If the Packers move on from Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, they would be left with Kyler Fackrell as the top returning edge rusher.
The NFL scouting combine is a fascinating place.
By day, the combine is a news-producing machine in which coaches, general managers and draft-eligible prospects generate headlines for more than 1,000 credentialed reporters. By night, the combine is a gossiper’s dream in which league personnel stuff the same handful of bars each year. The times may change, the drinking establishments don’t.
In other words, it’s only a small exaggeration to say more business gets done after 11 p.m. than during the normal working hours. And while storylines involving the Packers are less public than other teams, that doesn’t mean there isn’t chatter and discussion throughout the week.
Here are some nuggets The Athletic Wisconsin learned after speaking with a variety of sources in Indianapolis:
1. Even though the Packers enter the free-agency cycle with a relatively clean slate — there aren’t any players they absolutely have to re-sign — their shopping list is likely to be far longer at this time in 2020. Players whose contracts expire after next season include defensive end Mike Daniels, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, kicker Mason Crosby and several important members of the 2016 draft class: inside linebacker Blake Martinez, defensive end Dean Lowry and outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell. The Packers also must decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option on nose tackle Kenny Clark, a decision that will be made this spring, and then how to proceed with a long-term extension.
Based on conversations at the combine, the player whose potential contract negotiation could be the most divisive is Martinez, a former fourth-round pick. Martinez finished second in the league in tackles last season and tied for first the season before. He had a career-high 5 sacks in 2018 and cemented himself as a vocal leader for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Because of that, some believe Martinez views himself among the best inside linebackers in the league and will seek to be compensated accordingly.
At the moment, the 15 richest inside linebacker contracts in terms of average per year (APY) are as follows:
• Luke Kuechly, Panthers, $12.4 million
• Bobby Wagner, Seahawks, $10.8 million
• Alex Ogletree, Giants, $10.5 million
• Eric Kendricks, Vikings, $10 million
• Benardrick McKinney, Texans, $10 million
• Anthony Hitchens, Chiefs, $9 million
• Mark Barron, Rams, $9 million
• Demario Davis, Saints, $8 million
• Brandon Marshall, Broncos, $8 million
• Avery Williamson, Jets, $7.5 million
• Zach Brown, Redskins, $7 million
• Danny Trevathan, Bears, $7 million
• Vince Williams, Steelers, $6.2 million
• Preston Brown, Bengals, $5 million
• Todd Davis, Broncos, $5 million
The question facing the Packers isn’t as much about whether Martinez should be part of that group — it can be reasonably argued that he would land somewhere in the second half of the aforementioned list — but whether they are willing to pay that kind of money to retain him, especially given Martinez’s struggles in coverage.
Any contract extension averaging $7 million or more in APY would make Martinez one of the highest-paid players on the Packers’ roster. There are only seven players under contract for next season whose current deals have higher APY values: quarterback Aaron Rodgers ($33.5 million); wide receiver Davante Adams ($14.5 million); left tackle David Bakhtiari ($12 million); outside linebacker Nick Perry ($12 million); defensive end Mike Daniels ($10.3 million); tight end Jimmy Graham ($10 million); and center Corey Linsley ($8.5 million).
How their negotiations unfold should offer a clearer picture of how the Packers view Martinez and the inside linebacker position overall.
2. The Packers have expressed a desire to bring in multiple edge rushers before the 2019 season. This includes a vow to be active in free agency, where the market has crystallized thanks to the passing of Tuesday’s deadline for franchise/transition tags, and the intention to select a pass rusher in the early rounds of this year’s draft, where the defensive front is an overwhelming strength.
Their depth chart will likely change drastically in the coming weeks. The Packers are expected to let outside linebacker Clay Matthews test the open market once his contract expires March 13, and it seems unlikely the team will pay fellow pass rusher Nick Perry the $4.8 million roster bonus he is due to receive shortly thereafter on the third day of the new league year. It’s unclear if general manager Brian Gutekunst would prefer to cut ties with Perry entirely or ask him to restructure his contract.
If the Packers move on from both Matthews and Perry, they would be left with Fackrell as the top returning edge rusher next season. Reggie Gilbert, an exclusive rights free agent, is likely to be tendered and brought back for another season, while Kendall Donnerson, a seventh-round pick in 2018, is expected to be given another year of development.
3. As has been the norm in recent years, the top edge rushers whose contracts were set to expire were all retained by their current teams before hitting the open market. Jadeveon Clowney of the Texans, Dee Ford of the Chiefs and Frank Clark of the Seahawks were franchise tagged by their respective organizations, while Brandon Graham of the Eagles agreed to a three-year, $40 million extension last week to remain in Philadelphia.
In some respects, Graham’s deal set the market for edge rushers entering free agency next week. That a player who turns 31 in April signed an extension worth $13.5 million per year bodes well for the likes of Preston Smith (Redskins) and Za’Darius Smith (Ravens), who are both 26 years old and in the primes of their respective careers.
Za’Darius Smith is viewed as a less-expensive option. He has 18½ sacks in four years as a rotational player for the Ravens, whose outside linebacking corps was a three-man timeshare with Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon. He enters free agency coming off the best season of his career after leading the Ravens in sacks (8½) and quarterback hits (25) while also finishing second in tackles for loss (10). His floor is believed to be $10 million per year in free agency, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see that figure climb even higher.
Once again, the Packers are expected to be involved in conversations for Za’Darius Smith. One league source described Smith as a “perfect fit” with Pettine’s defense.
4. Given the amount of money he earned before arriving in Green Bay (north of $50 million in career earnings) and the accolades he had already received (twice named second-team All-Pro), it would have been easy for defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson to approach the 2018 season with aloofness, to view himself as a one-year rental for the Packers rather than an integral piece of the organization.
Instead, Wilkerson assumed an important leadership role on the defensive line and developed strong bonds with several of the younger players at that position. He was described as “one of the nicest guys in the locker room” and someone who took a genuine interest in the development of backups Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, Montravius Adams, Fadol Brown and James Looney.
Wilkerson cheered for them as he recovered from a broken ankle and severe ligament damage suffered in Week 3 against the Redskins, and the younger players responded by supporting him in any way possible. When given the chance to disconnect from the team and rehab anywhere in the country, Wilkerson chose to stay in Green Bay in part because he enjoyed the company of his teammates.
Perhaps that’s why there is mutual interest between Wilkerson and the Packers about returning for another season. Depending on how his ankle progresses, Wilkerson could remain in Green Bay on another short-term, prove-it deal with little risk for the organization. And because Wilkerson is already versed in Pettine’s system, this type of contract could be finalized any time between now and training camp.
5. Similarly, veteran tight ends Marcedes Lewis and Lance Kendricks were said to be terrific influences on first-year player Robert Tonyan. A former college quarterback, Tonyan originally signed with the Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2017. He was released at the end of training camp that year and later spent the final month of the regular season on the Packers’ practice squad. The Packers signed him to a reserve/futures contract on Jan. 2, 2018, and Tonyan wound up making the 53-man roster out of training camp last season.
While Lewis and Kendricks had fairly diminutive roles on the field, their mentorship of Tonyan off the field was significant. They included Tonyan in social events throughout the season to build camaraderie and were invaluable resources for any football questions he had.
Both Lewis and Kendricks will become unrestricted free agents next week, and their futures with the organization are cloudy at best. Lewis, who will turn 35 in May, has been training for another season but seems unlikely to re-sign with the Packers. While Kendricks, 31, could be viewed as an affordable backup in the second or third wave of free agency.
Preston Smith, a former second-round pick from Mississippi State, is considered the best-available edge rusher in this year’s class. He has never missed a game in his NFL career and has 24½ sacks the last four seasons. He would mesh well with Pettine’s hybrid 3-4 defense, and the Packers are expected to be involved in conversations for his services, which could cost as much as $16 million per year.
6. Speaking of Tonyan, who is expected to be tendered and brought back as an exclusive rights free agent, the former Indiana State product has partnered with one of the best tight ends in football for his offseason training: George Kittle of the 49ers.
Tonyan and Kittle share the same agent, Jack Bechta, and Bechta encouraged them to work together this winter in Nashville, Tenn. Bechta told Kittle that whatever he did to prepare for the 2018 season — a year in which Kittle caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns in an offense that is extremely similar to the one coach Matt LaFleur will install in Green Bay — he should do it again with Tonyan by his side.
Depending on how free agency and the draft play out, Tonyan could enter the season as high as second on the Packers’ tight end depth chart.
7. The Packers are interested in bringing back defensive lineman Fadol Brown for another season, according to Brown’s agent, and the two sides met in Indianapolis to discuss a new deal. Brown arrived in Green Bay as a late-season waiver claim from the Raiders in early December and impressed the coaching staff in limited action. He played particularly well against the Bears in Week 15 by snuffing several run plays near the line of scrimmage. He also helped stifle a fake punt and then, two games later, notched a pair of quarterback hits against the Lions in Week 17.
8. Veteran cornerback Davon House is recovering well from shoulder surgery that ended his season prematurely. House was placed on injured reserve in September after succumbing to a nagging shoulder problem that dated to the 2017 season. He was hopeful the issue would heal without surgery, but the injury became more problematic as the year progressed.
House, 29, plans to resume his career in 2019. He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next week, and it seems unlikely the Packers would bring him back for another season. If House continues with football, he will be playing somewhere else this season.
9. Former Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski has signed a reserve/futures contract with the Chiefs after sitting out last season. Ripkowski, a former sixth-round pick by the Packers in 2015, was something of a surprise departure when Gutekunst released him during final cuts last September, and in doing so the team entered the regular season without a fullback on the active roster. (Eventually, the Packers promoted fullback Danny Vitale from the practice squad in early December. Vitale remains under contract for next season.)
Part of Ripkowski’s undoing in Green Bay stemmed from his significant weight gain last offseason. Ripkowski swelled to around 265 pounds entering training camp in 2018 — a far cry from his listed weight of 246 pounds — and because of that, he lacked the explosiveness that attracted the Packers in the first place. His movements had become “robotic,” a source said.
Since then, Ripkowski has worked to reshape his body as a street free agent. He returned to his normal playing weight of approximately 245 pounds and impressed the Chiefs in a workout earlier this year. He will compete for a job in training camp.