Edge rusher tops Packers' list of five biggest position needs as free agency looms
GREEN BAY – The NFL offseason officially begins Monday, and what an offseason it will be for the Green Bay Packers.
Or, at least, what an offseason the Green Bay Packers need it to be.
After missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons, with a former MVP quarterback plagued by a significant injury history now 35 years old, general manager Brian Gutekunst has much to do this spring. The league’s “legal tampering period” begins Monday, when teams will have 48 hours to negotiate with pending free agents across the league before they can be signed on the open market Wednesday afternoon.
For the Packers, most positions on their roster are in need of an upgrade. Such is the reality for a team that posted a 13-18-1 record the past two seasons. Some positions, because of their prominence and the Packers’ dearth of talent, will be higher on Gutekunst’s priority list.
Here’s a lay of the land at positions of keen interest to the Packers as free agency hits full swing this week.
Off the free-agency market: Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney (franchise tag), Seattle’s Frank Clark (tag), Kansas City’s Dee Ford (tag), Dallas' DeMarcus Lawrence (tag), Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham (re-signed), Los Angeles Rams' Dante Fowler Jr. (re-signed).
Top available: Trey Flowers (New England), Justin Houston (Kansas City), Preston Smith (Washington), Za’Darius Smith (Baltimore), Ezekiel Ansah (Detroit), Jamie Collins (Cleveland) and maybe Ford (via trade).
Packers’ options: The Chiefs tagged Ford but are reportedly willing to trade the Pro Bowl edge rusher who had a breakout season with 13 sacks in 2018. Their willingness to make a trade should serve as a caution to potential suitors; clubs don’t just give up pass rushers capable of producing double-digit sacks. Regardless, while it’s unclear what assets the Packers would be willing to part with, a source said the Packers think highly of Ford and "would love to get him." On Saturday, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that the Packers and 49ers are "expressing interest" in trading for him. The Packers recently hired Ford’s position coach in Kansas City, Mike Smith, as their outside linebackers coach. Smith is a longtime friend of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Keep in mind, Gutekunst showed a willingness to pursue top edge rushers via trade last offseason, ultimately losing to the Chicago Bears in his bid for former Oakland Raiders star Khalil Mack. Ford isn’t in the same class as Mack, but he does represent one of the best edge rushers in this year’s class. If the cost of acquiring Ford in a trade is too rich, the Packers could turn to mid-tier options such as Flowers, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith or Ansah. The Cleveland Browns also released the 29-year-old Collins last week, making him available. It's unclear whether the Packers have interest in Ford's former teammate in Kansas City, Justin Houston, the 30-year-old, four-time Pro Bowler who was released Sunday.
Internal business: Chief negotiator Russ Ball met with agent David Dunn, who represents linebacker Clay Matthews, at the NFL scouting combine to discuss a potential reunion, a source said. It’s likely both sides were only discussing parameters of a potential deal to gauge the other party’s expectations. Because of his versatility as an off-ball linebacker, Matthews has some value with the Packers despite coming off a career-low 3.5 sacks last season and turning 33 in May. He will not find a robust market. Sources familiar with the market suggested Matthews’ best play would be a veteran-level, prove-it deal, similar to the one-year, $5 million contract the Packers gave Ahmad Brooks in 2017. Brooks, like Matthews, was a pass rusher of some esteem who was entering his age-33 season, though he was coming off a season with six sacks. Matthews’ market might actually be a hair less because of doubts that he’s still predominantly a pass rusher at this stage in his career. If he leaves Green Bay, one ideal landing spot would be the Rams. Matthews, a California native who played college football at USC, keeps an offseason home in the area, and the Rams have the personnel to use Matthews in a situational role that could help maximize his production.
Off the free-agency market: Eric Weddle (agreed to sign with Rams).
Top available: Earl Thomas (Seattle), Landon Collins (New York Giants), Tyrann Mathieu (Houston), Adrian Amos (Chicago), LaMarcus Joyner (Los Angeles Rams), Tashaun Gipson (Jacksonville), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Washington).
Packers’ options: A year ago, this looked like it might actually be a position of strength. Not so much now. “They have no safeties,” one talent evaluator said of the Packers’ roster. The safety market will be especially interesting to watch. It is, in many ways, a rock meeting a hard place. In recent years, the safety market has been surprisingly tepid. This year’s safety class is flush with proven talent, and the likes of Thomas, Collins and Mathieu will be hellbent to not settle with whatever deal they sign. Something’s gotta give. For the Packers, it could be an opportune time to strike for a starting safety. Given their need and Gutekunst’s past willingness to deal, none of the above can be discounted as possibilities. That includes Clinton-Dix, whom the Packers traded away in October. One source suggested a reunion is possible, though that remains difficult to fathom. If the Packers don’t find a deal to their liking on the open market, they will be forced to address the position high in this spring’s draft.
Top available: Golden Tate (Philadelphia), Adam Humphries (Tampa Bay), Tyrell Williams (Los Angeles Chargers), Cole Beasley (Dallas), Jamison Crowder (Washington).
Packers’ options: Aaron Rodgers made clear late last season he prefers the Packers re-sign Randall Cobb. That appears unlikely after Cobb’s production – and health – have been in steady decline since he signed a four-year, $40 million contract in 2014. But the one, clear need in a Packers receivers core flush with young, perimeter talent is a target such as Cobb, one who can line up in the slot and patrol the middle of the field. Though Cobb is only entering his age-29 season, the Packers surely prefer a more physically reliable receiver. Last season was the first since 2013 that Cobb missed significant playing time, but he’s frequently on the injury report and playing through an assortment of ailments. Tate, a longtime Packers nemesis, might make the most sense. The Packers have modest interest in Beasley, a source said. His reported asking price of at least $20 million guaranteed – which Beasley appeared to confirm on Twitter – is higher than the Packers would venture, but he would be an ideal fit in their offense.
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Off the free-agency market: Baltimore's Nick Boyle (re-signed).
Top available: Jared Cook (Oakland), Tyler Eifert (Cincinnati), Jesse James (Pittsburgh).
Packers’ options: The lack of options here help highlight not only why the Packers are intent to pursue this position in the draft, but also why they were content to retain high-priced Jimmy Graham for a second season. Cook is the clear headliner, but his regrettable break from the Packers after the 2016 season and undoubtedly steep asking price makes a reunion highly unlikely. Behind him … take your pick of who are the “top” tight ends. Eifert would assume that mantle if not for chronic injuries. The rest are either unproven pass targets or proven blockers. With Graham returning, the Packers’ veteran needs at this position shift to the blocking side. They’ll likely turn to the draft to find a young, pass-catching option, but two blockers to keep in mind are Marcedes Lewis and Luke Stocker. Lewis caught only three passes in 16 games last season and was critical of former head coach Mike McCarthy’s offense, saying it wasn’t tailored to tight ends, but would be a good fit in Matt LaFleur’s outside-zone scheme. It’s possible LaFleur prefers Stocker, whom he coached last season in Tennessee. On the day he was hired, LaFleur lauded Stocker’s versatility as a traditional, in-line tight end who could line up in the backfield.
Off the free-agency market: Tampa Bay LT Donovan Smith (tag), Indianapolis RG Mark Glowinski (re-signed), Chicago RT Bobby Massie (re-signed).
Top available: G Rodger Saffold (Los Angeles Rams), G Ramon Foster (Pittsburgh), G Quinton Spain (Tennessee), G Jamon Brown (New York Giants); RT Ja’Wuan James (Miami), RT Daryl Williams (Carolina).
Packers’ options: With left tackle and center the only two starting jobs completely secure, the offensive line is going to be a primary offseason focus for Gutekunst. The Packers have taken the patchwork-and-stopgap route the past couple years, and it hasn’t worked. So it stands to reason they’d prefer turning to the draft, where they can build an offensive line for the long haul, but there are options on the open market. Spain, who started 15 games at left guard for a Titans offense with LaFleur calling plays last season, could be an interesting option. He’s more run blocker than pass protector, a departure from what the Packers have looked for over the years, but Lafleur has been clear he plans to run the football. Former Packers Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang also became available after being released last week by Detroit, but he's 31 and has had significant injury issues since leaving Green Bay. Regardless, there’s a lot of work to do on the offensive line, perhaps more than what a team can reasonably expect from one draft. Perhaps the Packers will either look to free agency to fill a starting spot or build their depth.