$ome Big Decisions Coming
General manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t have many difficult decisions to make in regard to his own free agents the past three offseasons, but that will change in 2021. Five of the Packers’ best players and potential No. 2 wide receiver Devin Funchess are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next March.
The following is a preview of where things currently stand with each player and where things could be headed in the months to come, including the odds of re-signing and what a fair deal could look like for both sides.
Analysis: Unless the Packers decide to sever ties with franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers after the season and commit to a total rebuild, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that doesn’t end with the former Colorado star re-signing with the Packers between now and next March. The 4-time All-Pro is only 28, and left tackles are among the few players the front office has been willing to give a sizable third contract to over the years (i.e. Ken Ruettgers and Chad Clifton). It’s going to cost a fortune to keep Bakhtiari, but whether he’s blocking for an aging QB with diminishing mobility or a young QB with jittery feet, protecting the blind side is going to be incredibly important for the next five seasons, and few if any left tackles are any better at that than No. 69.
Most likely replacement: It’s not an exaggeration to say there’s no potential replacement on the current roster. That’s what happens when a team drafts only one offensive tackle before the fifth round since 2014. Alex Light, Yosh Nijman, and rookie Jon Runyan are youngsters with experience at left tackle, but only Nijman has the skill set to play the position at this level, and he looked woefully overmatched last summer.
Contract: 4 years/$80M/$50M guaranteed
Analysis: The Packers haven’t used the franchise tag since placing it on nose tackle Ryan Pickett in 2010, but it could make a reappearance next offseason. There’s little chance Gutekunst is going to let Clark walk and accept a mere third-round compensatory pick in exchange for one of his top-6 players, but an extension could be tricky. Elite interior defensive linemen are getting at least $50 million in guaranteed money and as good as the 24-year-old is, that’s a lot to spend on a nose tackle with 16 1/2 sacks in 60 games. That’s why I could see the tag being used – either to retain Clark for the 2021 season or to trade him for as close to equal value as possible.
Most likely replacement: In the unlikely event that Clark isn’t around next season, Tyler Lancaster would be his logical replacement. The former Northwestern star has lined up mostly at end in his first two seasons, but his best position is over the center. And while Lancaster would be a big step down from Clark, that would be the case with almost any player asked to replace one of the top-5 nose tackles in the league.
Contract: 4 years/$68M/$45M guaranteed
Analysis: This is pure speculation until I get to see how the veteran performs in Matt LaFleur’s offense. If Funchess plays like a legitimate top-3 wide receiver, there’s certainly a chance Gutekunst will look to extend him. But if I had to make an educated guess right now, I think we’re likely looking at a one and done. If Funchess puts up big numbers, he’ll probably be too expensive to bring back. And if he puts up pedestrian numbers, why would the Packers want to bring him back?
Most likely replacement: The Packers may be short on proven talent at wide receiver, but they’re not short on big bodies. If Equanimeous St. Brown develops the way the team hopes, it’s easy to see him moving into whatever role Funchess fills this season. The former Notre Dame star possesses a rare combination of size (6-5, 215) and speed (4.49), but he underachieved in college and hasn’t stood out in two training camps.
Analysis: This could wind up being Gutekunst’s most difficult decision, especially if the 25-year-old has another solid and healthy season. King might only be an above-average cornerback, but above-average cornerbacks are being paid $14 million a year these days. It’s fair to ask whether the Packers could afford to spend that kind of money on the former second-round pick from Washington. Of course, it’s also fair to ask if they could afford not to. Unless a young player steps up this season, there’s no logical replacement on the current roster. That means Gutekunst will either have to pony up for King or spend even more valuable draft capital on the position.
Most likely replacement: The answer should be Josh Jackson, but the second-round pick from 2018 has been leapfrogged on the depth chart by Chandon Sullivan. The Packers will know whether the former Eagles’ castoff is a legit starting option for 2021 by the end of this season. Ka’dar Hollman is another possibility.
Contract: 3 years/$33M/$18M guaranteed
Analysis: With so many important starters eligible for free agency next March, the Packers are going to have to let some very good players leave. Linsley could be one of those very good players. Former general managers Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson had success finding capable starting centers late in the draft or on the street (i.e. Linsley, Frank Winters, Scott Wells, and Evan Dietrich-Smith), so there’s a strong possibility Gutekunst will go in that direction again. Simply put, there’s no reason to expect the Packers to spend in the neighborhood of $10 million a year on Linsley, especially when the team has a long history of not allocating big money to this position.
Most likely replacement: Gutekunst chose Jake Hanson on day 3 of this year’s draft and based on the team’s history, there’s a decent chance he’ll be the starting center in 2021. If not, Lucas Patrick could be a stop-gap option. There’s also the possibility of moving All-Rookie left guard Elgton Jenkins to his natural position.
Contract: 4 years/$41M/$25M guaranteed
Analysis: It’s hard to imagine a team that lacks talent at the skill positions letting go of one of its few difference-makers, but that could very well happen in this case. Giving lucrative second contracts to running backs hasn’t worked out for other GMs in recent years, and Jones’ lack of size and history of injuries would make him an even bigger risk than most. Things might be able to work out if he’s willing to accept a very team-friendly deal, but that doesn’t seem likely at this time.
Most likely replacement: This is the one position where Gutekunst has protected the Packers in case a key free agent leaves. AJ Dillon wasn’t drafted to carry the ball 10 times a game for the next four seasons. Unless the bruiser from Boston College struggles as a rookie, it’s easy to see him as “the guy” in ’21. He’d be a lot cheaper than Jones, and he might be an even better fit in the run-heavy offense LaFleur wants to employ.
Contract: 3 years/$28M/$18M guaranteed
The Packers have six other players eligible for unrestricted free agency next March (guard Lane Taylor, tight end Marcedes Lewis, returner Tyler Ervin, outside linebacker Tim Williams, defensive lineman Montravious Adams and running back Jamaal Williams). It’ll be a surprise if more than two of them are re-signed.
*All odds and contract projections are good through August. Once the season starts, those numbers could change depending on injury and performance.