Preview: Free Agency
Free agency officially begins on Wednesday, and if the Packers are going to rebound after back-to-back losing seasons, general manager Brian Gutekunst is going to have to perform a lot better than he did a year ago. Signing younger players would be a good way to make that happen. The Packers acquired five free agents a year ago, and their average age was over 31. That’s tempting fate. For every one Julius Peppers, there are five Martellus Bennetts.
After watching A LOT of tape, here are 20 unrestricted free agents I think could really help the Packers in 2019. I’ve grouped them into four categories: top-tier, second-tier, under-the-radar, and others worth considering. With at least $34 million in cap space, Gutekunst will be able to shop in any aisle he chooses. The key will be not coming up with players who have passed their expiration date.
Before I get to the unrestricted free agents I’d like to see Gutekunst pursue, here’s a look at the 11 Packers who’ll hit the open market in a few days:
BYRON BELL – The journeyman was given a 1-year deal worth $1.7 million last May to provide veteran depth at tackle, but he was moved to guard after struggling early in training camp. He wound up starting nine games inside, and while he wasn’t good, he wasn’t a disaster either. The Packers should thank Bell for getting them through last season and move on. If Gutekunst can’t find a better option to back up at multiple positions, he ain’t trying hard enough.
BASHAUD BREELAND – The 27-year-old was still on the street in September after a failed physical in March voided a $24 million deal with Carolina. The former Redskin didn’t play particularly well with the Packers, but that could be blamed on missing training camp and multiple nagging injuries. A healthy Breeland is at best a slightly above average starter and at worst a really solid backup. That makes him worth re-signing at the right price. He could also project to safety if Green Bay’s young corners step up.
IBRAHEIM CAMPBELL – Claiming the journeyman strong safety proved to be one of Gutekunst’s best decisions in 2018. The former Northwestern star was discarded by the Jets but played surprisingly well in Green Bay before tearing his ACL in early December. His familiarity with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine – the two were together in Cleveland – was obvious from day one. If not for the injury, he would be a no-brainer to re-sign. It could still happen in the coming weeks, or the Packers might simply wait until he’s fully healed.
RANDALL COBB – Unless Gutekunst is afraid of making Aaron Rodgers angry by discarding one of his closest friends on the team for a second consecutive offseason, there’s no way to justify bringing the former Kentucky star back. Despite being only 28, Cobb has slowed down considerably since making the Pro Bowl in 2014. He’s still fearless over the middle, but he no longer runs well enough to separate down the field. That’s why 82 percent of his 38 catches came within six yards of the line of scrimmage. Gutekunst needs to make another tough decision and move on.
DAVON HOUSE – Instead of signing a young player with pretty good tape (Indy’s Pierre Desir), Gutekunst paid more money to bring back Davon House last March. It was the type of lazy move that typified the GM’s first year on the job. House predictably struggled in training camp and then went on injured reserve in late September. It was a surprise to see him return in 2018; it would be a shock to see him return in 2019.
LANCE KENDRICKS – He played better last season than he did in 2017, but there’s simply no good reason to re-sign a tight end in his early 30s who doesn’t create much separation in the passing game. The Packers already have one of those in Jimmy Graham. And while Kendricks blocks surprisingly well for a player his size (6-3, 245), there will be bigger and more physical tight ends available in free agency.
MARCEDES LEWIS – The idea of signing a blocking tight end made sense, but Gutekunst simply chose the wrong player. At 35, Lewis looked ancient running routes and kinda creaky trying to move people in the run game. There’s almost no chance he’ll be back. In fact, there’s a much better chance he’ll call it a career.
CLAY MATTHEWS – The former All-Pro stayed healthy and played as hard as ever in 2018, but unfortunately, the results just weren’t there. The 32-year-old hasn’t been able to beat quality tackles off the edge since 2013, and last season he couldn’t even beat average ones. Matthews recorded only 3.5 sacks and 19 hurries in nearly 400 rush attempts. The idea of moving him inside doesn’t make much sense. He struggles in coverage and Jake Ryan would be a better option on early downs. The Packers reportedly negotiated with Matthews’ agent last week at the Combine, but in all honesty, a separation is probably best for both sides.
EDDIE PLEASANT – The journeyman played 89 snaps for the Packers after being signed off the street in late November. That was 89 too many. He gave maximum effort but simply didn’t make enough plays to earn an invitation to training camp.
JAKE RYAN – The former Michigan star tore his ACL in August, and he was missed during the season. As long as the knee is OK, it makes sense to bring Ryan back on a 1-year deal. He’s better than Antonio Morrison, the player who replaced him on the roster. Ryan could start next to Blake Martinez on early downs if the inside linebacker position isn’t upgraded in the offseason. Ideally, he’d add solid veteran depth in 2019.
MUHAMMAD WILKERSON – The Packers signed the former Jet to a 1-year contract worth $3.5 million last March with the expectation that he would boost the pass rush, but that was never going to happen. In the three games before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury, the 29-year-old played to his recent tape. He was solid vs. the run and ineffective as a rusher. It was surprising to hear the Packers had interest in bringing Wilkerson back in 2019. Dean Lowry did just fine in his absence and Tyler Lancaster should provide solid depth. The team could use another D-lineman to challenge Montravius Adams for a roster spot, but it shouldn’t be a declining vet coming off a serious injury.
The following free agents will be expensive, but they could make a huge impact in Green Bay.
1. EARL THOMAS (FS/Seahawks) – I would normally stay far away from an older player coming off a serious injury, but there’s so much about Thomas that reminds me of Charles Woodson. Both future Hall of Famers were 30 when they hit agency and both were recovering from broken legs. Former GM Ted Thompson rolled the dice on Woodson in 2006 and the rest is history. If the medicals check out, Gutekunst might want to take a similar gamble 13 years later. The former Seahawk was playing extremely well prior to getting hurt last October, and he’s the best single-high safety in the entire league. That would come in handy considering the Packers used a single-high safety over 60 percent of the time last season.
In the above video, Thomas (#29) shows all the traits that make him special – a nose for the ball, good hands and terrific athleticism.
2. DARYL WILLIAMS (OT/Panthers) – The right tackle might’ve commanded $15 million a season a year ago, but after missing almost all of 2018 with a knee injury, his current value doesn’t figure to be quite that high. If the knee checks out – and reports are positive – he’s one of those rare free agents that might actually be worth big money. Williams is a former All-Pro who won’t turn 27 until August. Pairing him with David Bakhtiari would give the Packers the best set of tackles in the league. Even better, he’d probably cost less against the cap in 2019 than Bryan Bulaga.
In the above video, Williams (#60) shows why it’s so hard to beat a tackle who weighs 330 pounds and moves his feet like a much smaller player.
The following free agents won’t be cheap, but they won’t be ridiculously expensive, and they would be excellent fits in Green Bay.
1. DANTE FOWLER (OLB/Rams) – Why would a player with only 16 sacks in four seasons be at the top of my list? Because this particular player is only 24 years old and has the potential to be one of the best pass rushers in the league. In a draft filled with good outside linebackers, only Josh Allen’s skill set is comparable, and the former Kentucky star is expected to be selected in the top 3. Could signing Fowler be a mistake? Absolutely. It’s fair to be concerned about his relative lack of production in Jacksonville. But sometimes it’s OK to roll the dice and this would be one of those times. Players this talented seldom hit the open market.
In the above video, Fowler (#56) explodes past the right tackle, showing his unique mix of quickness, flexibility, and closing burst.
2. JAMISON CROWDER (WR/Redskins) – The Packers need a slot receiver, and Crowder would be the perfect replacement for Cobb. The 25-year-old is coming off a down season due to injuries, but he would have a chance to make a real impact playing with Rodgers and in Matt LaFleur’s creative offense. The former Duke star is quick into and out of cuts and catches the ball cleanly. He’d be an upgrade from Cobb, and he wouldn’t cost $10 million a year.
In the above video, Crowder (#80) shows why he’s so difficult to cover. Even with the corner backing away as the ball is snapped, some nifty route running allows him to get wide open.
3. SHAQUIL BARRETT (OLB/Broncos) – He’s under-the-radar as far as name recognition is concerned, but he’ll be considered a second-tier free agent as far as GMs are concerned. He was very productive in limited snaps with the Broncos last season, so there’s a legit upside. There’s also a chance he might be less effective the more he plays. But from what I saw on tape, spending $5 million per on Barrett makes more sense than spending over $10 million per on Preston Smith (Redskins). That’s because Barrett has more upside as a pure pass rusher. He would also be more of a gamble, but hey, isn’t that free agency?
In the above video, Barrett (#48) uses his strength to overpower 320-pound Pro Bowl LT Alejandro Villanueva. He doesn’t have Fowler’s skill set, but he finds ways to generate pressure.
4. TEVIN COLEMAN (RB/Falcons) – The Packers need to find a better No. 2 running back than Jamaal Williams, and Coleman would be just that player. The 25-year-old has a 4.4 yards per carry average in his career – most of it coming while splitting time with Devonta Freeman. The former Indiana star would also bring a familiarity with the offense. He spent two seasons with LaFleur in Atlanta. A 1-2 punch of Aaron Jones and Coleman would be fun to watch – unless, of course, you’re a defensive coordinator having to prepare for the Packers.
In the above video, Coleman (#29) shows just how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands. He possesses outstanding burst into the second level.
5. TYRANN MATTHIEU (FS/Texans) – If the Packers deem Thomas either too pricey or too much of a medical risk, the Honey Badger would be a solid fallback option. Matthieu can line up anywhere in the secondary, and he possesses the type of range that hasn’t been seen in a Packers’ safety since Darren Sharper. And while the 26-year-old lacks ideal size, he actually played the run better than the pass in 2018. The former LSU star will be looking for long-term security after signing a one-year deal last April. He’s not elite, but he’s a good player at a position that has been an ongoing problem.
In the above video. Matthieu (#32) shows his versatility and his athleticism. He begins the play closer to the line of scrimmage than normal, and then drifts back to deflect the pass. He may be 5-foot-9, but he plays much bigger.
6. JORDAN HICKS (ILB/Eagles) – C.J. Mosley has the bigger name, but Hicks is the better player. There’s very little the 27-year-old can’t do on a football field. The reason he probably won’t secure a contract commiserate with his talent is a lack of durability. He’s missed 21 games since entering the league in 2015. But when he plays, he plays very well. The Packers can’t count on Oren Burks, so if the price is right, signing Hicks might be worth the risk for a defense that desperately needs to find a linebacker who can cover.
In the above video, Hicks (#58) does what he does best. He quickly recognizes where the ball is headed and gets there with the quickness and burst of a cornerback.
The following free agents probably won’t be quality starters, but they would be able to fill a need at a reasonable cost.
1. PIERRE DESIR (CB/Colts) – I recommended this player a year ago, and Gutekunst instead signed House. It’s still mind-boggling. Not only was Desir’s tape much better, but he also played for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in Cleveland. And while the need at corner isn’t quite a big as it was heading into free agency in 2018, it’s still a need. Kevin King can’t stay healthy and Josh Jackson really struggled as a rookie. Desir isn’t young (29 in September) and he’s still underrated, so his price tag should be reasonable. A team can never have too many capable corners – something the Packers have found out far too often in recent seasons.
In the above video, watch how well Desir (#35) moves for a man his size (6-1, 200). He has little trouble staying with quick as a hiccup wide receiver Sterling Shepard.
2. LUKE STOCKER (TE/Titans) – Signing Lewis to be the blocking tight end didn’t work out a year ago, but that doesn’t mean the Packers shouldn’t try again. Stocker is a much safer bet. At 30, he’s not over the hill. More importantly, last season might’ve been his best. You can be certain LaFleur took notice and wouldn’t mind bringing to Green Bay someone familiar with his offense. It remains to be seen if the Tennessee native is willing to leave home.
In the above video, watch how Stocker (#88) throws one of the key blocks on Derrick Henry’s 99-yard TD run and then watch as he continues the block for another five seconds and 11 yards.
3. ALEX OKAFOR (OLB/Saints) – The aforementioned Smiths (Za’Darius and Preston) are good players who are going to be paid like great players in the next week or two. Okafor isn’t as productive as Brown and doesn’t have the skill set of Smith, but he’ll provide similar results for a lot less money. The 28-year-old can’t be a defense’s best outside linebacker, but he can be a solid starter as long as he’s paired with a more explosive partner. That player could potentially come very early in next month’s draft.
In the above video, Okafor (#57) relies on a quick first step and tenacity to get to the QB. He’s not explosive, but he uses his hands well and never lets up.
4. TRE BOSTON (FS/Cardinals) – If the Packers don’t want to spend big money at the safety position, they could do a lot worse than Boston (they sure as heck did in 2018). The 27-year-old is a consistent tackler who moves well enough to handle single-high safety responsibilities. It’s still hard to believe Gutekunst let Boston sit on the street throughout the summer while Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Kentrell Brice and Josh Jones took turns missing tackles and giving up long completions.
In the above video, Boston (#33) reacts very quickly to the pass thrown in front of him and then makes sure the receiver goes down right away. It’s not a particularly special play, but it’s one that didn’t get made nearly enough a year ago.
5. QUINTON SPAIN (OG/Titans) – I’m only putting the 27-year-old on this list because the Packers are desperate for help at guard and he played for LaFleur in Tennessee last season. As I mentioned before, it would be very useful to add a player or two with familiarity in the new offense. Spain isn’t anything special, but he’d be a solid upgrade from the likes of Justin McCray, Byron Bell and maybe even Lane Taylor. He’s a solid pass protector whose run blocking is hit-or-miss. He’s not worth big money, but a modest 3-year deal would make sense.
In the above video, Spain (#67) keeps the QB out of harm’s way by picking up the blitzing linebacker. He’s very alert and fairly light on his feet for such a big man.
6. TREVOR SIEMIAN (QB/Vikings) – The Packers haven’t started a season with a viable backup quarterback since Matt Flynn in 2011. Signing Siemian would put an end to that streak. While the 27-year-old didn’t throw a single pass in Minnesota last season, he started 24 games for the Broncos in 2016 and 2017. He lacks the skill set to be a successful No. 1, but his experience and ability to manage a game make him an ideal backup. The cerebral former Northwestern star would also be able to provide Aaron Rodgers with useful advice on the sideline – something he wasn’t getting much of from Brett Hundley or DeShon Kizer in recent years.
In the above video, Siemian (#13) shows great touch on a ball thrown into the end zone. This accuracy often allows him to overcome mediocre arm strength.
7. ANDRE ROBERTS (KR/Jets) – The Packers saw first-hand what the Pro Bowler could do in their game against the Jets in December. His 99-yard kick return was just one of his numerous electrifying plays in 2018. Remember what Desmond Howard meant to the Super Bowl champs in 1996? The 31-year-old could make that type of impact next season. If the Packers are serious about improving special teams, they should start by bringing in a big-time returner. Roberts’ age concerns me a little, but he sure looked spry while running around and away from would-be Packers in week 16.
In the above video, Roberts (#19) shows his tremendous quickness, speed and balance as he returns a punt 78 yards for a TD.
WORTH A LOOK
1. C.J. UZOMAH (TE/Bengals) – The 27-year-old looks better on paper than on the field, but he did catch 43 passes for 439 yards and 3 TDs last season. He’s probably not what a team is looking for in a starter, but he could be a very solid backup.
2. JASON MYERS (K/Jets) – The Packers are wasting $4.8 million of cap space on a 35-year-old kicker whose erraticness cost the team three potential wins a year ago. The 27-year-old Myers is coming off a Pro Bowl season and will almost certainly be less expensive than Mason Crosby.
3. MIKE PENNEL (DL/Jets) – The 330-pounder is coming off a very good season for the Jets. He wasn’t a scheme fit in their new defense, but he’d be a great rotational piece in Green Bay. The 27-year-old, whose drug suspensions ended his time with the Packers in 2017, has apparently cleaned up his life.
4. CORY GEATHERS (SS/Colts) – The 27-year-old is coming off a solid season, and with the free agent market flooded with quality safeties, he could be a real bargain. He’s nothing special, but he’d be a significant upgrade from the likes of Brice and Jones.
5. TY NSEKHE (OT/Redskins) – He’s been one of the best backup tackles for years. He’s 33, so there’s not much upside with this player, but he’d provide the Packers with either a capable starter or outstanding depth for a year or two.