Ranking Packers' biggest position needs after free-agency binge
GREEN BAY – General manager Brian Gutekunst signed four free agents this week to contracts that suggest they’ll be immediate starters, an important first step toward fixing a roster that was more broken than perhaps anyone realized one year ago.
It was easy after the Green Bay Packers missed the 2017 playoffs to attribute their first absence in eight years to quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone. Such is life when an NFL team loses its franchise quarterback for more than half the season. Then the Packers not only missed the 2018 playoffs, but finished with a worse record in 16 games with Rodgers behind center than they had in 2017.
The Packers' roster needs fixing this offseason. Badly.
It’s why Gutekunst dove in head first with free agency. In edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and offensive lineman Billy Turner, the Packers bolstered three of their weaker positions. Yet those three positions remain incomplete, even after their signings.
The Packers still need another edge rusher, preferably a quick-twitch athlete to complement the Smiths’ power game. Though they have internal options for starting free safety, none are ideal. And one lineman isn’t enough to believe the offensive line is set.
There’s no such thing as a perfect roster in the NFL. Each team has its blemishes. There remains plenty of work for Gutekunst in the player-acquisition phase of this offseason.
“Obviously, it’s 365,” Gutekunst said when asked where he goes next in building his team. “You’re always trying to get better and improve the roster. Free agency, there’s still guys out there we’re kind of peeking at and seeing what can help us after the draft, which is really the foundational piece in how we build our team. We have some pretty good resources going into that, and we’re excited about the draft class this year.
“It’s kind of never ending. I don’t know if you ever really feel, ‘Hey, wow, it’s just exactly how you want it.’ Things change, and as things change, you have to change and have to adapt.”
Though the Packers retain enough cap space to sign some depth free agents, most of their meaningful additions to come will be through the draft. They have 10 picks next month, including a pair of first rounders.
Here’s a look at what the Packers' roster still needs to be at full capacity, and some idea of how they might rank those priorities (with edge rusher no longer the biggest need). The Packers won’t necessarily be beholden to this order. They’ve positioned themselves to take the best player available in the draft, regardless of positional need.
If the season started tomorrow, Tramon Williams would likely remain at free safety and team up with Amos on the back end of the Packers’ defense. But Williams is more valuable in the slot, especially if the Packers don’t re-sign veteran corner Bashaud Breeland. They could give Josh Jackson a look at free safety this spring, but the Packers drafted Jackson to play corner for a reason. That’s his natural position, and learning how to play safety would be an adjustment.
The Packers were beaten badly down the middle of the field too often last season. That must change. The time is now to identify a safety who can join Amos in securing the position, not just now but into the future.
2. Tight end
A good tight end can do wonders for an offense. New head coach Matt LaFleur saw this last season when the Tennessee Titans lost tight end Delanie Walker for the season in Week 1. Much of the offensive struggles that followed (25th in yards, 27th in points) could be attributed to losing the three-time Pro Bowler.
Better believe LaFleur doesn’t want to go light at that position again. The Packers added veteran Marcedes Lewis on a one-year deal because, even if he isn’t the receiver he once was, his ability as a blocker fits nicely in LaFleur’s outside-zone scheme. At age 35, there’s no guarantee Lewis makes the 53-man roster this fall. And they still need a pass catcher who can stretch the field with his speed.
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The Packers appear intent on retaining Jimmy Graham for a second season, despite his struggles last year and $12.6 million cap hit in 2019. Graham’s lack of speed, because of age (32) and a nagging knee injury, was his downfall even before a late-season broken thumb made catching difficult. Height doesn’t age, and Graham’s 6-foot-7 frame could be an effective red-zone threat, if LaFleur is able to maximize that skill set better than predecessor Mike McCarthy. But Graham and tight end Robert Tonyan, a former quarterback, are not blockers. Tonyan has height (6-foot-5) and speed (4.58 40) to be an intriguing prospect, but the jump from Indiana State to the NFL is too steep to trust he can play significant snaps in his second season.
It’s a deep draft for the position, and certainly it’s a possibility with their 12th overall pick if a top-end prospect like Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson is available. A good tight end would make a lot of difference with this offense.
3. Running back
Based on sheer numbers, a team expecting to run as much as LaFleur will in his outside zone scheme can’t enter a season with only two tailbacks. The rigors of playing that position over 16 games are too significant to expect a third won’t be needed at some point.
But go deeper than the numbers. Aaron Jones, who entered the draft as an injury risk after missing his entire junior season with a torn ankle ligament, has had three MCL tears in two NFL seasons. He’s best used as a dynamic change-of-pace ball carrier who can carve up defenses with his speed and tackle-shaking elusiveness. Jamaal Williams is a between-the-tackles thumper and superior pass blocker. He has a role in an offense, but his skill set isn’t tailored to run outside zone.
The Packers need another running back simply based on numbers, but the urgency grows when considering there’s no one who can be the bell cow in an outside zone scheme.
4. Edge rusher
Follow the numbers again. A 3-4 defense needs four defenders capable of rushing from the edge, so its two starters — regardless if in sub-package or base — don’t have to rush 75 percent of snaps. Fresh pass rushers are the best pass rushers. The Packers, content to release Nick Perry and let Clay Matthews test the market, entered this offseason with one. Even after signing the Smiths, adding them to the depth chart with Kyler Fackrell, they still have only three.
The Packers need one more.
Ideally, that vacancy would be filled by a twitchy speed rusher in the draft, and this on is flush with those type of athletes. Nick Bosa and Josh Allen will be long gone by the time they’re on the clock at No. 12, but the Packers could certainly be enticed to select Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Florida State’s Brian Burns or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. They could also wait until their second first-round pick at No. 30, or even their second or third rounder on Day 2. This isn’t the need it was when this week began, but it’s still a need.
5. Offensive line
The $7 million annual average salary Billy Turner will receive from the Packers is good money for a starting guard. For that reason, his contract indicates the Packers plan to try him first as their starting right guard, hoping he fills the biggest hole on their offensive line. If he does, and if the Packers' offensive line avoids injury, their five of David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley, Turner and Bryan Bulaga are a solid group, provided Bulaga can stay healthy. That’s the piece in this offensive line equation that remains a big mystery.
The problem is Bulaga’s age (he turns 30 this month) and extensive injury history (including torn ACLs in both knees) make it sketchy he can get through a 16-game season. Bulaga has one more year left on his contract, and the Packers don’t need to reach to replace him as a starter now. But they need to be ready in case injuries strike again.
Neither Turner nor Gutekunst were willing to say the starting right guard job is filled. It’s possible the Packers could lean on Turner’s versatility, viewing him as a starter at either position on the right side, guard or tackle. Such an approach would give the Packers flexibility to draft the best lineman available, not merely the best guard or tackle. Take a tackle high, and Turner can play guard. Wait to take a guard, and Turner could give them another option other than Bryan Bulaga at right tackle.
6. Slot receiver
The Packers entered this week open to signing a free-agent receiver. They checked in with Cole Beasley before he signed with the Buffalo Bills, a league source said. The chances were always high that Beasley would be too expensive, and his four-year, $29 million price tag that included $14.4 million guaranteed was. It’s unclear whether the Packers are still willing to pursue the open market for a slot receiver — most of the top options are already signed, and they weren’t cheap — but adding a veteran alongside Davante Adams has merit. Their receiver group is already young with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Jake Kumerow and J’Mon Moore.
If they don’t sign a free agent, the Packers likely will need to add a slot receiver in the draft. The void Randall Cobb leaves this offseason is significant, even if injuries robbed Cobb of the production he had early in his career. When Cobb was on the field last season, and the Packers had a legitimate threat in the slot, their offense was better.
It’s possible the Packers might slide one of their youngsters into the slot, though each profiles more as a perimeter receiver. Trevor Davis, who has special-teams value, played in only two games last year because of hamstring injuries, so expecting him to play a lot of snaps would be unwise. They could also go by committee, splitting slot snaps between Adams and a tight end, potentially Graham. Ideally, though, they would add someone to man the slot full time.
7. Inside linebacker
It’s debatable whether the Packers need one or two inside linebackers. If Oren Burks progresses in his second year, he can fill the coverage linebacker position he was drafted to play. But the Packers drafted Burks based on potential, knowing he could take a couple years to develop, and he played only 122 snaps as a rookie.
So think of it this way: The Packers need to find a coverage linebacker and another box defender against the run. The coverage linebacker would join Blake Martinez in sub-package, and the run defender would join Martinez in base. James Crawford, whose value is in special teams, could serve as the fourth inside linebacker, but that would leave only Burks to specialize in coverage.
Though it’s near the bottom of this list, the Packers could take an inside linebacker with their 12th pick if that position represents the best player available. Such could be the case with LSU’s Devin White, who has the strength and instincts to defend the run but also the speed to cover. If not, the Packers might need two players to fill both roles.
Their vacancy in base defense could be filled by 2015 fifth-round pick Jake Ryan. A source said the Packers are interested in having Ryan return. He shouldn’t cost more than the four-to-six-year-player minimum of $805,000. If Burks isn’t ready to fill the role, Amos might be able to help with some of the coverage linebacker responsibilities, especially in sub-package.
It’s entirely possible, and perhaps likely, the Packers continue with their backup quarterback arrangement. Gutekunst traded one of his best defensive backs (Damarious Randall) last spring to secure backup DeShone Kizer, and it’s easy to see him wanting to give Kizer every chance to succeed. LaFleur also was Kizer’s quarterbacks coach during his redshirt season at Notre Dame. The thing is, Rodgers is 35 years old. It’s entirely possible he can get through a 16-game season (he did last year, albeit missing major chunks of the opener and finale because of injuries), but it isn’t a given. The Packers have gone young, inexperienced, developmental here the past several years. With an aging quarterback, a veteran backup would be more ideal.