March has officially begun and the wait on Aaron Rodgers’ future persists. As the fate of Green Bay Packers’ quarterback continues to be in jeopardy, the team’s offseason outlook also has been put on hold to some degree.
With or without Rodgers, however, free agent and salary cap decisions will soon have to be made. Today’s musings discuss one of those decisions at tight end, but also how the Packers’ coaching shuffle could affect the team’s free agent landscape. Plus, if Rodgers returns, Green Bay may still have a different looking receiving room and this year’s draft could offer the team a few unique options.
Green Bay could benefit from injuries to heralded wide receivers in the draft
Picking at number 28, the Packers would not necessarily be in a marquee position to land a game-changing skill position player in most drafts. From a wide receiver standpoint, Green Bay has just missed out on a number of talented players at a similar point in the draft in recent seasons, including Brandon Aiyuk and Justin Jefferson. However, due to injuries, the Packers could be a in rare position to select a high-upside player this April, even if it comes with a certain level of risk.
Three receivers specifically stand out in the early phases of draft season. Alabama’s Jameson Williams was regarded as a potential top-10 pick prior to his ACL tear in the National Championship Game. He has some size at 6-foot-2, but Williams’ calling card is his vertical game, consistently winning downfield last season with his burst to gain separation. If Aaron Rodgers returns to the Packers next season, a player like Williams could replace Marquez Valdes-Scantling if the latter leaves in free agency and become a home-run option.
USC’s Drake London represents another option. London fractured his ankle early in the season but is still a highly-touted talent. His 6-foot-5 frame allows him to make contested catches and fits the type of size Green Bay covets, even if it comes without the top-end speed of Williams. Healthy now, but coming off of an incredibly quick ACL recovery, is Georgia’s George Pickens. After injury setbacks, Pickens’ best football could still be ahead of him and he blends size, athleticism, and a wide catch-radius with plenty of on-field confidence.
Late in the first round, the Packers could target multiple positions to improve the roster while still taking the best player available. But with the need to develop wide receivers, especially with this year’s internal group of free agents at the position, Green Bay’s top player on the board just might be one of this trio of receivers with both high risk and high reward.
Statistically, Jimmy Graham’s and Robert Tonyan’s best seasons in Green Bay were closer than one might think
One of the Packers’ toughest free agent decisions this offseason after Rodgers and Davante Adams is what to do with Robert Tonyan. The tight end’s injury midway through the season left a large void on the Green Bay roster and removed one of Rodgers’ security blanket pass-catchers. While Tonyan’s receiving stats and targets had dipped in 2021 from his breakout campaign in 2020, he was an important piece for the Packers on offense. Yet, as the decision looms on Tonyan’s future, it is interesting to compare his breakout season with that of Jimmy Graham’s first season in Green Bay.
After Graham’s initial year with the Packers in 2018, there were plenty of fans calling for the team to move on from the veteran and shed salary - a very different vibe than that of Tonyan’s this offseason. Still, Graham’s reception and yardage totals were slightly higher than that of Tonyan in 2020 (55-for-636 to 52-for-586), with the two players’ first down totals nearly the same (33 to 32). The production from that perspective was very similar. Where the two players differed considerably was in the red zone. Whereas Graham tended to struggle to separate and make contested catches in the end zone for Green Bay (just two scoring receptions that season), Tonyan’s best season included 11 touchdowns. Speaking of contested catches, Tonyan 88% catch percentage in 2020 was well above Graham’s 61% in 2018.
The images of drops from Graham and, conversely, the touchdowns of Tonyan may help to distort the lasting impressions of both players despite otherwise similar numbers. Age is still on Tonyan’s side, but put aside the touchdown marks and questions emerge. Is there more to be gained in Tonyan’s development? And does that potential justify a shiny new contract for Tonyan when comparing it to what was considered an average season from a “washed-up” Graham?
Will the movement of assistant coaches affect the Packers’ free agents?
Green Bay’s success the past several seasons has unsurprisingly led to its assistant coaching staff getting poached by other NFL teams this offseason. The losses of Nathaniel Hackett, Luke Getsy, and Mike Smith particularly were notable for the vacancies they left open on the Packers’ coaching staff as well as their NFC North implications. Beyond coaching itself, the staff changes could impact the Packers’ internal group of free agents and lead to additional poaching.
Hackett’s connection to Rodgers and Jordan Love is interesting from a quarterback trade scenario, but would this same offensive connection entice Davante Adams or another wide receiver such as Allen Lazard or Marquez Valdes-Scantling to sign with Denver? Similarly, Chicago will certainly have its eyes open for wide receiver help this spring and the Packers’ receivers would sure seem like familiar building block options for a new coordinator such as Getsy to pound the table for. Perhaps one of these offensive minds could also see the potential in a player like Tonyan and lure the tight end to a new location, or even a potential cap casualty like the versatile offensive lineman Billy Turner.
Defensively, Mike Smith’s move to Minnesota presents another curious situation. If the Packers release either Preston or Za’Darius Smith in cost-cutting measures, would their former position coach vouch for them? The Vikings have a decision of their own to make with edge rusher Danielle Hunter and his fit with a new defensive coordinator, but the Smith Bros are versatile enough to fit multiple defensive schemes and their availability could intrigue a Minnesota team on the lookout for more pass-rushing assistance.
For the Packers, this wait-and-see type of offseason will be one of the more captivating in recent memory. The coaching changes could only add to the mystique as salary cap moves are made.