In an uninspiring free agent class and a top-heavy draft, those with no skin in the game can safely insist the Green Bay Packers would be better served to spend frugally in free agency at linebacker, while hoping for a top linebacker prospect to fall at 30. If this were Madden or The Draft Network mock draft simulators, such a strategy would be fine. But with jobs on the line and a Lombardi trophy at stake, it’s a risk the Packers cannot afford to take. Signing a linebacker to replace Blake Martinez not only fills a position of need, it unlocks the rest of the offseason for the Packers to add talent to bolster a roster ready-made to compete int he NFC.
After the top three linebackers in the draft, Isaiah Simmons, Kenneth Murray, and Patrick Queen, there won’t be much talent worth getting excited over among off-ball linebackers. Limited or niche players litter the list of players, with some too slow, others too small, and still others too inexperienced to be counted on right away.
Going into late April without a solid player already in place runs the risk of not landing a top talent and going into the offseason program without a proven player at linebacker places undue stress on the draft to find a player who may not even be capable of being the team’s signal caller on defense in 2020.
For a franchise in the midst of a Super Bowl window, that outcome looks far too dangerous.
This is particularly true in Mike Pettine’s defense, where his most-used personnel group was a 2-3-6 look with one true off-ball linebacker. His second-most personnel group was a 1-4-6, their hybrid dime with Kenny Clark and three outside linebackers on the field plus Martinez. In fact, the Packers only played a true 3-4-4 base on 20% of snaps last season and even some of those plays included guys like Ibraheim Campbell, Raven Greene and Adrian Amos playing “linebacker.”
It’s the quarterback of any defense, but on a team who only plays one guy most of the time, the pressure on that guy amplifies. Finding the right player can’t be left to a 50/50 coin flip in the draft, and that’s if someone good becomes available to take in the first place.
Free agency lacks sizzle when it comes to attractive options at linebacker, but the Packers turned a supposedly sizzle-free 2019 offseason into a scalding hot skillet of talent infusion. Reports link Green Bay to Cory Littleton, Joe Schobert, and Nick Kwiatkoski. Additional linebackers flood the class as teams look to cut salary. Tahir Whitehead and Christian Kirksey came on the market in the last few days, along with lower supplemental options like De’Vondre Campbell in free agency.
If the Packers want any of these players, particularly the top guys, they’re going to have to pay up. A league source expects Nick Kwiatkoski to get much closer money to the top guys than conventional wisdom, while suggesting a guy like Corey Littleton, presumably the top of the market, won’t get close to the C.J. Mosley deal from last year with $17.5 million annually. Something more like $11-13 makes sense.
Whitehead or Kirksey, the latter of whom would be an intriguing buy-low option coming off two straight injury plagued seasons, could come for less and either potentially brings starting experience to Lambeau.
Irrespective of who the player in question ultimately becomes, the signing of such a player unburdens the Packers when it comes to the rest of the offseason. In a deep offensive tackle and receiver class, Green Bay can approach the draft with patience, snagging the best player value when they draft. If there’s a great offensive tackle available at 30, draft him. If not, there will still be potential starting-caliber guys in rounds 2 and 3, allowing Brian Gutekunst to buck recent Packers history and tab a receiver with a first-round pick.
Adding good players makes the team better while allowing the team to be freer to add talent elsewhere. Yes, this is thrilling analysis. Except the shape of the draft makes it fundamentally different. A receiver at 62 or 94 could come in and play snaps for the Packers right away. Justin Jefferson would be awesome, but Donovan Peoples-Jones on Day 2 or even Devin Duvernay on Day 3 could inject juice into the Packers offense.
The assumption will be if Bryan Bulaga walks, Green Bay finds a way to bring back Jared Veldheer as well, but either way, an offensive linemen early will be in the cards. Given the depth of this class, if Josh Jones or Andrew Thomas doesn’t fall to 30, perhaps Ezra Cleveland or Prince Tega Wenogho are there at 62, providing future starter options at key positions. Matt Peart or Jack Driscoll in the third round aren’t far behind as useful pickups.
Not re-signing Bulaga or Veldheer, even if a precarious thought, doesn’t come with the same kind of risk by virtue of such a quality line class.
Missing out on Queen or Murray (Simmons isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s a hallucination) doesn’t provide the same backup plan. Even if the assumption is Wisconsin’s Zack Baun can play off the ball, it’s hard to imagine he can do that as the lone linebacker in Year 1 in the NFL while simultaneously making a transition off the ball. After that, Akeem Davis-Gaither may well be the most intriguing player, but he’s a small school kid from Appalachian State who has a foot injury.
After the top guys it’s bleak.
Still, Baun or ADG could be options if the Packers love them, even if a linebacker is already in the fold. Again, receivers and linemen can wait in a deep class. If they love Baun at 30—he’s the type of smart, versatile player Mike Pettine probably will love—the Packers can feel good about finding their receiver and offensive tackle later, while at the same time not relying on Baun to go it alone as a rookie.
Signing a linebacker wouldn’t preclude the Packers from drafting another one if one is there. But finding a guy they’re confident in, who can be that solo ‘backer on something close to 80% of snaps, provides enormous value to the defense while offering maximal flexibility to Gutekunst and the Packers front office the rest of the offseason.