GREEN BAY — Lambeau Field may be closed for non-football business in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, but the NFL appears intent on starting its new league year — and the free agent negotiation window — on time this week.
So assuming NFL teams are indeed able to start talking to outside free agents on Monday and can begin signing them on Wednesday, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst will try to duplicate the success he had a year ago, when he added two field-tilting edge rushers (Za’Darius and Preston Smith), an important steadying veteran influence at safety (Adrian Amos) and a versatile 18-game starter at right guard who may move to tackle this season (Billy Turner).
But he’ll have to do it with less money to spend and with more of his own players hitting the market simultaneously.
“Last year, we kind of knew what we wanted to do. We knew it was going to be expensive, and we were shooting for a certain type of player,” Gutekunst recounted during a Q&A session with a handful of beat writers before departing for last month’s NFL scouting combine. “We knew we had to be aggressive with it if we were going to be in on those conversations — and we were.
“It wasn’t really a big group of players at all. I would say the group we’re going to look at this year is going to be much broader. (Whereas) last year, we really zeroed in on some things.”
During that conversation with reporters, Gutekunst acknowledged the Packers wouldn’t have the financial wherewithal to spend so lavishly this year, saying, “I think when you look at free agency in the totality, we’re not going to be able to do what we did in unrestricted free agency like we did last year. I think that’s going to be very difficult just with the restraints that we have. But I think when you look at free agency overall, with salary cap casualties and different kinds of things, I think we’ll be able to add some players to our roster that can help us. But we’re certainly not in the position we were in last year with the resources. We’re going to have to do some different things this year.”
Among those constraints is the team’s hope to bring back at least some of its 14 remaining unrestricted free agents, following veteran kicker Mason Crosby re-signing on a three-year, $12.9 million deal. It appears he’ll be the only player retained before the negotiation window opens, and with two other Super Bowl XLV players — right tackle Bryan Bulaga and defensive back Tramon Williams — headed to the market, the Packers could have even more holes after free agency begins than they have now.
Those holes as of now are at tight end, where veteran Jimmy Graham was released on Thursday; wide receiver, where coach Matt LaFleur got very little production from the pass-catchers behind star wideout Davante Adams on the depth chart; and inside linebacker, where leading tackler Blake Martinez is an unrestricted free agent and Gutekunst has strongly hinted at a makeover at that position.
While the Packers reportedly have interest in Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper and Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Cory Littleton, both players are at the top of the free-agent list at their respective positions and may price themselves out of the Packers’ budget — despite Gutekunst’s aggressive nature.
In the wake of Graham’s release, the Packers have roughly $28 million in salary cap space, and they could create another $4 million by trading or releasing guard Lane Taylor, a former starter who missed most of last season with a ruptured biceps. That’s enough to perhaps fill a hole or two and keep a few of their less-expensive own players.
Here’s a look at the Packers’ own free agents in advance of them hitting the market:
Wide receiver Geronimo Allison: After starting training camp as the No. 2 wide receiver, Allison never regained the form he showed early in 2018, when he was on a 1,000-yard pace before sustaining a season-ending injury. He caught just 34 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns in 2019 and is unlikely to be back unless it’s at a bargain-basement rate. The Packers seem focused on remaking the position and he might benefit from a fresh start elsewhere.
Offensive right tackle Bryan Bulaga: Coming off the best season of his career, Bulaga’s injury history might scare some teams off but his healthy and impressive 2019 should garner big-money offers in a depressed tackle market, where he could command upwards of $12 million per year. Set to turn 31 on Saturday, Bulaga said in an ESPN Wisconsin interview recently he hadn’t heard a word from the Packers since the season ended. That’s not a good sign.
Safety Ibraheim Campbell: A versatile hybrid safety/linebacker who bounced back from a season-ending knee injury to contribute once he was activated off the physically unable to perform list, Campbell fit in well in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme, but how the team decides to deploy inside linebackers and defensive backs going forward will have a big say in whether he’s brought back.
Running back/kicker return Tyler Ervin: A diamond-in-the-rough find on the waiver wire, Ervin gave the return units the boost they desperately needed and even chipped in on offense late in the regular season and in the playoffs. He’s an inexpensive and intriguing chess piece whom the Packers are likely to keep.
Outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell: After going from 10.5 sacks in 2018 to being the forgotten man behind the Smith Bros. on the outside linebacker depth chart, Fackrell played his limited role without complaint and insisted after the season that he was a better player despite the drop in playing time and production. He could be an inexpensive free agent steal for another team seeking pass-rush help.
Inside linebacker B.J. Goodson: Thumping, run-stuffing inside linebackers seem to be a vanishing breed, and considering how the San Francisco 49ers gashed the Packers on the ground in the NFC Championship Game — when Goodson played 39 of the team’s 55 defensive snaps — he could be a goner. But he did fill a need upon his arrival from the New York Giants and could be paired with a faster running mate who’s better in coverage.
Wide receiver Ryan Grant: Signed amid a rash of injuries at the receiver position, Grant never played a snap after joining the team on Oct. 16. Given the team’s plans for a receiver makeover, Grant is unlikely to be back.
Tight end Marcedes Lewis: A valuable, calming veteran influence in the locker room, Lewis showed he could still be a productive pass-catcher when given the opportunity — something he didn’t get from the previous coaching staff in 2018. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers loves the man he calls “Big Dog,” and despite being set to turn 36 in May, Lewis’ return seems likely.
Inside linebacker Blake Martinez: Even though Martinez was a tackling machine during his four years as a starter and signal-caller in the middle of the Green Bay defense, he appears destined for a new start somewhere else. He was emotional in the locker room after the loss to the 49ers, as if he knew his Packers career was over. A stand-up guy in every way, Martinez’s limitations in coverage and lack of splash plays would be the primary reasons for the Packers going another direction.
Safety Will Redmond: A reclamation project after a star-crossed, injury-plagued career following his third-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, Redmond probably isn’t a high priority.
Offensive tackle Jason Spriggs: A disappointing 2016 second-round pick who never developed into a starter or truly reliable backup, Spriggs was waived/injured during training camp and reverted back to the Packers on injured reserve, where he spent all season.
Fullback Danny Vitale: Watching him in training camp, Vitale looked like he was going to be a crucial piece of the offense in 2019, given how many snaps he got with the starters and how many plays he made. But those opportunities weren’t as plentiful once the season began, and a knee injury late in the year diminished his playing time and effectiveness. If healthy, he presumably is someone the Packers want to bring back, especially with LaFleur’s affinity for the fullback position.
Offensive tackle Jared Veldheer: After deciding to un-retire with the New England Patriots, Veldheer was a life-saver of a late-season pickup, spelling Bulaga (concussion) in the regular-season finale at Detroit and starting in place of Bulaga (illness) in the NFC Divisional playoffs. A smart, savvy vet with more than 100 games of NFL starting experience, he’s a more-than-viable swing tackle and could even start at right tackle if Bulaga departs and a draft pick isn’t ready to take over right away.
Defensive back Tramon Williams: A team leader and fan favorite, Williams wasn’t the shutdown corner he was during his first tour of duty with the Packers (2007-14), but his return on a two-year, $10 million deal in 2018 was money well spent. Durable and reliable, he moved to safety in 2018 and played nearly every defensive snap that year. In 2019, he was the team’s nickel/slot corner and played only 73 percent of the snaps — but was highly effective. Set to turn 37 on Monday, he’s intimated he will retire if the Packers don’t bring him back to play another season.
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