Sometime between the start of the new league year and the 2019 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers have to plug their longstanding hole at right guard. Though several enticing options exist in free agency and the incoming rookie class, a trade could prove the best way to fill the void.
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot, the Cleveland Browns will look into trading guard Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler originally joined the team in 2017 as a free agent, signing a five-year deal worth $60 million, then the highest-paying contract for an interior offensive lineman. Zeitler has so far played up to expectation, starting every game over the past two years while yielding only six sacks during that stretch. Zeitler proved particularly dominant as a pass protector in 2018, allowing just 13 total pressures.
Normally, players of Zeitler’s caliber don’t become available. However, Browns general manager John Dorsey invested the 33rd overall pick last April in Austin Corbett, a talented guard prospect without a spot on the line. Just as significantly, the team’s investment in Zeitler came before Dorsey’s arrival in Cleveland. With no personal stake in Zeitler and a reason to push someone else into his starting role, Dorsey appears willing to trade the highly paid guard.
Though Dorsey could partner with any interested team on a trade, he might first look to his old employer. Dorsey worked in the Packers’ front office for the majority of his career as a scout and executive, leaving Green Bay in 2013 to become GM of the Kansas City Chiefs. Last offseason, Dorsey struck his first trade with the Packers, sending quarterback DeShone Kizer for defensive back Damarious Randall and a swap of picks in the fourth and fifth rounds. Should Dorsey partner with Green Bay again, he would avoid any negative repercussions of sending away a talented guard as the two teams don’t face off until 2021.
That combination of factors could benefit the Packers. Since allowing T.J. Lang to depart during the 2017 offseason, they have struggled to find a long-term solution at right guard. The team signed veteran Jahri Evans almost as an afterthought on the eve of the 2017 NFL Draft only to watch him ascend to the top of the depth due to the lack of viable alternatives. Justin McCray and Byron Bell shared that role this past season, though neither performed at an acceptable level. Zeitler could immediately step in as Green Bay’s top interior O-lineman and cross off one of the biggest items from general manager Brian Gutekunst’s to-do list.
And while Zeitler’s contract still ranks among the biggest for a guard in terms of average annual value, the contract the Packers would inherit looks far more affordable. A post-trade Zeitler would only cost $10 million each of the next two years and $12 million the one after that, and the deal contains no guaranteed money after 2019. Essentially, Green Bay could move on from Zeitler either of the next two offseasons without penalty.
Zeitler becomes more attractive for the Packers when considering the alternatives. The free-agent pool does contain starting guards such as Rodger Saffold and Ramon Foster, but both fall on the wrong side of 30 and haven’t performed at Zeitler’s level. If either makes it to the market, they will command decently sized contracts without the same level of return as Zeitler.
Alternatively, the Packers could draft a guard, but they would risk having a rookie thrown into the fire under a first-time offensive-line coach. Zeitler provides immediate impact while offering the team stability at the position for the foreseeable future. Green Bay could even invest a mid-round pick along the offensive line and allow them to develop behind Zeitler.
Of course, Zeitler only makes sense at a reasonable price. The Packers certainly wouldn’t part with one of their top-50 draft selections, but the conversation could begin with their third-round pick and move from there. Gutekunst’s wheeling and dealing from 2018 has added multiple picks to his arsenal, and Green Bay could package one of their fourth-rounders with a late draft choice or minor asset for Zeitler’s services. Such a trade would satisfy the needs of both teams without blowing up either’s offseason plans.
Adding Zeitler would reinforce the Packers’ offseason commitment to building the offense. New head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense relies heavily on play-action, often with the quarterback’s back turned to the defense. A porous offensive line could derail the scheme and put Aaron Rodgers at risk. Zeitler would plug the team’s longstanding void at right guard and ease the transition to the new offense. If Cleveland really has placed Zeitler on the trading block, Green Bay will have a hard time finding a more efficient use of their resources.