Packers' patience pays off in big move to fill opening on offensive line
GREEN BAY - It wasn’t a signing that rocked the free-agent world, but when the Green Bay Packers added veteran tackle Rick Wagner last year it ended up being as valuable a signing as they had all offseason.
The eight-year veteran started 10 games and played 685 snaps, including playoffs, and bailed the Packers out continually amid a wave of injuries that struck the offensive line.
Wagner was let go in January, leaving the Packers short of experience at the tackle position made worse with left tackle David Bakhtiari still recovering from a torn ACL injury. To start training camp, coach Matt LaFleur has been playing left guard Elgton Jenkins at left tackle and using a combination of untested Yosh Nijman and rookie Cole Van Lanen to back him up.
But in one of those wait-out-the-market free-agent signings that can be extremely valuable, general manager Brian Gutekunst added free agent Dennis Kelly on Wednesday. The 31-year-old Kelly started 17 games for Tennessee last season, was with the Titans when LaFleur coached there in 2018 and comes at a reasonable cost.
“I give (director of football operations) Milt Hendrickson a lot of credit on this one, he kind of stayed on this,” Gutekunst said. “We were looking at Dennis in free agency. We didn't do much in free agency after we signed all our guys: Kenny (Clark) and David and Aaron (Jones).
“As time went on, we stayed with it. And I think he left some money on the table to go somewhere else, because he understands what this organization is and what we're playing for.”
The addition of the 6-8, 321-pound Kelly gives LaFleur options on the offensive line.
He could stick with Jenkins at left tackle and play some combination of Lucas Patrick, Ben Braden and Jon Runyan at guard or he could move Billy Turner from right tackle to left tackle, move Jenkins to his natural left guard spot and start Kelly at right tackle.
The latter option would give him a sizable front with Kelly joining the 6-5, 310-pound Turner, the 6-5, 311-pound Jenkins and 6-5, 310-pound center Josh Myers. Once Bakhtiari comes back, LaFleur would have the option of moving Turner to right guard or back to right tackle.
“And I'll tell you what, our offensive line group, this is as deep of a group as I've ever been around,” LaFleur said. “So, there's a ton of competition at that position. And, you know, I think the one thing we always stress about competition, it's going to bring out the best in everybody.”
Kelly will be worked in gradually – he didn’t take any team snaps Thursday – which means Jenkins will remain at left tackle for the time being. It’s expected that Kelly will only play right tackle, so once he gets some work, Turner and Jenkins can start practicing at multiple positions.
“There's going to be a lot of shuffling on the line throughout all of training camp, trying to find the five that fit together the best,” LaFleur said. “And then at some point we'll get David back into that mix as well. So, you know, that that group has been so versatile. And I think we've added a lot of versatility to that group as well through the draft.”
LaFleur said Kelly won’t need a lot of time to get comfortable in the offense because he played in it for a year and LaFleur’s successor, Arthur Smith, kept all his terminology.
“First of all, what a great person, he's going to bring so much to our locker room,” LaFleur said. “Dennis, he's a guy that shows up each and every day. I know last year, he got them the most time as a starter that he's had in his career. But he’s a massive, massive man.”
The Packers entered the week about $4.7 million under the salary cap, which means they had enough room to absorb cap hits from Randall Cobb and Kelly.
Cobb’s cap number is around $2.9 million, according to a source, and Kelly’s is not yet available. Gutekunst said the Packers are fine and don’t need to make any cuts or restructure any contracts to get in compliance with the cap.
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But he said there will come a time when they will have to adjust quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ deal and push some of his cap charge into future years.
That time came Thursday.
Rodgers counts $37.2 million against the cap and by guaranteeing his $14.7 million base salary, the Packers can gain as much as around $10 million in cap space depending on how they structure the deal.
“For a move like that (trading for Cobb), I think that's part of it.," Gutekunst said of restructuring Rodgers. "We probably couldn't do that move without adjusting his contract.”
The Packers didn’t need permission to guarantee Rodgers’ salary, but they did to void the final year of the deal. A source said that the Packers’ agreement to void the final year of his contract so he can become a free agent after the ’22 season was completed and Rodgers signed it Thursday.
Comfortable with the past
Gutekunst says he has no regrets over how he has treated outgoing players in the past.
On Wednesday, Rodgers listed 12 players he felt were disrespected by the Packers on their way out, many of them under former general manager Ted Thompson. Gutekunst said "not very often" are there exceptions to the league-wide belief it's better to get rid of a veteran a year too early than a year too late.
"We are always very sensitive to what those players have given this organization, and when we go through that, it's always with class and dignity," he said. "But it's a hard business, and I think sometimes the Packers may take the brunt of what is the NFL business.
“I think while those decisions are hard, they have to be made in order for the team to grow. Keeping players longer than maybe we should, then all of a sudden we're not signing guys down the road."
Work never ends
Tight end Robert Tonyan said he stretches his hand and fingers during meetings with elastic finger bands, hoping to keep his hands flexible and sponge-like.
“I mean, I played receiver so I have soft hands, and now I have to block people, like, ‘RG’ (Rashan Gary), ‘Z’ (ZaDarius Smith) and ‘P’ (Preston Smith). And that's not easy to do.
“So now my hands are aching and stuff like that. So, I just got to keep them strong, keep them moving, keep them flexible, and keep making plays.”