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Dougherty: Packers can work around salary cap to join in on buyer's market


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GREEN BAY - Brian Gutekunst has vowed to work around the salary cap so he can join in what he’s expecting will be a buyer’s free-agent market in the NFL.

But if it’s a given the Green Bay Packers general manager will sit out the big-spending early days of free agency, he still can take a couple different approaches even with limited money to spend.

He can look to sign one player he considers a cut above the leftovers on the market, even if the price is steep. Or he can go for several cheaper signings so he doesn’t have to bank on draft picks playing major roles at, say, cornerback and on both lines.

The NFL roster bloodletting kicked in this week and will only pick up as we close in on Wednesday’s start of the new league year. This offseason, more than any other, figures to flood the market with players who as victims of pandemic economics wouldn’t have been available in the past.

That suggests this year more than others could be ideal for bargain hunting for multiple players, rather than taking a bigger swing on one guy. Of course, the money available for Gutekunst also depends on whether he re-signs Aaron Jones or Corey Linsley at the 11th hour.

The Packers still are about $9.4 million over this year’s cap, according to independent Packers cap analyst Ken Ingalls, though they have plenty of ways to create room with potential contract restructures and extensions (Davante Adams, Aaron Rodgers, Za’Darius Smith) and pay cuts or releases (Preston Smith, Dean Lowry).

“A lot of it will depend on the players we can acquire,” Gutekunst said recently of his free-agency plans, “so as we move through it, I think we'll make the room we need to do the things that we want to do. If we get to a certain point and a player becomes available that we weren't expecting, or that will require us to make more room then we'll go down that route. At the same time, we're not going to — there’s some danger in pushing everything into ‘22 or ’23 (caps).”

Following is a look at several positions the Packers should or shouldn’t be looking to free agency for help in the next few weeks:

Defensive line

Based on the scheme new defensive coordinator Joe Barry worked in with the Los Angeles Rams last season, this has to be a free-agency high-priority position for Gutekunst.

The Rams’ primary defensive alignment was a hybrid of a 3-4 base defense and a subpackage, with a base five-man front (three defensive linemen and two outside linebackers) but a back end consisting of one inside linebacker and five defensive backs. That means three defensive linemen will be on the field most of the time, so unless Rashan Gary is changing positions the Packers will need more guys to line up inside with their best lineman, Kenny Clark.

One name that jumps out is Jurrell Casey, cut by Denver last week in a cap-savings move ($11.6 million). Not that long ago Casey was one of the game’s best defensive tackles (45½ sacks from 2013 to ’19 with Tennessee), but he’s 31 and coming off a serious injury (torn biceps) that sidelined him for all but three games last season. If his injury and a glut of players on the market keeps his price down, he’s worth a hard look.

Other defensive linemen who could be available are the New York Giants’ Dalvin Tomlinson (27 years old), though he might be too expensive; Cleveland’s Larry Ogunjobi (26), Chicago’s Roy Robertson-Harris (27), Baltimore’s Derek Wolfe (31) and Denver’s Shelby Harris (29).

Cornerback

Both starter Kevin King and nickel back Chandon Sullivan could be gone — King is unrestricted, and Green Bay hasn't even tendered Sullivan as a restricted free agent yet — so the Packers might be overhauling their cornerback corps behind Jaire Alexander.

It’s a given Gutekunst will draft a cornerback, probably high and perhaps multiple times. But free agency could offer immediate help, too.

Two free agents who stand out are former stars Patrick Peterson (31 in July) and Richard Sherman (33 later this month). On both it’s buyer beware because they’ll probably be pricey for their age, but if the market proves soft either could be a viable option for a short-term, incentive-heavy deal.

If the Packers are looking for scheme familiarity, there’s the Rams’ nickel cornerback, Troy Hill (30). Barry should know exactly what he can offer if the price isn’t too high.

And there’s a long list of other up-and-down veterans that could yield a bargain or two depending on how the market shapes up. For instance, on Thursday there was a report the Lions are going to cut slot corner Justin Coleman (28 later this month) to save $4.9 million on the cap. The Lions had signed him as a free agent from Seattle two years ago for an average of $9 million a year.

At a little cheaper price there’s also the New York Jets’ Brian Poole (28), Cleveland’s Kevin Johnson (29), San Francisco’s Jason Verrett (30 in June), Tennessee’s Desmond King (26) and Seattle’s Quinton Dunbar (29 in July).

Receiver

This should be a low-priority position for the Packers in free agency — among other things, Gutekunst will probably be signing Davante Adams to an expensive contract extension this offseason. The Packers’ limited free-agent resources are better spent elsewhere.

One free agent who would be a great fit for coach Matt LaFleur’s offense is Carolina’s Curtis Samuel, who’s tailor-made for the jet-sweep and bubble-screen slot position. Samuel has underperformed as an early second-round pick — that’s why he’s available — but it’s a good bet he’ll cost too much to be worth it for the Packers.

Inside linebacker

Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win has everybody pointing to the Bucs’ rare talent at inside linebacker, but the Rams in fact gave up the fewest points in the league last season. So quick, name the Rams’ inside linebackers. Can’t? They’re Troy Reeder and Micah Kiser.

The point is, Barry will be running the same scheme in Green Bay, and the Packers have two second-year inside linebackers (Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin) who at least showed promise last season. Sure, the Packers would prefer to have elite talent there, but their needs on the defensive line and cornerback outweigh the needs here.

Offensive line

The Packers probably will have to replace Linsley, and they’ll need a left tackle to fill in for David Bakhtiari (ACL surgery) the first half the season. But Gutekunst should be only bargain shopping here.

If Lane Taylor’s rehab from ACL surgery last September is going well, maybe the Packers can re-sign him at the league minimum. Or they could try to squeeze a year out of 35-year-old Atlanta center Alex Mack — he and LaFleur were with the Falcons in 2015 and ’16.

And it’s a good bet Gutekunst will draft an offensive lineman early.

Running back

If I’m Gutekunst, it’s the difference-maker Jones or bust. Jamaal Williams, also a free agent, is a solid all-around back and great teammate, but the Packers aren’t in financial position to pay for a middle-class player at this position. That’s probably what Williams will be — the best guess is he’ll be in the $3 million to $4 million range per year.

That money should go toward another position, because rookie running backs are cheap and can play right away. If the Packers don’t re-sign Jones, then AJ Dillon and a high draft pick should be their top two backs in 2021.

Regardless, in a week we’ll at least know where the Packers are sitting. They’ll have signed either Jones or Linsley, or both will be as good as gone. The free-agent market will be open, and Gutekunst will know how much cap he can spend

Then it will be time for the GM to earn his scouting money and find good deals in what could be the best of buyers’ markets.

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