Dougherty: Packers must take advantage of free agency to increase their draft flexibility

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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More than anything, Brian Gutekunst should be able to use the next two or three weeks to gain flexibility for this year’s draft.

Whether the Green Bay Packers general manager swings big or goes for quantity in the free-agent market, he needs to end up with more leeway to select talent over specific positions with his highest draft picks.

Gutekunst’s list of acute needs runs at least five positions deep and is a topic for robust conversation because ranking his priorities is very much in the eye of the beholder. I burned about an hour talking about it with a well-informed friend Monday.

Here are my rankings with the free-agency negotiating period just opened Monday and signings allowed beginning Wednesday at 3 p.m. CT:

1. Pass rusher

Seems like a no-brainer, though there are some interesting arguments for a couple other positions, in part because of coach Matt LaFleur’s new offense. Still, pass rushers are the game’s most important players other than quarterbacks, and the Packers are painfully shy of talent here.

2. Running back

LaFleur’s offense revolves around the outside zone run – his play-action passing game scheme is based on running the outside zone well enough that defenses have to worry about it.

On top of that, a good running back can do more for an offensive line than vice versa. Just look at how different the Rams were after Todd Gurley’s knee acted up late last season, or the Cowboys with and without Ezekiel Elliott.

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst speaks at the scouting combine.

LaFleur has a quality runner in Aaron Jones, but there’s no way he and Gutekunst can count on Jones to be a bell cow and survive the season. Jones has been in the league for two seasons and already has sustained three MCL tears plus missed most of the 2018 training camp because of a pulled hamstring.

The Packers list him at 208 pounds but he has said he's just under 200. They have to limit Jones’ touches – now we can more fully appreciate the quandary Mike McCarthy faced last season – or they won’t have him when the games count most in December and January.

Jones’ backup, Jamaal Williams, is a good football player but not a gifted enough runner to provide what LaFleur needs. The goal of all the Packers’ offseason changes is to get the most out of Aaron Rodgers, and to do that Gutekunst needs a second back who can at minimum split time with Jones while providing the same juice.

3. Safety

Quarterbacks scorched the Packers throwing over the top the first half of last season with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice as the starters. Clinton-Dix is gone and Brice is recovering from an ankle injury. The team needs two new starters on the last line of defense.

4. Offensive line

The Packers need at least one starting guard and a backup swing tackle who can replace Bryan Bulaga on the right side in 2020.

5. Tight end

The Packers have scrambled at this position since Jared Cook departed in 2017 and paid for the shortage of talent the last two years. Tight ends who can stretch defenses down the middle or provide a big target over the middle, especially with the way rules now protect receivers, can make an offense go.

And with LaFleur wanting to run the ball outside, a tight end who can block can make a difference there, too. It sounds like the Packers are bringing back Jimmy Graham, but he’s no longer a field stretcher and never was a blocker.

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That’s a lot of immediate needs and will be difficult to fill on one offseason. There’s also a variety of positional value on the list. Some will be easier to fill in free agency, others in the draft.

For instance, with an uncommonly high number of safeties on the open market, even after a couple (Landon Collins and Kenny Vaccaro) agreed to new deals Monday, the Packers should be able to sign at least one starter and maybe even two without blowing out their budget. They also could fill a starting spot internally by moving a cornerback. One possibility is re-signing Bashaud Breeland and moving him. Another is 2018 second-round pick Josh Jackson.

Likewise, signing or trading for a pass rusher could lower the urgency to pick one at No. 12.

Dee Ford (13 sacks last season) is available for a trade because he’s not as good a fit for the Kansas City Chiefs’ new 4-3 defense as he was at outside linebacker in their 3-4. One report Monday said the Packers might try to deal for him next week depending on which pass rushers are still on the open market.

Also, Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith (8½ sacks last year) could be a coveted rusher in a thin market, but if it gets too expensive for Gutekunst, one of the declining or injury-risk veterans on the market, Justin Houston and Ziggy Ansah, might appeal to the GM.

Regardless, if Gutekunst signs a rusher, it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t or shouldn’t draft another at No. 12. It would just mean that if he liked a tight end (T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant), offensive lineman (Jawaan Taylor, Jonah Williams, Andre Dillard) or even an inside linebacker (Devin White) better than any of the rushers on the board, he could pick him without misgivings.

Likewise, signing at least one starting safety would lessen the necessity to draft one in the first three rounds. Signing a starting guard would do the same for that position.

Assuming the Packers don’t go after Le’Veon Bell or Tevin Coleman, it’s less likely they’ll find a running back in free agency, though you never know. Same for tight end.

Regardless, Gutekunst has four draft picks in the first three rounds: Nos. 12, 30, 44 and 76.

To get the most out of them, he needs a good couple weeks in free agency first.



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