Even a year ago, writing an article like this seemed like fool’s gold. After all, Packers general manager Ted Thompson famously hasn’t signed an unrestricted free agent since the 2012 offseason. That player was defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, who was promptly cut before the season even started.
Fast forward a year, and Thompson, notorious for his draft-and-develop roster strategy, has shifted gears. One full week into the free agency period and Thompson has signed not one, but two free agents. TWO! The addition of athletic tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks signals a willingness from the Packers front office to adapt its tried-and-true strategy to better serve the team’s needs. It might help that the team’s franchise quarterback “wants to make sure we’re going all-in every year to win.”
Whatever the reason, Thompson’s sudden foray into the free agent market means he may still have another trick up his sleeve. Or maybe even two. Even as many of the top-tier free agents are signing with new teams, there are still many players on the market who can contribute in areas of need for Green Bay. With over $28 million left in cap room (not including Kendricks’ deal, of which the financial details are yet to be released), Green Bay has room to sign a few guys and still have room for rookie contracts and a little space to roll over into next season.
Eddie Lacy, 26
The most obvious target wouldn’t even have to change lockers. Lacy, who’s still only 26, represents an interesting case in free agency. When he’s healthy, we’ve seen how his bruising, play-extending running style adds a needed dynamic to Green Bay’s offense. Toss in solid pass blocking and even receiving skills, and Lacy’s skill set is a good fit in many pass-happy offenses. BUT, and it’s a big caveat, his running style and problems with weight management mean he isn’t always on the field to make an impact. Lacy averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry last season, but was only able to stay on the field for five games.
With big name running backs Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Latavius Murray all still looking for contracts, it’s hard to tell where the market stands for a free agent of Lacy’s ilk. When you compound the league’s pass-centric style with the influx of backfield talent in this year’s draft, free agent running backs simply aren’t a hot commodity. But with that said, the Packers need Lacy. This offense just wasn’t the same without him, and the emergence of Ty Montgomery has me salivating over the thought of the two of them complementing each other out of the backfield. Still, Thompson is wise to wait this one out. If another team overpays for Lacy then so be it. If not, Green Bay would be wise to bring the Alabama alum back on a two- or three-year deal in the $14 million range.
LeGarrette Blount, 30
Fresh off a Super Bowl victory, Blount has shown the ability to be incredibly effective when complemented by the threat of an elite passing offense. Blount is similar to Lacy in that he constantly creates yards after contact and seems to feed off breaking tackles, though he leaves a lot to be desired in the passing game. This shouldn’t scare the Packers away, though, because Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski can more than make up for Blount’s deficiencies in that department. Even coming off an 18-touchdown season, at 30 years old Green Bay shouldn’t have trouble signing Blount to a pretty reasonable deal, maybe something in the two-year, $8 million range. Blount’s age is less of a concern because he’s only averaged 167 carries per season, which is a little over half the volume a typical workhorse running back receives.
Rex Burkhead, 26
Burkhead has in no way been linked to Green Bay, but he’s going to provide nice value wherever he lands. With only 87 carries and 34 receptions to his name, Burkhead is somewhat of an unknown commodity and therefore won’t command a huge contract. But his legs are as fresh as it gets for someone with four years of league experience, and he averaged a robust 4.6 yards per carry this season while showing the ability to catch and block out of the backfield. It’s unlikely, but Burkhead would be a solid fit in Green Bay.
Connor Barwin, 30
Barwin is the best pass rusher available in free agency and would be an impressive way to replace Julius Peppers. The Packers are going to miss the locker room leadership of Peppers (and TJ Lang) along with his playmaking ability and versatility on the line. Barwin has two 11+ sack seasons to his name, but likely won’t demand a huge contract coming off a down year in Philadelphia. Green Bay is likely ready to give sophomores Dean Lowry and Kyler Fackrell more snaps, but signing a veteran pass rusher for the rotation will help keep legs fresh and add some pass rushing juice on third downs. Barwin fits the bill and feels a lot less risky than bigger names like DeMarcus Ware (34), Jarvis Jones (27), Chris Long (32), Elvis Dumervil (33), Dwight Freeney (37) and Paul Kruger (31). I still expect Green Bay to resign Datone Jones (26), but Barwin would provide needed depth at a key position.
Frostee Rucker, 33
I just really like the name Frostee Rucker. I think we can all agree it’s a name built for Lambeau.
Zach Brown, 27
After Dont’a Hightower, Brown is the best linebacker still available and will probably get paid like it coming off a 94-tackle season. Brown would certainly be an upgrade over any of Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez or Joe Thomas and can be a key cog in both the running and passing game due to his speed. This one is probably a pipe dream considering the money at stake, but Brown will likely make his next team very happy.
Gerald Hodges, 26
Hodges isn’t a household name, but he’s a solid, rangy middle linebacker with three straight seasons of 50+ tackles. He was the best run defender on the Niners last season, which isn’t exactly a huge compliment, though that’s due to reasons far beyond his control. He can cover the middle of the field, play up on the line in the run game, and likely won’t command a large contract despite his young age. It wouldn’t hurt to pair the Packers young trio of inside linebackers with someone who has three years of starting experience like Hodges. Other young inside linebackers with potential upside who likely won’t be overpaid are Jelani Jenkins (25) and Jon Bostic (25).
Nickell Robey-Coleman, 25
Robey-Coleman addresses a huge position of need at slot cornerback and still possesses plenty of upside at 25. He fell out of favor in Buffalo (which isn’t necessarily even a bad thing) despite allowing the second lowest passer rating of all slot cornerbacks last season, per Pro Football Focus. It’s very likely Thompson will try and upgrade the secondary via the draft, but as we’ve seen with the stagnation of Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, that’s not a guaranteed avenue towards success. After losing Sam Shields and Micah Hyde, Green Bay unquestionably needs to add several pieces to its secondary. If I had to pick one signing on this list, it would be Robey-Coleman. Other young-ish corners worth looking at include Morris Claiborne (27), Deshawn Shead (28), Kayvon Webster (26), Sterling Moore (27) and former Packer Davon House (27).
Brandon Flowers, 31
Flowers is an interesting case. Even at 31, Flowers is one of the better corners in the league, consistently grading positively by Pro Football Focus. The caveat, however, is that he excels in zone coverage and tends to struggle in press-man coverage. Green Bay deploys a pretty solid mix of zone and man, so Flowers would likely be a solid fit in Dom Capers’ scheme. He’s a capable tackler and would already be the best corner on the roster from day one. Assuming Green Bay drafts a defensive back or two, it would still make sense to sign a veteran corner who can help bridge the gap for the next two years. Other veteran stop-gap options include Terence Newman (38), Alterraun Verner (28) and fan favorite Tramon Williams (34).
Only time will tell if Thompson will continue to surprise the league and fortify the roster via free agency. Or most likely he just wasted both your time and my time and will sign 15 undrafted rookie free agents to fill out the rest of the roster.