For many of the later offseasons under Ted Thompson as general manager, the Green Bay Packers appeared to be one or two players away from being true Super Bowl contenders. The Packers were able to push their way into the postseason on numerous occasions, only to fall short as some of their holes and lack of depth were exposed.
Since Brian Gutekunst took over the reigns, however, Green Bay has cast a wide net over free agency and other avenues of acquiring talent. Although the Packers have still been unable to move past the NFC Championship Game in recent seasons, it has not been for a lack of effort under Gutekunst, and much of the current push has come from the splashes the GM made back in 2019.
Today’s musings look back at that specific free agent class that continues to be paramount to the Packers’ current playoff push, while also examining injury situations, both positive and negative, that will impact that push.
The Packers’ 2019 free agency class has turned out to be a gem
When Green Bay inked extensive contracts with four veteran free agents in 2019, it marked one of the first times the franchise had sought out legitimate external talent in quite some time. Gutekunst was aggressive in adding a pair of pass rushers, an offensive line swingman, and a starting safety. At the time, there was some risk in each of those signings and it would be a lie to say there was not at least some amount of skepticism among fans and league writers alike. Three years into those deals, however, all four free agents have played significant roles. Looking across the league, rarely are NFL teams lucky to hit with that type of precision in free agency.
Billy Turner is a prime example of the Packers striking gold. The North Dakota State product had 25 starts over the course of five seasons with two different teams before Green Bay signed him to a four-year, $28 million contract. Whether the Packers always saw Turner as an eventual starting right tackle or they simply lucked out, they hit the jackpot over the past two seasons as Turner kicked out to tackle from his right guard position. After an up-and-down first season in Green Bay on the interior, Turner transformed himself into a reliable tackle in the midst of injuries on the left side and appears to be a fixture there for at least another season in finishing out his contract. The Packers certainly paid a price for Turner, but they have received a return on their investment, and then some.
While he has been injured this season, the Packers were also rewarded on Za’Darius Smith’s jaw-dropping four-year, $66 million contract the past two seasons. After recording a career-high 8.5 sacks in a contract season with Baltimore and earning what many felt to be an overpriced free agent deal, Smith tallied double-digit sack totals in his first two seasons with the Green & Gold. Although his counterpart Preston Smith has tailed off the past two seasons in total production, Preston also notched 12 sacks during his first campaign and has been a regular contributor for the Packers’ defense. Rounding out the free agent crew, Adrian Amos has started every game at safety during his Packers tenure and immediately stabilized a position that had been rocky over the previous season and a half.
Typically, it takes several years to fully assess any free agent or draft class. At least for the short-term, the Packers’ front office made their spending spree count, even if salary figures for some of those individuals will be crunched this coming offseason.
Injuries have not ceased and depth continues to be tested
Even on a bye week, the Packers continued to be smitten by the injury bug. Core surgery could now sideline wide receiver Randall Cobb for the season, adding another key contributor to a mounting list of notable injuries.
While the Packers may be able to return such stalwarts as Za’Darius Smith, David Bakhtiari, and Jaire Alexander soon, the losses of Cobb and Elgton Jenkins are crushing as Green Bay nears the postseason. A year ago, Bakhtiari’s injury was crippling when the Packers were forced to protect Aaron Rodgers against an aggressive Tampa Bay front. Very similarly, Jenkins’ injury could prove to be highly influential in the final weeks of the season as the Packers continually adjust their line. In the receiving game, losing Cobb has its own level of impact, taking away the team’s best slot receiver and a savvy veteran. Of course, Cobb was Rodgers’ key offseason acquisition, but his presence in the offense’s short game cannot be overstated.
It is a big moment for players such as Equanimeous St. Brown and Amari Rodgers, two players primed for larger roles in the slot. Both have taken their lumps during their short NFL careers, but each has an opportunity to earn their stripes in the late-season push. Davante Adams could definitely increase his snap count from the slot position as well, but the Packers are back to nearly the same receiving corps they had a year ago. The talent is there to win, but having one additional weapon take a step forward in the middle of the field, like St. Brown or Rodgers, could be the difference from a year ago.
When Alexander returns, how will the secondary line up?
Despite returning to practice, the timetable for Alexander’s actual return to the field is still in limbo. However, the question remains of how the Packers will shift the defensive backfield around when the All-Pro eventually steps foot on the field. Green Bay has found plenty of success between rookie Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas on the outside, along with Chandon Sullivan inside in the slot.
During the preseason, Alexander received snaps in Joe Barry’s “star” slot position. While this area of the field could invite additional impact on Alexander’s recovering shoulder as a result of run support, the star would also allow for Alexander to be closer to the ball as one of the team’s most instinctive and turnover-creating defensive players. It would also provide a way for the Packers to avoid interrupting the boundary duo of Stokes and Douglas, especially with the latter beginning to create takeaways.
Such a position change for Alexander ultimately may mean less time for Sullivan and demotes Kevin King to a reserve role on the outside. For the 2021 Packers, this situation might just be the most ideal. Sullivan will still find a way on to the field as Alexander’s snaps are closely monitored. And no matter how one feels about King’s inconsistency, his position as the fifth cornerback when healthy is a luxury of depth entering the postseason.
There is no doubt that Alexander is a difference maker and one of Green Bay’s best players, regardless of position. But upsetting continuity at cornerback, which has been steady since Alexander’s injury in Week 4, is something that must be considered as the team inches back to full health in the secondary.