Matt LaFleur, Brian Gutekunst, Mark Murphy, AP generic file photo

The Green Bay Packers' new head coach, Matt LaFleur, center, is introduced by General Manager Brian Gutekunst, left, and President and CEO Mark Murphy during a news conference in January 2019 in Green Bay.

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GREEN BAY — Brian Gutekunst had a pretty good idea all along what he, salary-cap expert Russ Ball and the Green Bay Packers personnel department would be up against.

Now it’s official.

With the NFL having set the 2021 salary cap at $182.5 million on Wednesday — down $15.7 million from last year’s high-water mark of $198.2 million — and having decided against placing the franchise tag on Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones, the Packers were sitting at roughly $9.7 million over the cap, according to OverTheCap.com. Another salary cap tracking site, Spotrac.com, had the Packers at $8.35 million over the cap.

The Packers were one of 10 teams in the red on salary cap space as of Wednesday, but they appeared to have a handful of avenues to follow to clear cap space without severing ties with too many key contributors or going overboard with pushing player costs too far into the future.

Still, it’ll be challenging, especially considering this marks the first time in a decade that the salary cap did not rise from the previous year. In the wake of the league’s COVID-19 pandemic-related losses, the cap decreased by 7.92% over last year after the cap had averaged an increase of 6.23% increase the previous three years.

Nonetheless, Gutekunst and Ball now have less than a week to not only get below the cap before the new league year opens next Wednesday, but also clear additional space under the cap to re-sign some of their own unrestricted free agents, extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents like tight end Robert Tonyan, and pursue any outside free agents, particularly those who might be released by other cap-strapped teams.

“I’m confident we’re going to be able to do what we need to do to compete next year,” Gutekunst said. “There will be some challenges. You certainly don’t plan for a pandemic but, at the same time, I think because Russ has done such a good job with our cap and we’ve been pretty disciplined in our approach over the years that we’re going to be able to take this challenge on without gutting our team.”

Among the moves Gutekunst and Ball are surely contemplating are restructuring or extending quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ contract; signing first-team All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams, who is entering the final year of his contract, to an extension; and restructuring or extending edge rusher Za’Darius Smith’s deal, which has two years remaining on it.

“We’ll kind of work toward those things as all these things come together with the different things we’re going to have to do,” Gutekunst had said. Asked specifically about an extension for Adams, Gutekunst said it is “certainly an option.”

Rodgers, who is scheduled to receive a $15.05 million base salary and $6.8 million roster bonus for 2021, is set to count a whopping $37.6 million against the cap. Adams, in the last year of the four-year, $58 million extension he signed in December 2017, is set to count $16.8 million against the cap. And Smith, who is midway through a four-year, $64 million deal, carries a $21.5 million cap number in 2021.

Smith, who has registered 26 sacks in two seasons with the Packers and has been selected to the Pro Bowl in both years, Tweeted seemingly out of the blue on Wednesday, “I want to be a Packer for life!!”

Smith’s outside linebacker running mate, Preston Smith, also is a candidate for restructuring, although after seeing his production drop significantly from 2019 in terms of sacks (from 12 to four) and pressures (from 55 to 26), it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for the Packers to move on from him. That seems unlikely, though, with Gutekunst having tacitly committed to Smith earlier this month. It appears more likely that the Packers would restructure his deal to lower his $16 million cap number.

“We’re going to do that this year quite a bit — push money out to give us our best chance to win in ‘21,” Gutekunst said. “There’s a lot of avenues to do it, but at the same time, we have a really good football team. I think the core of our football team is going to be really strong the next few years, and we want to give ourselves every chance to compete for championships within that time.”

Of course, getting below the cap enough to make a run at re-signing Jones is one thing; clearing even more cap room to sign another outside free agent is another. But Gutekunst has said that he believes the Packers have the financial wherewithal to do so.

“I do think if the right particular player is out there and we think it’s the best thing for the Green Bay Packers, then we’ll be able to do it,” Gutekunst said. “We won’t be able to do a lot, and there’ll certainly be some restrictions, but if the right guy’s there, I think we’d be able to do what we need to do.”

Meanwhile, after largely sitting out free agency a year ago — the team’s two signings of note, linebacker Christian Kirksey and offensive tackle Rick Wagner, had been released by their prior teams and didn’t count in the compensatory pick equation — the Packers were awarded three compensatory selections in April 29-May 1 NFL Draft.

The league gave the Packers picks at the end of the fourth (No. 142 overall), fifth (No. 177 overall) and sixth rounds (No. 219 overall), giving them 10 total picks with their own picks in each of the seven rounds.

The Packers lost right tackle Byryan Bulaga, inside linebacker Blake Martinez, outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell and inside linebacker B.J. Goodson in free agency, while the only unrestricted free agent they signed, wide receiver Devin Funchess, opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Funchess took a $765,000 pay cut earlier this week to remain with the team. Only the Dallas Cowboys (four) received more compensatory picks.

“Every year is a good year to have as many draft picks as you can have,” said Gutekunst, who had expected three selections. “We’ll take as many as they want to give us. That’s for sure.”


Photos: Packers’ 2020 season in pictures

Photos: Packers' 2020 season in pictures

Check out photo galleries from every game of 2020 through the end of the regular season and the playoffs.

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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