It appears more likely by the day that the Green Bay Packers will move forward without Aaron Jones in 2021, especially now that the franchise tag period has come to an end. With that in mind, it becomes time to speculate how the Packers might just use the money saved to not only rebuild the running back position, but add to other areas of the roster.
Today’s pre-weekend musings address one possible immediate replacement for Jones, while touching on two notable external free agents on the defensive side of the ball who would fit two areas of need but blend a level of stardom with moderate financial risk. However, leading off is an analysis of how Green Bay and Kansas City share in the financial strain of keeping a stable offensive line together.
The Chiefs shocked the NFL with offensive line releases, but Green Bay is in similar shape
The Kansas City Chiefs made some startling news yesterday when they announced the releases of both Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz in cost-cutting measures that will save the team over $20 million. The loss of both starting offensive tackles is compounded by the expected departure of starting center Austin Reiter, leaving the Chiefs with potentially three new faces on the offensive line in 2021. While Kansas City did draft Lucas Niang in the third round a year ago, the rookie opted out of the season and the Chiefs are noticeably thin on other internal replacement options. The AFC champions will most likely need to invest to a lesser extent in free agency and make at least another selection in the draft to field a competitive line that struggled mightily in the Super Bowl with reserve players.
Coincidentally, the Packers have been in an eerily similar situation over the past two years. Green Bay entered the 2020 season having just lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga to free agency and approaching extension decisions on left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley. Fast forward to March, and the Packers fortunately have Bakhtiari locked up long term, but he may not be ready for the start of the 2021 campaign. Linsley appears to be on his way out to a bigger payday and the team already released Rick Wagner in a cap-saving move. Like the Chiefs, the Packers may begin next season without their starters at both tackles and center.
To Green Bay’s advantage, the organization may be better prepared to move forward than the Chiefs. Billy Turner has shown the ability to play right tackle at a capable level (Tampa Bay game aside) and an internal center replacement seems likely in Elgton Jenkins or Lucas Patrick. The trio of interior line draft choices a year ago also provide some hopeful depth at guard. Certainly, the Packers will need to find a solution for Bakhtiari’s injury this offseason and that leaves some concern. But as the Packers address a very similar situation to the one in Kansas City, they seem to be doing so without the same level of fear.
Arizona has two big-name defensive free agents at positions of need for Green Bay, but each carry risk
Free agency truly kicked off when the Cardinals signed J.J. Watt to their defensive front. But that move may have a trickle-down effect on what the team can do to replace its own noteworthy free agents.
Patrick Peterson hits the open market as a 30-year old after eight Pro Bowl seasons. The defensive back brings name recognition as a former shutdown cornerback and Spotrac estimates Peterson will receive a $10.4 million annual salary and a three-year contract. The Packers have needs at the cornerback position this offseason with Kevin King hitting free agency and a very inexperienced position room behind him. Green Bay may not have the type of roster connections that would interest Peterson, but they do have a quarterback that “can spin the rock.” Still, signing Peterson, coincidentally at the same age and expectation of decline as Charles Woodson when he hit free agency, would be a risky move for Green Bay to fill a positional need at roughly the same price as Aaron Jones. Peterson allowed the highest completion percentage of his career this past season at 67.1% while allowing a near-100 pass rating for the second straight season. He may not be the same dominant player he once was to justify an eight-figure contract, even if he could bring experience, leadership, and potential versatility to the defense.
As the Packers consider their options with Preston Smith, the Cardinals also do so with outside linebacker Haason Reddick. Once drafted in the top 15 in 2017, Reddick was a relative bust until a breakout 2020 season. With an attacking 3-4 scheme, Reddick was unleashed on the edge to the tune of 12.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 15 tackles for loss, and six forced fumbles. That kind of contract season puts Reddick into a very difficult position as a free agent, with Spotrac listing Reddick’s market value at $11.6 million annually for four years. In fact, Reddick’s situation is Za’Darius Smith-like, in that both hit free agency after four NFL seasons and a fourth season that featured a significant step forward. Could the Packers gamble once again on a high-risk and high-reward pass rusher?
Travis Etienne would create a dynamic option opposite AJ Dillon
If anything was learned during last year’s draft, the Packers are not a team afraid of spending a second-round pick on a running back. If Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams indeed walk during free agency, it would seem likely the Packers target another back or two during the upcoming draft. With Brian Gutekunst in attendance at Clemson’s Pro Day, it is not far-fetched to think Etienne could be on that short list of candidates.
Like Dillon, Etienne would bring four years of college production to the NFL. Averaging an incredible 7.2 yards or more per carry in three of his four seasons for the Tigers, Etienne is the kind of all-around back that Jones had gradually developed into. He is an established receiver out of the backfield, consistently adding to his reception totals every season at Clemson until he capped out at 48 catches. The ACC’s all-time leading rusher has the ability to hit the home run with 4.41 speed but adds a blend of power and balance that makes him a dangerous offensive weapon in the mold of Alvin Kamara.
While it is hard to predict when the run on running backs will begin during the draft, Etienne is the kind of back that would make sense for the Packers late in round two if he fell. Even at a position that has been devalued, he could impact the game in the receiving game in a way that covers for some of the Packers’ slot deficiencies, and form an excellent complementary style to that of the bruiser Dillon.