The 2019 season exceeded all expectations. The Green Bay Packers paid a big price for the shindig, however, and that realization is starting to kick in now that fans should start thinking about how the roster will look for the 2020 season.
General manager Brian Gutekunst had a clear plan for the post-McCarthy Packers. He invested lavishly in four players who were already established in the league, and he paid them based on the notion they were on their way to becoming stars – that dream has pretty much has come to pass. Few fans would now criticize the strategy, which helped produce a 13-3 record, a divisional championship, and two postseason games.
Gutekunst and the rest of the club’s front office felt the Packers needed to do something drastic to quickly restore the team to the powerhouse status it has enjoyed ever since 2010. Green Bay was in need of an instant turnaround, and Gutekunst and company made it happen.
The coming season might prove to be an even bigger challenge. Hang on fans, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
In acquiring Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos, and Billy Turner, the Packers raided the team’s treasury. As we approach the 2020 season, the Packers have a salary cap space of $29.4 million. They rank 21st in the league in cap space – the league’s average is $42.3M. This means the Packers aren’t in a position to be doing what they did in 2019: pursuing upper-tier free agents.
The reality is that it will be very difficult for the Packers to field as strong a team in the upcoming season as they did in the past season. Let’s look at a few of the obvious concerns.
Keeping Up with Inflation
To give you an idea of how fast NFL salaries are rising, spotrac.com has arrived at estimated market values for a handful of soon-to-be free agents. Here’s a sampling: WR A.C. Green $9.1M; DE Jadeveon Clowney $20M; WR Emmanuel Sanders $10M; QB Teddy Bridgewater $20M; T Bryan Bulaga $10.1M; QB Jameis Winston $26.7 M; WR Amari Cooper $19.7M; WR Randall Cobb $7.1M; SS Anthony Harris $13.8M; DE Chris Jones $19.2M; RB Derrick Henry $13.8M.
Given the above estimates, Gutekunst’s 2019 free market spending spree might prove to have been some great bargain-hunting.
Martinez / Goodson / Campbell
We had a good discussion of the Pack’s defensive leader just days ago (here). No matter how you rate the leader of the Pack’s defense, it’s difficult to envision how the Packers can be an improved team without him.
Blake was paid an average of $681,000 over the last four years – he played almost every defensive snap the last three seasons. Spotrac.com’s Free Agent Tracker now estimates his market value over the next five years to average – sit down please – $16.3 million. I guess Martinez fans need not feel so bad: Blake is soon going to be a rich man with some other NFL team.
For what it’s worth, B. J. Goodson, an inside linebacker acquired by the Packers acquired on September 2 – and who’s also about to become a free agent – has been paid an average of $730,000. Goodson was one of Gutekunst’s under-the-radar acquisitions – and a great bargain.
Joe Schobert, a Wisconsin alum whose name comes up among Packers fans, has been paid almost the same as Martinez over his first four years. Spotrac has yet to estimate his market value as a free agent.
The Packers might decide to stay in-house with Martinez’s replacement. In addition to Goodson, there is Ibraheim Campbell, a safety who has often played in the ILB slot for the Packers. Though he only played in seven games for the Pack in 2019, the coaches liked what they saw from him. His 2019 salary of $720,000 renders him a good bet to stay with the team in 2020.
Bulaga / Valdheer
30-year-old Bryan Bulaga had a fine year for the Packers, though he battles with injuries on an annual basis. Last December, the Packers brought Jared Valdheer out of retirement to relieve Bulaga, and the 32-year-old exceeded expectations.
My guess is that Green Bay would jump at the chance to sign Valdheer up, even for just a year, as a way to relieve themselves of Bulaga’s anticipated $10 million annual salary. The question is whether Valdheer wants to play or re-retire.
Mason’s 4-year contract, at just over $4M per year, is expiring. I’m sure Green Bay would like to keep the kicker who’s been reliable for them since 2007, but there are lots of promising kickers out there who could be had for a fourth of Mason’s likely asking price.
The ageless cornerback, who will be 37 in March, played on 73 percent of the defensive snaps last season, and turned in a solid performance. Pro Football Focus just graded him at number 30 among NFL corners – three players ahead of the more heralded Jaire Alexander. His 2-year $10M contract is about to expire.
Fackrell / Lancaster
Though Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry are secured for the 2020 season, Kyler Fackrell and Tyler Lancaster are about to become free agents. Neither distinguished himself last season, and neither did third-year man Montravius Adams. The Packers will likely try to upgrade their defensive line through free agency, trade, or the draft, though it’s unlikely they’ll invest a lot of money in doing so.
The coaches were thrilled with what Ervin, who was claimed off of waivers on December 2. He so impressed as a punt returner that the Packers would like to insert him at times as a wide receiver or running back. After earning $720,000 in 2019, Ervin is set to become a free agent. I’ll be surprised if the Packers don’t try to sign him to a three- or four-year deal, at three or four times his previous salary. You don’t want a speedy guy like this to get away.
On offense, those about to become free agents include receivers Jake Kumerow, Geronimo Allison, Allen Lazard, Robert Tonyan, and Marcedes Lewis. The Packers should try to sign up Lazard to a multi-year deal. The others might not be back unless no other team shows much interest in them. In my opinion, Kumerow has been under-used and deserves better, but Aaron Rodgers seldom looks his way.
On defense, cornerback 23-year-old Chandon Sullivan provided great value last year ($570,000), and he got significant playing time – a third of the defensive snaps and almost half of the special teams’ snaps. He’s likely to be offered a nice raise by the Packers. Free safety Will Redmond (26) is another minimum wage guy who could eventually develop into a starter, but he’s running out of time.
Brian Gutekunst has produced decidedly mixed results in the two drafts he’s headed up. The two times he’s selected an unconventional choice – Oren Burks in Round 3 of 2018 and Rashan Gary in Round 1 last year – the results to date have been dismal.
In 2019, Gutey started out with ten picks, including the 12th pick in most rounds. This time he’ll need hit after hit with his six picks (and one conditional), and despite choosing 30th out of 32 teams.