The Green Bay Packers are like every other NFL team with free agency set to begin later this week and the draft a little more than a month away.
Their offseason game plan is written in sand.
Indeed, nothing is set it stone for NFL teams at a time when one decision, one signing, one whiff can render the entire plan obsolete.
This offseason is particularly fluid for the Packers, who have many holes to fill both in their starting lineup and among key rotational players. Green Bay has some decent capital — a middle-of-the-pack $34 million in salary-cap room and 10 draft picks — but it also has dire needs at outside linebacker, safety, defensive end, inside linebacker, tight end, slot receiver, offensive tackle, guard and running back.
With the reminder that everything could change by the time this hits print, here is my plan — some of it admittedly pie-in-the-sky — for a successful Packers offseason:
The Packers have all but said they will bring back tight end Jimmy Graham but still have important decisions to make on outside linebacker Nick Perry and four of their many unrestricted free agents: outside linebacker Clay Matthews, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, cornerback Baushaud Breeland and wide receiver Randall Cobb.
Should the Packers re-up Breeland and move veteran Tramon Williams back to cornerback, the position would be well-stocked with Jaire Alexander, Kevin King and Josh Jackson already in place. Wilkerson wasn’t a bust prior to breaking his ankle last year and is worth another one-year deal. Matthews could come back, but only if it is at a significantly reduced price and with a position change to inside linebacker. Some team likely will pay him major money based on reputation, though, and the Packers could turn to 2018 draft pick Oren Burks inside.
It seems likely the Packers will pass on Cobb and release Perry. Cobb is a warrior but he can’t stay on the field enough to warrant keeping him around. Perry also has had consistent injury problems and, worse, his production fell off last season. Cutting him would free up about $3 million of cap space that could be better used elsewhere.
My plan? Cut ties with Cobb and Perry. Bring back Wilkerson, Breeland and, if his market fails to materialize, Matthews.
The $34 million in cap room is misleading since the Packers must fit their rookie class under it and also save money for in-season moves. The decision is often whether to sign one or two big-ticket free agents or four or five mid-level types. The Packers need a difference-maker on defense, but they have too many needs to blow most of their cap room on one free agent. Since the free agent class is strongest on defense, that’s where the Packers should concentrate their efforts, especially at edge rusher and safety.
If Matthews and Perry are gone, they’ll need to add two edge rushers. Problem is, everyone needs edge rushers, who received four of the six franchise tags handed out last week. Still, the next-level group has intriguing names — New England’s Trey Flowers, Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith, Washington’s Preston Smith, Minnesota’s Anthony Barr and the Los Angeles Rams’ Dante Fowler. Flowers, Fowler and Barr are in line for major contracts, so one of the Smiths might represent the best bargain for Green Bay. The Packers have talked to Kansas City about a trade for Dee Ford, but the reported asking price — a second-round draft pick — is too steep. If it comes down even a bit, they should go for it.
Safety is the Packers’ weakest position even if Josh Jones finally sees the light, which is no given. The top available safeties are the New York Giants’ Landon Collins and Seattle’s Earl Thomas. Either one could find a major role in coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense, but both are going to break the bank and Thomas is also an injury risk. A more realistic alternative might be Chicago’s Adrian Amos, Arizona’s Tre Boston or Jacksonville’s Tashaun Gipson, who once played for Pettine in Cleveland.
Should the Packers look to offense in free agency, guard is a position where they might find help. Veteran Rodger Saffold of the Rams could be out of the Packers’ reach financially, but Quinton Spain played for Packers coach Matt LaFleur at Tennessee last year.
My plan? Sign Za’Darius Smith, Amos and Spain, assuming they’ll all fit under the cap.
Even if those moves took place, the Packers would still need another edge rusher, another safety, a tight end, a slot receiver, an offensive tackle and a running back as they enter the draft. Add inside linebacker to that list since Matthews likely will get a better offer elsewhere. And with a good group of defensive linemen available, one of those is a possibility, too. So let’s look at what the Packers might land with their six picks in the draft’s top four rounds (assuming the players are still on the board, of course).
First round (No. 12 overall): The highest-rated players might be at offensive tackle and inside linebacker, but Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson plugs a lot of holes for the Packers.
First round (30): If they sign one of the Smiths, both of whom have good size, they can go with a speed rusher here. Louisiana Tech’s productive Jaylon Ferguson fits the description.
Second round (44): Quality offensive linemen and safeties are available in this range, but the 4.31 40 that Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell ran at the combine is hard to overlook. He’s raw but has the talent to be a playmaker from the slot.
Third round (76): Tempted to go with guard Chris Lindstrom of Boston College, but Aaron Jones is injury prone and Jamaal Williams might not be a fit for LaFleur’s new zone-blocking scheme, so Iowa State running back David Montgomery would be a sound investment.
Fourth round (108 and 112): Who knows who will be available with these two picks? However, Iowa safety Amani Hooker and West Virginia offensive tackle Yodney Cajuste would round out a good offseason of work for the Packers.