The Green Bay Packers are playing musical chairs with their inside linebackers and just a few weeks before free agency, then thee draft, they’re waiting for the music to stop. Replacing nearly 99% of defensive snaps with Blake Martinez likely out the door will be no easy feat for Brian Gutekunst, particularly with a top-heavy linebacker draft class and exploding pricetags on the linebacker market.
According to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report, the Packers would prefer to spend closer to $8 million annually on Martinez, who is asking for at least $10 million. That same report from Tom Silverstein and Jim Owczarski suggests the Packers will target Browns linebacker Joe Schobert in free agency, though he’s set to demand a similarly hefty contract. If the Packers view Schobert, a much more adept coverage player, as a significant upgrade, they could be willing to foot the cost giving the need inside.
Top-of-market players smashed the ceiling for linebacker contracts in 2019, raising the expected pay around the league. Seattle gave Bobby Wagner a three-year $54 million extension last July and the Jets broke the bank for C.J. Mosley, giving him $17 million per season. Even sub-elite players like Anthony Hitchens (Signed for $9 million APY in ‘18) and Jordan Hicks (4 years, $36 million in ‘19) were pushing for major money deals and tams were paying for them.
Linebackers like Kwon Alexander ($13.5 million APY), Benardrick McKinney ($10 million APY) and Shaq Thompson ($13.6 million APY) aren’t game changers, but snagged major contracts. They’re good players to be sure, but hardly cornerstones for a good defense. With a constricted cap situation this offseason, that puts the Packers in a tough spot finding value.
Former Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, a player whom Aaron Rodgers has praised in the past, fits closer to that Goldilocks zone Green Bay wants to pay. A career backup, Kwiatkoski stepped up in eight starts last season, putting together his best season as a pro. Despite his reputation as a downhill, hard-hitting linebacker, Kwiatkoski demonstrated better-than-expected coverage ability, finishing the year as Pro Football Focus’ 16th highest-graded linebacker overall and with a better coverage grade than Schobert.
Another option—and there’s no reason the Packers can’t do one of each—comes in April with an intriguing group of prospects in the draft. Green Bay met with at least eight linebackers at the combine, according to player media availabilities in Indianapolis, prospects whose projections span the draft.
Top off-ball guys like Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen met with the Packers. In fact, Green Bay met with Murray in his first team interview. Athletic, sideline-to-sideline players, the top two guys each pulled out of Saturday’s combine drills with hamstring tweaks. Luckily for them, each ran in the low 4.5’s and looked every bit like first-round linebackers.
Murray played 40 games in three seasons with the Sooners, and at 6-foot-2, 241 pounds, his durability won’t be a question. In fact, some agents question an altered schedule for primetime television as a possible reason for more soft tissue injuries at this combine. Queen’s injury offers a more troubling question for him as a 6-foot, 227-pound linebacker with more limited starting experience.
Injuries also set back small school sleeper Akeem Davis-Gaither from Appalachian State. A stress fracture kept him out of the combine and he’ll require surgery, which will keep him out 6-8 weeks. If he can’t work out before the draft, his stock, which had been rising since the Senior Bowl, could fall, making him a possible Day 3 option.
One name to watch moving forward will be familiar to plenty of Packers fans. Instead of ponying up $10 million a year for Joe Schobert, Green Bay could draft Zack Baun, a Wisconsin linebacker who PFF compared to Schobert in its draft guide. He’s making a similar transition for edge player off the ball. Baun showed 4.65 speed to go along with impressive, if limited, tape dropping in coverage. He looked smooth enough in drills, and tested more than respectably with a Relative Athlete Score of 8.8 (out of 10) for a linebacker.
If the top guys move out of range in the first round, Baun could be that versatile, athletic player Mike Pettine prizes. Pairing him with a free agent linebacker would give the Packers time to bring Baun along slowly as he transitions positions, as well as take advantage of his estimable talent rushing the passer. Think the 2020 version of Desmond Bishop.
Giving the amount of work the Packers have done on linebackers in Indy, they appear set to take one at some point in the draft, potentially irrespective of how free agency goes. Remember, Brian Gutekunst used the 12th pick on an edge rusher after signing two of them in free agency. When he sees a problem, he attacks it with vigor. Signing a linebacker would also provide the Packers a cushion not to have to reach to fill a position who never leaves the field.
Ink Kwiatkoski, then seek value in the draft. If the top receivers run out, Murray, Queen, or Baun could be sitting there, but having a starter in hand would allow Gutey not to press. And if one of them is on the board along with a guy like Justin Jefferson, the free agent linebacker frees the Packers to take the receiver and not worry about having to find another ‘backer early.
How much money is the position worth? Will they use a top-60 pick on a linebacker for the first time in over a decade? These are questions they’re working through at 1265 Lombardi Ave. With the free agent market taking shape and the draft class separating itself into tiers, the Packers will have a much clearer picture of their preferred path coming out of Indy. Whether they’re able to effectively walk that path remains up in the air with market forces and the capricious nature of the draft variables out of their control.
Update: Sunday afternoon, Sports Illustrated’s Bill Huber reported Rams’ Corey Littleton will be Green Bay’s “No. 1 priority” among linebackers this offseason.