Packers putting free-agent focus on cornerbacks

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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Indianapolis Colts cornerback Rashaan Melvin tackles Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster during the first half on Nov. 12, 2017.

GREEN BAY – When the NFL’s 2018 season officially began at 3 p.m. Wednesday, the Green Bay Packers were focused on filling their depleted cornerback position.

General manager Brian Gutekunst is pursuing Indianapolis Colts free-agent cornerback Rashaan Melvin, according to an ESPN report. Melvin, a fifth-year corner out of Northern Illinois, is not among the top tier of free-agent cornerbacks. He would give the Packers an option to start on the perimeter opposite Kevin King, something their secondary desperately needs.

The Packers set the stage to aggressively pursue a free-agent corner when they traded Damarious Randall to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback DeShone Kizer and a swap of their fourth- and fifth-round draft picks. The trade was enacted Wednesday afternoon and announced by the Browns.

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The Packers also were able to officially sign tight end Jimmy Graham on Wednesday after agreeing to contract terms one day earlier. As of late afternoon, the team had not yet announced the signing.

Trading away Randall left the Packers with King as their top cornerback. With Davon House entering free agency, six corners are on their roster: King, Quinten Rollins, Demetri Goodson, Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins and Donatello Brown.

The quickest way to add help is to sign a free-agent corner.

“I don’t think it’s imperative,” Gutekunst said. “We’re going to look at every avenue. … This is something that really between now and the start of training camp, that we’ll be looking at. There’ll be many avenues to upgrade that group. I think we have some good young players there that’ll be competing for those spots, but it is something that we’re focused on.”

There will be competition to sign the 28-year-old Melvin. The Oakland Raiders, led by former Packers executive Reggie McKenzie, are one team reportedly in the mix. Melvin is a big (6-2, 193 pounds), long press corner who ran a 4.42-second 40 at his pro day.

The Packers have long scouted Melvin, bringing him in for a pre-draft visit in 2013. He instead signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after going undrafted. Melvin has since bounced around the NFL, spending time in Miami, Baltimore, New England and Indianapolis. He started 10 games for the Colts last season, finishing with three interceptions and 13 defended passes while leading their cornerbacks with 552 snaps.

The cornerback market is lucrative and one source said Melvin was looking for $10 million per year. If the Packers sign him — or another free-agent cornerback — it could come at the expense of retaining Morgan Burnett.

The veteran safety’s contract expired Wednesday, rendering him a free agent. Burnett’s open-market value could be too rich for a Packers team with several free-agent priorities, league sources said.

The Packers had exploratory conversations with Burnett’s representation two weeks ago at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. At the time, one source said, Burnett’s asking price averaged more than $8.5 million annually.

It’s a significant raise from the four-year, $24.75 million extension Burnett signed in 2013, though also emblematic of the NFL’s rapidly rising salary cap.

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Burnett has had durability issues in recent seasons. He hasn’t played all 16 games since 2012, his third season. Injuries forced him to miss four games last season, and five games in 2015.

Yet Burnett just turned 29 this offseason, young enough for a team to believe he still has quality football ahead. In a league where safeties are asked to fill more and more roles, Burnett’s versatility is deemed especially valuable.

“I feel like that helps out a lot,” Burnett said after the Packers' season finale in Detroit. “Just to showcase my versatility, and not be just a one-dimensional safety. I’ve proven that I can play in the box. I can play deep, center field, come off the hash. I can get down and cover tight ends. I can get down and cover receivers in the slot.”

One source doubted Burnett would get his asking price on the open market, saying the Packers defense’s overall poor showing last season could limit his earning potential. The Cleveland Browns were in the market for a safety and had interest in Burnett, according to a source, but instead signed Raiders free agent T.J. Carrie. The Chicago Bears might also pursue Burnett, a source said.

The Arizona Cardinals released safety Tyrann Mathieu on Wednesday. Mathieu primarily lines up in the slot, but his availability on the open market also could limit Burnett’s contract ceiling.

If Burnett’s price lowers, the Packers could be in the mix. With Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s struggles last season, a source suggested the Packers would be hesitant to lose their most experienced safety.

When healthy, Burnett wore the communication helmet last season and was responsible for presnap calls and checks. Along with sharing time as a box linebacker and slot corner, part of Burnett’s on-field responsibility was ensuring the defense operated smoothly.

Two days after the season, Burnett expressed a desire to return.

“It’s a great organization,” Burnett said. “It’s more so the bond that you build inside the locker room. Because the locker room is the most important thing to me.”

The Packers’ depth at safety makes it unlikely they would pay top dollar for Burnett. They drafted Josh Jones in the second round last year presumably as insurance in case Burnett departed this spring in free agency. Kentrell Brice, a former undrafted safety entering his third season, has had strong support inside the organization.

After the season, Jones said he appreciated Burnett sharing some of his wisdom this past season.

“When I come back next year,” Jones said, “I’m going to have seen mostly everything. So it’ll slow down a lot for me.”

After signing Muhammad Wilkerson on Tuesday, the Packers are unlikely to retain defensive lineman Quinton Dial. The free agent who spent last season in Green Bay will visit the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks.

Receiver Jordy Nelson also started his free-agent visits Wednesday, one day after the Packers released him. He flew to Oakland and reportedly was met at the airport by Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Nelson also reportedly has visits scheduled with the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints.

Packers reporter Tom Silverstein also contributed to this story.


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