A look at the Packers options and potential plans for the offensive side of the ball as free agency opens up for the 2019 season.
Might be the only position on the roster not in need of an upgrade. Obviously Aaron Rodgers, despite something of a subpar 2018 season, is among the best at the position today, and for that matter of all time. Deshone Kizer failed to impress in limited opportunities, but all indications are that the organization still thinks highly of his potential and has every intention of going into 2019 with the former Notre Dame star as their number two man under center. Kizer has been a victim of circumstances in the early stages of his NFL career. Coming into the NFL as a third year sophomore is difficult enough as it is, but Kizer will also be working with his third head coach, his third offensive coordinator, his third quarterback coach and will have to digest his third new playbook in three pro seasons. This lack of stability has undoubtedly stunted Kizer's growth as a professional quarterback, but he still possesses enough pure physical talent to keep the organization optimistic about his future and should keep him in town as Rodgers' backup for at least one more season. Kizer's presence, along with that of 2018 undrafted rookie Tim Boyle who earned his way on the 53 man roster during an impressive preseason a year ago make it unlikely the Packers have any intention of tapping the free agent market or the 2019 draft class at the quarterback position, though for the right price Blake Bortles could be worth exploring as an option to compete for the number two job. Bortles was clearly an ill-advised selection by the Jaguars, another case of a team setting themselves even further back by reaching for a need at quarterback instead of waiting for the right one to come along. However while Bortles may never be an NFL starter, he has enough talent and untapped potential to become more then capable as a backup option for years to come. Perhaps with right tutelage, he may still have time for a second opportunity to reach the potential that so many scouts saw in him coming out of college. That opportunity could come playing behind Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, a low pressure situation in which he would clearly be the number two, and could focus on his growth as a player, an opportunity he wasn't afforded when he was rushed onto the field in Jacksonville. Let's not forget, Bortles offensive coordinator in Jacksonville the last three seasons and his quarterback coach before that was new Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Now Hackett's familiarity with Bortles could work in his favor, or it could work against him, but it's a connection that makes this a possibility worth monitoring.
The Packers are two thirds of the way to having one of the best backfields in football, however they are missing the key third to any top running back group, that being a true, durable number one bell-cow back. Aaron Jones is immensely talented, but over his first two seasons, it’s become apparent that he lacks the durability to be a 20 plus touch per game back. Jamaal Williams has everything it takes to be a solid backup running back in the NFL, he does everything well enough, however he lacks any outstanding traits to make him a key part to any top notch NFL offense. Both Packers running backs will get the yardage the offensive line gets them, but neither has the kind of game breaking ability to strike fear in opposing defensive coordinators enough to play the Packers offense honestly. What this offense needs to get to the next level is the kind of running back who can beat the opposition as the primary offensive weapon if the opposing defense refuses to shift their focus away from slowing down Aaron Rodgers and the passing game, the way Ahman Green did in his prime years playing with Brett Favre in Green Bay in the early 2000’s.
Le’Veon Bell is that kind of back, however its unlikely the Packers will be willing to meet the price tag he will demand, and for that matter they probably shouldn’t. Addressing the running back position in free agency is always a dicey proposition given the short shelf life of most NFL runners, however it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Pack to at least kick the tires on former Falcon Tevin Coleman. Coleman is still relatively young at 26 years old and has excelled in Atlanta in a zone blocking scheme very similar to the one new head coach Matt LaFleur will be installing in Green Bay. Coleman’s specialty since coming into the league is the outside zone running play that LaFleur is on record as calling essential to making his offense go. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield or downfield out of the slot could also give the Packers some interesting options utilizing both he and Jones on the field at the same time. Coleman may not be that top notch true number one running back that I spoke of earlier, but he appears to be a perfect fit for the new scheme, and the combination of Coleman and Jones would give the Packers the kind of game breaking juice in their running game it needs to strike fear in opposing defenses.
We don’t see the Packers forking over big money in free agency at this position, and perhaps rightfully so, but if Coleman can be acquired at a reasonable price tag, he could add a needed dimension to this offensive attack. It's unclear whether or not the Packers intend to bring back the fullback position under LaFleur's regime, but if they do the cream of this crop is probably Anthony Sherman, formerly of Kansas City but the best fit and best option might be Ryan Hewitt, who spent the first four seasons of his career in Cincinnati before joining the Colts in 2018. Hewitt has played a little fullback, a little tight end, and a little H-back during his five year NFL career since leaving Stanford in 2014. His versatility and likely low price tag would make him the most viable option for the Pack if they choose to bring a fullback onto the roster after abandoning the position prior to the 2018 regular season.
Unfortunately for the Packers, this is not one of the deeper positions in free agency and one that will likely see more then a few players receive much higher offers then their talents probably merit. All indications are that Tyrell Williams of the Chargers is seen as the cream of this pretty weak crop. Williams has an intriguing skill-set, and one that ideally fits what the Packers need in a compliment to Davante Adams on the outside with his ability to win deep, but they would be foolish to compete with the likely over-lucrative offers Williams will receive in free agency. Other then Davante Adams, there isn’t a receiver on this roster with proven starters ability at the NFL level.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling had his moments in 2018, but seemed to fade down the stretch once he found his way on the oppositions radar. He has the ability to get deep, but his hands and intermediate route-running were inconsistent at best. Equanimeous St Brown has all the physical tools in the world when it comes to size and speed, but he just doesn’t seem to know exactly how to utilize them. It doesn’t do him any good to possess his size and length if he continues to let the football get into his body, allowing defenders to make plays on the football as if he was 5’10 instead of 6’5. J’Mon Moore was an awful reach as a fourth round pick when the Packers made the selection a year ago, and he did absolutely nothing other then validate that opinion throughout his rookie campaign. We believe the Packers saw another James Jones in J’Mon Moore, but the problem is that he seemed to possess all the traits that held Jones back from being an outstanding NFL receiver, and none of the traits that made him at least serviceable. Moore displayed horribly inconsistent hands during his collegiate career at Missouri as well as a lack of any sort of nuance as a route runner to gain separation at the NFL level. If the Packers were indeed looking for James Jones 2.0 in Moore, they were setting their sights drastically too low in what was a very gifted group of receivers in the class of 2018. Let us not forget that Jones, not unlike many previous Packers receivers, failed miserably to match their previous production when they made their way to other teams, in fact the only reason Jones had a second go ‘round in Green Bay is because he failed to crack the Giants 53 man roster in his final preseason.
If GM Brian Gutekunst holds his draft choices to the same standard as he held his predecessors choices, Moore will likely be the second straight fourth round pick to not make it into year two in Green Bay, following 2017 fourth round blunder Vince Biegel. Geronimo Allison has exceeded all expectations since entering the league as an undrafted rookie out of Illinois in 2016, and he could be the kind of bigger slot receiver this offensive system seems to favor (see Mohamed Sanu in Atlanta and Cooper Kupp in L.A.) but Allison is coming off what could be a very tricky groin injury to come back from, one that required season ending surgery, so his 2019 form is no guarantee. Even if the Packers don’t make any offseason additions, they could have three intriguing options to compete for the role in the slot with St Brown, Allison and 2018 training camp standout Jake Kumerow. Kumerow seemed well on his way to earning a spot on the 53 man roster before suffering a shoulder injury in the preseason…with the key word being “earning”. Kumerow was viewed as a long shot at best to make the roster going into training camp, but he continued to outperform the rookie trio of Valdes-Scantling, St.Brown, and Moore throughout training camp and even earned the public adulation of the man throwing the football Aaron Rodgers. Kumerow missed most of the season following his injury, which came on a somewhat misguided dive into the end zone during the third game of the preseason, however when he returned it could very well be argued that by seasons end he was the second most reliable receiver on the roster, behind only Davante Adams. Kumerow may not “look the part” and may not possess the perceived upside of Moore, St Brown or Valdes Scantling, but it’s tough to argue that … at least at this point … he’s not a better football player then any of the three Packer draftees from 2018.
As far as free agency is concerned, in a crop this unspectacular, the most prudent move is to look for value, to target a potential bargain. One such target could be former Ravens first round pick Breshad Perriman. Perriman’s Raven career never really got off the ground due to numerous injuries in his early years and the Ravens eventually decided to cut bait prior to the 2018 season. However, the light seemed to turn on for Perriman in the latter half of 2018 after being scooped off the scrap heap by John Dorsey and the Browns. Perriman was a bit of a late bloomer in college and the same could hold true for his NFL career. His skill set makes for an ideal compliment to Adams on the other side, Perriman has the speed to get deep and seemed to grow as an all-around route runner during his season in Cleveland. His injury history may scare the Packers off a bit, but in terms of potential upside for the price tag, Perriman could be major find and add a vertical threat and big play weapon to this offense that has long been missing. John Brown is another name that could add the missing vertical threat to this offense, but his health concerns along with what could wind up being a hefty price tag after an impressive season in Baltimore could be too much of a deterrent. Chris Conley is a young receiver with blazing straight line speed who despite technically being a starter most of the season, was mostly forgotten in the embarrassment of riches that was the Chiefs offense during his career in Kansas City who could be more productive in a more prominent role.
One of the most undervalued receivers in football in recent years has been Dontrelle Inman. Inman is a vastly underrated, razor sharp route runner who has produced beyone expectations whenever he’s been given the opportunity. At 6’3 205 he could be a perfect fit as a big slot guy in this offense, or at the very least, he can add a cost-efficient reliable target who Rodgers would likely fall in love with in very short order. A reunion with Randall Cobb appears unlikely, despite back to back injury riddled disappointing seasons, his price tag will likely be higher then perhaps it should be, and the Packers would be foolish to overpay for a 30 something receiver who clearly lacks the juice he possessed in his early seasons in Titletown. Cordarrelle Patterson is another name that could, or perhaps should pique the organizations interest as well. The former Viking and Patriot is still extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands, but he just hasn't been able to put it all together from a fundamental and cerebral standpoint as a pure NFL wide receiver. This author was calling for Patterson to get a shot at running the football out of the backfield for the past three years ever since former Packer Ty Montgomery made the transition somewhat successfully late in 2016, it finally took Bill Belichick getting his hands on his talent to make this a reality. The addition of Patterson would give the Packers a versatile, dynamic game breaking weapon at both wide receiver as well as in the backfield at what should be a very reasonable price tag.
Whether you agree with it or not, it seems that the Packers are set to bring prized 2018 free agent Jimmy Graham back, despite disappointing results in year one. Graham has played his best football, and it could be argued that the team would be best served cutting him loose and looking elsewhere, but apparently the hope is that Graham will be a better fit in Matt LaFleur’s offense then he was in Mike McCarthy’s. It can also be argued that one of the biggest mistakes this organization has made in the last few years it was not bringing back Jared Cook after one season in Green Bay. Cook was injured for a good portion of his one and only season in Titletown, but it was no coincidence that when he came back, the offense began to flourish and ultimately made a run all the way to the NFC title game. Cook seemed to have the most chemistry with Aaron Rodgers that any tight end has had since the untimely retirement of Jermichael Finley, but then General Manager Ted Thompson inexplicably let him walk in favor of Martellus Bennett, a decision that was difficult to understand when it was made and looks even worse in hindsight. Cook went on to have two highly productive seasons with the Raiders, including a 2018 season that should have landed him in the Pro Bowl.
The Packers would be wise to pursue a reunion with Cook and cut ties with Graham, Cook is much better run blocker, creates more separation as a route runner, and is much more dangerous after the catch. Graham has always been somewhat one dimensional as a red zone weapon who wins contested balls with his size and leaping ability, but those victories were few and far between in 2018 and there’s little reason to expect that to change in 2019. He hasn’t been a big play threat between the 20’s in years, averaging only a little over 9 yards per catch in his last season in Seattle, and now his effectiveness in the red zone is a question mark as well after only reaching the end zone on two occasions in 2018. The name on the current roster that could be in for a breakout 2019 campaign is Robert Tonyan, who converted from wide receiver in college to tight end at the pro level and starred during the preseason a year ago. His opportunities were limited during the regular season, but he showed glimpses of big play ability from the tight end position, including a highlight reel 54 yard touchdown catch against the Seahawks. Tonyan is still raw as a blocker, but he’s willing which often can be half the battle and should have the opportunity to become a much more integral part of the offense under the new regime if he can take a step forward in growth as an all around tight end in 2019.
One option that could be explored from within the organization, which hasn’t been discussed, at least publicly anyway, is converting wide receiver Allen Lazard, a late season rookie signee out of Iowa State, to the tight end position. Lazard is listed at 6’5 227 pounds, so he would likely have to bulk up another 15 to 20 pounds, but Lazard was a highly productive receiver during his collegiate career and was a major asset as a downfield blocker in the run game, displaying consistent aggression, hand placement and impressive upper body strength. It’s a move that likely would have already been decided on if it were in the organization’s plans, but given Lazard’s skill set, it could be in the best interest of both the team and Lazard himself to bolster his long-term career outlook.
A couple of cost effective free agents that could add depth and a seam stretching element to the position are Demetrius Harris, who grew from an undrafted free agent and former UW Milwaukee basketball player into an effective number two tight end to Travis Kelce in the explosive Kansas City offense, and Neal Sterling formerly of the Jets who has shown flashes of athleticism and crisp route running during his NFL career and seemed on course to a breakout 2018 season before injuries derailed him and opened the door for emerging star Chris Herndon. Both Harris and Sterling should come at a reasonable price, and both have the upside to bring lucrative returns for that investment. The team could also be in the market for more of a blocking first tight end with that being such a big weakness of both Graham and Tonyan.
The previously mentioned Hewitt could be one option, but another potential low price target could be Luke Stocker, who played for LaFleur with the Titans a season ago, or Dion Sims, who missed most of 2018 due to injury, but has long been an underutilized performer who may have disappointed after signing a lucrative free agent deal in 2017 and struggling through two injury riddled seasons in Chicago, but Sims still has more then enough in the tank at 28 to be more then a solid option as a number two situational tight end for the Packers in 2019. They also could opt to bring back Lance Kendricks, though he largely failed to impress during his previous two seasons with the Packers.
This is a group in major need of an infusion of new blood in Green Bay. David Bakhtiari is among the best left tackles in the business, Corey Linsley is solid at center and Lane Taylor is at best solid at worst passable at left guard, but Bryan Bulaga’s body is quickly breaking down at right tackle, right guard has been an issue ever since the departure of TJ Lang a few years ago and depth has long been non existent. Jason Spriggs has been a major disappointment after the Packers traded up for him in round two of the 2016 draft and his roster spot is far from a guarantee ion 2019. One name that should be firmly on the Packers free agent radar is guard Roger Saffold, formerly of the Rams. Not only would Saffold represent a major upgrade from a pure talent standpoint, but he’s also relatively young at 31 years old and is very familiar with the zone blocking scheme being installed by LaFleur from his last couple season’s with the Rams under Sean McVay. Saffold has proven to be an ideal fit for such a scheme and fills a major need up front. He should be the top free agent target on the Packers radar from an offensive perspective and one of their first phone calls when free agency opens.
Another phone call that should come soon after is to Ju’Wuan James formerly of the Dolphins. James never quite reached his full potential in Miami, but at 27 years old his best football is still very much in front of him, and a change of scenery could be just what he needs to bring that potential to the forefront. If you’re looking for a more cost efficient option, former Bronco Billy Turner could be the answer. Turner is another mid 20’s guy who still has best football in front of him and could have the skill set to be an ideal fit for the zone blocking scheme being installed. Turner would represent a younger, quicker and much more durable option at right tackle then the aging Bulaga.