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Tom Oates: Here's an offseason personnel plan for the Packers
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Tom Oates: Here's an offseason personnel plan for the Packers

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Brian Gutekunst photo

General manager Brian Gutekunst, speaking last week at the scouting combine, says the Packers won't be able to spend as much in free agency as a year ago.

Now that the NFL scouting combine is winding down, the real fun begins.

The free agent negotiating window opens March 16 and teams can start signing players two days later, followed by the draft in April.

The Green Bay Packers, who once ignored free agency, made splashes during Brian Gutekunst’s first two seasons as general manager. In 2018, they went for players on the downside of their careers — Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis, Muhammad Wilkerson and Tramon Williams — at bargain-basement prices (except for Graham). Last year, Gutekunst went after bigger-ticket free agents in their prime, landing Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner.

Since the second approach was far more successful than the first, we can expect Gutekunst to go that way again, right? If only it were that easy. Gutekunst has said the Packers won’t have the same amount of room under the salary cap and therefore won’t be able to match what they did last year.

I’ll spare you the details of the Packers’ cap situation, in part because it depends on whether they release Graham and/or allow right tackle Bryan Bulaga to leave in free agency. But if they can carve out enough room to land, say, one top-tier and one second-tier free agent this year, it could set up a potentially productive offseason.

The Packers have a lengthy wish list, including finding Aaron Rodgers’ successor at quarterback, but the most immediate needs are these: two wide receivers, one with deep speed outside and one with run-after-the-catch quickness from the slot; an every-down tight end; an inside linebacker who can make plays in coverage and the running game; a defensive lineman who can stuff the run; and, depending on what happens with Bulaga and fellow free agent Jared Veldheer, an offensive tackle who can start this season or for sure the following season.

That’s a healthy list for a team with limited means, both in free agency and the draft, where it picks 30th in every round and has additional picks in the sixth and seventh.

The Packers have already been linked in media reports to Atlanta tight end Austin Hooper and Cleveland inside linebacker Joe Schobert, giving us a pretty good idea of what they’re seeking in free agency. Perhaps that’s because the draft is thin in those areas and more robust at wide receiver, offensive tackle and defensive tackle. If the Packers can set themselves up at tight end and inside linebacker in free agency, the draft could play right into their hands.

OK, enough of the small talk. Here is my plan for a successful offseason in Green Bay:

First up, what to do with their own players? It’s time to release Graham, which would add about $8 million in cap room, and let inside linebacker Blake Martinez walk in free agency. That should allow the Packers to keep Bulaga, provided he is willing to sign a cap-friendly deal like kicker Mason Crosby did. If not, let him walk and sign Veldheer to a smaller contract.

Next up, free agency. The Packers should make Hooper a priority even though the competition will be fierce and his deal likely will top $10 million per year. There is no Plan B because the Los Angeles Chargers are expected to keep Hunter Henry and the rest of the free agent class is uninspiring. Signing Hooper or, say, New York Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson might not leave enough cap room to sign Schobert or the Rams’ Cory Littleton at inside linebacker, but Chicago’s Nick Kwiatkoski might be a cost-effective option.

Let’s give the Packers Hooper and Kwiatkoski, then head to the draft.

In the first round, there are three explosive inside linebackers, two of whom — Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen — could slip to the 30th spot. The Packers should snap up either one if he is there, though that appears less and less likely. Next in line would be the University of Wisconsin’s Zack Baun, but he would be changing positions and might not provide the immediate help the Packers need.

Since wide receiver has many options later in the draft, I would take one of the second-tier offensive or defensive tackles in the first round should Murray and Queen be gone. The top four offensive tackles will be off the board early, so the Packers might be looking at USC’s Austin Jackson and Houston’s Josh Jones. On defense, they could have have a choice between TCU’s Ross Blacklock and Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore, two disruptive run-stuffers. The Packers should take Jackson and solidify the offensive line now and for the future.

In the second round, it will be time to give Rodgers a weapon at wide receiver to pair with Davante Adams. One respected draft analyst has put third-round-or-better grades on 27 wide receivers, an unprecedented number. Six or seven could go in the first round, but there are enough tall, fast deep threats and quick slot guys that the Packers should be able to find instant help in the second round. Rangy wide receivers Michael Pittman of USC and Chase Claypool of Notre Dame would be tempting if they were there, but if one of the slot receivers with explosive running ability — Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk, TCU’s Jalen Reagor, Penn State’s K.J. Hamler and Texas’ Devin Duvernay — is still available at No. 62 overall, I say take him.

After landing an offensive tackle in the first round, the Packers could go for a defensive tackle in the third, perhaps trading up for Alabama’s massive Raekwon Davis, who can eat up space in the running game. Then in the fourth round, UW’s Quintez Cephus should be waiting after running a disastrous 40 time at the combine. We all know he plays faster than he timed and could be the deep threat the Packers need.


Photos: The best shots from the Green Bay Packers' 2019 season

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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