Green Bay Packers

Midweek Musings: NFL’s salary cap rules hamper injured Packers

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The Green Bay Packers are one of the most injury-riddled teams in the league, and the NFL’s salary cap rules do the team no favors.

As of Tuesday, the Packers have the eighth-highest cap hit amount tied up on the injured reserve at $23 million, according to spotrac.com. 

Most of that total comes from Za’Darius Smith ($14.1 million), who underwent back surgery after playing only 18 snaps in Week 1.

That also doesn’t factor in players like David Bakhtiari, who is on the PUP but still counts for $11 million against Green Bay’s salary cap.

By the end of Sunday’s game in Chicago, considering injuries to Preston Smith, Darnell Savage and Josh Myers along with the unavailability of Kevin King, the Packers had about 25% of their salary cap out due to injuries.

To be clear, the Packers are not alone with their injury woes. The Baltimore Ravens will have about $40 million on the shelf whenever left tackle Ronnie Staley, who announced Tuesday he’d miss the rest of the season, goes on IR. There’s also the Seattle Seahawks, who have about $41 million out due to injury — though most of that comes from quarterback Russell Wilson’s $32 million cap hit.

Injuries are a fact of life in the NFL, and while so much attention goes toward building the best roster, games are often won and lost based on who has the healthier team.

It’s unfortunate though, that the NFL’s salary cap system does nothing to provide assistance for teams debilitated with injuries, other than shrug its shoulders.

The Packers, especially after Jaire Alexander suffered his potentially season-ending shoulder injury Week 4 against Pittsburgh, are in desperate need of cornerback help.

It seemed like perfect timing that ensuing week when it was reported that the New England Patriots intended to trade or release former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. The Packers, for several reasons, seemed like a natural fit.

But Green Bay’s hands were tied due to lack of cap space, and instead were at the mercy of a potential release which would’ve allowed the Packers to add Gilmore’s contract on their own terms. That never happened — the Carolina Panthers had enough cap space and were able to make a trade, sending a measly sixth-round pick to New England.

Talk about adding insult to injury (no pun intended). Not only are the Packers without some of their best players, but the current salary cap system denies them from making any effort to replace that talent, other than to scour other teams’ practice squads.

It’s a simple question: Why should highly-compensated players like Za’Darius Smith and David Bakhtiari, who have contributed next to nothing on the field this season due to their injuries, hinder the Packers’ salary cap?

The NFL could’ve looked to the NHL, which has a much better salary cap system. In hockey, players that suffer long-term injuries can be placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR), where they are still paid their salaries, but do not count against the salary cap.

The only stipulation is that when said player is taken off LTIR, the team must be able to fit their cap hit back under the salary cap. But in cases which a costly player’s season ends prematurely due to injury, the team isn’t handcuffed.

As it relates to the NFL, what if the Packers could place Za’Darius Smith and his $14 million cap hit on LTIR? The team would’ve had more flexibility to acquire a player like Gilmore or Xavien Howard. 

Obviously, no league can match the NFL’s roster size nor injury rate, so creating an apples-to-apples copy of the NHL wouldn’t work. But such a system would neuter the impact of injury luck, and could incentivize teams to make more trades. Trades create discussion on talk show radio and social media, which in turn is good for the NFL.

That’s not the system unfortunately, and instead, teams like the Packers are stuck digging through the scrap heap.

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