Free agency this year is going to be very weird. Thirteen teams approach the 2021 season with negative cap space, and a good chunk of those that do have cap space have major free agents they’ll be looking to retain. With that, this market is going to probably look quite a bit different than most years, particularly with the middle class of free agency likely seeing a squeeze.
The Green Bay Packers’ goal right now is to get under the cap. How they do that is yet to be determined, but Brian Gutekunst has already stated that they’re willing to borrow from future years to make a push at the end of Aaron Rodgers’ career. With that said, this list will be looking at free agent targets for Green Bay who are not on the high end of the market, which Green Bay will, in all likelihood, be unable to play in, but rather the middle and lower parts of it.
When Green Bay has had needs in the past, particularly under Gutekunst, they have taken the “why not both” solution of filling it via both free agency and the draft. This occurred most notably with the EDGE and safety positions prior to the 2019 season. Green Bay won’t be able to play in the deep end of the cornerback market in 2021 (not that there really is a deep end), but I do expect they’ll try to shore up the position with a competent veteran in addition to drafting a long-term answer at the position in the spring.
The Fangio system that the Packers are hiring Joe Barry to run is pretty heavy in its zone usage, and that zone usage also fits the skillset of their CB1, so matching skills here makes a lot of sense. That is something that wasn’t really possible when Kevin King was opposite of Jaire. One perk of being more zone-heavy is that zone corners are a little easier to find, and because of their greater supply, the costs can be a little lower.
This is the ultimate band-aid fix. Sherman has definitely lost a step or two since his prime, but was still quite productive in a Super Bowl run with the 49ers in 2019. 2020 represented a step back for Sherman, as his PFF coverage grade dropped to 67.2 and his Sports Info Solutions Total Points Saved plummeted from 49 to 12. That drop looks a lot worse on the surface than it is, because Sherman only played in five games after sustaining a calf injury. On a per game basis, the drop was from 3.3 to 2.4, which would still represent a large upgrade on the disaster that was CB2 for Green Bay (Kevin King had 0.45 Total Points Saved per game in 2020).
Sherman is much more susceptible to getting beat deep at this point in his career as his speed has declined through both age and injury, but he is a still a sure tackler and isn’t regularly targeted. One issue is that Sherman and Alexander have both spent the vast majority of their time playing on the offense’s right, so one of them would probably need to move to the left side. Sherman is likely looking at one-year deals given his age and injury history, and is in the veteran mercenary stage as well.
This signing would represent an attempt to fix the problem longer-term. Awuzie is only 25 years old and is coming off a down season for the disaster that was the 2020 Cowboys defense. In 2019, Awuzie posted a nice season with 34 Total Points Saved and a 70.5 PFF coverage grade, and looked like a solid if unspectacular #2 corner. Awuzie also hit the athletic markers that Green Bay typically looks for in their cornerbacks during the 2017 NFL Combine. Awuzie’s PFF coverage grades in non-2020 seasons are quite solid at 78.9, 66.1, and 70.5, so perhaps 2020 really is just an outlier.
This signing would represent some risk in that it is possible Awuzie is not good. His best years looked more like a pretty good second corner, which is exactly what Green Bay needs. There is some upside here in that if Awuzie hits in a competent defensive structure, Green Bay would have a good and young boundary corner duo to build a defense around.
Dunbar had a strong 2019 with Washington before being traded to Seattle this past offseason. While 2019 represented a breakout, 2020 was a disaster. Seattle’s pass defense was a mess and Dunbar spent most of the season battling nagging injuries before hitting injured reserve in week 11. Prior to 2020, Dunbar was on a trajectory to become one of the league’s better corners, as he put up 1.5 Total Points Saved per game in 2017, followed by 3.3 in 2018 and 3.2 in 2019 before the wheels fell off in Seattle. PFF shows a similar story with an outstanding 89.5 coverage grade in 2019 followed by an absolute stinker in 2020 (44.2).
Dunbar is another buy-low candidate who could pay off in a big way if he hits. He has the size (6’2’’ 197) to matchup with bigger receivers and has one outstanding season under his belt. If 2020 was due to nagging injuries, Green Bay could hit big here. However, if 2020 represents a new baseline, Dunbar’s career may fizzle out as fast as he burst onto the scene.
After spending the past two years of his career in Minnesota getting regularly torched, Rhodes had a revival season in Indianapolis. He is almost exclusively a zone corner at this point in his career, as we all watched Davante Adams torch him almost every time he was in man coverage from 2018-2019. Both PFF and SIS saw this rebound, with his PFF grade jumping back up to 77.5 and his Total Points Saved jumped up to 49 (18th in the NFL). After allowing a 77% completion percentage in 2019, that plummeted to just 46.3% in 2020.
It’s unlikely that Rhodes will be as productive going forward as he was in 2020, but in a system that provides him some protection vertically, he can still be a blanket in the short and intermediate areas.
There are quite a few corners available this off-season, but many are either not scheme fits or primarily play in the slot. Green Bay could seek to upgrade their slot corner situation after a mediocre season from Chandon Sullivan, but I would bet they prioritize the boundary over that spot. Since Green Bay can’t play at the top of the market and may be looking to get discounts on veterans either chasing a bounce-back or a ring, this would be my target list for the team as we head into free agency.