The Green Bay Packers have seventeen players set to hit free agency in one way or another this March, and the team is working with agents at the NFL Scouting Combine to work through some contract discussions. For example, a report on Thursday from ESPN said that B.J. Raji's agent met with the Packers' Russ Ball to touch base on the two parties' interest in Raji returning.
However, when head coach Mike McCarthy spoke to the media on Thursday, his discussions of a few members of the Packers' 2015 draft class may have shed some insight into the Packers' plans for two veteran players who have been in Green Bay for the past several years.
McCarthy brought up fullback John Kuhn in a discussion with Packers media on Thursday, bringing him up when he was asked about two-running back formations:
Frankly, I think we might be one of the few or the only team that had two fullbacks on its roster. I still believe in it, it's been productive for us. John Kuhn's gone to the Pro Bowl twice now. And really running the football, three receivers two backs has been a really good personnel group for us.
After that praise of Kuhn, Acme Packing Company asked McCarthy about what role he envisions second-year pro Aaron Ripkowski filling in 2016. The coach was less than effusive in his description of the Oklahoma back's grasp of the offense, and regarding Kuhn, pay close attention to the final sentence:
I'd like to see Rip take a big step with the offense. He needs to get the details down. I thought he was a good special teams player for us and he definitely can be one of our core players. For a fullback with his size, how he's built, he did a really good job with open-field tackling. I was impressed with a number of things he did, the ability to be on the punt team and just become that core guy on special teams, but also compete with John Kuhn to play more on offense.
We infer from that comment about competition that McCarthy fully expects Kuhn to return to the Packers. Kuhn signed a one-year contract last offseason for the veteran minimum salary, and despite another Pro Bowl appearance, he will be 34 when the regular season starts and should not command a higher price tag this season
Still, Ripkowski will have a spot on the 53-man roster due to his special teams contributions, and should have the opportunity to carve out a role on offense for himself. If he does indeed make a significant improvement in the backfield, he could make Kuhn expendable in training camp; that makes it a possibility that even if Kuhn is re-signed, the Packers could cut him loose before the regular season begins.
McCarthy's comments about another free agent player made his return far more questionable than Kuhn's, however.
Earlier in McCarthy's formal press conference, he was asked about quarterback Brett Hundley, who impressed greatly in the preseason before serving as the Packers' third-string quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers and Scott Tolzien. Instead of jumping in about Hundley, McCarthy's first comments were about Tolzien, who will be an unrestricted free agent shortly as well:
First off, Scott Tolzien did a great job for us. I can't tell you how much he was a part of not only our quarterback room, but our locker room.
Note McCarthy's use of the past tense in those sentences - "did" and "was." This sounded like a coach who is thanking a player for his past service to the team after he has already departed, not one who expects that player to return. Hundley certainly showed enough promise in his rookie year to earn him a chance to compete for the backup quarterback job at the very least, but to hear Tolzien be discussed like a former player was a bit surprising.
However, McCarthy's apparent expectation that Tolzien will depart may also be due to external factors. Tolzien reportedly drew interest last year from teams looking for players to compete for a starting quarterback job, so it is possible that McCarthy expects a similar demand for the former Badger's services in 2016. He did play well again in the 2015 preseason and did nothing that should cause a team to downgrade him compared to last offseason.
McCarthy did go on to discuss Hundley's early performance in training camp and his progression overall:
But as far as Brett Hundley, yes, I'm excited about Brett. I think if you go back and watch him play in the preseason, it speaks volumes. He did a check of a job. He's really come on fast. He's doing what you're supposed to do. He's taken every note from Aaron and Scott. He has really dove into the offense. Very bright young man. Very athletic. Boy, I'm glad we have him.
I think the first (preseason) game was probably normal for a rookie quarterback. He just got comfortable and was out there making plays. Plays very systematic as far as staying in clean plays when he was given a run-pass option. Brett Hundley has a very bright future.
Certainly, the Packers coach is excited about what he has in his backup quarterback. Based on these comments, we expect Tolzien to end up elsewhere and Green Bay to go into the 2016 NFL Draft with just two quarterbacks on their roster.
Free agency opens on March 9th, and Kuhn and Tolzien will be just two of the Packers who will hit the market at that time. Check out the full list of free agent Packers here.