Aaron Nagler speaks with Pete Dougherty about the trade of Damarious Randall to the Cleveland Browns and the work ahead for GM Brian Gutekunst at the cornerback position. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – For the Green Bay Packers, free agency in the past decade has mostly started at home.
It began there again in December when then-general manager Ted Thompson locked up two starters – receiver Davante Adams and center Corey Linsley – to long-term contract extensions at a combined cost of $6,666,340 of 2017 salary-cap space.
Thompson had made some bad decisions in choosing not to re-sign free agents Casey Hayward (2016), Micah Hyde (’17) and Julius Peppers (’17) and he wasn’t going to let his best receiver and only center walk through the doors.
Soon after those deals were done, Thompson ceded his position to an underling, director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst, ending his run of 13 years of draft-and-develop policy that netted the Packers one Super Bowl win and four NFC Championship game appearances.
Gutekunst immediately promised to be more aggressive than Thompson when it came to free agency, trades and waiver pickups and he quickly threw his hat into the ring with defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, who was released from the New York Jets last Monday and visited the team Wednesday and Thursday.
Gutekunst also engineered a trade Friday, sending cornerback Damarious Randall to Cleveland in a deal that netted quarterback DeShone Kizer and an exchange of draft picks in the fourth and fifth rounds.
Unfortunately for Gutekunst, it is not a good year for him to try to be the anti-Thompson when it comes to free agency (14 unrestricted free agents signed in Thompson's 13 years). By some scouts’ estimation, the unrestricted free-agent class set to hit the market at 3 p.m. CT on Wednesday is average at best and once again doesn’t feature many can’t-miss stars.
Teams have gotten too good at protecting their own assets, which is why Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (franchise tag), Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (franchise tag), Houston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins (contract extension), Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes (contract extension) and Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (contract extension) are not among those heading for free agency.
It is because so many teams have locked up their starting quarterback that Washington’s Kirk Cousins, who has a career record of 26-31-1, is about to break the bank this offseason. Don’t be surprised if Minnesota’s Case Keenum or Cincinnati’s AJ McCarron land deals that boggle the mind also.
For a team like the Packers, the focus is on value, not superstardom. They already have seven players on the roster with salary-cap numbers of $10 million or more and with quarterback Aaron Rodgers set to become the highest-paid player in the NFL this offseason, they’re probably not looking to spend furiously.
They still may re-sign safety Morgan Burnett, whose cost could rise as high as $10 million a year, at which point the Packers might have to say no. Burnett is the lone Packers unrestricted free agent whose salary will cause Gutekunst to think hard about what it would do to his future salary cap.
Were the Packers to land Wilkerson at, say, $8 million per year, it wouldn’t leave a lot of salary-cap money available to sign a top corner like the Los Angeles Rams’ Trumaine Johnson, a top tight end like Seattle’s Jimmy Graham or a top receiver like Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson, even if Burnett moves on.
Gutekunst has some options for clearing cap space, if he starts to think value free agents such as Detroit linebacker Tahir Whitehead, Philadelphia cornerback Patrick Robinson, New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis, Oakland cornerback T.J. Carrie or Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland can be had for a decent price.
It’s unlikely the Packers can do what the Vikings did last year when they signed free-agent offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, running back Latavius Murray and Keenum for roughly $45 million in guaranteed money.
The moves were a huge reason the Vikings dominated the division and went all the way to the NFC Championship game. They are expected to be in the thick of the race for Cousins, who might just provide the final piece of the puzzle they need to get to a Super Bowl.
‘As a philosophy, we’re always going to continue to build through the draft,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said at the NFL combine. “But if there are unique situations in free agency that we think we can address, we will always use that as a supplement.”
The Vikings have $47 million in salary-cap space, so they can afford to sign Cousins and maybe a couple more free agents. But they also have some key players on defense who must be signed to contract extensions, so Spielman doesn’t want to stretch himself too thin.
Gutekunst has the option of creating salary-cap space in order to be active in free agency. Were he to cut receiver Jordy Nelson and tackle Bryan Bulaga, he could clear more than $15 million in cap space. Throw in linebacker Jake Ryan and tight end Lance Kendricks and that’s $3 million more.
Signing Rodgers shouldn’t cost him much in cap space because much of the quarterback’s salary in 2018 will come in the form of a signing bonus, which for cap purposes is prorated over the course of the contract.
Gutekunst used the word “aggressive” in describing his approach, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll splurge in free agency. It probably means he’ll investigate any situation in which a player he likes might be had for a reasonable price.
“Obviously there’s limits in what you can do, but we’d like to be really aggressive and see (if) we can be in every conversation,” Gutekunst said. “Now whether that leads to us ending up signing a bunch or not, we’ll see. Like I said, there’s limitations there.
“But we’d like to be as aggressive as we can to try to improve our football team. At the same time, it’s a smaller market and it’s a little bit riskier market. So, I think as my mentor and predecessor (Thompson) would say, you have to be very cautious as you enter that.”
The Packers have seven players with salary-cap numbers of $10 million or more:
QB Aaron Rodgers: $20,562,500
WR Randall Cobb: $12,718,750
WR Jordy Nelson: $12,518,750
LB Clay Matthews: $11,337,500
OT David Bakhtiari: $11,075,000
LB Nick Perry: $10,750,000
WR Davante Adams: $10,537,500
Here are the Packers’ top positional needs:
2. Tight end
3. Defensive line
4. Outside linebacker
5. Wide receiver
Here are five need players out of the Packers’ price range:
1. CB Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams
2. DT Sheldon Richardson, Seattle Seahawks
3. DT Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
4. TE Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks
5. OG Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers.
Chunk of change
Here are five need players who would eat up a chunk of the Packers’ salary cap:
1. DE Muhammad Wilkerson, 28, New York Jets
2. CB Patrick Robinson, 30, Philadelphia Eagles
3. CB Aaron Colvin, 26, Jacksonville Jaguars
4. CB Rashaan Melvin, 28, Indianapolis Colts
5. TE Trey Burton, 26, Philadelphia Eagles
Here are 10 need players who might be had for a reasonable sum:
1. WR Paul Richardson, 26, Seattle Seahawks
2. CB Bashaud Breeland, 26, Washington
3. OLB Trent Murphy, 27, Washington
4. DE Denico Autry, 27, Oakland Raiders
5. ILB Tahir Whitehead, 27, Detroit Lions
6. ILB Zach Brown, 28, Washington
7. CB E.J. Gaines, 26, Buffalo Bills
8. CB Morris Claiborne, (28), New York Jets
9. S Corey Graham, 32, Philadelphia Eagles
10. ILB Demario Davis, 29, New York Jets
Here are five free agents who come with injury risks:
1. OLB Alex Okafor, 27, New Orleans Saints, (Achilles)
2. TE Tyler Eifert, 27, Cincinnati Bengals (back)
3. WR Allen Robinson, 24, Jacksonville Jaguars (ACL)
4. NT Haloti Ngata, 34, Detroit Lions (biceps)
5. WR John Brown, 27, Arizona Cardinals (thigh, toe, back)