What the Packers got right and wrong in free agency

Green Bay Packers, Xavier McKinney
Green Bay Packers, Xavier McKinney / Cooper Neill/GettyImages

For a team that remains mostly quiet in the offseason, the Green Bay Packers left the preliminary window of 2024 free agency having made a few of the loudest moves around the league.

The Packers are a team that's only known to dabble in the open market every few seasons, but after a few years in the shadows, this free agency could shape up to be general manager Brian Gutekunst's most impactful stamp in his tenure thus far.

After the parting of ways with stars David Bakhtiari and Aaron Jones to add to the decision not to retain starters Darnell Savage, De'Vondre Campbell, and Jon Runyan, Gutekunst's work is cut out for him to keep the young Packers roster on their ascending trajectory.

After leaving a "rebuild year" with only a few glaring needs on the roster, there may not yet have been an urgency to stockpile more talent. But after a shocking first-round playoff rout of the Dallas Cowboys, a new Super Bowl window emerged that Gutekunst has decided to capitalize on.

Even more advantageous, the Packers are now free of Aaron Rodgers's dead cap money, creating an opportunity to navigate salary cap gymnastics more freely with restructures, re-signings, and free agents.

What the Packers got right in free agency

Upgrading safety

It's nice to reminisce about the first two years of Darnell Savage's time in Green Bay, where his play matched his first-round draft status. However, it's been a complicated story to watch unfold since then. Due to poor scheme usage in Joe Barry's defense, Savage's encouraging development quickly went sour. The Packers let him hit the market, where he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fellow safety Jonathan Owens also departed, signing with the Chicago Bears.

As the Packers found themselves in desperate need of a new starting safety and running very thin on depth, they entered a free-agent safety pool unlike any in recent memory. From numerous All-Pros being cut to even more young stars hitting the open market, the safety market was in for a reset.

However, one name, Xavier McKinney, stood out as the most obvious fit for Jeff Hafley's scheme. At only 24 years old, McKinney has established himself as a top safety in the NFL, and Packers fans have screamed from the rooftops for this guy - normally all but guaranteeing the Packers won't sign him.

But to pleasant surprise to Cheeseheads everywhere, Gutekunst pulled the trigger on a four-year, $68 million deal to not only land a top safety in free agency but a top overall free agent. McKinney brings the exact versatility and "centerfield" ability that Hafley has historically featured in his defenses.

Last season, according to Nick Shook of NFL.com, McKinney registered a 91.2 PFF coverage grade, toping all safeties. He also charted as one of only four defensive backs with at least 115 tackles and 10 passes defended, proving his value against the run.

With landing one of the priciest safety contracts in the market, McKinney has high expectations to offer an immediate jolt to a disparate Packers secondary. The signing has shades of Ted Thompson stepping outside his free agency norms by spending big money on defensive back Charles Woodson to add elite talent on defense for an ascending team with stardom blossoming at quarterback.

Moving on from Aaron Jones and David Bakhtiari

And just like that, a whole era of Packers football has vanished. Aside from Kenny Clark, Jones and Bakhtiari are the last veterans predating Gutekunst's tenure as general manager. It's never easy for fans to grapple with losing a player who embodies everything about a team and its fans for so long, but everything comes back to the NFL being a business.

The Packers were unwilling to pay an often injured, about-to-be-30-year-old Aaron Jones to be a top cap hit of any running back, and Jones was unwilling to accept another pay cut. To be fair, he is still incredible when he is healthy. But with the running back market in shambles, as teams are increasingly reluctant to pay even the top players, it made more sense for the Packers to cut ties a season early if a better option is out there.

And was it ever?

Enter 26-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl running back Josh Jacobs. In another shocking move from Gutekunst, he secured a top free agent on offense and defense.

Jacobs ran behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last season for a Las Vegas Raiders team that fired its coach and had poor quarterback play. Yet, it was Jacobs's talent that came under scrutiny after he struggled all season to shake off the defenders at his feet by the time he received a handoff.

Evidence is a 2023 Packers run defense that ranked toward the bottom of the NFL, holding Jacobs to 69 yards on 20 attempts.

In exchange for Jones taking the notorious ex-Packer route that leads to Minnesota, accepting an offer that was similar to what the Packers were offering, Green Bay secured an All-Pro running back with two fewer years of tread and unquestionably more talent upside. In year one of his new deal, he will cost Green Bay roughly the same as they were set to pay Jones in 2024 without restructuring.

The picture is almost identical with David Bakhtiari. With second-year left tackle Rasheed Walker filling in brilliantly for Bakhtiari's latest season-long absence, earning the top pass block win rate of all tackles last season (per ESPN), the business side of football won out again.

The Packers are likely to draft a handful of offensive linemen in the upcoming draft, not to replace Walker or Zach Tom at the bookends, but with swing tackle Yosh Nijman and Runyan also departing, depth and competition are running dry.

What the Packers got wrong in free agency

Not addressing offensive line or linebacker gaps

It's understandable to expect the Packers to continue to build their offensive line starters and depth through the draft, as they've historically done. But now is not the time to take chances with Jordan Love by having a mostly inexperienced offensive line. After all, injuries do exist, and if players underperform, backups may be expected to step up.

The Packers lost three offensive linemen this offseason, including two starters, and Royce Newman could be the next one out the door. Thankfully, the remaining starters, Walker, Tom, Elgton Jenkins, and Josh Myers, all graded as top pass blockers at their position. But the Packers now have an open starting right guard spot, and their depth would keep any coach up at night.

Sure, maybe they don't want to invest money in backups and want to leave finding an option at right guard for early in the draft. However, according to Spotrac, 26 offensive linemen have signed contracts for $3 million or less this offseason. At this point, the remaining market is hardly worth the spend.

Thankfully, the Packers have 11 picks in the upcoming draft, and it's easy to imagine at least three will be allocated to the offensive line. Ultimately, a team as successful as Green Bay at developing O-line talent should be okay, but another quality veteran to add depth or plug-in starts would be a big get for a depleted group.

A similar picture can be painted about the Packers' linebacker room. Despite bringing back linebacker and special teams star Eric Wilson, who has played about average on his defensive snaps, the Packers lost Campbell to the San Francisco 49ers and desperately need the light to entirely turn on for Quay Walker next season. Without him improving, the Packers' options at inside linebacker are not exactly ideal.

Granted, Isaiah McDuffie played well last season, going from a backup to one of the Packers' more reliable players in run defense. He also played under new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley at Boston College. The scheme familiarity will boost McDuffie's chances to become a full-time starter, and if any player can take a big step next season on defense, it's him.

However, similar to offensive linemen free-agent contracts, seven of 11 free-agent inside linebackers have signed deals for $3 million or less. Even if it was mostly the scheme holding back the talent, cheap veteran options were available to give a boost to a unit that is mission-critical to turn around.

Maybe the Packers can't sign one of each position, but adding a quality depth piece and capable plug-in starter at a bargain price seems like it'd be advantageous to help depleted units. Draft picks are no guarantee; there's value in knowing what you're getting with a veteran.

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