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The Packers’ last dance? Their 2022 salary-cap situation says it’s possible – Green Bay Packers Blog

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — If you thought the Green Bay Packers faced a challenge with the salary cap this year, wait until you see what they’re up against in 2022.

Combine that with the fact the Packers haven’t made a single adjustment to Aaron Rodgers‘ contract, and the 2021 season might be lining up as their last, best chance at another Super Bowl run before they turn things over to Jordan Love or whichever quarterback will succeed Rodgers.

Consider that the Packers had to rework the contracts of Adrian Amos, David Bakhtiari, Mason Crosby, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Billy Turner just to be able to re-sign Aaron Jones, Kevin King and Marcedes Lewis without adding a single unrestricted free agent from another team (and no, street free agent long-snapper Joe Fortunato doesn’t count).

The Packers, as it stands now, have 20 of their 22 preferred starters from last season’s 13-3 NFC Championship Game team back for what feels like one more try with this group.

That could be what general manager Brian Gutekunst meant when he made this statement shortly before the Packers began restructuring deals to get under the salary cap last month:

“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.”

All but Preston Smith were simple restructures, meaning they pushed money into future salary-cap years. Preston Smith was the only one who took a 2021 pay cut.

The top eight players under contract for next season have a combined 2022 salary-cap charge of $161.14 million. If the salary cap jumps from $182.5 million this season to, say, $200 million next season, it still would mean the Packers have more than 80% of their cap tied up in those eight players.

If the cap jumped to, say, $220 million because of the new TV money kicking in (although some believe that won’t factor in until 2023), then those eight players still would count for 73.2% of the 2022 cap.

Currently, the Packers’ top eight players for this season account for $109.13 million in cap space, or 59.8% of the 2021 cap, not counting space carried over from the previous season.

The Packers already have $204.192 million in committed cap space for 2022, and that’s without All-Pros Davante Adams and Jaire Alexander. Adams is entering the final year of his contract, and there’s no chance the Packers let him walk. Alexander could be back on the fifth-year option, which the Packers have to exercise by May 3. The option on Alexander will cost the Packers nearly $13.3 million for 2022.

Whatever the cap number for 2022 is, the Packers can’t operate with so little space left for the rest of the roster.

Za’Darius Smith’s restructure set him up for an extension before next season if he continues to perform at the same level, and the Packers could move on from Preston Smith and save $12.225 million in cap space if he continues his decline in 2021.

“Every year is different,” Gutekunst said. “There’s so much you can’t predict. There’s so many variables that I think you have to try to build a sound, robust, all-around football team that can take on whatever challenges come your way.”

Still, it all begs the question: Why haven’t they touched Rodgers’ contract? Packers President Mark Murphy wouldn’t say Monday.

Doing so would essentially force them to commit to him beyond 2021. Perhaps they want to see how Love performs this summer in a full training camp and in preseason games, assuming there are any, before they make a decision on Rodgers’ deal. They did not convert his $6.8 million roster bonus into a signing bonus when they had the chance in March. That would have given them $4.5 million in additional cap space for this season but also would have increased his cap number for next year.

They still could turn some of his $14.7 million base salary for this season into a signing bonus, which would push his 2022 cap charge into the $45 million range.

As the contract stands now, the Packers would gain between $22 million and $25 million in cap space for 2022 if they moved on from Rodgers after this season.

It’s also possible Rodgers would want to go the Tom Brady route and try to win another Super Bowl elsewhere before he retires.

“You’re talking about the guy that’s going to win the MVP of the league,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said shortly before Rodgers won the third MVP of his career. “We’re not in this position without him. I couldn’t be happier with just not only his performance but how he led our football team, all the little things he does within that locker room to ensure that everybody is locked in, focused and ready to go. Absolutely he will be here for a long time. I know I’ve said that before, but a long time.”

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The biggest winner in Titans’ trade for Julio Jones? It’s A.J. Brown

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans were tied last season for the second-most potent offense in the league, but Sunday’s trade with the Atlanta Falcons for wide receiver Julio Jones has the potential to take them to a different plane. Jones, whom the Titans acquired for a 2022 second-round pick and 2023 fourth-round selection, brings career totals of 848 receptions for 12,896 yards and 60 touchdowns to the Titans after a decade in the league.

Tennessee achieved great balance on offense with A.J. Brown posting his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and Corey Davis coming within 16 yards of his first. It would have been the first time the Titans had two 1,000-yard receivers in the same year since Derrick Mason and Drew Bennett did so in 2004.

Davis has moved on to the New York Jets via free agency which left a void opposite Brown. Titans GM Jon Robinson signed former Los Angeles Rams wideout Josh Reynolds to help. However, Jones’ presence gives the Titans a much more formidable option to keep opposing defenses from bracketing and double-covering Brown.

“It takes some of the tension off of me and with Derrick [Henry] and Ryan [Tannehill] with Anthony [Firkser],” Brown told ESPN Sunday. “Having another dominant guy on the other side, everybody has to be honest. Now, you don’t know who’s going to hold who. I may get CB1 or Julio may get CB1. But whoever gets CB2 is going to be in trouble. It’s going to be fun.”

First-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing spoke last week about finding ways to expand Brown’s game in his third NFL season. At the time, Downing was speaking in terms of not having Jones on the roster.

“We’ll look for ways to get him singled up, ways to help him with different coverage indicators and things like that,” Downing said of Brown. “See where we can move him around, expand his route tree a little bit and watch him have success as we expand it.”

It’s not just Brown that will benefit from Jones coming to Nashville. The Titans faced eight defenders in the box on 23.1% of their snaps last season, more than any other team in the NFL. That’s because defenses geared up to stop Derrick Henry who had 2,027 rushing yards.

“Derrick is going to do his thing. We all benefit off of Derrick. You have to play it honest,” Brown said.

The Falcons faced eight in the box on 12.5% of their snaps last year. Jones will have an abundance of opportunities to face single coverage and to thrive off of deep play-action passes against single coverage from Tannehill.

Dating back to his collegiate days at Ole Miss, Brown has studied Jones’ game intently. He even swapped jerseys with Jones after the Titans beat the Falcons 24-10 in Week 4 of Brown’s rookie season. The third-year receiver is delighted to have Jones as a teammate.

“He’s a big receiver just like me but the thing he does special is he runs routes just like a smaller guy,” Brown said. “The physical part of his game is crazy. He plays with dominance. He can beat you over the top and beat you underneath. He doesn’t have any flaws to his game. For me, in college, he was teaching me everything and didn’t even know it. That’s when I didn’t know him and was just watching him.”

The Titans’ depth chart now has Brown, Jones and Reynolds — all at least 6-foot — as the top three receivers. All three are capable of playing in the slot or outside. That gives Downing an opportunity to move guys across the formation to generate matchups that favor the Titans. Downing liked the versatility the Titans’ wide receiver room presented before adding Jones.

“The more you can do for our offense and the more jobs you can perform, the more opportunities you’ll get to play,” Downing said. “Our group really embodies and embraces the wear can you plug me and play me mentality. As you have more pieces that are versatile that you can use in different positions, it opens things up for everybody and we’re excited about that.”

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Julio Jones departs having left indelible mark on Atlanta Falcons

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ATLANTA — Left tackle Jake Matthews called him a “cheat code,” and for so often over the past decade it felt like receiver Julio Jones had an almost unfair advantage against defenses facing the Atlanta Falcons. Over and over again, Jones made the extraordinary feel routine, made the spectacular a regular part of his week-to-week, season-to-season performance.

Jones was everything the Falcons could have hoped when they traded up to select him out of Alabama in 2011. In reality, he was probably more. Jones became, for a stretch, the best receiver in the NFL.

Atlanta’s leader in receptions (848) and yards (12,896) and second behind Roddy White in touchdowns (60), his body-contorting catch in Super Bowl LI against New England has been consistently replayed over the past half-decade in a game his team lost. It’s one of the greatest catches of all time.

Simply, Jones one of Atlanta’s most recognizable players ever, even though now he’ll be elsewhere. The Falcons are traded Jones to the Tennessee Titans, effectively ending an era of offense in Atlanta and starting the coach Arthur Smith/general manager Terry Fontenot era off with a more drastic change than most anticipated.

The Falcons will receive a 2022 second-round draft pick and a 2023 fourth-round pick for Jones and a sixth-round pick in 2023.

While this has been coming for weeks, unfolding publicly with speculation starting before the draft even began when Fontenot said he’d listen to calls about Jones’ services due to Atlanta’s salary-cap constraints, it is still somewhat jarring.

In the 32-year-old’s decade in the NFL, he seemed to shun the spotlight, a private superstar in an era of so much information about public figures being shared and available for the world to see. His Twitter account is private. His Instagram follows no one and has 20 posts, total, dating to 2014.

What was known about Jones was often what was said publicly about him: good teammate, good in the community, hard worker, exceptional player. Those qualities are what led Atlanta owner Arthur Blank to say multiple times Jones would be a Falcon for life.

The reaction has been clear — at least as much as social media can or cannot be an arbiter of the feelings of a city — of what Julio Jones meant to Atlanta. Since the Alabama native arrived in Atlanta, he has been a favorite and turned into a franchise icon.

He was a first-team All-Pro twice, made seven Pro Bowls and took over for Calvin Johnson as the best receiver in the NFL by the time Johnson retired in 2015 — the same year Jones had 1,871 yards, second-most in league history behind Johnson.

He twice led the league in receiving (2015, ’18) and three times led the NFL in yards per game (2015, ’16, ’18). His career 95.5 receiving yards per game is the best all time, 9.4 yards better than No. 2 on the list (Johnson at 86.1) and more than 10 yards better than No. 3 (Michael Thomas, 85.0).

“Having him on your team allows you to do so many crazy-good things because he’s that caliber of a player,” Matthews said. “I have nothing but respect for him, and he’s been nothing but a great teammate to me.

“My entire career here has been having him here as well, and whatever happens I’ve got nothing but respect.”

Jones will be forever remembered for his time with the Falcons. That’s how it works in the NFL. Joe Namath might be the most famous Jet of all time, but he finished his career with the Rams. Jerry Rice is a 49er even though he played with Oakland and Seattle; same with Emmitt Smith and Dallas even though he spent two years in Arizona.

Just because Jones won’t play his entire career in Atlanta doesn’t diminish his importance to the Falcons. Yes, seeing him play for another team next season will be strange. If another player wears No. 11 for Atlanta in the immediate future — which would be a mistake, for what it’s worth — it would be stunning.

A team or a player moving on happens eventually for almost everyone. Rare in today’s NFL is the player who starts and finishes his career with one team. But no matter where else Jones plays during the rest of his NFL tenure, one thing will be certain: He’ll be remembered as one of the greatest Falcons of all time.

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Will Ravens’ Lamar Jackson start ‘letting it rip’ as a passer in 2021? – Baltimore Ravens Blog

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman puts it, the offensive players have gone from drinking from a firehose to breaking out the paint brushes.

Sound strange?

Strange actually describes how the NFL’s highest-scoring offense felt last year because of the unusual season, which included no offseason practices, an abbreviated training camp and the cancellation of all preseason games. With decreased reps in the spring and summer of 2020, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens were flooded with information and were forced to try new wrinkles on game days.

Now, with the return of organized training activities (OTAs) in May and June, Baltimore can experiment, especially in the passing game, and see how much its offense can grow in Jackson’s third full season as a starting quarterback. Roman compared this much-needed trial-and-error period to painting a wall.

“You put one coat of paint on it and it doesn’t look very good,” Roman said in a conference call with Ravens season-ticket holders. “But you put that second and third coat, you’re like ‘wow’ that looks spectacular. That’s how I look at it this time of year. We’re putting on the first coat of paint. During minicamp [in the middle of June], we’ll put the second coat of paint on, and training camp [in July and August] will be a long third coat of paint until we finish things up.”

What will it look like in the end? The Ravens may not be as run-centric as the past two seasons, when Baltimore called a run play on a league-high 51% of plays (the next closest was the Minnesota Vikings at 46%), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

This style of offense has led Baltimore to average an NFL-best 31.2 points over the last two years. But it hasn’t translated in the playoffs, where the Ravens have scored a total of 32 points in Jackson’s three playoff losses.

“I really think the way things are structured this year, we’re going to have a chance to get our preparation done this time of year and this summer to where we can have a more balanced attack,” Roman said. “Who knows? There might be some games this year where we’re really letting it rip.”

Here are other takeaways from Roman’s hour-long, question-and-answer session with fans:

More deep shots

The Ravens haven’t made defenses pay for stacking the box to stop their rushing attack. Last season, Jackson ranked 19th in attempted throws 20 yards or longer downfield (45) and 24th in completion rate on those passes (37.8%).

“You’re talking to the person that was once accused of trying to run it, run it and then throw it over their heads,” Roman said. “Our goal is to win, and if teams are giving us opportunities to throw the ball deep, it’s upon us to work hard and figure that out and really take advantage of that because those are game-changing plays.”

The Ravens’ two biggest additions at wide receiver — Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins — could help stretch the field. Bateman averaged 20.3 yards per catch in 2019 (his last full season in college), and Watkins produced 18 catches of 20-plus yards in 2015 (his one season with Roman as his offensive coordinator in Buffalo). Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Baltimore’s fastest receiver, is also participating in his first full offseason after being limited in 2019 (recovering from foot surgery) and catching passes in his driveway in 2020 (NFL canceled in-person offseason activities due to COVID-19).

Increasing J.K. Dobbins‘ involvement in passing game

One way Baltimore can convert carries into receptions is to ramp up the impact of its top running back in the passing game. In the last two seasons, Jackson’s 89 completions to running backs ranks 28th in the NFL. He’s been more apt to scramble than dump the ball off in the flat.

Roman said the team is working diligently every day to expand Dobbins’ role in the passing attack.

“We’d love to really have a threat out of the backfield. J.K. is a very talented athlete,” Roman said. “He didn’t do much route running in high school or college, really. He was just toting the rock, getting handoffs. I think he has got the skill set and the talent to really include him as a viable weapon in the passing game. That’s a big focus of what we’re doing right now.”

More passes to Dobbins could result in fewer runs (and hits) for Jackson.

Jackson will get more snaps under center

No one in the NFL has worked more exclusively in the pistol and shotgun formations than Jackson. Last season, Jackson started under center only 4% of the time (36 of 889 snaps).

But Jackson has been taking snaps under center more in this year’s offseason practices than at any other time.

“It’s something we will certainly used from time to time, some games more than others,” Roman said. “I believe it’s a very important part in the development of a quarterback.”

Jackson will likely continue to take most of his snaps out of the pistol formation, but starting under center can add more deception to Baltimore’s offense because Jackson will have his back turned to defenses.

Moving Jackson under center can also become a valuable option in bad-weather games. In last season’s playoff loss in Buffalo, the Ravens struggled with the pistol snaps because of windy conditions.

Identity will remain running the ball

The expectation is Jackson will throw the ball more than he did in 2019 and 2020. But no one should project Baltimore to suddenly jump into the top half of the league in pass attempts.

The Ravens take a lot of pride in their ability to dominate in smash-mouth football. Roman pointed out that Baltimore has had “the most dominant, productive running game in the history of football” the past two seasons.

“Anybody that would deviate from tapping into that should be put in a rubber room,” Roman said. “I say that in jest.”

What hasn’t been a joking matter is how the Ravens’ offense has taken plenty of criticism this offseason. Former NFL MVP Kurt Warner and former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. both called Baltimore’s passing attack too simplistic. Talk shows trump up the narrative that top free-agent wide receivers don’t want to play for the Ravens.

“We’re going to do what we do,” Roman said. “Nobody is going to Jedi mind trick us or guilt us or shame us into doing things that aren’t us.”

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