Stacking Tea Cups: Analyzing the Packers’ Tenuous 2021 Offseason

Packers fans are Depending on Gutekunst's steady hands this offseason

Green Bay Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst (YouTube/Green Bay Packers 2021)

This offseason in Green Bay, Wisconsin has a different feel to it than most.

There’s a lot of uncertainty, a bit of anxiety of what the future holds, and a blend of fans either clamoring for a few “all-in” moves or pleading with the powers that be not to risk stability at all costs.

Our advice? Just sit back and enjoy the process because it isn’t our money.

Many things have to work together in unison for this team to not take a step backward. It’s just the situation they’re in. Success breeds hard decisions in the NFL and after 26 wins in the two seasons of the Matt LaFleur era, this team has been quite successful.

As general manager Brian Gutekunst stacks tea cups and saucers, with help from his money-man and director of football operations Russ Ball, the team’s head coach Matt LaFleur and team president Mark Murphy, many critical decisions will be made in the coming days and weeks.

Each decision will serve as the base for the next.

It is no secret that the Green Bay Packers have big plans to add a 14th World Championship to Lambeau Field’s inner-bowl while Aaron Rodgers is still an elite quarterback — although the clock is unquestionably ticking.

The championship window isn’t necessarily going to close following the upcoming season, but the Packers’ 2021 season is set up to be one of the most important in franchise history. It almost feels like 2021 is an inflection point between continuing to seize the moment or looking to the future.

This consequential season boils down to three simple questions:

  1. Will the Packers win the NFC North for the third consecutive season in head coach Matt LaFleur’s third season?
  2. Will the Packers make it back to the NFC Conference Championship Game for a third consecutive year in Matt LaFleur’s third season?
  3. Can the Packers finally make it over the hump for their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2010 season?

There are lots of moving pieces, or tea cups stacking up, for these Packers.

Getting under the salary cap is the chief concern and the table is certainly wobbling. Making decisions on the team’s important unsigned players and bringing in the right pieces at a proper value is what the next few weeks and months will be about. Then factor in the 2021 NFL Draft, the need to overcome changes in the coaching staff and head coach Matt LaFleur needing to tweak his team’s philosophies on the fly in an attempt to get over the hump.

We haven’t seen an offseason like this one in quite some time. Every decision affects the next decision and some can’t be made until others are. It’s kind of a ‘hurry up and wait’ scenario, but then the moves will come one after another.

But make no mistake, this conglomerate of complicated determinations that will constitute a plan will be made with question No. 3 in mind.

Nothing else will be considered. Nor should it be.

That is the only question anyone cares about at 1265 Lombardi Avenue. That is LaFleur’s mandate, that is general manager Brian Gutekunst’s mandate, and that is what Aaron Rodgers’ play, with what’s left of his MVP-level prime, mandates. The fans of the Packers are hungry for a championship and everyone in the organization feels the same way.

It is time.

So let’s take a little closer look at a few of these tenuous deciding points, while understanding that the Packers are trying to get better despite losing some incredible players. Which they, unfortunately, will. It’s a tough spot to be in, but we have no reason not to trust Gute.

If you start getting anxious about this offseason and all that the Packers need to accomplish, just remember that this general manager has a plan. And he has a rare character trait, built into the DNA of this franchise by his predecessors, that allows him to follow his plan no matter the noise coming from the outside. Some would call it The Packer Way.

Below are some of the hurdles he’ll have to clear to give the 2021 Packers the best shot at a Lombardi Trophy.

The Big Spooky, Scary Salary Cap:

This isn’t going to be easy, folks…

And some tough decisions have already been made. Seeing inside linebacker Christian Kirksey and offensive tackle Ricky Wagner be let go is a harbinger of things to come. More solid players will not be retained, even some very solid players.

Kirksey got better as the year went on and Wagner ended up being one of the team’s most consequential players down the stretch. However they were both deemed expendable as the Packers scramble to get under the salary cap.

The salary cap is going to be at least $180 million, hopefully a bit higher. But still, it’s not enough for the Packers to keep the band together.

Preston Smith, one half of The Smith Brothers with Za’Darius, is nearly certainly going to be cut. The emergence of pass rusher Rashan Gary, and Smith’s contract, make this move seemingly inevitable.

We saw the Packers restructure David Bakhtiari’s monster contract just months after signing the deal. It’s funny, but it makes sense for the Packers to pull that trigger. In reality, they probably always knew they’d quickly restructure that contract as that restructuring ability was clearly written into the contract itself. And he doesn’t care, he still gets his money and this only helps the team.

Next we’ll see if the Packers are able to restructure or extend Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and Za’Darius Smith’s contracts to free up even more money for 2021 and possibly 2022. Rodgers’ deal being reworked seems like a lock, but these things are complicated and numerous factors can sometimes get in the way.

The Truth:

Yes, these potential moves will bring about an eventual salary cap hell situation.

But this team can win a Super Bowl in 2021, especially with some more restructuring. Do that, and all future pain will be forgiven by reasonable fans. The team will likely struggle once Aaron Rodgers is gone (retired or moved on) anyway. So why not restructure contracts not just to get under the cap, but to be more competitive in 2021?

I know it’s an uneasy proposition for those that value the stability of success the Packers have long enjoyed, but this is just the reality of the situation.

Look for Billy Turner and Adrian Amos to potentially get extensions to also free up some cash for the 2021 season and possibly beyond, too.

Will this happen? We obviously can’t say, but many things do need to be done to get the Packers under the cap. And that’s, of course, just the baseline. If they want to be relatively aggressive in free agency they’ll have to do even more. Strong emphasis on the relatively.

So, will the Packers’ depth step up so the team can absorb these impending losses? Does 2020’s draft class step up and cover the gaps these moves create? That’s the biggest question as this team goes for a third straight NFC Conference Championship Game — and beyond.

One thing to remember is: Every team is facing the same lower salary cap.

Which Free Agents Can The Packers Bring Back:

The two biggest free agents from the 2020 Green Bay Packers are running back Aaron Jones and center Corey Linsley.

Advanced analytics suggest that paying a running back a second contract is foolish. However, he scores touchdowns at a generational rate. His touchdowns per game trail only Don Hutson in Packers history. Can you replace that? How can the Packers tell Aaron Rodgers that they’re ‘all-in’ when they let Jones and his incredible scoring rate go?

However Linsley was a first-time First-Team All Pro selection in 2020. He was the best center in football this last season. That said, he is going to be 30 years old when the next season kicks off. The Packers typically move on from inside linemen when they reach the 30 year old mark. It’s a tough decision, no doubt.

If Linsley is brought back, Jones is certainly gone. And all eyes will be on A.J. Dillon (hello RB1).

If Jones is brought back, Linsley and running back Jamaal Williams are both certainly gone.

There is a very good chance that both aren’t brought back, but we think (OK, we hope) the team may just find a way to bring one of them back.

The early indications are that Linsley won’t be brought back. The two camps haven’t spoken about his future with the team. That hurts, but the Packers’ history at the position and personnel decisions makes this news make sense.

So, would the Packers consider using the franchise tag on Jones? They have every right to do so and apparently his cap hit would only be $8 million. Although it’s not something the Packers typically do, this is the first time in a long time it seems like a plausible option.

Would Jones hold out knowing he could make big money elsewhere? Possibly, but that doesn’t seem to be in his nature.

As far as restricted free agents go, tight end Robert “Big Bob” Tonyan is the absolute lock for the Packers to sign. He’s added an element to this offense that it hasn’t seen in a decade. He knows that he has to continue to prove that this is the player he’ll remain before the Packers give him a favorable contract.

The other tight end we hope the Packers keep is Marcedes Lewis. He’s a leader, a coach on the field and in the locker room and one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. Will he sign for less for one more chance for a ring with the team that loves him? That’s the hope.

Cornerback Kevin King is certainly gone. He will not be resigned. It just never quite worked out (injuries, injuries, injuries…) but he should be remembered as a great athlete and that was pretty damn close to being a great player.

Joe Barry, the Packers’ new defensive coordinator, will definitely use cornerback Jaire Alexander and safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage in more creative ways and the defensive backfield will remain largely unchanged. Even with losing King this unit will be one of the team’s strengths in 2021.

Even so, we definitely see the Packers using one of their top three picks in the 2021 NFL Draft on a cornerback. The kid, whoever he is, will have a chance to be a starter from day one.

“…But best player available” yes we know. Gute has shown a willingness to make trades in the draft’s early rounds to get the guy he wants (best player available) and the value he sees fit.

How Aggressive Can the Packers Be in Free Agency:

All eyes in the NFL, and especially in Wisconsin, are on J.J. Watt. The future first ballot Hall of Fame defensive lineman is the prize of free agency in 2021 (even with his recent injury history).

The Packers are certainly interested, but is signing him actually realistic? We don’t know, but it’s certainly an intriguing thought. If Russ Ball and Brian Gutekunst can make the money work, the Packers’ defense would take a massive step forward by signing Watt.

Playing for his childhood team, the team he’s loved his whole life, is something no other team that’s pursuing him can offer.

Unfortunately, there’s a good chance he signs somewhere else because another team can offer significantly more money. Still, ESPN’s John Clayton recently reported that the Packers, Titans and Bills are leading the way for Watt so far — so that’s quite interesting.

One would have to think signing a (cheap) veteran inside linebacker to play with Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin is a must for the Packers, too. The same can be said for defensive tackle, offensive tackle (for the depth) and possibly even cornerback. However it’s hard to see a major upgrade at any of those three positions given the limited amount of money the Packers have to spend.

So the draft will have to come into play here.

There is a parallel universe out there where the Packers, somehow, do sign Watt and go on to win the Super Bowl. I choose to believe in this universe Watt gets three sacks in the big game and runs the Lombardi Trophy around the stadium like Reggie did as we all lose our minds.

We probably aren’t in that universe… but maybe we are.

NFL Draft, Specifically Rounds 1-3:

Anyone that tells you they have a firm grasp on what an NFL team will do in rounds 4-7 are simply lying to you. No one knows. No one! There’s a whole industry in pretending to know what teams will do in those later rounds. It’s… something. But in truth, the NFL Draft is a crapshoot. Rounds 4-7 specifically might as well be a game of pin the tail on the donkey except the donkey is in the other room.

But rounds 1-3, or the money rounds as we call them, well, that’s the good stuff. And that’s what we’ll look at today. We think some good predictions can come for the money rounds. The pieces just fit together better. What teams are thinking when it comes to players that can come in and play right away as rookies is a little more clear.

For the Packers, it’s the cornerback position. Yes, the team remains adamant in the ‘best player available’ philosophy, but still. Cornerback is a must. Defensive tackle is a must. And offensive tackle may be a must, too.

If the Packers went with those three positions in the ‘money rounds’ we’d be ecstatic. However it wouldn’t shock us if they went linebacker, center or (ducks for cover…) wide receiver.

If Corey Linsley walks, taking a center early would make sense. But when building an offensive line, you can never have too many quality tackles. So that’s a philosophical question.

If Aaron Jones walks it doesn’t really change how they’d approach the draft. Last year’s draft saw that they’re secure at that position moving forward either way. And for the record, we absolutely love Jones. We think he’s one of the most underrated players in the league.

Personally, a massive run-stuffing defensive tackle would be a welcome pick in round one. The Packers need another big guy or two. Of course, the Watt factor is in play here as he’d be able to play defensive tackle for the 2021 Packers. So we need to answer that question first before looking too hard at the early rounds of the draft.

Also, there aren’t too many athletic run-stuffing big guys walking this Earth. So the supply is limited.

At the very least we hope the Packers take a wide receiver in the 5-7 rounds. Just take a shot on a guy, the Packers have had great success in finding receivers in later rounds. But you’re not going to hear us heavily campaign for a first round wide receiver. Just no. This team missed the out on the Super Bowl because of what happened at the line of scrimmage — not because of wide receiver play.

How Has the NFC North Changed:

My goodness, what hasn’t changed?

The Detroit Lions are in another rebuild. They’ll likely draft a quarterback high in the draft and it wouldn’t shock us if they traded up to do so. They are not contenders for an NFC North title this year… or next year.

The Minnesota Vikings are in an interesting spot. Head coach Mike Zimmer is coaching for his job in 2021. Yes, he got a contract extension but that team is win now or never mode. Their defense still has many holes and quarterback Kirk Cousins just is who he is. He’s efficient, but he’s not taking a team to the promised land. Is this his last year in Minnesota? We’d bet on it. They’re not a team to take lightly when facing head-to-head, but this squad isn’t going to win the division.

The Chicago Bears… who is their quarterback? Can they score more than 18 points per game in 2021? Can their defense get back to the level it should be at? They have the potential to be absolutely dominant in this upcoming season. That’s one of the best units in the NFC North. But still, in this NFL you need a quality quarterback. If the offense surprises everyone, well, maybe they can take a run at a division title.

The Green Bay Packers are the assumed champion of the NFC North. They’ve won it two years in a row, winning 13 games each season, and there’s no reason to think they won’t make it a three-peat as division champs. 13 wins? We don’t know. Let’s go with 12-4 as our unofficial official guess for 2021.

The real question for the Packers is can their defense take the next step? Can their pass rush be even more dominant in 2021 with Rashan Gary’s development? What if Krys Barnes is the real deal at inside linebacker? This squad could be a top five defense with or without J.J. Watt.

Will they? Well, who knows…

The Who’s Who of NFC Contenders:

It seems to us that the Packers are looking to improve or at least stay relatively strong at various positions. But they’re not trying to catch other teams or ‘become’ a contender — they already are.

Most other NFC teams have to not only try to get better but have to specifically attempt to adjust to the things the Packers do or don’t do well. We believe that adds even more pressure to their offseason decisions and this could workout in the Packers’ favor. When other teams gamble, the Packers are still firmly carrying out Gute’s long-term plan.

One of the more intriguing questions to Packers fans is which NFC teams are trending up? Or in some cases staying up.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as annoying as it is, are the team to beat in the NFC.

The Green Bay Packers have to be thought of as the next best team with the way Aaron Rodgers is playing right now. If Gute, Ball and company can nail this offseason and the Bucs regress at all, it could be Green Bay in the driver’s seat.

The Los Angeles Rams with Matthew Stafford have to be taken seriously. We see them winning the NFC West and a trip to a Super Bowl likely requires a win over them.

Those are our top three in the NFC. In our minds, there’s a clear cut-off.

In the next tier you’ll find the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers.

Right there with those two teams are the Arizona Cardinals who could put it all together and make a run. The Minnesota Vikings could make some noise if their defense steps up. The Chicago Bears if they find a quality quarterback in free agency. The Dallas Cowboys, if quarterback Dak Prescott comes back strong, will be a team many won’t want to play.

All other NFC teams are either rebuilding or should be.

What It All Means:

The Green Bay Packers have more moving parts in the 2021 offseason than they have in years. A lot of decisions are contingent on other decisions.

They have to let many free agents walk, cut veterans, restructure the contracts of their best players, see where the salary cap number actually lands, bring in veterans for depth and use the draft to build the team as evenly as possible. All of those factors will play off of each other and we’re kind of in an awkward waiting period between many of these things happening. All we can do is sit back and trust Gutekunst.

He’s got steady hands. He’s going to prove it, again, in the coming weeks.

The Green Bay Packers are a threat to win the Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers at the helm no matter what the team does this offseason. We’re excited to see who the Packers add to this equation and how management will make it all work.

It also means that this team is going to, sadly, look differently than it has for the last two years. But different isn’t always worse. Every team will have to make hard decisions with this lower salary cap due to COVID-19. We trust the Packers’ management and it’s going to be fun to see what happens.

No matter what happens…

Go Pack Go!

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