Even though trades can’t be consummated and free agents can’t be signed until the NFL reopens for business March 15, the shiny-object folks are already out in full force.
You know the type. Whatever shiny object becomes available, they want their team to acquire him and they don’t give much thought to what it will cost in terms of trade compensation, salary-cap hit or potential effect on the locker room.
So it is with some Green Bay Packers fans and two of the league’s shiniest objects — wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.
After forcing their way out of Pittsburgh with tactics that certainly won’t endear them to potential suitors, Brown and Bell have been linked to the Packers — and many other teams — by some NFL insiders and Las Vegas oddsmakers. That has activated a portion of the fan base that believes the Packers need a new weapon for first-year coach Matt LaFleur’s offense and is encouraged because they now have a general manager willing to explore all methods of player acquisition and enough salary-cap room to make things happen.
But first things first. Brown, 30, and Bell, 27, are true difference-makers who rank among the top two or three at their positions in the NFL. No one disputes that either one would send a jolt through Green Bay’s offense.
If the Packers could pair Brown with Davante Adams, it would give them the best wide receiver duo in the NFL. If they could bring in an elite runner/receiver such as Bell, it would give them the kind of dual-threat, home-run hitter out of the backfield that fuels modern offenses.
But while those situations are enticing, the Packers should pass on both players. Instead of using a large chunk of his offseason capital for the first shiny object that comes along, general manager Brian Gutekunst needs to develop a comprehensive plan using free agency and the draft in concert during the most important offseason the Packers have had in years.
The biggest deterrent to the Packers making one or two splash moves in free agency is the condition of the roster. Simply put, the starting lineup is full of holes and the depth is poor.
Of course, no one knows what the Packers are plotting. Do they hope to re-sign — presumably to reduced contracts — free agents such as Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb, Muhammad Wilkerson and Bashaud Breeland? Would they consider releasing veterans such as Nick Perry, Jimmy Graham, Bryan Bulaga and Tramon Williams for cap purposes?
Depending on how those situations are resolved, the Packers’ offseason wish list could look like this: one tight end, one slot receiver, one right guard, one right tackle (if not for this year then for next year), one defensive end, one inside linebacker, two outside linebackers and two safeties. Whew, Gutekunst has a lot of work to do and a finite amount of capital — draft picks and cap room — to work with.
At least the Packers have cap room. Spotrac.com puts their available cap room at $34.2 million, which seems like a lot but actually is 15th in the 32-team NFL. The Packers could gain cap room by releasing Perry, Graham, Bulaga or Williams, but that also would create even more holes in the lineup.
Remember, everything in the NFL comes with a cost. A reminder of that came last week when the Packers weren’t awarded any compensatory draft picks because Gutekunst used free agency last offseason much more than his predecessor, Ted Thompson.
Because the roster is in such a sorry state, acquiring Brown or Bell is a luxury the Packers can’t afford. They need a more measured approach, using the draft, where they have two first-round picks, and free agency to get five or six quality starters.
Brown is a poor fit for the Packers anyway. His performance hasn’t dropped off, though he’s at an age where that process could begin at any time. He also will want his contract redone, which is why he rebelled in Pittsburgh and finally got the Steelers to put him on the open market last week. His demands would probably start at $20 million per year. Mostly, though, he has gained a reputation as a problem everywhere but on the field. The Packers have a rookie coach trying to establish a culture in the locker room; do they really want to saddle him with a malcontent?
Then there’s the trade compensation. If the Packers could steal Brown for a third- or fourth-round draft pick, it might be worth taking a flyer. But the Steelers insisted they will only take adequate compensation for Brown and, due to his baggage and salary demands, he’s not worth even a late first.
Bell, on the other hand, was no problem until his rookie contract ran out and he wanted the big bucks. He played the 2017 season under a franchise tag and sat out last year, giving up $14.5 million. The Steelers finally cut him free last week, making him an unrestricted free agent.
The biggest problem with signing Bell is the cost. He reportedly wants $50 million for the first two years, which is a figure reserved for quarterbacks in the NFL. Cap room gets eaten up quickly in free agency and the Packers can’t afford that kind of hit at a position where they’re fairly well-covered already.
As you can see, objects in the NFL aren’t always as shiny as they appear, which is why the Packers need to explore other options.