen Lazard, who is a restricted free agent this offseason. Both are favorite targets of Rodgers and each will be looking for long-term contracts.
Rodgers himself, if he stays, will also command a huge salary. He represents a nearly $46.5 million cap hit in 2022, which is why he will be able to leverage a trade out of Green Bay should he desire simply by deciding not to renegotiate the terms of his deal.
The Packers’ prize for signing the players Rodgers wants and restructuring his deal will be to commit long-term to what will likely be the largest annual QB contract in the NFL, a reality that will make retaining a player as expensive as Smith that much less feasible.