Hey Hey Packer Nation!
We are days from the beginning of the 2019 league year. That means the NFL calendar starts over and teams will figure out ways to improve their teams starting on March 13th. The Packers should be involved in the free agency frenzy. Free agency involvement is something fans are not used to when Ted Thompson preached building his teams through the draft. New GM Brian Gutenkunst has shown he is not cut from the same cloth.
It is proven that you cannot build a team strictly through free agency. It should be a complimentary avenue. Teams such as Washington and Jacksonville have typically been big players in free agency with little success. Players like DT Albert Haynesworth, CB Deion Sanders and QB Jeff George cost the Redskins years of future cap money with little success. Jacksonville spent huge money on DL Malik Jackson, DL Marcell Dareus and OG Andrew Norwell. They went from an AFC Championship appearance in 2017 to missing the playoffs and a dismal 5-11 record in 2018. New England, on the other hand, has used free agency as a tool to fill in holes with low risk/high reward players like WR's Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola to RB LeGarrette Blount.
With that in mind, there is a smart way to tackle free agency. The Packers do not like handing out "guaranteed money" to players who have never worn a Packer jersey. The risk comes when you hand that to a free agent and the player does not work out, you are tying up future salary caps with "dead money" for a player you will release in a couple years (ie DE Joe Johnson). They like free agents who sign "prove it" contracts with little risk. It is why the Packers never have salary cap issues. This might be the first year they are forced to break that trend.
As it stands today, poor drafts have left the team with very little talent and many holes at pass rusher (OLB and DL), offensive line, safety, tight end, wide receiver and inside linebacker. A few of these positions can be filled through free agency because the market is not out of control for safeties and 2nd tier OL. Pass rushers are a premium and require large contracts. While I would advise the Packers to fill safety with either Earl Thomas, Adrian Amos or Tashaun Gipson, it is likely they will first go after a pass rusher or two first. To set the bar, pass rusher/Packer killer Khalil Mack for example, signed a 6 year, $141 million dollar contract after the Bears won the bidding war with the Packers last year. The eye popping number was the $60 million in guaranteed money. That money is typically paid within the first year with team.
There are rumors the Packers have been involved in trying to acquire pass rusher Dee Ford, an OLB who was recently given the franchise tag. Every team can protect their impending free agents by designating them with a franchise or transition designation. Only one player can receive each designation each year. Transition tag allows original team to match any contract offer from another team with no compensation if they refuse to match. If player does not sign with a new team he receives a one year guaranteed contract lower than a franchise designation. The franchise designation gives the player a one year guaranteed salary that averages the top 5 salaries paid at their respective position. It also comes with two options - non exclusive or exclusive. "Non exclusive" franchise tag means Ford is free to negotiate with other teams. If Ford were to sign a contract with another team and the Chiefs would decline their option to match, the other team would surrender TWO 1st round draft picks to the Chiefs. "Exclusive" means the player is given a one year contract with a salary the same as non exclusive but player can only negotiate an extension with their original team. There is more to each designation, but that is the meat and potatoes.
Back to Dee Ford, the Chiefs are going through a defensive transition from 3-4 to 4-3. Even though they have designated Ford as a "non exclusive franchise" tag, they are willing to trade Ford because he does not fit their 4-3 philosophy. If the Packers work out a trade with the Chiefs, they would NOT have to give up two 1st round picks because the Chiefs are willing to trade Ford. The tricky part is in order for the Packers to close the trade, they would need to negotiate a new contract with Ford and likely give up a draft pick or two, or a player like Nick Perry to compensate the Chiefs for acquiring Ford. Ford will likely command a contract averaging more than $15 million per season. Also rumored to be a target for the Packers is edge rusher Za'Darius Smith from Baltimore. If the Packers were able to bring in both Ford and Smith, they would be a tremendous improvement over Matthews and Perry. Nick Perry's days should be numbered and the Packers would recoup close to $11 million in cap space if they released Perry with a post June 1st designation.
As I touched on previously, the Packers need to fill their safety hole through free agency because the market isn't ridiculous. It will not cost as much as a pass rusher and there are many options. In my opinion, Earl Thomas would be the best option and I will explain why. First, he is proven and still relatively young at 29. Second, he fits what Pettine wants to do in "one deep" coverage where the safety can roam and make plays. Thomas has been a consistent play maker. Third, he is a leader. This team lacks leaders. Finally, he can cover tight ends. We have not had a safety that could do that. As far as salary, my estimation is he will command a contract that averages $10-$13 million per year.
If Thomas is out of the question, the next best available safety would be Adrian Amos from Chicago. While he is not flashy and does not make many big plays, he is reliable and dependable. He will not make mistakes. He is young at 26 with plenty of room to improve. He should be cheaper than Thomas at around $8-$9 million per season.
The Packers need to find an offensive guard in free agency and they likely will explore it. Top tier offensive lineman are also highly paid so they need to look at 2nd tier guys like Buffalo guard John Miller or Tennessee guard Quinton Spain, who won't command large contracts. They should command around $6 million per season and either player would immediately improve the right side of the line. Both are well under 30 years old. The Packers get good value and years of solid protection keeping Rodgers upright. This has to be top priority for the Pack. This teams success depends on a healthy Rodgers. A repeat of Rodgers running for his life is throwing money into the fire.
At wide receiver, they have a need for another starter or 3rd WR. Baltimore's John Brown would be an excellent addition. He is lightning fast and averaged 17 yards per reception in 2018. He would give the Packers a vertical threat and could play in the slot on occasion. He will likely command a salary in the $6-8 million per season range. In comparison, Randall Cobb was paid $12.5 million in 2018. Brown would bring tremendous value and play making ability.
Those moves would likely consume most of the Packers available cap space. That would leave major holes left to fill at OT, another OLB, defensive lineman and tight end through the draft. It will not be surprising if they also need another running back since LaFleur was adamant that he wants to run the ball more. The draft actually sets up nicely for the Packers to fill those holes right away. My prediction is they will draft OLB Brian Burns or DT Ed Oliver with the 12th pick. OL Erik McCoy or OG Chris Lindstrom should be available at #30. There is hope that an injury to DL Jeffery Simmons will drop to the Packers waiting at #44. Before ACL his injury Simmons was a potential top 10 pick. I would like to see Alabama rookie RB Damien Harris available at #75. He is tough between the tackles and quicker than Jamaal Williams. At #114 - TE's Kahale Warring and Isaac Nauta or OT's Bobby Evans or Dennis Daley would be ideal picks. From there, the Packers can fill in depth at ILB, DL, safety and wide receiver who can fill a need at returner.
My plan would best position the Packers for a quick rebound in 2019. There are risks involved in free agency but just like the draft there are no guarantees. The difference being free agents have proven their worth. While their success with previous team might not translate to new team, new teams are forecasting that player will be successful. I am not a huge proponent of big splashes in free agency, but the Packers will need to fill some holes through it. If Dee Ford is acquired, it will be an improvement over anything the Packers have. We have to give the Packers credit for not accepting complacency.
Lets also not forget that DL Mike Daniels, LB Blake Martinez and OT Bryan Bulaga have expiring contracts after the 2019 season. It would be wise to bolster each position through the draft. Resigning Daniels and Martinez will not come cheap. Packers have to prepare they might lose Daniels and/or Martinez. They will likely let Bulaga walk.
Let the new season/offseason begin!
Go Pack Go!