Today teams can begin to talk to free agents whose contracts are set to expire in a couple days. While no contracts can be executed until 4:00 New York time on Wednesday, teams can enter into negotiations with the representatives of players. The free agent frenzy has begun. There are already rumors that the Packers are hard after Trumaine Johnson, there are of course no guarantees. But with the trade of Damarious Randall, the Packers would be hard pressed to lean on the draft alone to complete their backfield.
With Randall, the locker room pariah, out, there is work to do on a defensive backfield that has Morgan Burnett set to hit free agency, and Josh Jones needing to make the second year leap at the safety position and a plethora of question marks at the now-absent-Randall cornerback position. Rollins and King will presumably be healthy along with Demetri Goodson but that group along with Davon House, who signed a one year deal last year hardly make the cupboard seem full even if they all are retained. Guys like Hawkins, Pipkin, and Brown flashed from time to time but are question marks as well.
The cornerback position was one of the most talked about in Packer Nation before the Randall trade but now the Packers have to looking to spend a high round draft pick and/or get a deal done with Johnson or one of the other veteran free-agents available. And that number (of free agents) will quickly shrink as top-tier free agent corners are coveted in the NFL. Talks with Johnson had better be quick and decisive…but how decisive can they be?
The beginning of free agency also means that Kirk Cousins is about to get paid…big. Oh, and btw, a guy named Drew Brees is also going to get paid. Aaron Rodgers’ deal will take a good chunk of salary cap space (currently 12.46%) and while Russ Ball likely has a good idea what that number will be as a percentage of the overall cap, it may tie the hands of a Packers front office that could use to sign both Johnson and Wilkerson if the money is available. I think it unlikely that we can sign both but the Packers have a little over 17 million in spendable cap room but even if they can keep Rodgers number at roughly the same percentage, they will be hurting to bring in top tier free agents. The writing is on the wall…Rodgers is going to make a lot of money. Russ Ball is going to have his work cut out for him if the Packers are going to be in the conversation and it seems likely that they may again be the wall flower of the free agency period.
However, Russ Ball is as good as it gets at structuring deals that are team friendly and while this may be the critical week of what is almost the new league year, I am hopeful that the team can at a minimum replace Randall with a solid vet. The extra picks in this year’s draft will be critical regardless and that is when Brian Gutekunst and the team will have to shine. But this week all of Packer Nation will be waiting for news that the team in fact got a deal done to shore up a shallow and battered secondary that wasn’t exactly loaded with talent to begin with.
While team friendly deals can help the Aaron Rodgers contract situation and in turn help the salary cap situation, the other elephant in the room is whether current high dollar vets are willing to take re-structure deals. Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb are all taking up a lot of space and it will be interesting to see if the team tries to squeeze them for cash. It is difficult to believe that in light of the number that Aaron Rodgers is about to be paid, that they will be interested in a pay cut but again…Russ knows how to structure but some big decisions may be coming…soon.
Regardless, the sooner the Packers can get a contract with Aaron Rodgers, the better. While Rodgers is more than happy to wait and I can’t see him signing before Kirk Cousins who would then get paid more than Aaron Rodgers, if Drew Brees hits the market (and he is fielding calls even as we speak), teams like the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns have cap room galore. It is a critical time in the Rodgers era.
When the dust clears on free agency, hopefully we gain more than we lose. Aaron is critical and the draft is yet to come. But the Packers can ill afford a net loss in free agency. Those 12 picks will be nice this year but brininging in and retaining top free agents should be part of the master plan. The Packers have needs at pass cornerback and pass rusher on defense and on offense the tight end and O-line positions have depth/play-maker problems and injury question marks respectively.
If the Packers can sign a veteran cornerback from the free agent pool, I will have to be satisfied, even though I think we need more. Brian Gutekunst has said he wants the Packers to be in every conversation, it is time for him to make good. But the conversation with Aaron Rodgers is first and it is going to be an expensive one. Time for this new leadership to make its mark by signing their franchise quarterback and getting in one or two necessary pieces before the draft. With the time it takes to develop cornerbacks and the dearth of talent at pass-rusher in this year’s free agent pool, I hope we sign Johnson and snag a pass-rusher in the draft. But the offense is in need too, there is much to do to ensure that our O-line is not as porous and injury riddled as it was during the first quarter of the 2017 season. We need a tight end that can make plays at all levels and block, not just “stretch the field”. And we have to be looking to the future at the wide receiver position. The number 14 pick and the lead-off picks in the 4th and 5th should help.
This is what makes this an exciting off-season. And it starts now.
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