Packers offseason preview

Green Bay enters the offseason with plenty of free agents and nearly as many questions. The Packers came close to their sixth Super Bowl appearance in 2016 and will have plenty of money to spend in free agency. However, the Green and Gold has plenty of its own free agents it needs to figure out whether or not to keep. With the team cutting cornerback Sam Shields and running back James Starks, the Packers will have a little more than $40 million in cap space entering free agency. But, as I stated above, Green Bay has a number of its own free agents to re-sign.

There has been a debate who the top priority to re-sign this offseason should be. Some say linebacker Nick Perry, while some say guard T.J. Lang. Others say big-play tight end Jared Cook. All of the above should try to be re-signed before free agency begins next month, but I will say the biggest priority should be Cook. Just look at the production with and without Cook from Aaron Rodgers. With Cook on the field, Rodgers had 34 touchdowns and only three interceptions with a quarterback rating of 113.4, not to mention a record of 10-3. Without him, Rodgers had just a 15/6 touchdown to interception ratio and a pedestrian 92.3 quarterback rating. The Packers also lost four of the six games the tight end missed due to injury. Needless to say, the offense is much better with No. 89 on the field.

After only recording 12.5 sacks in his first four years with the team, Perry nearly doubled that total in 2016. The linebacker, who turns 27 in April, brought down opposing quarterbacks 11 times. That total led the team by three and a half over fellow free agent Julius Peppers. With Green Bay struggling to get a consistent pass rush, it would be wise to try to bring him back. The Packers will need to address outside linebacker in the draft and/or free agency as Datone Jones is also a free agent in addition to Perry and Peppers.

One of the more interesting free agent decisions will be who the Packers will re-sign between guards Lang and J.C. Tretter. They are two of the best in the free agent class at their position. On the surface, it may be easy. Lang has stated he would like to remain in Green Bay, but he turns 30 in September and giving a contract longer than three years would not be beneficial. He made the Pro Bowl this past season and is one of the best guards in the league. On the other hand, Tretter can play both guard and center for the Packers. He just turned 26, so giving him a long-term deal should not be a problem. This could be another decision like Ted Thompson was faced with early in his career as the Packers general manager when both Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle were free agents. Unlike that situation when Thompson let both walk, I have a feeling that one of them will be re-signed. There is no way the Packers can afford to keep both, but I think they’ll keep one.

I may be in the minority on this one, but I would bring back running back Eddie Lacy. It would have to be on a prove it one-year deal worth $3 million or so. Ty Montgomery was solid when given the opportunity as the starter, but I don’t think he is the long-term answer. He could be a player like Darren Sproles or Danny Woodhead and I would be more than happy with that. Back to Lacy, you can rip him for his weight, but he is the best one the team has. People talk about how Lacy had a down year last season, but before getting hurt, he was averaging 5.1 yards per carry. If Green Bay were to bring back Lacy, Cook and one of the guards, this offense will be tough to stop. Micah Hyde is another intriguing free agent. He had a big interception against Dallas in the playoffs and is a ball hawk at safety. He can play both cornerback (which he played at Iowa) and safety, but he does not have the speed to play corner much. He is a nice player, but I would not overpay to keep him.

To try to get a few more million in cap space, the team could also try to ask Randall Cobb and Clay Matthews to restructure their deals. Prior to 2015, Cobb signed a four-year deal worth $40 million. However, in 2016, the 26-year-old only hauled in 60 passes for 610 yards and four scores. I doubt he would be cut this offseason, but if he does not restructure and has another poor year in 2017, he will be gone next winter. Same goes for Matthews. The linebacker signed a five-year deal worth $66 million in April 2013. The past two seasons, he has just combined for 11.5 sacks and he just had 24 tackles and five sacks in 2016. He also missed four games this past season. Like Cobb, I don’t think he will be cut this offseason, but if he has a poor 2017, he will be shown the door as well.

And finally, Green Bay has plenty of needs heading into the 2017 season. The two top needs should be cornerback and outside linebacker, regardless if the team re-signs Perry or not. Obviously, things could change if they let both offensive linemen walk via free agency. One player who the Packers should look into bringing in is Connor Barwin, should he be released. First, this just makes sense, especially with Thompson liking bringing in recently released players since they don’t count against a possible compensatory pick. In 2014, Barwin had 14.5 sacks for the Eagles, but has only had a combined 12.5 the last two seasons after a coaching change moved him from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end. With Green Bay, he would move back to a 3-4 outside linebacker and would come relatively cheap for the Packers. He turns 31 in October, so I doubt it would be much more than a two-year deal, but he could be a steal for the Green and Gold.

In the draft, Green Bay could go cornerback early on, maybe even with multiple picks in the first two days. With Morgan Burnett entering the last year of his contract, I could very easily see the Packers drafting two cornerbacks in their first three picks and moving 2015 first round pick Damarious Randall to safety. One player I like is Washington cornerback Sidney Jones. He has terrific ball skills, which is what Thompson likes in a defensive back. One thing he needs to add, though, is weight and strength, or else he may be bullied by bigger wide receivers in the NFC North, such as Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery (if he re-signs). He also is from the Pac-12, which is where four of the past five Packers first round picks played. That doesn’t mean anything, but it is still interesting.

Also, regardless if the team re-signs Lacy and one of the offensive linemen, the Packers will need depth at those positions. Montgomery will be a very good third down back, but Green Bay should draft a running back fairly early, because when the team is rolling, the Packers have a solid 1-2 punch running the ball. One of the great things about Thompson is his ability to find good offensive linemen in the mid-rounds. He will look to do the same once again this draft.

As we inch toward free agency, we should expect to hear soon how many free agents Green Bay plans on retaining. Once again, Packers fans should not expect too much from Thompson during free agency. I do think Green Bay should utilize free agency a bit more, though. It does not have to be a major splash, but a few signings just to fill needs for the team would be big.