GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst didn't bother to wait until the start of free agency to make his first move.
As first reported by NFL Network and confirmed by Packer Central, the Packers agreed to terms with linebacker Christian Kirksey on Monday morning. Kirksey, who was released last week by the Cleveland Browns, took free-agent visits to Las Vegas, Green Bay and Buffalo. A street free agent, the Packers did not have to wait until Wednesday to make a move.
The deal reportedly is for two years and $13 million, with incentives to push it up to $16 million. It's an expensive roll of the dice for Gutekunst. In 2016 and 2017, Kirksey was one of more productive linebackers in the NFL, with 148 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles for losses in 2016 and 138 tackles, 3.5 sacks, six tackles for losses and two forced fumbles in 2017. In between those seasons, he inked a four-year, $38 million contract extension.
However, injuries have derailed his career. In 2018, he played in only seven games due to shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries but still intercepted two passes – the only two picks of his career – and matched his career high with five passes defensed. He played in only two games in 2019 following a torn pectoral tendon that required surgery.
Video: Albert Breer on expanded playoffs
“Right now, when I am not on the field, I want to just be that voice still and encourage my teammates,” Kirksey said following the injury. “I do not want to check out and worry about just myself. I still have to worry about my brothers.”
After Appetizers, Packers Ready for Main Course of Schedule
After a buffet of mediocre teams and quarterbacks, the Green Bay Packers will take a step up in class with Arizona, Kansas City, Seattle, Minnesota and the Rams.
Kirksey was a third-round pick by Cleveland in 2014. That was Year 1 of Mike Pettine's two-year run as the Browns' coach.
The question is whether this is the big move of free agency at linebacker or simply a move to address a position in which starters Blake Martinez – coming off a team-record 201 tackles – and B.J. Goodson are headed to free agency and recent draft picks Oren Burks and Ty Summers were nonfactors defensively. There is interest in Cory Littleton of the Rams, Nick Kwiatkoski of the Bears and Joe Schobert of the Browns. It would not be a surprise if Atlanta's De'Vondre Campbell was be on their radar, as well.
The 27-year-old Kirksey has been a better run defender than coverage player. In 2016, he led the NFL in run stops, a Pro Football Focus metric that essentially measures impact tackles. For his career, according to PFF, he’s given up 15 touchdowns vs. two interceptions while in coverage. According to Sports Info Solutions, from 2015 through 2019, Kirksey’s average tackle limited the play to 4.1 yards or less four times. Martinez accomplished that once – 4.0 yards in 2018. In 73 career games with 54 starts, Kirksey has two interceptions and 16 passes defensed. In 61 career games with 57 starts, Martinez has three interceptions and 17 passes defensed.
As a street free agent, the transaction will not impact any potential compensatory draft picks in 2021. The Packers figure to lose two high-profile players, Martinez and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, when unrestricted free agency starts at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Along with filling Martinez's role on the defense, he should be a strong fit in the locker room.
"You will go down in history as one of the great Cleveland Browns of all time, not only for what you did on the field, but the lives that you impacted in the community, in the locker room and in and around the offices of the Cleveland Browns," former Browns tackle Joe Thomas tweeted.
By releasing Kirksey, the Browns were spared having to pay base salaries of $7.75 million in 2020 and $8.25 million in 2021.
“Christian Kirksey has been a vital member of our organization for the last six seasons because of his contributions on and off the field,” Browns general manager Andrew Berry said in a release. “He has been a strong leader both in our locker room and in the Cleveland community. These are difficult decisions and, in Christian’s case, more challenging because of how well he has represented our team. We thank him for his dedication and wish him nothing but the best in the next phase of his career.”