A lot has happened since we took a look at potential free agent options for the Packers just over two weeks ago. As a refresher, this offseason has a markedly different feeling than those of the past few years. Prior to this year, Ted Thompson famously hadn’t signed an unrestricted free agent since 2012, when he signed defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and cut him before the season started. Thompson has impressively signed four free agents during the 2017 offseason and still has the cap room to continue improving the roster.
The additions of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, while exciting, aren’t news anymore. Since then, however, Thompson has signed former Packer cornerback Davon House and former Washington Football Club defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois to one-year contracts. Signing veteran free agents at positions of need is a significant shift from Thompson’s stubborn draft-and-develop strategy and shows he’s finally willing to adapt to the modern game. After the Falcons, Giants and Raiders all witnessed significant improvement correlated to offseason signings – and compounded by Green Bay’s clear top-heavy roster alignment – Thompson realized it’s time to explore other avenues toward success.
Still, it hasn’t all been roses in Green Bay so far. Since the last writing, the Packers have lost Eddie Lacy to the Seahawks, T.J. Lang to the Lions, Datone Jones to the Vikings and Jared Cook to the Raiders, all of whom have been key contributors in the past. As things currently stand, the roster’s most pressing needs are at (roughly in order): cornerback, guard, edge rusher, running back and middle linebacker. Even as the initial free agent frenzy has quieted down, there are still several players awaiting deals who can certainly contribute on the field. With roughly $21 million in room under the salary cap, Thompson has the resources to bring in one or two free agents while still keeping enough room to sign the team’s draft picks and have a bit leftover to help extend players like Davante Adams, Corey Linsley and maybe even Aaron Rodgers.
Running back was arguably the biggest roster issue in the wake of Lacy’s departure, though resigning Christine Michael took some of the pressure off. Michael has shown flashes of elite talent throughout his young career, and he figures to be much more comfortable in Green Bay’s offense with a full offseason of practices with the team. But he’s still a pretty big question mark considering several teams have already quit on him in his career. Somewhat contradictorily, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy stated the team needed more bodies at running back while also explaining he believes Ty Montgomery “has that ability” to be a number one running back. Essentially, while Ty has the potential to be the team’s go-to guy, the roster still needs backfield depth and an in-case-of-emergency backup plan. Considering this year is a pretty loaded class for running backs, it’s reasonable to think Thompson will try and fix this hole via the draft. If not, there’s a few options he can target through free agency.
Jamaal Charles, 30
Everyone is asking whether or not the Packers should sign Adrian Peterson, which is odd considering the team reportedly passed on an opportunity to have him visit Green Bay. What’s even more surprising is how quiet Charles’ offseason has been despite the two being in similar situations. Both are coming off lost seasons due to injury and are in their early thirties, though Charles has less mileage on his speedy legs. He would probably command less money, and could play a receiver/running back hybrid role that gives Rodgers another dangerous weapon. If the team is sold on Montgomery as a true “number one” guy, then it makes sense to bring in a pass catcher as the third back, and Charles fits the bill. He’d also likely be more effective in a role that minimizes his touches and can keep his legs fresh. Other veteran pass-catching specialists available are Bobby Rainey (29) and Dexter McCluster (28) who could likely be signed for a cheap deal similar to what Michael received.
Brandon Bolden, 27
Bolden is more of a special teams gunner than pure backfield member, which is a positive more than it is a negative. After a down special teams year, it never hurts to add someone who specializes in special teams coverage and can still make plays out of the backfield in a pinch. Bolden actually averaged 4.9 YPC on 111 carries his first two seasons in the league before honing his special teams craft, which means his legs are as fresh as it gets for a veteran.
Ronnie Hillman, 25
How is Ronnie Hillman only 25? Last year was an incredibly down year for Hillman as he bounced from the Broncos to the Vikings to the Chargers in the span of a few months. Still, he’s only one season removed from rushing for 863 yards and seven touchdowns on 4.2 YPC without missing a game. It’s important to remember he was running behind a terrible offensive line for all three teams he was on, and he was pretty low mileage for a guy with five years of experience under his belt. Considering his age and the guaranteed cheapness of his contract, Hillman could present plenty value as a third string back.
Jahri Evans, 34
Considering Thompson has somehow found Corey Linsley (fifth round), David Bakhtiari (fourth), JC Tretter (fourth), TJ Lang (fourth) and Josh Sitton (fourth) all in the middle of the draft, it’s almost a guarantee he tries to replace Lang with a mid-draft selection. But considering sophomores Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy are both tackles, and Aaron Rodgers is in his prime, it’s not the worst idea to sign a savvy veteran as a one-year stopgap at the guard position. Evans’ play has certainly fallen off from his days as an elite lineman in New Orleans, but he’s still decent and has plenty of experience to bring to the locker room. Still, with such slim pickings at interior line on the market, it’s very likely Thompson uses the draft to replace Lang.
Paul Kruger, 31
Kruger is only two full seasons removed from recording 11 sacks, but his production has fallen off dramatically the last two years. To be fair, he was playing on the talent-deficient defenses in Cleveland and New Orleans, and it’s reasonable to believe his production would tick back up with all the attention on Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Mike Daniels. Kruger has veteran experience and likely would be very cheap, which are two of the key value finding propositions of this article. The other defensive linemen on the market who are similarly past their best production but still have something left in the tank are Elvis Dumervil (33) and Dwight Freeney (37). Dumervil never looked the same after returning from offseason foot surgery last year, so Freeney is the preferred option after still providing pressure on Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. He could fill the void of Julius Peppers’ locker room leadership.
Zach Brown, 27
As easily one of the best inside linebackers available this offseason, it’s surprising Brown is still available. He’s reportedly narrowed his decision down to the Dolphins and Raiders, but that he’s still available tells me he hasn’t been wowed by any team’s pitch. It would be a stretch for Thompson, but signing Brown would address one of the team’s biggest needs and would take some pressure off guys like Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas, Blake Martinez, Daniels and Matthews.
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. Jon Bostic (25) is another young inside linebacker with potential upside who likely won’t get overpaid. This would be one of my top choices of everyone on this list. With the market seemingly down for inside linebackers, it’s possible Hodges could be snagged at a discount.
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. Robey-Coleman joins Hodges as the other top choices on the list. As an added bonus, Robey-Coleman was cut by Buffalo, which means Thompson wouldn’t have to give up one of his precious compensatory draft picks to make the signing.
Brandon Flowers, 31
Flowers is an interesting case. Even at 31, he 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 decent 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 Alterraun Verner (28) and fan favorite Tramon Williams (34).