For the last the decade, the best job in sports this time of year has been Green Bay Packers beat writer. No free agents to worry about researching. No cap mathematics to calculate or egos to write about placating.
Locked in a dark room somewhere, Ted Thompson grinded away at tape of linebackers from FCS schools, worried far too much about the draft to be bothered with such plebeian tasks as free agency.
The only shame is it’s not warm enough in Green Bay or Milwaukee to get out the sticks and hit the golf course.
But something feels different this year, and not just because Ted Thompson is no longer in charge of the front office at 1265 Lombardi Avenue. In fact, he’s probably still locked in that same room watching tape. Brian Gutekunst’s ascension to general manager accompanies Thompson’s transition out, but it’s hardly sticking Thompson on the ice floe (luckily, it is warm enough in Wisconsin for that not to be a thing).
Thompson remains in the front office, scouting the draft.
But in Gutekunst’s introductory press conference, he insisted free agency would once again be a part of the process in Green Bay. He was, after all, hired by Ron Wolf, the man who made perhaps the most famous and impactful free-agent signing in NFL history when he convinced Reggie White to leave Philadelphia in his prime to be a Packer.
Before those Packer beat writers could make their normal vacation plans, reports bubbled up that Green Bay would be more aggressive this offseason, in both free agency and the draft. The Packers may even trade up according to one ESPN report, anathema to Ted Thompson.
But Thompson proteges have consistently broken from their mentor’s traditional approach to free agency, showing a willingness to spend, trade, and take big swings.
If the Packers are willing to once against open up their pocketbook (and are able to avoid the moths flying out), here are three players they could target to fill key position areas this offseason.
Malcolm Butler — CB, New England Patriots
Super Bowl benching be damned, high-performing cornerbacks don’t grow on trees. Don’t be a prisoner of the moment. Butler didn’t play particularly well last season. He was unhappy with not getting a contract, then really unhappy when Stephon Gilmore did. But in fairness, no one on that Patriot defense played particularly well last season.
Butler turns just 28 in March, was second team All-Pro in 2016 and a Pro Bowl corner in 2015. Those seasons don’t simply evaporate because of one subpar season. We’re also talking about par for Butler, who was considered to be an ascending player on his way to being one of the best in the game just a season ago.
Investing the money it would require to get Butler, likely well north of $10 million, would represent an enormous investment from a franchise that has traditionally not valued defensive backs on non-rookie contracts.
The other sticking point: Butler doesn’t fit the thresholds the Packers used under Ted Thompson when drafting cornerbacks. He’s under 5-foot-11, ran slower than 4.6 (though the Patriots reportedly clocked him at 4.4 at his pro day), and had a 3-cone over seven seconds.
For more on the Packers’ drafting strategy and habits, I highly recommend the above link and the work Justis Mosqueda has done breaking it down.
We don’t know how much these apply to potential free agents, if at all. Remember Thompson and the locked room.
Butler is the best cornerback on the market and Green Bay desperately needs an upgrade. If the Packers are going to take a home run swing, this is it.
Donte Moncrief — WR, Indianapolis Colts
In a perfect world, Allen Robinson would be able to avoid the franchise tag, decide he would rather play with Aaron Rodgers than Blake Bortles, and jump ship from Duval County to Brown County.
Absent that, the Packers have two middle class free-agent options: Moncrief and Marqise Lee. Each offer speed and playmaking this offense desperately needs.
Each will cost at least $7 million, but Moncrief is younger, bigger, and the Packers know more about him than any non-Colt team in the league thanks to their offensive coordinator and receivers coach coming over from Indianapolis.
One of the pitfalls of free agency is the uncertainty. If Green Bay wants to hand a new contract to a receiver and two offers are more or less equal in their potential value to the team, the player about whom the Packers know more becomes the obvious choice.
Plus, this draft features a number of smaller, speedy prospects. This does not mean that Lee is a slot-only player. He’s not. Imagine how much more potent this offense would be, though, if the Pack signed Moncrief and snagged Christian Kirk in the second round to fill a potential Randall Cobb void.
Aaron Colvin — CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
This is the middle class version of the Malcolm Butler signing. Colvin comes off his best year as a pro, thriving in the Jaguars’ system alongside the best corner tandem in the league.
There’s a longstanding trope in the NFL about being wary of secondary receivers in really good offenses. There’s a chance Colvin’s success last season was a product of the guys around him, but defensively, that doesn’t hold the same way. If a quarterback has the option to throw at A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey, or Aaron Colvin, the answer to which is the best option should be obvious.
Yet Colvin played as well as any slot corner in football last year. That said, he’s not a “slot” corner in that he’s not undersized at six feet and 193 pounds. He brings a versatile skill set to play the slot or outside and won’t break the bank the same way Butler would.
If the Packers are going to make more than one marquee signing in free agency, Colvin is the value play at corner, leaving them room to chase another high-value asset. The only problem with that: The best assets worth chasing this offseason short of Robinson also play corner.
There’s a chance two of these players could wind up in Green Bay, but not both cornerbacks.