NFL News & Analysis

Green Bay Packers 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Jan 16, 2021; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) smiles as he approaches the line of scrimmage to down the ball to end the game and a victory against the Los Angeles Rams during their NFL divisional playoff game Saturday, January 16, 2021, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers-USA TODAY NETWORK

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Green Bay Packers‘ potential regression that was discussed last offseason never materialized. The team once again finished the regular season with a 13-3 record on the back of Aaron Rodgers playing some of the best football in his career.

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Now, the Packers have to decide how aggressively they want to pursue this window with Rodgers in Green Bay and when the reins get passed over to 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love

Given what we saw last season, there is no reason to believe the Packers won’t do everything in their power to run things back in 2021 and chase another Super Bowl. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): –$11,451,306 (7th lowest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 29, 62, 93, 126, 157, 190, 221

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Aaron Rodgers 1 / 32 $37.2 million
RB ?
WR Davante Adams 1 / 127 $16.8 million
WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling 105 / 127 $2.2 million
WR ?
TE ?
LT David Bakhtiari 2 / 38 $11.0 million
LG Elgton Jenkins 19 / 39 $1.8 million
C ?
RG Lucas Patrick 19 / 40 $2.1 million
RT ?

The Packers have more questions on offense this offseason than expected given their success on that side of the ball in 2020. Much of it revolves around free agents who could be difficult to retain with competitive markets around the league. 

At running back, both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams — two 2017 draft picks who have split the lion's share of the backfield work over the past four years — will hit free agency. Williams seems the more realistic candidate to return considering the contracts each will command. Regardless of the outcomes, 2020 second-round pick A.J. Dillon figures to see a larger share of the running back touches next season. 

The other big-name unrestricted free agent is PFF’s highest-graded center in 2020, Corey Linsley. Early signs point to him signing elsewhere, and the Packers have in-house options, such as Jenkins and Patrick, who could move to center having played the position before. That would open up a starting position at guard, but Jon Runyan Jr. could very well fill that vacancy in his second NFL season next year. Green Bay will also have to address the right tackle spot following Rick Wagner's release. That is, unless the team feels comfortable in Billy Turner starting (59.8 grade at right tackle in 2020).

Lastly, Green Bay should once again look to add receiving talent for Rodgers to work with behind Adams. Robert Tonyan and Allen Lazard should both be back, but neither is currently under contract in 2021. Adding a dynamic, playmaking wide receiver certainly wouldn’t hurt matters.  

Are the Packers comfortable replacing Corey Linsley with an in-house option?

A recent interview from Linsley on SiriusXM made it sound like his time in Green Bay is coming to a close. “We’re not closing the door for anything … but yeah, it definitely feels weird. Looks like all signs are pointing towards snapping the ball somewhere else next year,” he said in the interview. 

Both Jenkins and Patrick have seen snaps at center over the past few years while Linsley was sidelined, and the Packers could be comfortable in one of those two taking over. Patrick played 128 snaps at center during the 2019 season, earning a strong 74.2 pass-blocking grade compared to just a 37.5 run-blocking grade over that stretch. Jenkins played nearly 300 snaps at center in 2020. He ended the year with a 74.3 pass-blocking grade and a 62.2 run-blocking grade at the position. 

Green Bay has multiple offensive linemen who could slot in at various positions. The only player who appears to be locked into his role is Bakhtiari at left tackle. The Packers will have to sift through their options and find who is best suited at each of the four other positions. Jenkins may be the right tackle of the future given the versatility he has shown early in his NFL career. It will be interesting to see where the shuffling pieces fall come Week 1. 

Does A.J. Dillon take on a featured role in 2021?

It’s hard not to imagine that the Packers selected Dillon in the second round of last year’s draft with the thought that they might let both Jones and Williams walk in free agency this offseason. 

There’s a good chance Jones earns top-tier running back money from a team this offseason, making him the less likely of the two to remain in Green Bay. His projected contract on PFF’s free agency rankings currently sits at $52 million over four years, while Williams is projected for just a two-year, $6 million deal. At that price point, it makes sense for the Packers to bring Williams back to pair with Dillon in the backfield. 

As for Dillon himself, he showed promise in limited opportunities last season. His selection was widely considered to be in “reach” territory during last year’s draft given concerns about his ability as a receiver and his rushing style, but Dillon acclimated himself well as a rookie with 3.4 rushing yards after contact per attempt and 17 forced missed tackles on just 55 attempts. That performance — albeit in a small sample — will likely give the Packers confidence in giving him a larger role in 2021.    

What kind of wide receiver does Green Bay need to add?

The Packers have their alpha wide receiver in Adams — not only the best receiver on the team but one of the best receivers in the league. They also have a designated deep threat in Valdes-Scantling and a bigger possession receiver in Lazard. Yet, Green Bay is missing a dynamic, after-the-catch threat that can make defenders miss in space.

Packers wide receivers combined to force just 12 missed tackles during the 2020 regular season. That ranked 30th in the NFL, ahead of only the Houston Texans (11) and Cleveland Browns (11). The good news for Green Bay is that there are plenty of those types of receivers available this offseason through both the 2021 NFL Draft and free agency. The Packers simply need to prioritize bringing one in — something we’ve seen them avoid of late.  

Potential targets at open spots

Running back: Jamaal Williams, Rex Burkhead 

I touched a bit on why it makes sense financially to bring back Williams over Jones. Williams has earned pass-blocking grades above 75.0 in three of his four NFL seasons, and he has proven to be an effective outlet in the passing game. Those are the kind of players who Green Bay should be looking to pair with Dillon in more of an early-down role. 

Burkhead fits a similar mold and could potentially be signed for less money than Williams due to age. The former Bengal and Patriot hasn’t graded below 64.4 as a pass blocker or a receiver in any of the past five seasons, and he has been an effective runner on limited carries in recent years, as well.  

Wide receiver: Curtis Samuel, Rondale Moore, Kadarius Toney

As discussed earlier, the Packers need to add receivers with juice who are a threat with the ball in their hands. All three of these players qualify. 

Samuel gives some added running back versatility and should fit nicely into some of the jet motion looks that Matt LaFleur likes to run. The former Ohio State wideout is coming off a career-best 77.0 PFF grade in 2020 with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback in Carolina. Additionally, Samuel won’t turn 25 years old until August.

Moore and Toney stand out as two of the better wide receivers toward the back end of the first round in the “playmaker” mold. Moore’s role at Purdue was very much the team simply trying to get the ball into his hands, and he dominated there as a true freshman back in 2018. He’s one of the best receivers in the class with the ball in his hands, as is Toney. As the PFF Draft Guide says, “You can’t teach what Toney has.”

Either would have an immediate and much-needed role in the Packers' offense next season.   

Tight end: Robert Tonyan

This one isn’t all that difficult to justify. Tonyan is coming off a breakout 2020 season in which he caught 52 passes and 11 touchdowns, generating a 148.3 passer rating on his targets. A restricted free agent this offseason, it seems unlikely he leaves in free agency.    

Interior offensive line: Alex Mack, Kendrick Green  

If the Packers do opt to look for an external answer to the vacancy left behind by Linsley, Mack stands out as a veteran stop-gap solution with plenty of experience in zone-blocking schemes. He may not quite be elite any longer at 35 years old, but he can still get the job done in the run game. He also earned pass-blocking grades of 75.0 or higher every season of his career prior to 2020. 

Green is a significantly younger alternative in the 2021 NFL Draft. The 113th-ranked player on PFF’s Big Board, Green played significant snaps at both guard and center at Illinois and delivered some impressive blocks when he got out into space and up to the second level. He is coming off a 2020 season in which he earned an 87.8 PFF grade.   

Tackle: Walker Little, Mike Remmers 

If the solution at the right tackle position isn’t an in-house option, such as Billy Turner or Jenkins, then I wouldn’t expect the Packers to invest significant resources there this offseason since they parted ways with a capable starter — Rick Wagner for cap savings. 

Little hasn't taken a game snap in nearly two years, but the Packers will still be hoping he's on the board when their second-round pick rolls around. There is a reason that Little was a top-10 recruit in the 2017 recruiting class. He has ideal athletic traits for the position and had impressive tape the last time we saw him on a field for multiple games in 2018 with Stanford. But that was over two years ago.

Remmers will be entering free agency after his worst pass-blocking performance of the 2020 season in Super Bowl 55, but he did have a productive season (71.3 PFF grade) as the Chiefs' starting right tackle for much of the year. He would likely come cheap and add some versatility to play inside at guard if needed. At worst, he’s an experienced depth piece on the offensive line. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI ?
DI Kenny Clark 23 / 126 $7.0 million
DI ?
EDGE Rashan Gary 43 / 109 $4.3 million
EDGE Za’Darius Smith 14 / 109 $22.0 million
LB ?
LB Krys Barnes 71 / 83 $0.8 million
CB Jaire Alexander 1 / 121 $3.8 million
CB ?
CB ?
S Darnell Savage 17 / 94 $3.4 million
S Adrian Amos 2 / 94 $10.3 million

The Packers' defense will be moving on from Mike Pettine to Joe Barry at defensive coordinator. Barry was last a defensive coordinator with Washington across the 2015 and 2016 seasons, more recently serving as an assistant head coach and a linebackers coach for the Los Angeles Rams the past four seasons. Based on Barry’s history, Green Bay should remain a base 3-4 defense and feature a fair amount of two-high coverages and disguise on the back end.  

The defensive line remains an area of need outside of Clark. None of the interior defensive linemen on the team except for Clark who played at least 200 snaps — Dean Lowry, Kingsley Keke and Tyler Lancaster — cleared a 70.0 PFF grade. That makes it two straight years. The Packers should continue to look to add talent up front. 

Preston Smith seems to be one of the more glaring cut candidates after he took a step back in his second year with the team last season. His release could save the Packers $8 million this season. Meanwhile, Gary took a step forward last season in a larger role on the edge. 

At linebacker, Barnes played over 500 snaps as an undrafted free agent rookie out of UCLA. He earned just a 43.0 PFF grade but is one of the favorites to earn a starting spot at the position next season. The rookie Kamal Martin showed some promise, but linebacker is still an area of need heading into 2021. Christian Kirksey was recently released after playing 591 defensive snaps in 2020. 

The cornerback position may be the biggest area of need on this defense. The Packers have one of the best cornerbacks in the league on their roster in Alexander, but the depth is thin behind him. One of their starters outside — Kevin King — is an unrestricted free agent following a disastrous performance in Green Bay’s final game of the season. Chandon Sullivan, the team’s starting slot cornerback, is a restricted free agent this offseason, as well. Adding quality contributors in the secondary should be a priority for the Packers.       

Is the interior defensive line or cornerback a bigger need on this roster?

It’s safe to say the Packers could use help at both cornerback and interior defensive line. When it comes to which is a bigger need, though, I’ll side with cornerback. Lowry, Keke and Lancaster are capable of playing snaps along the defensive line, even if the thought isn’t overly exciting, but it’s harder to say the same for the cornerback options currently on the roster behind Alexander. 

Josh Jackson simply hasn’t panned out at cornerback since Green Bay took him in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and you quickly get to options like Ka’Dar Hollman and his 122 career snaps beyond Jackson.

We’ve seen teams that continue to invest in the secondary, such as the Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have success in recent years. You won’t hit on every player, but cornerback is a position where it’s important to have quality depth. The Packers don’t have that right now, and they should be making it a priority to fill their depth chart out at the position a bit this offseason.   

Does Rashan Gary take another step forward in his third season?

Gary had an underwhelming rookie season in 2019 as the 12th overall pick out of Michigan. He played only 256 defensive snaps on the season — clearly behind both Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith on the depth chart — and recorded 15 quarterback pressures in 16 games. Things began to take a turn for the better in 2020, though. 

Gary improved his PFF grade from 55.8 to 68.1 this past season on nearly 300 more snaps played. Including the postseason, he topped his rookie pressure total by 30. Gary really turned things on down the stretch, with several of his better performances on the year coming in a three-game stretch from Week 16 through the Packers' postseason win against the Los Angeles Rams

Green Bay will be hoping that momentum carries over into 2021, as Gary’s role in the defense should only continue to increase.  

Are Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage on their way to becoming one of the NFL's best safety duos?

Both Amos and Savage finished the 2020 season ranked among the top 20 safeties in the league in PFF grade. Amos finished second in the NFL, behind only Jessie Bates III, and he has a strong argument for being the most underappreciated player at the position in the NFL. Since 2018, no safety in the league has been worth more wins above a replacement-level player than Amos, according to PFF WAR

When you pair the reliability and security that he brings with an exciting, young playmaker like Savage, the makings of an elite safety duo begin to take form. Savage stepped in with solid play immediately as a coverage defender in his rookie year, but he became more of a complete player in 2020 with much-improved run defense.

The safety tandem of Amos and Savage along with Alexander as the team’s CB1 gives Green Bay a chance to field an elite secondary if it can find quality pieces at cornerback to fill out its starting lineup.   

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Derek Wolfe, Lawrence Guy  

The Packers should be looking for veterans here who have a track record of holding up against the run, as Green Bay has struggled in that department in recent years. Both Wolfe and Guy fit that bill. 

Wolfe earned an 82.8 run-defense grade last season in his first year with the Baltimore Ravens, and he has graded above 75.0 against the run in six of his past seven seasons. Similarly, Guy has been a reliable run defender with grades of at least 65.0 against the run on over 450 snaps in each of his past six seasons, reaching near-elite play on several occasions. 

Linebacker: Nick Bolton, Jamin Davis 

As Bolton’s bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide reads, “[He] doesn’t tick every physical qualifier box at linebacker, but who cares? He personifies the position.” He has earned a 91.2 PFF grade across his past two seasons combined at Missouri, and he is the type of player who could step in and produce early in his NFL career.

Davis could potentially be had somewhere on Day 2 rather than the first round, but he also profiles well in Green Bay’s defense. Unlike Bolton, he does boast more of the build and burst that you look for at the position. He just isn’t quite as complete when it comes to some of the intricacies of playing the position, particularly in coverage.   

Cornerback: Asante Samuel Jr., Quinton Dunbar, Nickell Robey-Coleman

Dunbar and Robey-Coleman both present buy-low opportunities in free agency that a team tight on cap space — the Packers — could potentially take advantage of. 

Dunbar’s overall grade dropped from 87.6 in 2019 to 47.7 in an eventful one-year stint with the Seattle Seahawks. Meanwhile, Robey-Coleman profiled as one of the best nickel cornerbacks in the NFL across three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams from 2017 to 2019, but he struggled last year in Philadelphia with a 51.1 PFF grade. Joe Barry’s defense could be what both need to get things back on track.

If the Packers wanted to opt for youth instead to fill their vacancy outside, Samuel could be an early target of note in the 2021 NFL Draft. He’s a natural athlete who is a willing tackler, and his instincts are some of the best in the class. Samuel broke up at least five passes in each of his three seasons with Florida State.

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