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Packers 2021 Free Agents: Corey Linsley will force hard decisions across offensive line

What will the Packers do about their most important internal free agent?

Green Bay Packers v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2020 season. We also will examine the players on each unit who will be free agents in 2021. Today, we examine the offensive linemen.

The Green Bay Packers face a number of difficult free agent decisions in 2021, but perhaps no call is tougher than the one they face with their starting center. Running backs are somewhat replaceable, so even despite Aaron Jones’ success and impact, it will be a long shot to see him back in green and gold. Instead, great offensive linemen are tougher to find, and Corey Linsley is absolutely one of them.

Look for him to be the Packers’ biggest priority in terms of re-signing one of their star free agents this spring, as his All-Pro season in 2020 was finally recognition for his great play over the years.

The Packers also have a few other calls to make on the offensive line, but those should be far less pricy decisions. A young developmental project should return for 2021, and another savvy veteran might be convinced to return for another go, particularly if the team cannot find the dollars to make Linsley’s contract work under the 2021 salary cap.acm

Corey Linsley

Accrued Seasons: 7
Free Agency Category: Unrestricted
Expiring Contract: 3 years, $25 million

The first-team All-Pro center in 2020, Linsley has been a rock at the pivot for the Packers’ offensive line, taking over as the full-time starter before the final week of his rookie preseason. He has played every offensive snap in three of his seven seasons, missing three games in 2015, seven contests in 2016, and three in 2020. Outside of that, he has started every game and played at a high level.

One of former general manager Ted Thompson’s final acts was to ink Linsley to a three-year contract extension just before the end of 2017, after which his contract was set to expire. That deal carried him through the 2020 season, and he has finally received some recognition for his excellent play with the All-Pro nod.

Unfortunately, the Packers face a difficult decision on his future. Linsley will turn 30 in July and the going rate for an elite center is around $11 million per year. If the Packers could find a way to get him back on a heavily backloaded deal, that might be a great option for both sides, but Linsley has dealt with a few nagging injury issues in years past, even as he played through them.

Furthermore, the Packers have depth on the interior of the offensive line, perhaps more than at any other position on the roster. Elgton Jenkins could shift from left guard to center, where he primarily played in college. The team could also move Lucas Patrick to the middle and insert Jon Runyan, Jr. into the starting lineup at guard. There’s also another veteran free agent-to-be who would come with a much lower price tag who could come back for another job competition at guard if Patrick or Jenkins moves inside.

All told, with the Packers’ cap crunch coming, it’s tough to find a way for them to retain their 2020 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. And that’s too bad if he ends up walking, as Linsley is one of the best at his position — and one of the best people — in the NFL.

Lane Taylor

Accrued Seasons: 8
Free Agency Category: Unrestricted
Expiring Contract: 3 years, $16.5 million (renegotiated as a 1 year, $1.4 million deal prior to 2020)

The Packers have a long history with Taylor, a former undrafted free agent who became a starter in 2016 when the team jettisoned starting guard Josh Sitton at the end of training camp. Taylor was a steady presence for the next three years, even pitching in for a game or two at left tackle, before dealing with major competition from a rookie, Jenkins, in 2019. Though Taylor won that battle to start last season, Jenkins quickly began to take snaps away before a season-ending biceps injury sidelined Taylor.

In 2020, Taylor returned after taking a pay cut with the promise of having a chance to earn a starting job on the right side. He did just that, earning the job at right guard with Billy Turner penciled in as the team’s right tackle. However, like he did the year before, Taylor was lost for the season early, this time to a knee injury in week one.

At 31 and with the Packers facing some questions with Linsley’s status, Taylor might be a great candidate to return on a veteran minimum contract with a chance to once again compete for the right guard job. He would at least provide quality veteran depth on the interior should he miss out on that position, and in this offseason with the Packers needing to pinch every penny they can, reaching out to Taylor about another short-term deal makes sense.

Jared Veldheer

Accrued Seasons: 10
Free Agency Category: Unrestricted
Expiring Contract:

The ultimate mercenary, Veldheer appeared poised to become the first player ever to play for two different teams in the same postseason due to relaxed COVID rules. Like last season, when he came out of retirement to sign with the Packers late in the season, Veldheer joined the Colts’ practice squad near the end of 2020 and started a few games down the stretch at left tackle, including Indianapolis’ Wild Card loss in Buffalo.

After that game, the Packers signed him to their practice squad ahead of the Divisional round. However, a positive COVID test returned after his first day back in Green Bay, sidelining him for the team’s two playoff games.

Veldheer might be interested in another run in 2021, but the Packers probably won’t be counting on him to come back. They will surely check in to see if he’s interested in working through a full offseason program, but don’t count on it.

Yosuah Nijman

Accrued Seasons: 2
Free Agency Category: Exclusive Rights
Expiring Contract: 2 years, $1.477 million

After joining the Packers as an undrafted rookie in 2019, Nijman landed on the team’s practice squad to start his rookie year before getting a promotion to the active roster in November. In 2020, he made the team out of camp as a backup offensive tackle, but the team generally shuffled around him when dealing with injuries rather than inserting him into the lineup. Although he was active for every game, Nijman was on the field for just 14 offensive snaps, mostly at the end of blowout wins.

With that said, his status as an exclusive-rights free agent should earn him another run back with the team. Nijman is an exceptional athlete and the Packers have invested two years in his development; it would be a shock if he did not return for a third season, given that the Packers can bring him back at a minimum salary.