Green Bay rarely uses free agency, and builds almost exclusively through the draft. But they have made some key pickups through this method of talent acquisition before that would resemble picking up a player like Johnson.
Charles Woodson was exiting his prime and coming off multiple injury-plagued seasons, but Green Bay paid him big (despite not having any other notable offers) to be a talented and influential veteran presence. Julius Peppers was a similar pickup, with the Packers grabbing him for decent money despite a combination of age, declining skill and needing to switch him to a position he had never previously played.
Johnson would bring some of the same concerns that those moves did. He had somewhat-recent injury issues (a torn ACL in Week 1 of 2014). He is an aging player (33). His potential contract number may be at a level a team like Green Bay wants to avoid.
Aside from his 2014 injury, Johnson has been a mostly healthy player; in his 10 other seasons, he has combined to miss only seven games. Going by PFF ratings, Johnson was the #8 non-edge-rusher LB in the league (87.4 overall), built upon stellar play in both run defense (88.1) and coverage (85.3).
Beyond just statistics, Johnson has been a major leader on the Chiefs defense during his tenure there; having players like him on the team played a huge role in allowing Kansas City to make their way back from a 1-5 start in 2015 to ending the regular season on a 10-game winning streak, and then break a two-decade playoff win drought for the franchise in their 30-0 shutout of Houston in the wild-card round.
Though Kansas City surely would want to keep him, they may not be able to make that happen. They currently have about $27 million in cap space, but there are a litany of players they may rather invest that in amongst their 19 scheduled free agents.
There are also potential extensions to consider for players like Dontari Poe; that won’t be cheap.
With all the factors in mind, it wouldn’t be too surprising for Johnson to be allowed to leave; should that happen, Green Bay should jump at the chance to bring him in. He likely wouldn’t be a long-term option, but the Packers would still be able to invest a decent pick on the position in the draft and have the added bonus of not needing to rush them along.
Johnson handling the duties of one spot – with the triumvirate of Jake Ryan, Sam Barrington, and a draft pick manning the other – would be about as well as Green Bay could likely hope to see the position manage to do from this point going into this year.
Secondary Option: Jerrell Freeman
Freeman is a similar option to Johnson, but he doesn’t have the same extended track record of excellent play.
He did step up in a big way this past season however. His overall grade was one of the few to be above 90.0 on PFF’s grading scale (90.6; #4 among ILBs), while managing to come out of nowhere to post the best run defense grade of any ILB (97.9).
He wasn’t as great in coverage (78.8) but put in excellent work in pass rushing (84.9), which would help keep that element at the position even with moving Clay Matthews back to his preferred 3-4 OLB spot.