GREEN BAY - The formal start of free agency is Monday, when the legal tampering period begins and players can enter into contract negotiations with teams other than their own. The informal negotiations heated up in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine the final week of February, where it was learned that right tackle Bryan Bulaga’s representatives had not had any formal discussions with the Green Bay Packers about a new deal.
Bulaga, who will be 31 on March 21, is hitting free agency at the right time for a quality pass protector. He could command a raise well over his previous $6.75 million annually.
A return to Green Bay seems unlikely as Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and his pro scouting staff revamped their free-agent evaluation process to drill further down into generally healthier players who will be near the end of their deals around the age of 30 or 31.
So where does that leave the Packers at right tackle?
The answers are inside the personnel rooms at 1265 Lombardi Ave., where Gutekunst and his pro personnel staff have constructed free-agency boards much like they do for the draft.
When evaluating the 2020 draft and free-agency classes, do the Packers feel there is an available right tackle on the market – like how they viewed right guard Billy Turner a year ago – or do they feel they just need a bridge tackle for depth and then draft one who could start immediately?
Gutekunst said the Packers will not be in the same financial position as last year, but the right tackle market has been depressed somewhat by the fact teams are more willing to spend on interior linemen. Seven right guards and four left guards make $10 million annually.
Just five right tackles have hit that threshold.
Bulaga’s $6.75 million annual value from his extension signed in 2015 aged well for the Packers, as he was still the 11th-highest-paid at his position in 2019. So, some value could be found depending on the direction the Packers wish to go.
If they are looking for a veteran who may have a couple of seasons left to pair with a draft pick, their options include Jared Veldheer, the New York Giants’ Mike Remmers and Tampa Bay’s Demar Dotson.
Veldheer, who turns 33 in June, is the known quantity after joining the Packers out of retirement in November and finishing last season spelling Bulaga in the season finale and divisional playoff game. He had originally signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal (that could have reached $6.5 with bonuses and incentives) in New England in 2019 before deciding to retire.
If the Packers go outside their own locker room, Remmers is coming off a year in which he started 14 games at right tackle after signing a one-year, $2.5 million deal. Remmers, who will be 31 in April, has also played guard in his eight-year career. He has been a full-time starter since 2015.
Dotson (35 in October), has been a solid tackle since entering the league in 2009. He may be best suited at this juncture to help mentor a draft pick and be available in a pinch. Even in his prime, he never cost more than $5 million against the salary cap for the Buccaneers.
Should the Packers’ pro staff identify a player such as Turner, a backup with starting experience who they feel can be a starter, there are a couple of players who fit that mold.
Tennessee’s Dennis Kelly might be on the older side of the Packers’ new free-agent calculus as he just turned 30, but he has never been a full-time starter in Philadelphia and Tennessee. Jack Conklin’s imminent departure may mean the Titans look to re-sign him, but he has played well in offenses that require athleticism and looks to be hitting his prime as a blocker. Kelly also has played several positions on the line.
Another option could be Philadelphia’s Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who will be 27 in June. He has played in all 16 games the last three seasons while starting 14. He has positional versatility, having played both tackle positions and some right guard.
The April draft offers a solid group of tackles, but the last one the Packers drafted highly was Jason Spriggs in the second round in 2016, a decision that did not pan out. Before Spriggs? Derek Sherrod was chosen in the first round in 2011.
To land one of the top prospects in April, Gutekunst will have to trade up from the Packers’ position at No. 30. If he elects to sit and wait, potential options include USC’s Austin Jackson, Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland and Houston’s Josh Jones.
It’s a position the Packers have not necessarily had to address through the draft or free agency after unearthing a franchise left tackle in David Bakhtiari in the fourth round in 2013 to pair with Bulaga (first round, 2010). But now they are thin on talent and experience.