The first-year general manager sounded open to keeping all three on the roster, but it might not be under their current contracts — which combined would take up more than $36 million in salary-cap space and cost more than $31 million in actual cash.
“If you have really good players, you need to keep really good players,” Gutekunst said Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine. “And you don’t let them walk out the door just for that reason.”
Gutekunst said Nelson still qualified as such despite a sharp decline in production after quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last season, and Nelson’s status as the oldest player (he will turn 33 in May) among that trio. Matthews will turn 32 in May, and Cobb will be 28 in August.
“He’s been a great player here,” Gutekunst said of Nelson. “He’s still a very strong contributor for us. You saw early in the year the impact he had in those games, yeah, he’s still a really good player in my eyes.”
Nelson has the second-highest salary-cap number ($12,518,750) and the second-highest salary ($10.25 million) among the three. Cobb ranks higher in cap number ($12,718,750) but lower in salary ($9.5 million), while Matthews ranks higher in salary ($11.4 million) but lower in cap number ($11,337,500).
The Packers expect to come in at around $16 million under the projected salary cap for 2018 as things currently stand. But with Rodgers’ contract extension expected to be completed this offseason and Gutekunst likely to pursue free agents more aggressively than predecessor Ted Thompson, the Packers could need some of the salary-cap space that cutting or restructuring those players’ deals would provide.
“It’s hard enough in this league to find them, so we certainly wouldn’t want to let them walk out the door,” Gutekunst said. “But there are restraints and there’s things that every decision kind of affects something else, so we kind of want to let all the information come in before we get to that point.”
The greatest debate could center on Nelson, who had six touchdowns in the first five games of the 2017 season but none after that. His receptions dropped from 97 in 2016 to 53 in 2017, and his yards dropped from 1,257 to 482. Nelson also caught 14 touchdown passes in 2016 and was the NFL’s comeback player of the year following his return from ACL reconstruction.
No one has better chemistry with Rodgers, although they weren’t able to rekindle it when Rodgers made a one-game return following his collarbone surgery. Nelson, however, has been in Green Bay for most of the offseason, and coach Mike McCarthy said Nelson has even sat in on some meetings with the new offensive coaching staff as they have rewritten the playbook.
When the Packers signed Davante Adams to a four-year, $58 million extension in December, it put them in position to have three receivers near or over the $10 million mark in salary-cap charges for 2018. Signing Adams also created the possibility that either Nelson or Cobb — or perhaps even both — could be gone.
“Jordy and Randall can still play,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “But we need to improve. That’s a common conversation Brian and I have — how are we going to get better? Get better internally or externally.”