The Packers have a wide variety of needs to fill this offseason. The team boasts both comfortable cap space and a lot of draft capital for the first time in what feels like forever. The Packers organization can pick and choose to fill their needs between either free agency and the draft, and perhaps less likely through trade. In this series of articles, I’ll explore the best route to fill personnel needs at each area of primary concern for the Packers. I’ll also evaluate some good fits at each position from both Free agency and the draft. We will start with perhaps the biggest hole on the roster, the safety position.
Evaluating the Packers Current Safety Personnel.
It is no secret that the Packers had a down year at the safety position. Fans had been used to seeing some rather above average play from the tandem of Haha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett since 2014. Burnett departed in free agency to the Steelers and Clinton-Dix was traded to Washington after some questionable play coupled with comments indicating he did not expect to be playing in Green Bay next season.
The primary safeties that remain on the roster are Kentrell Brice, Josh Jones, and Tramon Williams assuming he is not moved back to cornerback. Williams is nearing the end of his career, and Brice seems to not be the long-term answer. Josh Jones has shown flashes of exciting play, but he seems destined to play close to the line of scrimmage. It is also worth noting that Tramon Williams is a potential cap casualty with a dead cap of 1.625 million and a cap savings of 5.25 million That is a group that needs to be upgraded in one of two ways. Kentrell Brice recently stated that he would like to be back with the Packers, but on a multi-year deal rather than signing as a restricted free agent. This is most likely wishful thinking on the part of Brice, who I expect to be back on a restricted free agent deal if he remains a Packer in 2019.
The Packers should look to upgrade top-level talent, and add a young developmental prospect. To upgrade their top-level talent at the position, the front office could realistically look at free agency, or they could draft a safety high in the draft. Free agency could be explored as a big money free agent splash or a lower profile signing. This a strong free agent class of safeties. Top free safety candidates include Earl Thomas, LaMarcus Joyner, Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, Adrian Amos, Kenny Vaccaro, Tre Boston & the aforementioned Haha Clinton-Dix who they will not be signing. That is the best free agent class of safeties I can think of in recent memory.
The majority of the players I listed play free safety or some variation of that position. The Packers could really look to upgrade either strong or free safety, but if they want a big upgrade, they should dip into the big pool of free agent talent. Prospects like Deionte Thompson, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson & Herb Adderly relative Nasir Adderly present intriguing options early in the draft as well.
Free Agent Fits
My Splash Free Agent Pick: FS Earl Thomas
Earl Thomas turns 30 this offseason, but he has shown he can still play at a high level. He is the rangy center field type safety that the Packers defense has been missing since Nick Collins had his career cut short in 2011. Mike Pettine’s runs plenty of single high safety looks which would allow Thomas to play his natural center field role. The Packers defense currently lacks big time play makers like Earl Thomas. Not only is Earl Thomas a great cover guy, but is a better tackler than his size suggests.
While there is plenty of speculation that Thomas will land in Dallas, I think that is in no way set in stone. Thomas reportedly wants to be the highest paid safety in the league and will not take any hometown discounts. Dallas needs to pay Dak Prescott, DeMarcus Lawrence & Amari Cooper very soon. They also will have to shell out some money to Zeke Elliot in the next two years. Paying Earl Thomas more than Eric Berry’s 13 million per year contract would be difficult for Dallas.
Green Bay would likely have to pay around 14 million per season for Earl Thomas. That is big money, but it would come with big impact. Thomas is one of, if not, the most impactful safety in the NFL. I’ve seen this move compared to the signing of Charles Woodson over ten years ago. This may be a bigger monetary commitment, but Thomas could make the same level of impact that the signing of Woodson did. His presence within Green Bay’s defense would be a game changer.
My Under the Radar Free Agent Safety: Tre Boston
Tre Boston was a name that Packers fans did some clamoring for at the end of last offseason. Boston is just 26 years old but has played for three teams already, and may be headed to his fourth this offseason. Boston signed for roughly 2.5 million dollars on a one year deal with the Cardinals last season. He had a very solid season in Arizona with 3 interceptions and 66 solo tackles in 14 games, prompting his value to be speculated around 6 million per year.
Boston is a center field type free safety, and while he isn’t the rangy athlete you desire as a center fielder, he is a clear upgrade in talent for the Packers. Bringing in Tre Boston at a cheaper price could allow the front office to go after free agents at other needs like wide receiver and outside linebacker more aggressively while still upgrading the position.
Prospects to Watch
My Day 1 & 2 Prospect to Watch: FS Chauncey Gardner-Johnson – Florida
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson finished the combine with a 4.48 second 40 yard dash standing at 5’11” and 210 pounds. He is the prototype for the modern era free safety. His strength is in coverage, he can also play some slot cornerback. While he had some major issues tackling in his time at Florida, he showed improvement in his final season. His overall play effort improved in his final season as well. The biggest knock on Gardner Johnson as a prospect is his consistency in coverage. He cold be a versatile weapon in the NFL if he could clean up his consistency as a tackler and a cover guy.
My Day 3 Prospect to Watch: FS Jaquan Johnson – Miami FL
Johnson is most likely an early day 3 prospect from my research. At 5’10” 191 pounds, he is a free safety. His draft stock took a hit with a 4.69 second 40 time at the combine. He seems to play faster than his 40 time suggest, but that 40 time will hurt his draft stock as a free safety. Like Earl Thomas, Johnson has is undersized but a very willing tackler. He simply plays aggressively. The reason Jaquan Johnson is viewed as a day 3 pick is that his coverage skills need to be refined. Coverage can be coached up, but being a willing tackler often cannot be coached. If the Packers gave Johnson a few years to learn behind a veteran, they could be looking at a gem of a pick.
Focus on a free safety signing via free agency and look for a day 3 draft prospect to develop.
Even if all of the impending free agents do not hit the market, this is still a very stellar class. My personal target would be to make a big splash with Earl Thomas. The monetary market for safeties was very low last offseason, and while that could change, I do not expect it to all that much. Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reed set the market for this offseason with a contract extension worth over 24 Million for 3 years.
The organization could get big impact for an inexpensive price. The front office could go with a big name like Earl Thomas or Landon Collins, or they could make a less flashy move and bring in a guys like Kenny Vaccaro or Tre Boston. The Packers may look to reunite with Morgan Burnett if he is granted his release from Pittsburgh. Either way its a move that needs to be made at an opportune time in terms of the safety market. I think the team should also look for an early day 3 prospect with potential to develop in the coming years.
As you can see, I lean heavily towards free safety for the Packers in both draft and free agency. I see big impact coming from adding the center field guy the Packers have not had in what seems like forever. Free safety is especially important with all of the single high safety looks the Packers defense uses regularly. The Packers may look to upgrade strong safety instead, or even upgrade both positions. One thing is for certain, the Packers organization cannot afford to go into next season with the same personnel they used last season.