Here’s a free-agent strategy that could serve Brian Gutekunst and his Green Bay Packers well:
Use his modest salary-cap space on a couple mid-tier pass rushers, draft a couple more and try to pressure passers with waves of fresh rushers if he has no stars.
That’s essentially the approach the Seattle Seahawks took on their rise to becoming the NFL’s premier defense earlier this decade.
The Seahawks had the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense from 2012 through ’15, yet in those four seasons they produced only two double-digit sackers: 31-year-old Chris Clemons (11½ in 2012) and 30-year-old Michael Bennett (10 in 2015). Both, by the way, joined Seattle as free agents.
Those Seahawks, if you remember, lacked star-power sackers but had enough decent rushers to substitute liberally. They got their pressure from fresh legs as much as pure talent.
Gutekunst, by the general manager’s own words, is going to be a player in free agency this year. He said as much to local reporters at the NFL scouting combine last week and was a little more blunt on the podcast of the NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport.
“I’d like to be really active,” Gutekunst told Rapaport. “The draft is how we build our team, but our team is ready to move in the free-agent areas more than we have.”
Then there’s the report from ESPN.com last week that said several agents who met with the Packers at the combine sensed that the team is going to spend its money on a pass rusher or two, then go from there.
Now, Gutekunst isn’t exactly swimming in salary-cap room, but he has the money to make a big move or several smaller ones. According to Spotrac, the Packers rank in the middle of the NFL (No. 15) in salary-cap space at $33.4 million.
They can create a little more by cutting a player or two in the next week or so – for instance, releasing Nick Perry would save $3.3 million in cap room and $10.7 million in cash.
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But Gutekunst also needs some cap room for other purposes. The Packers like to go into the season with $7 million or so in cap space for possible in-season roster moves and contract extensions. They also will need about $6 million or so for their draft class.
At least for now that leaves them with about $20 million to work with.
So what’s Gutekunst’s plan?
We’ll see as free agency unfolds, though it’s hard not to wonder if he’s considering something like the Seattle approach.
The chances of bringing in a star rusher are minimal. The four best rushers set to hit the market were franchised by Tuesday’s deadline: Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark, Dee Ford and DeMarcus Lawrence.
That leaves a group of players who have age or injury issues, or have yet to put up big sack numbers. And if I’m Gutekunst, I try to see if I can get some combination of two of these guys to sign for about $15 million a year total.
We’ll start by listing several players who either are free agents or are expected to be released in the next few days, as ranked strictly as pass rushers by a front-office executive for an NFL team:
New England’s Trey Flowers was first, followed by the Rams’ Dante Fowler Jr. Next came the New York Giants’ Olivier Vernon and Kansas City’s Justin Houston (both reportedly to be cut soon); Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah, Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith, Arizona’s Markus Golden and Denver’s Shaquil Barrett.
Flowers and Fowler are going to be too expensive for anything like the plan suggested here. Pass-rush hungry teams will like their youth (Flowers is 25, Fowler 24) and upside. Flowers doesn’t have huge sack numbers (21 the last three years) but is versatile and has rushed both inside and outside. Fowler has draft pedigree (No. 3 overall in 2015) and talent, though shaky production (16 sacks in 47 games).
Peter King of NBC Sports reported that Flowers could get a deal in the range of $17 million a year. Fowler won’t be all that far behind.
But Gutekunst should be able to afford some combination of two of the remainders. Their markets will shape up more next week, but here’s a quick look at each:
Olivier Vernon: If he comes in at around $10 million a year, he could be in play for Gutekunst. Vernon was the New York Giants’ big free-agent signee in 2016 and raked in $54 million while putting up only 22 sacks in three seasons. But at age 28 he’s probably not washed up – he had seven sacks in 11 games last season after missing the first five weeks because of the dreaded high-ankle sprain. He hasn’t played in a 3-4 defense in the NFL, so making the change to the Packers’ 3-4 would be an adjustment.
Justin Houston: A former top rusher who at age 30 also could be in play if his price isn’t too much over the $10 million range. The Chiefs are likely to cut him (he’s due $15.5 million in salary and bonuses this year) after putting the franchise tag on a younger rusher, Dee Ford (13 sacks in 2018). Houston had nine sacks in 12 games last year and might have a couple decent seasons left in him, like Clemons did with Seattle.
Ziggy Ansah: His age (30 in May) and recent injury history (ankle, back and shoulder the last three years) put him in a high-risk category unless the price is under $10 million. He had four sacks in seven games last year.
Za'Darius Smith: Might be in play, though his cost could climb too far over $10 million. He’s never put up big numbers (18½ sacks in four season), but hits the market with youth (26) and a coming off a career-high 8½ sacks while playing two-thirds of the Ravens’ defensive snaps last season.
Markus Golden: Should be on the less-expensive side based on injury risk. He had 12½ sacks in 2016 but then sustained a torn ACL that has limited him to 2½ sacks last year. The question is whether he can return to anything like his ’16 form.
Shaquil Barrett: Could be a cheap flier. He has only 14 career sacks in four seasons and was knocked out of Denver’s starting lineup last year by first-round pick Bradley Chubb. Still, Barrett, 26, had three sacks while playing only 25 percent of the Broncos’ defensive snaps last season, so if Gutekunst is looking to sign multiple rushers, Barrett could be on his radar.
These aren’t the only edge players on the open market – Washington’s Preston Smith (24½ sacks in four seasons), Shane Ray (14 sacks in four seasons), 37-year-old Cameron Wake and 36-year-old Terrell Suggs are set to be free agents as well. You never know who out there the Packers might like.
But no matter what Gutekunst does in free agency, outside rusher has to be a priority in the draft after the Packers have neglected it for so many years. His best plan could be to take one early and another middle to late. With or without free agents, he needs fresh talent to rush the passer.
If he adds a wave of rushers this offseason, he can send them at quarterbacks in waves, too.