Man, I go dark on this site for a month or two and look what happens to the world. As we all strive to stay healthy, keep others healthy and hope that the spread of Covid 19 abates as quickly as possible, we do have the NFL’s free agency/draft seasons as our sole sports distraction.
We learned on Monday that the Pack got a jump on free agency by signing former Cleveland linebacker Christian Kirksey to a two-year deal. We knew they were going to let solid, but ultimately underwhelming linebacker Blake Martinez get paid elsewhere and that this had to be a focus in free agency. The prize is former Ram Cory Littleton, but he’s likely going to break the bank. The Pack figured to make a play for either Joe Schobert or Nick Kwiatkoski, but they settled on Kirksey, whose head coach his rookie year was Mike Pettine.
The gamble with Kirksey is his injury history; he’s played just nine games the last two seasons, after a very productive start to his career. Over his first four years, he was a tackling machine and a guy who can make plays in the passing game. He was elected captain and is said to be a top notch locker room guy. When talks broke off with the Browns, the Pack swooped in and paid him as he was slated to be paid in Cleveland.
If he can stay on the field, he appears to be an upgrade over Martinez and a guy who is familiar with Pettine’s system. It takes the number one need off the Packers’ free agency to do list. Sure, they could add another guy, but my guess is they move on to other priorities with whatever money they have left.
The Pack stayed busy on Monday, signing Milwaukee native and former Badger Ricky Wagner to replace Bulaga at right tackle. The former Raven and Lion will step right into the starting lineup. At 30, he’s about the same age as Bulaga and is not quite the same level of player. He does come with some past injury concerns, but he joins a better offensive line and a much stronger organization.
As I write this, I don’t know what Kirksey and Wagner’s deals leaves Brian Gutekunst to play with in free agency. Here’s my guess on who the Packers re-sign, who they let walk and who they prioritize in the next couple of weeks. Obviously, as signings happen much of this will be outdated, but here are my thoughts at this moment:
Gone But Not Forgotten: We knew this before the Wagner signing, but it’s the end of the road for Bryan Bulaga. Like Kirksey, he comes with risks, but Bulaga figures to be one of the top three tackles on the market and he’s going to get paid. So it’s one Hawkeye (Kirksey) brought in and another sent packing. Bulaga will be missed big time to be sure, but the Pack didn’t have the cap room to bring him back and address other glaring needs.
I think the Pack will also move on from Martinez, Tramon Williams, Lane Taylor, Kyler Fackrell, Geronimo Allison, Ibrahim Campbell, Marcedes Lewis and Jason Spriggs. The three that may have a chance to return are Williams, Lewis and Campbell. The first two are in their upper 30s and while they may still have some gas left in the tank, I think Gutey swallows hard and moves on from the two veterans who both contributed beyond expectations in 2019.
Back With the Pack: We know the team prioritized bringing back Mason Crosby, after a big bounce back season. I think linebacker BJ Goodson returns, joining an inside linebacker group that includes Oren Burks, Ty Summers and Curtis Bolton. He proved to be a solid run stopper–an above average situational guy. I think returner/RB Tyler Ervin returns as well. His instant impact as a punt returner was obvious and much needed and he showed late in the season that he could be a nice guy to run out there with the offense, with his quickness and versatility.
The biggest areas of need the Pack will need to address now in free agency and then the draft: WR, DL and TE. There isn’t a wide receiver in free agency that figures to be a top notch #2 guy. Former Jet Robbie Anderson would fit nicely, but he’s expected to get a monster contract. To me, the guy that can make the biggest instant impact on the offense is tight end Austin Hooper–he’s the top guy at his position on the open market. I think this is where Green Bay makes its only real splash and he’s reunited with Matt LaFleur, who made an impact on Hooper in their year together in Atlanta, even though LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach. Hooper would be the best tight end Rodgers has played with in years and he’s only in his mid-20s.
If the Pack can reel in Hooper, they’ll have to be spectators for a while to see if there are a couple guys sitting out there that they can get with their remaining available dollars. Keep an eye on WRs Breshad Perriman (Bucs) and Demarcus Robinson (Chiefs), a couple of guys who would fit the Pack’s WR wish list: both have speed and are over six feet tall. Perriman finally kicked the injury bug last season and Robinson made a lot of big plays with Patrick Mahomes.
If Gutey prefers to locate a defensive lineman that can slide in next to Kenny Clark and be an upgrade over Tyler Lancaster, a couple of names to think about are Michael Brockers (Rams) and Vernon Butler (Panthers). Both are productive and under 30 and both might get big offers. But if they get passed by in the initial wave and ultimately have to settle for short-term deals, either would be a big upgrade on the defensive line.
With Kirksey and Wagner in the fold, we’ll see if the Pack pounces on Hooper, or if another team blows him away with an offer. We won’t see the splash the Packers made last year because they don’t have the space, but if they can come away from free agency with one big upgrade in the receiving game and a defensive lineman, they will have plugged their biggest holes and can turn their attention to the draft.