It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s time for another round of Walkthroughs here at Acme Packing Company. This week, we’re looking ahead a bit to the next major phase of player acquisition: free agency.
Although that process does not begin until three weeks from today, now seems as good a time as any to start thinking about players who could — or should — be targets for Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst. Check out some of our favorite free agent crushes below and let us know who you most want to see making a move to Green Bay next month.
Evan “Tex” Western — OLB Preston Smith
Smith won’t draw nearly the amount of attention that guys like DeMarcus Lawrence or Dee Ford do, but he’s a consistently productive pass-rusher who is still young (26) and has racked up sacks in both a rotational and a starting role. A second-round pick of Washington’s in 2015, Smith totaled eight sacks and three forced fumbles as a rookie, despite starting just two games and playing just under 50% of the team’s snaps. His best season came in 2017, when he had another eight-sack season and added two interceptions and a career-high 21 QB hits.
Because he’s in the second tier of pass-rushers in this year’s free agent class, Smith will likely get a deal closer to a Ryan Kerrigan/Nick Perry type contract -- something between $10 and $12 million per year seems reasonable, compared to the high teens that will go to players like Ford and Lawrence. That’s a great value for a 26-year-old player with very good movement skills (62nd percentile or above among EDGE players in every drill at the 2015 Combine) and who is really entering the prime of his career. By cutting Perry, letting Clay Matthews walk, matching up Smith with a developing Kyler Fackrell, and adding a first-round rookie to that tandem, Brian Gutekunst could completely change the trajectory of the Packers’ pass-rush in a single offseason.
Bob Fitch — G Andy Levitre
It’s not flashy, and it’s not at the more obvious positions of need, but I’ll let my smarter-than-me cohorts tell you about those players. Instead, guard Andy Levitre is a buy-low option on a solid veteran player. Levitre has ended both the 2017 and 2018 seasons with trips to the IR with triceps injuries, not an overly encouraging sign for a 33 year-old guard. This injury will obviously need to be checked by the Packers’ medical staff, but Levitre went on IR early in September of 2018 so there has been a larger window for him to recover.
The Guard position needs an upgrade across from Lane Taylor, since Justin McCray apparently can’t beat out one of the worst linemen in the NFL in Byron Bell. McCray must have said something bad about James Campen’s dog or something. There are a few options out there who would be suitable; if you want expensive, quality veterans there are Roger Saffold and Ramon Foster; if you’re looking for younger, cheaper replacements with starting experience there’s John Miller (26) or AJ Cann (28). The market isn’t necessarily flush with quality interior linemen, but Green Bay can use fringe money to address fringe issues by picking up Levitre, while using higher draft capital and more cap space for the core personnel issues.
Shawn Wagner — S Tyrann Mathieu
One of my free agent crushes during the 2018 offseason, the Honey Badger is patrolling the free agent waters once again after signing a one-year deal with Houston last year. While he certainly could return to the Texans, and even created waves on Twitter by saying he’d go wherever Antonio Brown went, Mathieu is currently scheduled to be a free agent and I can at least hope for a move to the Green and Gold.
Under a contract of just $7 million last season, Mathieu played all 16 games and totaled a pair of interceptions and three sacks to go along with 89 tackles. With the ability to start at safety while manning the slot when needed, the Honey Badger brings versatility and remains a violent presence in the secondary. He figures to be affordable and is a proven veteran playmaker that would bring reliability to a porous Green Bay safety unit a season ago. At just 26 years old, Mathieu could be more than a one-year stop-gap.
Paul Noonan — WR Tyrell Williams
At the risk of beating a dead horse, please bring me Tyrell Williams. The former Charger and current free agent has been a crush of mine for two years. He is outstanding in terms of physical skills, his metrics on a per-play basis are those of a top-10 and often top-5 receiver, and when he has been pushed into a larger role, he hasn’t had any kind of significant drop off. Williams is still in his prime and would bring a field-stretching veteran presence opposite Davante Adams while allowing the rookies from last season to develop in complementary roles. This probably won’t happen, but it should.
Peter Bukowski — S Earl Thomas
The case for the Packers making a big splash at safety won’t be a tough sell for Cheesehead Nation. After dealing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Mike Pettine had to move Tramon Williams to safety and that experiment was … fine. It did the job. Thomas is a field-tilter, the only safety in the class who can say that.
Green Bay can find a pass rusher, maybe two in the draft and we’ve seen Pettine’s defense thrives without edge guys who can dominate guys. Signing Thomas would give the Packers more freedom to use Josh Jones as a man coverage player and box attacker rather than deep. It will cost upwards of $12 million, but he’s the only star free agent DB who could be worth a star contract.
Guards can be found for cheap or later in the draft. Pass rushers abound in this draft class and there are some quality guys on the margins to fill in. Safety is the place Green Bay could really hit a home run with in free agency, so go get the best guy.