Packers: Taking stock at edge rusher ahead of free agency

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 30: Montez Sweat #9 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs reacts after a tackle for loss against the Louisville Cardinals during the TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field on December 30, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Bulldogs won 31-27. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 30: Montez Sweat #9 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs reacts after a tackle for loss against the Louisville Cardinals during the TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field on December 30, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Bulldogs won 31-27. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

The excitement is brewing with the start of free agency next week. Who will the Green Bay Packers add and who could they lose?

The franchise tags have all been placed and agents have made their first rounds at the NFL scouting combine to see and establish what value their clients may have.

Soon, plans that teams have set out weeks ago will start to take shape to the public.

The games haven’t even been scheduled for 2019 yet there is already all kinds of excitement.

Like most teams, the Packers have many holes to fill and although they have a healthy amount of cap space, it’s not enough to fill all those holes in one offseason. But with roughly $35 million, according to Over The Cap, and 10 draft picks, the Packers should be able to fill enough of those holes to get back into playoff contention.

The Packers have needs at edge rusher, safety, O-line, tight end and wide receiver. And depending on how you see DeShone Kizer, potentially backup quarterback.

Free agency and the draft are set up nicely for the Packers with lots of talent in positions of need. The team could choose to focus on free agency to fill a hole in one area knowing the draft has players to fill another.

My focus here will be strictly on edge rusher.

The Packers currently have Kyler Fackrell and Nick Perry as their top two options, with Reggie Gilbert and Kendall Donnerson as their backups. Clay Matthews is a free agent and could be headed elsewhere. Perry is a candidate to be cut with his production not matching the contract he signed in 2016.

Even if Perry stays, the Packers need help, and lots of it.

Most of the top-end players have been taken up by the franchise tag. Players like Jadeveon Clowney, DeMarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark have been tagged and would take multiple first-round picks to sign. Dee Ford, although tagged, could be traded, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

With those players under the franchise tag, the talent pool has lessened but there are still players to be had. Za’Darius Smith, Trey Flowers and Dante Fowler are now head of the class in free agency with Ziggy Ansah and Clay Matthews in the next tier of available players.

Edge rushers could get a boost with the Kansas City Chiefs set to release Justin Houston, according to FanSided’s Matt Verderame. A veteran player who still should have a lot left in the tank and could help a team.

The Packers could look to go big with Smith, Flowers or Fowler, but each one comes with a risk. Flowers has yet to have double-digit sacks and could get overpaid by a Bill Belichick disciple. Smith is in the same boat and could get paid the same way. I can’t help but think of Pernell McPhee when I see Smith.

Fowler is another story. He has the first-round pedigree and played extremely well during the Rams’ run to the Super Bowl. Was that flash a sign of what is to come or nothing more than a flash?

Either way, all three players will come out of free agency with big contracts and if signed by the Packers may restrict them from making big-time signings elsewhere.

Adding players like Shaquil Barrett and/or Preston Smith shouldn’t break the bank and allow the Packers more money to spend elsewhere. Neither player has had big-time production but has been solid when given the chance.

Smith has had two eight-sack seasons and had he had similar production last year, might be in line for the same kind of deal Smith, Fowler and Flowers will receive. Barrett played alongside DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, never really getting the chance to be the full-time starter. When given the chance he was productive and could be a nice cheap option who fulfils his potential with a new team.

Another option is one slightly outside the box, but could prove to be a big boost to the Packers: Anthony Barr.

While Barr has played off the ball for his first five years, he was a pass-rushing threat with 13.5 sacks his junior year and 10 in his senior year, playing in a 3-4 defense at UCLA when drafted. During his time in the pros, Barr has shown a knack for rushing the passer although asked to cover more than rush.

Without the sack numbers from previous seasons, Barr should come cheaper than Smith, Fowler or Flowers, though not by much. But enough where the Packers could sign Barr and another mid-level free agent and still have room for smaller moves.

Regardless of what the Packers do at edge rusher in free agency, they need to add more talent through the draft. At No. 12 or No. 30, the Packers should have plenty of options.

Players like Nick Bosa and Josh Allen will be long gone before the Packers’ first pick. But there is still plenty of talent to go around.

Montez Sweat is a player I loved initially coming out of Mississippi State. His length and speed on the edge is exactly what the Packers are missing. I thought he would be the perfect fit for the Packers at 12. Then the combine happened and now it seems like a stretch to say he’ll still be there when the Packers pick at 12.

On the other end of the combine spectrum is Jachai Polite. He is a player who could go at either 12 or 30. Initial mocks had Polite more towards the 12 range, but after a rocky combine it’s possible he could slide down to 30 or even to the Packers at 44. Things like this happen all the time, have all the talent and then a rough moment at the combine causes a player to slide.

Brian Burns is also another intriguing prospect whose draft stock is all over the place. Burns figures to go more towards the end of round one and into round two but someone could fall in love with his athletic ability and go much earlier.

The most likely option to still be there at 12 is Clelin Ferrell. Ferrell was a productive two-year starter for Clemson and could be a nice addition to the Packers should the chips land that way.

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My ideal scenario would see the Packers with Anthony Barr and Shaquil Barrett in free agency, and Montez Sweat with pick 12 in the draft. This could put the teeth back in the edge rush and make the Packers a formidable defense.