NFL general managers have two key events each year: free agent acquisitions and departures, and the NFL draft. Brian Gutekunst stayed true to his form of a year ago when free agency officially opened on March 18. Last year he obviously had targeted certain players and signed them up immediately when the signing period began.
This year he did the same in acquiring inside linebacker Christian Kirksey and right tackle Rick Wagner. A few days later, Gutekunst also signed up veteran wide receiver Devin Funchess on what is being termed a 1-year prove-it deal.
As to departures, meaning non-renewals of certain players whose contracts were expiring, Gutekunst unsentimentally focused on players whose market prices were disproportionate to their perceived abilities. From the outset, it was obvious to most that TE Jimmy Graham, ILB Blake Martinez, and RT Brian Bulaga would not be re-signed – in Graham’s case, he was released in lieu of retaining him, at $10 million, for the final year of his three-year contract. Other such releases will likely occur prior to the opening of the season.
After four years of playing almost every defensive snap, Blake’s market value was more than the Packers could afford. On March 17, he reportedly agreed to a 3-year deal with the Giants for $30.75 million. What can undeniably be said about him is that he gave Green Bay a tremendous return on its investment: Blake was paid but $2.72 million over four years, an average of $680,000. In the past three years, Blake registered an incredible 443 tackles – by far the most in the NFL at any position.
In an attempt to fill the gap, the Packers quickly signed Christian Kirksey, who was the 71st overall pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2014. Kirksey has played all six years of his pro career with the Browns. The Kirksey deal was for $16 million and, somewhat surprisingly, only for two years.
Gutekunst took a calculated risk in taking Kirksey, who has played in only nine games in the past two seasons. In 2018, he was plagued by a hamstring injury, and in 2019 a chest injury on September 21 cost him the remainder of the season.
Kirksey is the typical size for an inside linebacker, at 6’3” and 235 pounds. His combine marks were nearly all below average, and in particular his bench presses (8th percentile) and vertical jump (25th percentile). He passed up the agility tests and 40-yard dash – though I believe he registered a fine 4.58 dash time at Iowa’s Pro Day event.
Kirksey did run up some impressive stats in the two years prior to 2018. In 2016, he had 148 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and three passes defended. In 2017, he had 138 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and five passes defended. If nothing else, he should be well rested.
Kirksey is considred a better pass defender than Martinez. He has 16 interceptions in his career, including five in both 2017 and 2018 – even though he played in only seven games in 2018.
In addition to the injury concerns, it is telling that the Browns chose to release him on March 10, after he’d spent six seasons with that club. Gutekunst is undoubtedly hoping that Kirksey was still getting better when the injuries occurred, and that he therefore can match or exceed his previous totals.
Even for the 2017 season, Pro Football Focus gave Kirksey an overall grade of only 59.6, ranking 52nd among all qualified linebackers. Kirksey is a high-risk acquisition. From an injury standpoint, a player who misses over half a season with a hamstring injury is worrisome. One must also wonder about someone who’s been sidelined for all but two games since October of 2018 – that’s a long time, mentally and physically, to be away from the fray.
Why would Gutekunst take such a risk? Because of the team’s weak financial position. Gutey was undoubtedly in search of a bargain: someone whose skills were disproportionally greater than his market value. It is likely that few teams were even interested in a player with Kirksey’s injury history.
It’s even more of a risk when you look at the team’s depth chart at inside linebacker: Ty Summers and Oren Burks are the only two others. I viewed B.J. Goodson as a capable performer alongside Martinez on those occasions in 2019 when Mike Pettine employed two ILBs simultaneously. But on March 20, Goodson signed a 1-year deal, apparently for $2.4 million, and not so conincidently with Kirksey’s former team, the Browns.
What was the Packers’ biggest defensive liability last season? It was defending against the run. And here we are in 2020, and outside of Kirksey, the Packers have no one of any proven ability at the ILB position. I predict that the Packers will be looking for an ILB at draft time who can come in and play (if needed) as a rookie. Due to the Kirksey, however, I don’t believe the Packers will expend an early round pick on an ILB at draft time. I’m thinking Round 4 – which happens to be when Ted Thompson, in one of his best picks ever, obtained Martinez.
I earlier wondered how Martinez would fare in comparison to another free agent ILB: Joe Schobert, who many Packer fans followed when he played for the Badgers from 2012 through 2015. Well. Schobert, who like Blake is 26 years old, and who was named to play in the Pro Bowl in 2017, signed on with the Jaguars on March 19. Because Jacksonville has the second highest salary cap in the league, versus the Pack’s 23rd highest, the Jags were comfortable with securing Schobert for five years: that deal is for $53.75 million, with $22.5 million guaranteed. So, Martinez and Schobert had their market value determined to be nearly identical, at $10M plus, while the Packers managed to get Kirksey for an average of $8 million.
The Packers’ ten-year veteran right tackle was thought to have a market value of about $10 million per season, which in turn was thought to be more than the Packers were willing to hand out. The thinking was spot-on, for on March 17 it was reported that Bryan had signed up with the Chargers for three years and $30 million, $19.25M of which is guaranteed. Given Bulaga’s chronic health issues, it seems likely that, as with Jimmy Graham’s three-year deal, Bryan will not be retained by the Chargers for more than two years.
To fill this gap, the Packers signed Rick Wagner to a two-year, $11 million contract – in other words, Wagner is to be paid just over half as much by the Packers as the Chargers are paying for Buluga’s services.
Wagner is an imposing 6’6” and weighs 315 pounds. Unlike Bulaga, who was a Round 1 selection by Green Bay in the 2010 draft, Wagner came into the league as a Round 5 pick by the Ravens in 2013. The 30-year-old former Wisconsin Badger switched over from the Ravens to the Lions in 2017. Though he had signed a five-year deal with Detroit, for $47.5 million, the Lions released him, three years into that deal, on March 13. Wagner has been solid and dependable over the course of his seven years as a pro; however, he has never been named to an All-Pro team or selected as a Pro Bowler.
Ranking the 2020 Free Agents
Just prior to the opening of the 2020 NFL free agent market, CBS Sports ranked various players as follows: Bryan Bulaga, 28; Joe Schobert, 36; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, 51; Blake Martinez, 56; Demarious Randall, 57; and Mike Daniels, 98. Neither Christian Kirksey nor Rick Wagner made this top-100 list.
Also for what it’s worth, prior to the opening of the free agent market, “nfltraderumors.com” published its ranking of the top 100 free agents. Here are the rankings of players with a connection to Green Bay: Mike Daniels, 18; Tramon Williams, 23; Clay Mathews, 42; Morgan Burnett, 43; Jered Veldheer, 63; Bashaud Breeland, 69; Geronimo Allison, 80; and Ty Montgomery, 82.
Two Critical Downgrades?
Back on February 2, I did a piece titled “After All the Partying, the Hangover Is Setting in.” The gist of the post was that the Packers, aided greatly by spending extravagantly on free agents in 2019, had good reason to celebrate their 14-4 record, NFC North division crown, and going two games deep into the playoffs. However, the club’s 2019 spending spree left precious little money for the pursuit of high-quality free agents in 2020.
Alas, such has come to pass. On paper, I’d say that the changes in personnel at inside linebacker and right tackle are significant downgrades from 2019.
Maybe Kirksey will resume or improve on his performances of 2016 and 2017, but that’s asking a lot of a guy who’s been mostly sidelined for the last year and a half.
As for Wagner, he has never performed close to the level of the guy he’ll be replacing. And since Wagner is only about a half year younger than Bulaga, he’s probably not going to get any better. Given the Packers’ finances, Wagner is a band-aid, not a long-term replacement.
In upcoming posts, I’ll look at the Packers’ tight end and wide receiver situations from the perspective of whether there’s been an upgrade or downgrade from the 2019 roster.