People get so overworked about when money hits the cap that they lose sight of how much money is hitting the cap overall. Keeping Smith at his current $11M means that’s another $11M that has to hit the cap at some point. The immediate cap implications are less important than just saying that you don’t want to pay the guy $11M.
In slightly rounded terms, Smith’s restructure pushed $5.3M cap hit from 2022 to $2.65M in 2023 and $2.65M in 2024. That 2023 portion happens whether he’s on the roster or not. If he’s cut without the June 1 designation, then last year’s restructure means the extra $2.65M for 2024 will accelerate to 2023. Are people really throwing a tantrum about $2.65M? The original signing bonus ($3.75M cap hit in 2024 that would also accelerate to 2023 if cut) is a bigger issue, but again, see the previous paragraph.
The best outcome here is probably a pay cut with incentives to earn the money back. Smith has a fairly unique skill set and O’Brien has gotten production out of less skilled players before. Rosenhaus has already started negotiating his clients’ pay cuts this offseason (Aaron Jones from $16M down to $11M yesterday), and the Patriots have even negotiated with him on a tight end pay cut before (Dwayne Allen).
(This all assumes Corry’s report is accurate. It would surprise me if everybody else was wrong this whole time, but I also find it hard to see how Corry could be wrong given that it’s an article about what date the salary vests on, and there would be no vesting date if it was already fully guaranteed.)