When the offseason rolls around, Brian Gutekunst channels his best John Locke from Lost impression: Don’t tell me what I can’t do. In a brief two-offseason span, the Green Bay Packers’ general manager proved he’s willing to use every arrow in his front office quiver to improve the team, from attempting to steal restricted free agents, cutting beloved veterans at the end of their careers, taking big swings with big-money free agent deals, and attempting to swing blockbuster trades.
In some seasons, the biggest names and the best players to hit free agency are players whose contracts weren’t slated to be up when the league year ended in March. Teams prioritize youth, hoping to maximize their young players, as the Packers did with Mike Daniels last offseason. Sometimes this provides opportunities to get bargain prices on solid players, or opens the door to sign a really good player still with juice in his legs who merely wasn’t part of the long-term plan for his old team.
For Brian Gutekunst and Russ Ball, their plan for free agency will undoubtedly adjust as these players become available, and three possible salary cap cuts could intrigue them. These players have connections to the Packers coaching staff and bring critical upgrades at potential need positions.
The other bonus for Gutekunst and Co. comes from compensatory picks. Cut players don’t figure into the comp pick calculations, which means the Packers can be aggressive signing these guys without worrying about it affecting their compensatory picks in 2021.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
One of the Super Bowl heroes already knows he’s likely out the door, answering questions in the run up to the big game in Miami by saying he’s mulled his next move and it includes a new super team or a possible gap year.
If he’s not going to backpack through Europe, the Packers make sense as a possible destination, particularly after they showed interest when he hit the market in 2018. Kansas City saves $14 million from releasing Watkins, though still suffering through $7 million in dead cap. If it helps the Chiefs sign Patrick Mahomes, they may view that cost as collateral damage, a necessary tax on keeping the best player in the league.
Watkins knows Matt LaFleur from their brief time together in Los Angeles, brings speed and big-play ability, and is the same age, 26, as the marquee free agents from Gutekunst’s class last season. His inconsistent hands and injury history raises fewer red flags when he doesn’t have to be “the guy” opposite Davante Adams, and Spotrac estimates his market value more than $1 million less per year than Robbie Anderson, for a much more proven player with high pedigree.
If Watkins hits the market, and it’s widely expected he will, expect Gutekunst to have interest.
Taylor Gabriel, WR, Chicago Bears
Think of Gabriel as the cost-effective version of Watkins. He doesn’t possess the same upside as a playmaker, but the best thing he does is create down the field and Gabriel excelled more as a do-it-all type for the Bears two seasons ago than many expected he would. Chicago would save $4.5 million with his release to make room for Riley Ridley, Anthony Miller, and Javon Wims.
Gabriel shined in Atlanta in 2016 under LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan creating downfield, averaging a robust 16.5 yards per catch on 35 grabs with 6 touchdowns, the best scoring year of his career. Despite his diminutive stature, which could put him outside the range where Gutekunst wants to be with receivers, Gabriel would offer significantly more reliability as the shot play receiver than Marquez Valdes-Scantling provides on the current roster.
His price also projects to under half of what it would cost for a player like Watkins or Anderson, making him an appealing value for a Packers team without a hoard of cash to spend.
Marcell Dareus, DL, Jacksonville Jaguars
When Blake Martinez played his best and the Packers had a stout defense (Yes, that’s actually a thing that happened ... and relatively recently too!), Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels could overpower opposing offensive lines, eating up two blockers each at times. The fit with Clark and Daniels together, with Daniels physically more suited to be an undersized nose tackle or three technique could have rendered Clark redundant, but Clark played all over the defensive line with alacrity, sliding out to five technique with regularity.
Mike Pettine’s transformation into a full-time nickel defense further renders those fit questions moot. He wants to play two defensive linemen with the Smith Bros on the outside. Adding some beef to the interior would make that proposition much easier.
Jacksonville saves an absurd $20 million by not exercising their 2020 option on Marcell Dareus, at one point in his career one of the best interior players in football. A contract dispute and questions about his attitude got him out of Buffalo, where he’d played for Pettine in 2013 and had the best season of his career to date at the time.
Think of Dareus as the 2020 version of Mo Wilkerson, a veteran reclamation project of sorts, someone Pettine knows, and whose traits as a hulking force in the middle, even diminished from his prime, offer a boost to Green Bay’s interior run defense.
When the Jaguars signed him, they provided less than $8 million guaranteed over two years, which suggests the Packers could sign him for even less going into his age-30 season. At that price, the talent risk and traits make perfect sense for Packers.