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Navigating the Packers’ Offseason: What will Gutekunst do to improve the offense?

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For the first time in a while, the Packers seem likely to use the early rounds of the NFL Draft to fill gaps on offense.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

A new GM is in the house in Green Bay for the 2018 offseason and he figures to have ample salary cap space and draft picks to work with. In this two-part sequence, one APC writer gives his thoughts on the moves, by position, that Brian Gutekunst and company will target.

The Green Bay Packers get set to begin the offseason with new General Manager Brian Gutekunst carrying plenty of ammunition.

According to Spotrac, the Packers will have around $19.3 million in cap space this offseason — when factoring in the rookie pool, that number drops to about $16 million in effective space. Green Bay does figure to add several compensatory picks to their current seven which would impact the cap to a degree. But there should be room for Green Bay to target impact players in free agency while saving enough space for possible in-season trade deadline acquisitions, as well as 2019 internal free agent re-signings.

Over the Cap projects that the Packers may add four draft picks to offset the losses of notable 2017 free agents. The Packers remain in line to earn a third round pick (T.J. Lang) and three fifth round picks (Micah Hyde, J.C. Tretter, and Jared Cook) in April’s draft. That number will not be affected by the signing of Martellus Bennett, who was released before Week 10. With this in mind, Green Bay should continue to build well through their typical draft-and-develop approach.

With cap space and draft picks accounted for (no draft pick trade projections), here is my take on the offensive side of the ball for the Packers this offseason.

Quarterback

From a starter perspective, the Packers have their guy with Aaron Rodgers and will need to lock him up long-term with a significant pay bump in the near future. As Rodgers is set to hit free agency in 2020, Green Bay is expected to move quickly on a new contract - one that would have a sizable impact on the Packers’ overall cap space if done in the next few months.

Outside of Rodgers, the Packers have some decisions to make. While Mike McCarthy has been outspoken in his confidence in both Brett Hundley and Joe Callahan, there remains skepticism in regards to both players outside the organization. Though Hundley had a few shining moments as a passer, he never threw a touchdown pass at home and threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (9) through 11 games. The fact that Callahan wasn’t given a starting opportunity in regular season action despite the wild inconsistency from Hundley didn’t provide much confidence in the former NCAA Division III quarterback’s abilities.

As a result, Green Bay should be on the market for a new “backup quarterback of the future,” if you will, this offseason. I do expect the Packers to retain Hundley, as he is now an experienced, cheap asset under contract for another season. But with the sheer number of draft picks expected to be available to Green Bay in the fifth round and later, the Packers will have multiple options for a new signal caller to draft and groom. As such, I don’t believe they would go for the more costly veteran in free agency until next offseason if needed.

One option for Green Bay if he reaches the fifth round is Washington State’s Luke Falk, an experienced college starter. Although he comes from a pass-heavy system that surely inflated his passing yardage, Falk’s accuracy in the short-to-intermediate game could make him a capable NFL backup/spot-starter in the mold of Josh McCown. A late-round flyer on a player like Memphis’s Riley Ferguson could also be in order. Ferguson represents a developmental player that consistently completed 63% of his passes over his two years as a starter in succeeding Paxton Lynch.

Prediction: Packers draft a quarterback in round 5.


Running Back/Fullback

The Packers found a great deal of success with their rookie running back crop last season. With fourth rounder Jamaal Williams and fifth rounder Aaron Jones in place to complement receiver-runner Ty Montgomery, Green Bay looks to be in great shape at the position for the first time in awhile prior to the draft. Montgomery still has one more season left on his contract and although he’s not as dynamic as Christian McCaffrey, the fellow Stanford player would be best utilized in a playmaker role where he isn’t limited by position or the number of hits taken.

With Montgomery heading into a contract year and 2017 seventh round pick Devante Mays failing to really establish himself as a rookie, it’s possible Green Bay looks to the late rounds of the draft to potentially find a diamond in the rough. However, there will not be many more roster spots available at the position, so the undrafted market seems likely.

At fullback, Green Bay looks set with Aaron Ripkowski to return for another season on his rookie contract. The Packers diminished the role of the fullback last season and the status of the position remains unclear going forward. I do not expect the franchise to move away from the position completely and would expect either Ripkowski or practice squad/active roster tweener Joe Kerridge to be among the final 53.

Prediction: Packers add undrafted free agents to compete at both positions.


Wide Receiver

Green Bay finds itself in a difficult position this offseason with its wide receiving corps. On one hand, the Packers were able to witness another strong season from Davante Adams and comfortably sign him to an extension. On the other, management has to make undesirable decisions on the short-term futures of two fan-friendly veterans in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Both are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents after the season, but are set to count for nearly $25 million combined toward the cap. For the Pack to build a better roster in the coming months, they must get at least one to take a paycut.

NFL insider Ian Rapoport reported that he would be surprised if both Nelson and Cobb were in Packer uniforms next season. My early guess would be that Nelson eases his salaray hit through a short extension. His value and production in Green Bay would appear from the outside to be considerably higher in the Packers’ system than elsewhere around the league. Cobb is a bit more difficult to gauge. It would be hard to release him without another sure-fire slot replacement on the roster that makes Rodgers happy and the wide receiver corps dangerous. While I’m all for using Nelson in the slot much more next season, the Packers really need another bonafide playmaker on the outside.

Of course, Green Bay will add one or two. But I don’t see that player coming from free agency regardless of what happens with Nelson and Cobb. Instead, I expect the Packers to dip back into the second or third round where they have been successful in finding talent. Green Bay drafted DeAngelo Yancey and Malachi Dupre in the fifth and seventh rounds, respectively, in the 2017 draft, but Yancey landed on the practice squad while Dupre left for Buffalo. It would not surprise me to see the Packers similarly take multiple receivers again this year. Patience has to be wearing thin with the development of Trevor Davis and Jeff Janis, while Geronimo Allison is unproven after falling off during his sophomore campaign. Michael Clark was an intriguing undrafted addition from a size perspective, but showed how raw he was in limited late-season action.

It’s a good year for the Packers to be looking for receivers in the area of the second round. A number of big-bodied pass catchers figure to be available at pick numbers 45 or 76, including SMU’s Courtland Sutton, Florida State’s Auden Tate, and Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown, who all measure 6-foot-3 or above. Tate, specifically, has a big frame with strong hands that made him a reliable, third down favorite for Seminole quarterbacks.

Even for slot options, Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk is a dynamic player with the ball in his hands and can stretch the field, offering value in the return game much like Cobb. Anthony Miller of Memphis is another one of those slick slot players that racked up big-time stats as a senior. If the third day of the draft presents better value at the position, players such as Ritchie James of Middle Tennessee State could slip a bit and a bring well-rounded skillset and lots of wiggle early in the day.

Prediction: Packers draft wide receivers in rounds 2 and 5


Tight Ends

Just as the Packers’ receiving weapons are a bit of an unknown heading into 2018, so are the tight ends. Bennett’s surprisingly brief stay in Green Bay after signing a three-year contract leaves the Packers in dire, unexpected need for an impact player again. Richard Rodgers is a free agent and Lance Kendricks, another 2017 signee, returns for one more season after providing little production last season. The Packers have undrafted players Emmanuel Byrd and Robert Tonyan on the roster, but neither provides excitement.

Although he doesn’t provide incredible value after the catch and is not a great blocker, Rodgers has shown reliable hands as a safety valve and has enough chemistry with Aaron Rodgers to attract a one-year, prove-it deal with Green Bay if offers are scarce. While Richard isn’t necessarily a priority this offseason, I do believe he will be back with the Packers and paired with Kendricks.

Another player is still needed, and one that is young and versatile enough to give the position a facelift. I wrote about the position last week, but the Packers haven’t had a true game-changer at tight end since Jermichael Finley and Joe Philbin were united in Philbin’s last offensive coordinator stint. A young player to develop and utilize while Green Bay has stable holdover veterans is critical. I do believe Green Bay and Gutekunst want to upgrade this position based on their efforts last offseason.

While the injury-prone Tyler Eifert is a beast when healthy, it’s hard to see Green Bay gambling on that history in free agency. It’s also hard for me to see the Packers spending the 14th overall pick on a tight end like Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews with the value that pick could bring at more pressing positional needs. This is really where scouting comes into play. I mentioned an intriguing size-speed prospect in Mississippi State’s Jordan Thomas as a late round possibility in my last article, but I like the potential of Penn State’s Mike Gesicki. The former volleyball player high-points the ball with great body control at 6-foot-6 and is a vertical threat down the seam. He was able to be lined up in a number of creative ways at Penn State, but must become a stronger, better blocking player for the NFL game. Still, the other measurables are there if Green Bay can get him in the second or third rounds, just as they did with Finley.

Prediction: Packers draft a tight end in round 3; re-sign Richard Rodgers


Offensive Line

It’s a tale of two sides for the Packers’ offensive line. The left side is solidified without any question marks. The right side is still to be determined.

Green Bay smartly re-signed David Bakhtiari ahead of a breakout year in 2016 and the left tackle has quickly become one of the best pass blocking left tackles in the NFL. The Packers hope that center Corey Linsley follows suit after playing in all 16 games last year. It was a bit surprising for me to see Linsley get such a big pay day (3-years, $25.5 million) after the franchise has been able to find starting centers late in the draft or for cheap on the street dating back to Scott Wells. Nevertheless, with Bakhtiari and Lisley signed through 2021 and left guard Lane Taylor through 2020, the left side starters are set for Green Bay.

The right side is hazy, with Bryan Bulaga’s second ACL tear leaving the team thin at right tackle to begin the season. Bulaga could be released with two years left on his contract with fairly little kickback, but I just can’t see it happening with him at just 28 years of age and previously coming off a career season.

Jason Spriggs’s injury scare late in the season almost left the team in dire straits as well, but the second-year player is expected to be a full participant in training camp. Outside of Spriggs, who has been wildly inconsistent over parts of the last two years, and Kyle Murphy, who spent last season on Injured Reserve, the Packers have limited backup tackle options. Versatile Justin McCray was a real find in free agency last year for Green Bay and has shown the ability to kick outside when needed despite being more of a true guard. Green Bay could stand to add more depth at tackle, especially with Bulaga’s future uncertain.

Similarly, the Packers must make a move at right guard. All things considered, Green Bay’s decision to let Lang walk in free agency was a decent one. Lang was selected to the Pro Bowl but battled some nagging injuries, while one-year gap filler Jahri Evans was durable and steady for a majority of the season. Evans could be signed to another one-year contract, but I expect the Packers to move forward with a more youthful option in 2018.

McCray filled in admirably when called upon at multiple positions last season and would certainly be an in-house candidate for right guard along with Murphy. However, I really like his value more as a swingman sixth lineman than as a starter. The Packers have also invested into the development of young interior players Lucas Patrick and Kofi Amichia and both will battle for a chance to be the insurance policy at guard and center. However, they both may be a year away from contributing at a high-level as starters.

Therefore, it figures to be an adventurous offseason on the line. If the Packers do make a signing that moves the needle at right guard, they could go with a durable option like San Francisco’s Brandon Fusco, who wouldn’t carry the same financial burden as Carolina’s Pro Bowler Andrew Norwell. A name to keep an eye on is Jonathan Cooper, the former seventh overall pick in the 2013 draft. Still young, Cooper was a solid fill-in for Dallas last season and would represent a less expensive commitment. Former Packer Josh Sitton will enter the market as well after Chicago declined his option for next season yesterday and could be a short-term target depending on the nature of the two sides’ relationship.

Green Bay loves positional versatility, especially from its offensive linemen. Perhaps a more efficient way for Green Bay to add depth to the line would be to draft a tackle prospect that could help in both the tackle and guard capacities. The addition could fill one of those roles as a starter while buying the Packers time to gauge Bulaga’s recovery and assess the long-term outlook of Spriggs and Murphy.

With the free agent market lacking in terms of tackle commodities, the Packers could take a flyer on a young player like the ChargersMichael Schofield that has starting experience. In the draft, tackles like Orlando Brown or Martinas Rankin would be viable second round options if they fell, as could a versatile player like Isaiah Wynn. Another Iowa tackle prospect, Ike Boettger, could present a late round steal if fully recovered from an achilles injury that sidelined him as a senior.

Prediction: Packers draft a tackle with one of their picks in round 3; sign a second or third-tier guard in free agency to a one or two-year deal