Dougherty: Matt LaFleur can put his stamp on Packers' free-agency pursuits
Now that they have their new coach, the Green Bay Packers can turn to building their roster for him.
The draft will be a big part of that — the Packers have 10 picks, including two in the first round — but so can free agency, which kicks off in mid-March.
Depending on the players they cut in the coming weeks, the Packers figure to have $50 million in salary-cap room, give or take.
But what approach will general manager Brian Gutekunst take in the open market? Will he make a gambit by spending big on one player? Will he sign several mid-level players and try to improve incrementally at a few positions? Or might he go for quantity and hope a few keepers emerge from a basket full purchased from the bargain bin?
“You just have to sign good players, and you have to know the strengths and weaknesses of the draft class,” a front-office executive for an NFC team said. “It’s doable if you do it right, and it might be one of those things where they’re not able to do it all in one year.”
New coach Matt LaFleur will have some say as he studies the Packers’ roster in depth in the coming weeks. Gutekunst will have to pay heed to the positions LaFleur wants to emphasize and traits the coach prefers at each position.
Here’s a look at four positions Gutekunst and LaFleur figure to explore in free agency:
This doesn’t come to mind immediately but remember that just two seasons ago LaFleur was offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams, whose offense is built around an elite back, Todd Gurley.
Would LaFleur want the Packers to sign Le’Veon Bell to play the same role as Gurley does for Sean McVay? Bell, like Gurley, is a top-end inside runner and outstanding receiver. LaFleur won’t have the Rams’ pure explosiveness at receiver, but with Bell at running back he still could transfer much of what the Rams did to the Packers.
However, Bell will be costly — presumably $12 million to $13 million per year at minimum, and perhaps a lot more.
Moreover, LaFleur is even more a protégé of Kyle Shanahan than McVay, and Shanahan’s offense with the San Francisco 49ers has a different emphasis than the Rams’: pure speed at running back for the outside zone run, which sets up much of Shanahan's passing game.
Last year the 49ers signed Jerick McKinnon (4.41-second 40) to be their starting back, and even after his season ended in training camp (knee injury), by the time the 49ers played the Packers in Week 6 the two backs they used that day were also burners: Matt Breida (4.39) and Raheem Mostert (4.38).
If LaFleur is looking to build an offense like McVay’s, then spending big on Bell makes sense. But if he wants his offense to look more like Shanahan’s, not so much. Incumbent running back Aaron Jones does fit that outside runner mold, but Jones is a major health risk (three MCL tears in 13 months).
“I don’t know if (Bell) fits what (LaFleur) will want to do,” said a source who’s familiar with the Shanahan offensive system. “At the start of training camp (the 49ers) ran nothing but outside zone for like two days. Which is interesting. That’s not to say LaFleur is going to do that, but …”
This is the Packers’ greatest need, though the chances of finding one in free agency aren’t good. It’s a good thing for the Packers that defensive line is considered the strength of this draft — one scout this week said that as many as 10 could go in the top 40 picks.
The top three rushers scheduled to hit the free-agent market are locks to be either re-signed or franchise tagged — Dallas’ Demarcus Lawrence, Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney and Seattle’s Frank Clark.
Same for a fourth, Kansas City’s Dee Ford (13 sacks this season), though a scout with an AFC team isn’t so sure the Chiefs will tag Ford.
“I wouldn’t,” the scout said. “I don’t think he’s in that class. But he might get paid like it.”
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That leaves a group of free agents with major age and injury issues, or modest production to date. Most notable are age-injury red flags Ziggy Ansah (30 in May) of Detroit and Brandon Graham (31 in April) of Philadelphia.
One sleeper to keep an eye on is Arizona’s Markus Golden, a promising rusher who sustained a torn ACL in 2017. The former second-round pick had 12½ sacks as a second-year pro in 2016, then after missing most of ’17 because of the ACL had only 2½ sacks in 11 games this season.
Some players are never the same after knee-reconstruction surgery, though the rule of thumb is they don’t return to full strength until their second year back. At age 28 (in March), maybe Golden has a couple of good pass-rushing seasons in him.
Baltimore’s 26-year-old Za’Darius Smith is another sleeper. He had 8½ sacks while playing two-thirds of the Ravens’ defensive snaps.
The Packers could have three new starters next season — at right guard, which was the weakest link on the line last year; left guard if Lane Taylor doesn’t bounce back from a rough 2018; and right tackle if they cut Bryan Bulaga, whose body is breaking down from a string of knee, hip and back injuries as he closes in on his 30th birthday in March.
It’s hard to blame the Packers if they decide not to spend big money at any one spot on the offensive line — left tackle David Bakhtiari ($12 million average) and center Corey Linsley ($8.5 million average) already are among the top-paid players at their positions. But Gutekunst should sign multiple linemen to low- to mid-level deals (think Jahri Evans in 2017), and along with a high draft pick have them fight it out for starting jobs.
Among the more talented linemen who will be available are Miami Dolphins right tackle Ju’Wuan James, who made $9.3 million last season, and the Buffalo Bills' John Miller, who has started 47 games at right guard in his four NFL seasons.
The Packers will be starting over, assuming they part with Jimmy Graham, Lance Kendricks and Marcedes Lewis. The only guy back would be second-year pro Robert Tonyan, who played all of 67 snaps last season.
The Packers have swung and missed the last two years signing tight ends on the wrong side of 30 (Martellus Bennett and Graham). So that’s off the table this year, right?
Maybe not. Jared Cook will be a free agent if the Oakland Raiders don’t tag him, and though he’ll turn 32 in April, don’t dismiss the possibility that the Packers pursue him two years after they made a big mistake by letting him walk.
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Cook is coming off a big season with the Raiders (68 catches, 13.2-yard average, six touchdowns), and one of the scouts I spoke with views him differently than Graham a year ago.
“(Cook) was phenomenal last year,” the scout said. “He looked young. … He doesn’t play like an old guy. Jimmy Graham looked like he was declining a little bit (in 2017). I would not say that about Cook based on this year’s film. Now sometimes when it goes, it goes. (But) if they don’t (franchise him), there’s a lot of people who will (go after him).”
Pittsburgh’s 24-year-old Jesse James (30 catches, 14.1-yard average) is in the free-agent class also.
Two of the scouts rated this as a bad open market for higher-end players at all positions. But if contract extensions and franchise tags take some quality off the board, other good players will get cut by teams seeking salary-cap relief. The landscape could change by March.
The Packers brought in LaFleur to jump-start their franchise. In about six weeks they’ll have to start bringing in some players to help him do it his way.