Dougherty: Packers shopping for bargains after sitting out first free-agency wave

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers won eight straight games on their way to the NFC championship game in 2016 mainly because Aaron Rodgers got hot and carried them there.

But it’s also no coincidence the streak timed up with tight end Jared Cook’s return after he’d missed six games because of an ankle injury (they lost his first game back, then won the eight straight).

The point is, you don’t always have to be a great player to make a difference in the NFL. Sometimes, with the right team, a simple upgrade here or there matters.

Which brings us to whether Brian Gutekunst, the Packers’ general manager, has any moves left in free agency to help Rodgers, who can’t carry a team like he did in ’16. 

Everybody in the NFL knows Gutekunst is going to draft a receiver high this year, so that will be a start. But the transition from college to the NFL at that position is tough. Counting on a rookie to produce at that position is a risky way to live.

Equanimeous St. Brown will be back, too, after missing last season (broken leg). He flashed promise late as a rookie and is like adding a new player to the roster.

Still, there’s the question of whether Gutekunst can find immediate, veteran help for Rodgers at a manageable price now that the biggest dominoes have fallen in the first couple days of free agency.

The one expensive free agent who had Gutekunst written all over him going in was tight end Austin Hooper because of his youth (25) and health (three games missed in four seasons). But Gutekunst determined that Hooper’s price ($11 million per year) was too high – a source with knowledge of Hooper’s market said the Packers expressed interest, but when the cost became clear they never got involved in the bidding this week.

We could spend the rest of the day naming guys at any number of positions the Packers should go after. Is there anything easier than spending somebody else’s money on something you’re only partly informed?

But there are some guys who, outside looking in, at least make sense for them to look into, keeping in mind the team’s financial constraints.

As for those constraints, they’re real but not prohibitive.

Though SpoTrac lists the Packers as having about $14 million in cap room, once you account for tight end Marcedes Lewis' new deal and costs that don’t count now (draft picks, practice squad and bottom of the roster) plus the space the Packers will want to take into the season, they’re down to the low single-digit millions if not close to zero.

On the other hand, they can pick up $4.6 million in room by cutting guard Lane Taylor. They extended Lucas Patrick’s contract late last season as the backup interior offensive lineman, and assuming they pay Billy Turner his $3 million roster bonus Friday, Taylor is the most expendable expensive player on the roster.

They also can pick up cap room by extending a key player or two in the final season of his contract. The most obvious candidate is left tackle David Bakhtiari. A lucrative extension for him could shave $4 million or so off his $14.5 million cap number this year.

There’s also extra wiggle room to push money into the future with contract restructures because the cap is expected to spike in the next couple seasons with the new CBA. The pot will grow when the league adds a 17th game in ’21 and because owners will lose stadium credits (deductions for money they put into building and renovating stadiums). The players’ share of the pie also goes up 1 percentage point in ’21.

Packers free-agency tracker: Live updates, breaking news from Green Bay and around the NFL

Now, there’s an awful lot of uncertainty, too, because there’s no knowing how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the NFL’s upcoming negotiations on TV and streaming contracts. Still, it’s probably safe to assume the cap will go up more than the $10 million it’s jumped each of the past several years. One report said it could be as much as $35 million to $40 million more, though a knowledgeable source I texted with Wednesday thought that was far too high. The $20 million range seems more likely, though even that's just a guess at this point.

That’s not a staggering amount, but rising future caps give Gutekunst a little more flexibility than usual.

Former Colts tight end Eric Ebron could be a Packers target.

A few free agents stand out as worth a hard look by Gutekunst now that the most expensive players have agreed to deals and prices have started coming down. Among them are tight end Eric Ebron, receiver Breshad Perriman and running back Devonta Freeman.

Ebron is the most interesting of the group. He’s a legitimate talent, still young (26) and might be had for a reasonable price ($6 million a year?) because he’s had only one good season (13 touchdown catches with Indianapolis in 2018). Maybe he could be the red-zone threat the Packers were hoping for when they signed Jimmy Graham two years ago.

An offensive assistant coach in the league who has done background on Ebron characterized him as high maintenance, which could be a deal-breaker for Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur. But then again so was Cook when the Packers signed him in ’16. Ebron was fine playing with Andrew Luck in ’18 and presumably wouldn’t have much to complain about playing with Rodgers. If Ebron’s market is soft he might even want to do a one-year deal to prove 2018 wasn’t a fluke, which could make the Packers attractive to him, and vice versa.

“(Ebron) runs every route like he’s a wide receiver,” the coach said. “Great catch radius. He’s a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. He can be explosive. But he’s high maintenance.”

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At receiver, the guess here is Gutekunst will find the New York Jets’ Robby Anderson and San Francisco’s Emmanuel Sanders too expensive. Perriman (6-2, 215) might be too costly too, though his market is harder to guess because the former first-rounder was a bust in Baltimore, and last season for Tampa Bay caught only 36 passes (his career high). What makes him interesting is his strong close to 2019. Over the final five games he caught 25 passes and five touchdowns.

Freeman is intriguing because he was one of the NFL’s better halfbacks with Atlanta from 2015-17 and is both a known quantity to LaFleur and versed in LaFleur’s offense – LaFleur was the Falcons’ quarterbacks coach in 2015 and ’16. Freeman played in only two games in ’18 because of a torn ACL, and the cap-strapped Falcons cut his expensive contract this offseason after he rushed for only 656 yards and a 3.6-yard average last year. He turned 28 this week, but one scout in the league told me Freeman could be a good pickup in the $3 million to $5 million range.

Those aren’t the only positions Gutekunst might sign before free agency is finished. Among other things he could use a bargain run-stopper for his defensive line. But regardless, just because he didn’t spend big for the likes of Hooper doesn’t mean he can’t find somebody in the coming days who can give Rodgers a little more help.

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