Brian Gutekunst may have spoiled Green Bay Packer fans with last year’s free agency splurge, nabbing four quality starters in Za’Darius and Preston Smith, Adrian Amos, and Billy Turner. With far less cap space to work with—and pending contract extensions for Kenny Clark, Aaron Jones, and David Bakhtiari— the Green Bay Packers dug through the bargain-bin to find replacements for starters on offense and defense.
After the beat-down by the 49ers in the NFC Conference Championship, Matt LaFleur stuck by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and has opted to further tweak his staff entering year two. First, defensive backs coach Jason Simmons was replaced by longtime Vikings defensive backs coach and former player Jerry Gray. Gray coached the rise of Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith with a combined 8 Pro Bowls and 3 All-Pro selections between the two. Packers fans can home Gray can hone similar development to Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage.
Review the Vikings free agency here
On the offensive side of the ball, fans were clamoring to see who would be named receivers coach following the firing of Alvis Whitted. After weeks of silence, the front-office chose to promote internally, giving the bumping Jason Vrable up from his previous position of offensive assistant. Last season saw the roles of Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison diminish, while Allen Lazard ascended from practice-squad fodder to WR2. Hopefully the former were the result of Whitted and the latter influences of Vrable.
Returning to The Pack
K Mason Crosby – In the first move of free-agency, Green Bay kept their all-time leading scorer Mason Crosby. A no-brainer move that keeps the special teams unit intact. (3 years, $12.9 million, $4 million guaranteed)
RS/RB Tyler Ervin – “Swervin'” Ervin might have been the most valuable mid-season addition last year. 12 games into the season, the net punt-return total yardage was negative 8 yards. Negative 8. After claiming Ervin off waivers, he ended the season with 106 yards from punt-returns. He also provided LaFleur a gadget-running back option. (1 year, $1 million)
All 5 RFAs – Receivers Allen Lazard and Jake Kumerow will try to prove their 2020 campaigns weren’t a fluke. Robert Tonyan will compete again in the tight end room after undergoing core muscle surgery. Tyler Lancaster will return as a run-stuffing defensive tackle; albeit hopefully in a more rotational role. Chandon Sullivan will look to remain as a core special-teamer and perhaps take on the slot-cornerback position in full.
Departing from Green Bay
RT Bryan Bulaga – The beloved anchor signed a 3 year, $30 million contract with the Los Angeles Chargers. Green Bay hasn’t been shy about letting aging offensive linemen go in the past. This year proved no different. Aaron Rodgers will have to put his trust in someone new for the remaining years of his career. This should net the team a 5th round compensatory pick in 2021.
MLB Blake Martinez – He was a great leader and durable player for the team, but his athletic deficiencies really showed in Mike Pettine’s scheme last season. Even though he racked up 512 tackles in 4 seasons—bested only by Bobby Wagner in that time frame—Martinez was a liability in coverage and relied heavily on the defensive line play in front of him. Had Martinez entered the league 20 years ago, he’d be an excellent fit, but in the hyper-passing league of today, Pettine will look for a more athletic specimen to man his single-backer front. Martinez signed a 3 year, $30 million contract with the New York Giants. This should translate to a 4th round compensatory pick in the 2021 draft.
TE Jimmy Graham – Gutekunst’s first error as General Manager, Jimmy Graham failed to meet expectations. Graham did not finish his three year contract as a result. This would net Green Bay $8 million in much needed cap space. This cut signifies the team’s confidence in Jace Sternberger taking the role of “move “tight end with his ability to stretch the field vertically. Graham latched onto the rival Chicago Bears, signing a 2 year, $16 million contract. Graham will not grant the Packers a compensatory draft pick due to being cut.
OLB Kyler Fackrell – Fackrell never emerged as anything more than a solid depth piece. His sack numbers are more representative to his clean-up ability than his pass-rush finesse. Still, Fackrell was a nice player to have and his absence will need to be filled by a step up from Rashan Gary in year two. Fackrell will join Martinez in New York with a 1 year, $4.6 million contract.
MLB B.J. Goodson – Acquired via trade with the Giants shortly before the 2019 season began, Goodson was a fine run-defender and special teams contributor, if nothing else. His inability to cover resulted in a low snap count, but was credited for a few key goal-line stops. Green Bay should like to find a similar run-defender in the draft. Goodson signed a 1 year, $2.4 million contract with the Cleveland Browns.
FB Danny Vitale – The amount of teams in the NFL still employing a fullback on the 53 grows slimmer each year, but LaFleur used Vitale considerably. The athletic mismatch provided Aaron Rodgers a a dynamic threat out of the backfield. When injuries sidelined Vitale, Sternberger stepped into the H-Back role with relative ease. Whether LaFleur will expect Sternberger to further embody that role or look to the draft for a replacement is yet to be seen. Vitale signed a 1 year, $1.3 million deal with the New England Patriots.
WR Geronimo Allison – Expected to step into the WR2 role in 2019, Allison severely disappointed. One could argue that stepping into the slot role was unfit for him, but his biggest problems lie in his hands. His 9.1% drop rate was 5th worst in the NFL, according to Pro Football Reference. He’ll try and find his footing again with the Detroit Lions, signing a 1 year, $1 million prove-it deal.
Review the Lions free agency here
Green Bay could opt to bring back defensive backs Tramon Williams and Ibraheim Campbell after the draft, as they remain on the open market. Campbell started in the dime linebacker spot for most of the year, but the team could search for a better option in the draft. Williams played very well in the slot in 2019, despite turning 37 in March. Williams has stated his interest in returning to Green Bay. Jared Veldheer also remains unsigned.
With less cap space to work with, Brian Gutekunst stated he’d have to get more creative with how he attacks free agency. He ultimately only signed three players, two of which were cuts from their former teams and thus won’t count against compensatory draft picks.
MLB Christian Kirksey – To replace Blake Martinez in the middle of the field, Gutekunst signed a player familiar to Mike Pettine and thus should grasp the scheme quickly. Christian Kirksey played the first two seasons of his six year career under Mike Pettine. His leadership and bright personality should show both on and off the field, filling the shoes of Martinez well enough.
Injuries have hindered his career as of late, being the primary factor in his release from Cleveland. While he suited up for every game of his first four seasons, the last two seasons have been cut short by injury, playing only 9 of the past 32 games. Kirksey tore a pectoral tendon in week 2 last season and a hamstring strain in 2018 during week 7. Both injuries resulted in placement on IR.
Kirksey should be an upgrade over Martinez. Kirksey is proficient in finding alleys, snuffing out screens, and operates with more athleticism than Martinez. He’s no freak, but has enough speed to see the field on all three downs. Kirksey is an excellent blitzer, garnering 22 hits QB hits and 11.5 sacks over the course of his career. Pettine loves to utilize anyone he can to get to the quarterback. Kirksey isn’t great at shedding blocks, though still an improvement over Martinez. Kirksey can miss tackles at times.
The Packers signed Kirksey to a 2 year, $13 million contract with only $4 million guaranteed. The cap hit will only amount to $4.125 million in 2020. Green Bay has an out if the results are undesirable, as they can cut him in 2021 with only $2 million in dead cap. If he remains on the team, the cap hit will increase to $8 million.
If Kirksey can put the injuries behind him, he’ll be an upgrade over Martinez and a better scheme fit in almost every way. He will not count against any compensatory draft picks in 2021. Kirksey will retain his jersey number of 58.
RT Ricky Wagner – While Kirksey is expected to be an upgrade over Martinez, the same might not be true for Wagner, who has the large shadow of Bulaga to fill.
Scheme fit shouldn’t be an issue. Wagner’s skill set profiles similarly to Bulaga. Wagner is best as a pass-protector. He has a quick get-off and puts up a good fight, but often struggles to anchor. He isn’t the most consistent player as there are times where speed-rushers blow right past him. If he can’t anchor quick enough, it’s typically goodnight.
Like Kirksey, Wagner has struggled to stay on the field. In his seven year career, he’s only suited up for every game once. That’s not to say he’s entirely made of glass. He’s played at least 12 games of the 6 seasons as a starter. He missed four games last year with the Lions, resulting in his release. Wagner’s signing will not count against compensatory picks in 2021 as a result.
Wagner signed a 2 year, $11 million contract with $5.75 million guaranteed. Structured similarly to Kirksey’s contract, the team will be able to cut Wagner in 2021 incurring only $1.75 million in dead cap should his results be unsatisfactory. Should Wagner remain on the team, his cap hit would be $6 million in 2021.
If Wagner plays how he did in Baltimore, the level of play should be only slightly less than what Bulaga provided. If he plays how he did in Detroit, especially last season, Green Bay should hope a draft pick can provide an alternative option. He will retain his jersey number of 71.
WR Devin Funchess – Fans clamored for a new weapon for Aaron Rodgers. With rumors of Austin Hooper and Robby Anderson circulating before the frenzy, some were disappointing to find Devin Funchess was the ultimate decision.
It is a bit peculiar that Green Bay would seek out Funchess, who profiles similarly to the big-bodied Allen Lazard. Both played tight-end in college. Funchess weighs in at 6’4″ and 225lbs, just one inch shorter than Lazard. Funchess profiles as another big target on the perimeter who can use his physicality and large wingspan to grab touch to reach passes. Despite his size, he’s not terribly slow and his route-running is rather acceptable for his size. He struggles with concentration drops. Funchess will need to fix that in order to gain the trust of Aaron Rodgers.
Funchess served as a primary target for Cam Newton in Carolina. While he never seemed to reach his maximum potential, never eclipsing 900 yards, the Colts saw enough to sign him to a 1 year, $10 million contract. A broken collarbone in the first game of the season saw that they too would not see his full potential.
Now Funchess gets another shot with a much more talented passer. Funchess will only be guaranteed $1 million for 1 year, though he can earn up $2.5 million. If Funchess wants to get another big contract in 2021, he’l have to prove it this season. Funchess is competing with Allen Lazard and whichever rookies are drafted for the WR2 position. While he might not be the answer fans were looking for, he should be an upgrade over Geronimo Allison and provide another big red zone target for Aaron Rodgers.
Seeing as Funchess was an UFA, his singing will likely cancel out the 7th round compensatory pick received from B.J. Goodson. With 17 already taken, Funchess will wear number 11 in Green Bay
Looking to the Draft
With free agency resulting in mostly lateral moves from the team, Green Bay should still look to find another wide receiver, a future right tackle, and yet another inside linebacker. In 2019, the team signed two edge rushers, a guard, and a safety in free agency. The team went on to draft an edge rusher, a safety, and a guard with their first three picks.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect Gutekunst would follow a similar pattern this year. The team should hope to find quality starters and developmental players in the draft if they want another shot at making it anywhere in the twilight years of the Aaron Rodgers era.