GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers will have a limited financial war chest to take into the start of free agency next month. That will make it difficult for general manager Brian Gutekunst to improve a roster that fell a win short of the Super Bowl the past two years.
Fortunately given the financial restraints, there are only two top-shelf players headed to free agency: running back Aaron Jones and center Corey Linsley. Both players could sign elsewhere, though some aggressive cap management by Gutekunst could get at least one deal done. If they depart, the Packers figure to receive quality compensatory draft picks in return.
Here is the list of Green Bay’s 14 unrestricted free agents, ranked in order of importance. Ages are for the start of the league-year on March 17. While players can’t sign until March 17, the negotiating period will begin on March 15. Many of the top players will agree to contracts on that day.
1. RB Aaron Jones. Age: 26. 2020 Salary: $2.133 million.
Jones figures to be paid handsomely, even with a shrinking salary cap. Great players will always get paid, and Jones is a great player.
Among all backs in NFL history with at least 650 carries, Jones ranks sixth with a 5.17-yard average. He’s averaged at least 5.47 yards per carry in three of his four seasons. He had another great year in 2020. While he didn’t find the end zone nearly as often as in 2019 (11 total touchdowns vs. 19 in 2019), he rushed for a career-high 1,104 yards and averaged 5.49 yards per carry.
Where Jones really jumps to the forefront is with his explosiveness. His ability to cut and go without losing speed is elite. His career 10-yard run rate is 13.1 percent as defenders are constantly forced to dive at ankles. According to PFF, 33.1 percent of his rushing yards came on runs of 15-plus yards, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL. Jones forced a missed tackle on 18.1 percent of his carries, 11th-best among backs with 100 carries, according to Sports Info Solutions. He added 47 receptions.
Jones fumbled only six times in 782 career regular-season touches. But he coughed it up twice in the NFC Championship Game, including a turnover that put the Packers in a deep, deep hole to start the second half and ended his day due to injury. For such a productive and popular player, it was the most unfortunate of endings.
2. C Corey Linsley. Age: 29. 2020 Salary: $7.65 million.
Linsley played in only 70.6 percent of the offensive snaps due to knee and back injuries but still was named the first-team All-Pro center. Take PFF’s grades for what they’re worth but he was by far the highest-rated center in the league in 2020. He is the perfect example of what happens when talent meets experience. An understated leader, Linsley simply went about his business.
PFF charged him with one sack. Among centers, he ranked second in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency, which combines sacks, hits and hurries allowed per pass-protecting snap. Showing his two-way dominance, SIS charged him with no sacks or stuffs; a stuff being a tackle at or behind the line on a running play. Among centers with 500-plus snaps, he had the third-lowest blown-block rate at 0.6 percent, according to SIS. He wasn’t penalized, either. Linsley will turn 30 just before the start of training camp and was banged up, so that might lower the price tag. Either way, the Packers probably can’t afford him, and that will create a big hole on the line.
He seemed to recognize as much after the season.
“My agent hasn’t had any talks with the Packers,” Linsley said. “That’s obviously not to say something couldn’t happen, but up to this point it’s kind of been complimentary but nothing of substance. We’ll move forward with that. It is what it is. I felt like I personally had a good year. We didn’t get the goal that we wanted to, but I felt like I put out some good film. Hopefully, a team values that and we’ll move into free agency with that in mind.”
3. RB Jamaal Williams. Age: 25. 2020 Salary: $2.133 million.
Williams flourished in Matt LaFleur’s zone-based running game. After averaging 3.6 yards per carry as a rookie and 3.8 in his second season, those numbers were up to 4.3 in 2019 and 4.2 in 2020.
Williams doesn’t do any one thing at an elite level but he does everything at a winning level. Not only did he rush for 505 yards in 2020, but he caught 31-of-35 passes (88.6 percent) for 236 more yards. He plays bigger than he is, whether it’s running into the teeth of the defense or picking up a blitzer. In four seasons, he has zero fumbles. He is nonstop energy and positivity.
However, he is entering free agency at about the worst time possible. With a declining salary cap meaning limited spending money for most teams, how much of a market will there be for a back who’s not a breakaway threat? For his career, his 10-yard run rate is 7.6 percent. Of the 47 backs with at least 100 carries, Williams gained 13.2 percent of his yards on runs of 15-plus yards, the seventh-lowest rate in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. According to Sports Info Solutions, he broke a tackle on 10.1 percent of his carries, eighth-lowest among those with 100 carries.
No. 4: TE Marcedes Lewis. Age: 36. 2020 Salary: $1.1 million.
Lewis’ value far exceeds his 10 receptions for 107 yards and three touchdowns. It even exceeds his value as a blocker, which was considerable in helping power one of the NFL’s top rushing attacks.
Lewis is the ultimate team player, the type of “glue” guy that teams covet for their selflessness and leadership. Over his three seasons with the team, he’s been a mentor to the young tight ends, a friend for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and an overall leader. Lewis will tun 37 in May and the Packers have cap problems. Still, they’d be wise to bring back “Big Dog” on a fourth consecutive one-year contract.
“I’ve been able to round myself out as being an all-around tight end,” he said. “I understand that my type is not necessarily in the league as much anymore, and there’s a premium with what I can do. I get the same excitement out of pancaking a guy or making a great block as I do catching a touchdown or making a great catch.”
No. 5: CB Kevin King. Age: 25. 2020 Salary: $1,430,575.
Almost nothing King could do could possibly erase the mistake of former general manager Ted Thompson bypassing T.J. Watt and drafting King in 2017. It’s not King’s fault that Watt is a three-time All-Pro and one of the best big-play pass rushers in the NFL. But at least King had his 2019 season to reduce the sting. Finally staying healthy after playing less than one-third of the defensive snaps his first two seasons, King ranked among the NFL leaders with five interceptions and 15 passes defensed.
King took a big step backward this season. It cost the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, when he allowed two touchdowns, and it will cost him in free agency.
Limited to 11 games by a quad injury, King had zero interceptions and five passes defensed. After giving up completion rates of 59.1 percent in 2017, 52.2 percent in 2018 and 60.2 percent in 2019, King gave up a 70.3 percent completion rate in 2020, according to PFF. Opponents beat him for a 115.0 passer rating. It seemed like he was playing hurt. When he scooped up a loose ball against Carolina, a man with 4.43 speed in the 40 might have gone the distance. Instead, he was easily chased down. Too often – perhaps because of the labrum issues that dated to his time at Washington – his tackling amounted to throwing himself at the ball-carrier’s legs and hoping for the best.
No. 6: OT Jared Veldheer. Age: 33. 2020 Salary: $0.
Veldheer, who saved the Packers’ bacon when he replaced Bryan Bulaga against Seattle in the 2019 playoffs, was signed off the Colts’ practice squad when Indianapolis’ season ended. Unfortunately for the Packers, who could have used him in the NFC Championship Game, he tested positive for COVID-19 and didn’t play in either playoff game.
His return would have added another layer to a terrific story. When the Colts lost starting left tackle Anthony Costanzo to an ankle injury, Veldheer was coaxed out of retirement and started in Week 17 and the wild-card playoffs. In two games with Indianapolis, Pro Football Focus charged Veldheer with zero sacks, one quarterback hit and six total pressures in 76 pass-protecting snaps.
If Veldheer wants to play in 2021, he’d be a wise re-signing to provide some insurance with left tackle David Bakhtiari coming off a torn ACL.
No. 7: G Lane Taylor. Age: 31. 2020 Salary: $910,000.
For the second consecutive year, Taylor suffered a major injury early in the season. In 2019, he suffered a torn biceps tendon before the Week 3 game. In 2020, he sustained a torn ACL in the opener. So, after starting all but three games from 2016 through 2018, he’s started only three games the past two seasons.
When healthy, he’s an above-average starter and locker room leader. He allowed 12 sacks in his three seasons as a starter and is a people-mover in the run game. At age 31 and with availability being the greatest ability, the Packers will have to decide whether he’s worth re-signing in free agency. With center Corey Linsley likely to depart in free agency, the Packers could shift Lucas Patrick to center and insert Taylor into the lineup.
No. 8: DT Damon Harrison. Age: 32. 2020 Salary: $61,765.
Harrison, once the premier run-stopping defensive tackle in the sport, was one of a few late-season swings of the bat by general manager Brian Gutekunst to bolster the roster for a championship run. After playing in six games for Seattle, he was granted his release and brought his expanding family to Green Bay. He played 12 snaps in Week 17 at Chicago (zero tackles), three snaps in the playoff win vs. Los Angeles (zero tackles) and 15 snaps in the NFC Championship Game (one assisted tackle). Despite what the stats might suggest, Harrison was his usual run-stopping self in that game. At age 32, the Packers would be wise to make their pitch to bring him back for 2021.
No. 9: RB Tyler Ervin. Age: 27. 2020 Salary: $910,000.
Having excelled as a returner upon his late-season arrival in 2019, the Packers tried to make Ervin something he’d never been in his previous four seasons: a key part of the offense. Injuries, however, limited him to only eight games. He averaged 5.2 yards on 13 carries and 7.6 yards on 11 receptions. Meanwhile, he went from explosive returner to just another member of Green Bay’s feeble cast of kick-returner characters. Ervin is headed to an uncertain free agency with a five-year resume that includes just 27 receptions and 19 rushes.
No. 10: S Will Redmond. Age: 27. 2020 Salary: $750,000
For the second consecutive season, Redmond played in 13 games. He played 340 snaps and contributed 24 tackles, two quarterback hits and one pass defensed. Plus, he logged 238 snaps on special teams and chipped in four tackles.
A touted cornerback in college before suffering a torn ACL, his ability to play corner and safety has made him a valued backup. However, two things will be remembered about his season. First, he’s a terrible tackler. After missing seven tackles for a missed-tackle rate of 17.5 percent in 2019, he missed nine in 2020. His missed-tackle rate of 23.7 percent was the third-worst among all defensive backs, according to Sports Info Solutions. Second is the dropped interception just before halftime of the NFC Championship Game. Had Redmond made the play, Tom Brady wouldn’t have thrown a touchdown pass just before halftime and the Packers might have been playing in the Super Bowl.
No. 11: DT Montravius Adams. Age: 25. 2020 Salary: $825,000.
A third-round pick in 2017 with huge athletic upside, Adams has been a colossal disappointment. In 2020, he had 11 tackles in 130 snaps in eight games before being shut down for the season with a toe injury. When he plays, he’s a factor. He averaged 11.8 snaps per tackle, far better than starters Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry, and his three stuffs (a tackle at or behind the line vs. the run) were as many as Clark and Kingsley Keke and more than Lowry.
The fastest 300-pounder at the 2017 Scouting Combine, Adams’ four-year totals are 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and four tackles for losses. Out of a possible 64 games, he’s played in 45 with three starts. Three picks after the Packers selected Adams, Detroit landed big-play receiver Kenny Golladay.
No 12: DT Billy Winn. Age: 31. 2020 Salary: $485,294.
Winn’s perseverance is remarkable. After missing the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons with major injuries, he joined Green Bay’s practice squad. Inspired by his wife’s battle with lupus, Winn eventually played in six games before suffering yet another season-ending triceps injury.
He had six tackles and batted down two passes. Playing only 41 snaps, his tackle rate was 6.8 snaps – by far the best on the defensive line. At the time of the injury, he had more passes defensed than cornerback Kevin King. Considering the enormous gap between games, Winn played pretty darned well when he was on the field but the injury history might make it an unpalatable to give him even a minimum deal that would burn a roster spot.
No. 13: ILB James Burgess. Age: 27. 2020 salary: $410,295.
Burgess, an undrafted free agent in 2016, played in 27 games with 21 starts from 2017 through 2019. The Packers signed him off Atlanta’s practice squad in October. He played 51 snaps on special teams in four games before going on injured reserve (hamstring).
Burgess, the son of former NFL player James Burgess Sr., started 41 games at Louisville but went undrafted in 2016. He’s been released nine times in a nomadic professional career. He led the Jets with 80 tackles while starting 10 games in 2019. “How many times has he been cut?” Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said in November 2019. “Those guys are fun to coach. I love the fact that we’ve had a chance to win with those kinds of guys.”
No. 14: WR Tavon Austin. Age: 31. 2020 Salary: $308,824.
With Tyler Ervin injured and Darrius Shepherd going nowhere fast as a returner, the Packers threw a Hail Mary in the direction of Austin. The eighth pick of the 2013 draft, known for his elite speed, did absolutely nothing. He caught all five passes thrown his way for just 20 yards. On punt returns, he averaged just 4.7 yards per runback with one turnover. But, hey, he broke a 9-yarder in the playoffs. Over his last four seasons, he has 384 receiving yards.