The NFL offseason is a paradox. It’s impossible to know what might happen in the draft without knowing what first happens in free agency. But the likeliest permutations of draft outcomes ought to directly impact a team’s approach to free agency.
Does your head hurt yet?
Often, we silo the two pools of players. There’s the draft and there’s free agency. If we don’t find a player in free agency, we’ll find a similar one in the draft or vice versa. But that’s not really how it works, or at least not how it should work.
All this week, Gil Brandt of NFL.com has been putting out combined player rankings, the best players at a position accounting for players available through the draft and free agency. This is how asset allocation should work, but it rarely gets discussed in this way.
More to the point, the resources a team puts toward free agency has to have an eye on what could be available in the draft. Why spend money on a position in free agency when the draft is loaded with quality players who are younger, cheaper, and could have more upside? Likewise, if a team has a need, but the draft lacks impact players at that position, free agency should be the go-to place to find those players fill the necessary holes.
The question becomes how are their resources best allocated to filling that need?
Packers Twitter wants Josh Jackson, a ballhawking cornerback from Iowa. If Ohio State’s Denzel Ward slips, he’s a no-brainer right?
Here’s where things get even more complicated: the draft contains a deep crop of defensive backs, both safety and corners. The Packers could get a legitimate starting-caliber corner at pick 45 or 76. Why spend draft capital — different than financial, but not any less important — on a high pick at a position with such depth?
It’s a simple economic principle: there’s no reason to pay for something of which there are a lot. This is first day economics class stuff.
Not to mention, this player will almost certainly not be ready to start Week 1 for the Packers. Most rookie cornerbacks are more Kevin King than Marshon Lattimore. They flash, but they can’t consistently elevate a defense. The 2017 class with Lattimore and Tre’Davious White is the exception, not the norm.
If I’m getting a player who can’t help me right away, at a pivotal position for my defense, then spending a high pick on him doesn’t make sense for a team with Super Bowl aspirations in 2018.
That doesn’t mean only taking the short view of this. The Packers can still get a rotation-level player on Day 2 if they so choose and build for the future. Some of the best defensive backs the Packers have had in the last 15 years came from outside the first round. In fact, nearly all of them have.
Taking this approach, however, makes the most sense in a world where there are desirable players in free agency. If there aren’t, I just wasted 500 words and six minutes of your life you’ll never get back (potentially true in either case).
But there are.
On the high end, there are big-time talents like Malcolm Butler and Trumaine Johnson. There are middle-class talents like Patrick Robinson, Rashaan Melvin, Prince Amukamara and E.J. Gaines. And there are bargain options like Ross Cockrell, Rickell Robey-Coleman, and high-upside plays with former first-round picks Kyle Fuller and Darqueze Dennard.
None of the players I mentioned are older than 28, which leaves the Packers with myriad options at all price points to find a starting corner who can be a contributor for the length of his contract.
I’ve advocated for Butler in the past and stand by it, but any of the aforementioned players would be upgrades over Davon House as the Packers’ third corner. And much like in the draft, there’s a case to be made against giving top dollar to the elite guys in favor of paying considerably less for a quality player.
Assuming the Packers price these players out properly, something at which Russ Ball is an absolute master, bringing in any of them would represent a better allocation of resources than a high pick. Such a deep class could also drive the price of the top guys down, or at the very least suppress the inevitable inflation in free agency of the lower and middle-tier players.
That said, if the option is giving Butler or Johnson a $11+ million a year deal, or Prince Amukamara at $7 million (what he signed for last offseason in Chicago), give me the premium asset every day and twice on Sundays.
Letting Morgan Burnett walk to make room for a free agent cornerback should be a relatively easy call. Cornerbacks are simply more valuable and impactful, particularly compared to a safety who has all but stopped playmaking.
It’s much harder to find top-tier cornerbacks. We know that’s what Butler, a former Pro Bowler and second team All-Pro, is. Both he and Trumaine Johnson come off down years in 2017, which could hurt their values, but they’re top talents. They’re known quantities.
A team pays in free agency for certainty rather than upside in the draft. We know Malcolm Butler is capable of playing at an All-Pro level. We’ve seen him do it. Have we seen it with Josh Jackson? Denzel Ward?
The answer is axiomatic: no. They’re not in the league yet.
In the absence of certainty (and we aren’t certain Butler will be a Pro Bowl player in 2018 or beyond, though we are certain he has done it since the ink is dry on history), and in the presence of relative depth in the draft, the move is to find the best player for the money in free agency where depth can actually drive down costs and improve the value of the player Green Bay could eventually land.
Ted Thompson brought in Charles Woodson to stabilize the Packers passing defense and maximize Dom Capers. There is no Woodson on the market, no future Hall of Fame player with a Heisman Trophy on his mantle. But Brian Gutekunst should take a lesson from his mentor and use free agency to add a cornerstone to Mike Pettine’s defense for the present and the future.