Before I get started on the argument of sitting out traditional free agency, I want to define what I mean by that. The Green Bay Packers will sign players this spring. What I mean is that Green Bay will not sign any meaningful players whose contracts expire at the end of the league year.
Compensatory picks have long been a part of the Packers’ offseason plans, and they are likely to impact their decision making once again this off-season. The Packers just received compensation picks for the loss of Blake Martinez, Bryan Bulaga, and Kyler Fackrell that they’ll be able to use in the 2021 NFL Draft. These compensatory picks are designed to, wait for it, COMPENSATE... teams for losing “valuable” veterans in free agency.
These draft picks are a nice supplement to a team’s plans. They’re never overly valuable, since a late third round pick is the highest you can earn, but getting more swings in the middle and later rounds still provides some marginal value. At this point, it is expected that Green Bay will not retain any of their top free agents: Corey Linsley, Aaron Jones, Kevin King, and Jamaal Williams. Williams probably has the best chance of returning, but even that remains a slight stretch at this point. While losing talent is never optimal, Green Bay does have players in place to try and replace Linsley and the running backs, and Kevin King is unlikely to be missed.
It’s tough to know exactly what type of contracts these players will get. Over the Cap currently projects a pair of fourth round picks for Linsley and Jones, but it is possible that they could bump up largely depending on the contracts they sign. It’s unclear how compensatory picks for King and/or Williams would fall since the NFL only gives out 32 picks for free agent losses every year, and it’s still up in the air as whether King and Williams will receive large enough contracts to justify a compensatory pick.
In addition to just losing players, another part of the compensatory pick calculation is that a signing you make can “cancel out” the losses that you have. Just as an example, losing Kevin King but signing Xavier Rhodes may very well cancel out the King compensatory pick. However, “cap casualties,” or players who were released, rather than had their contract expire, do not count in these calculations.
In most years, these cap casualties are players that have grossly underperformed their pay or are bad. However, due to the COVID cap crunch and the willingness of teams for several years to leverage the aggressively increasing salary cap, this year has led to a significant number of still-useful players entering the free agent pool who have no impact on the compensatory pick calculations. (Note that the Packers took this approach in 2020 when they signed Christian Kirksey and Rick Wagner, both players who had been released by their former teams before the league year began last spring.)
On offense, Green Bay could be looking to add to their wide receiver room, as fans have been screaming for for a couple of years now. Emmanuel Sanders could be a fit there as a consistently productive player who was released purely for the Saints hellish cap situation rather than any underperformance of his own. Green Bay was reported to have engaged with Sanders last off-season, but the veteran receiver decided to go to New Orleans instead. It’s possible Green Bay renews their interest there again.
John Brown was quite productive in his career with the Bills, but may not fit exactly what Green Bay looks for from a size perspective as he is only 5-foot-11 and 178 pounds. He’s not exactly built to block linebackers like is often asked from Green Bay’s secondary receivers. Perhaps Green Bay would try and utilize his speed in a jet/slot role, though his experience as a ball carrier is relatively limited with only 13 career carries.
Green Bay’s biggest need sits in the secondary as they look to upgrade their boundary corner opposite Jaire Alexander and may also look to upgrade their slot or Star corner. Fortunately for them, a plethora of defensive backs have become available in the past week or so that could fill those roles.
As far as boundary corners go, Malcolm Butler probably heads the list of options. The now-former Titans corner had a solid 2020 with a 72 PFF grade. He did get torched by Davante Adams in the matchup against Green Bay, but Adams was torching everything that lined up across from him this past season. Green Bay could certainly do worse at CB2.
Another quality veteran option would be Janoris Jenkins, another Saints cap shenanigans victim. There are lower quality corners like Dez Trufant and AJ Bouye as well, but those players seem unlikely at this point to provide a meaningful upgrade to what even Kevin King brought. Justin Coleman, who was recently released by Detroit, could be a solid bounce-back bet on a slot corner as he was quite good prior to the 2020 disaster that was the Lions defense.
An outside-the-box bounce-back candidate could be the diminutive safety-turned-slot corner Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner enjoyed a good start to his career with the Rams, primarily playing as a free safety. His PFF grades during his final three years with the Rams (2016-18) were 67.3, 91, and 74.9, respectively. The 2017 looks like a career year outside the bounds of his other production (buoyed heavily by the only year he turned in more than one interception), but he had developed into a solid safety. When the Raiders signed him to a four-year $42 million deal, it was thought that he would continue to play that safety role. However, Joyner spent much of his two years playing as a patchwork slot corner in a disastrous Raiders secondary. His play plummeted (PFF grades of 47.5 and 53.8), but I’m not sure if he’s a significantly worse player or was just put in a position to fail.
If Green Bay wants to move Darnell Savage into that Star role and get him more involved closer to the line of scrimmage, then pairing Joyner with Adrian Amos in the traditional safety roles could be a cheap way to do that.
Other players with varying level of impact and possibility of signing include CB Ricardo Allen, DT Jurrell Casey, DL Henry Anderson, WR Golden Tate, DT Quinton Jefferson, S Tre Boston, and LB Kwon Alexander. Many more are to come prior to the first day of the league year.
As Green Bay gets its cap sheet in order to try and upgrade the team, I’d imagine they are primarily looking to target these types of players for cheap contracts. Green Bay can’t play in the deep end, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find value. Over the Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald discussed on a recent podcast with The Athletic’s Robert Mays how those cheaper veteran contracts in the $3-5 million range tend to be the best bang for your buck. I’d expect Green Bay to sprinkle a few of those around this off-season, and to do so with players who were released. That way they can both prioritize the short-term needs and also provide themselves with additional mid-round picks in 2022.