The 2021-2022 season is in the books and draft season is underway. The Packers have several key decisions to make as the free-agency period in mid-March quickly approaches and each of those moves will affect the team’s draft board. With many of those decisions still up in the air and the scouting process heating up for fans, let’s predict the Packers’ top draft needs this season.
Let me take you back to 2019 — question marks surrounded Matt LaFleur’s credibility as he took over as head coach, but those were quickly put to rest as Brian Gutekunst made his mark as General Manager, landing two intriguing edge rushers who shared a last name.
Za’Darius Smith, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, and Preston Smith, a Washington Football Team draft pick, were plucked off the free agency market to form the dynamic tandem known as the “Smith Bros.”
Za’Darius has since exceeded expectations in Green Bay, proving to be an all-pro-level pass rusher while recording 26 sacks in his first two seasons with the club and solidifying himself as a leader in the locker room. After missing most of the 2021 season and slated to be a $27.6M cap hit in 2022, Smith’s time in Titletown could be coming to an end, by way of a release.
The Packers would save more than $15M in cap space by cutting Za’Darius this offseason.
Preston, on the other hand, started his Packers stint with a bang in 2019, recording 12 sacks in what was a career year. After a disappointing 2020 season, where he looked to be sluggish and overweight, Smith bounced back in 2021 with a valiant nine-sack campaign to help make up for his “brother’s” absence. Like Za’Darius, Preston is scheduled to make a big financial dent in 2022, costing $19.75M against the cap.
Despite his efforts this season, Smith is likely making too much money to justify keeping him around in 2022. Releasing him would clear $12.5M in cap space this offseason.
In-season addition, Whitney Mercilus, is scheduled to become a free agent this offseason. While the Packers could bring him back on another cheap deal, the void remains as it stands.
That leaves 2019 first-round pick, Rashan Gary, as the team’s number one edge rusher. The prospects of this are much more welcoming now than they would’ve been this time last year.
The Packers have taken their time with Gary and it’s paid in spades. After being given an opportunity in 2021 to take over a starting role, Gary didn’t relinquish the reigns. He posted a 9.5 sack and two forced fumble campaign, leaving fans optimistic they’ll still have a pro-bowl talent coming off the edge if the Smith Bros leave.
In this case, though, an edge rusher could climb to the top of the Packers’ needs list, as they try to make up for the loss of two big pieces and stay wealthy on the outside.
This need would be reserved specifically for right tackle (see all-pro David Bakhtiari at left tackle).
The Packers, although fielding a great offensive line for years, have had something of a revolving door at right tackle since Bryan Bulaga left via free agency in 2020. Jared Veldheer, Billy Turner, Elgton Jenkins and Dennis Kelly have all taken turns protecting Aaron Rodgers’ arm side.
Turner filled in as a bookend for most of 2021, playing at a pro-bowl level for much of the year. His versatility has played a huge part in the Packers’ ability to make seamless changes along the line.
But now the Packers face a tough decision with Turner this offseason. While paying a solid right tackle $9.2M is a respectable number – 14th highest paid at his position in the NFL – the team is entering a cap-strapped offseason where key signings will need to be made and every dollar is important.
Releasing Turner would free $4.3M in space and afford the Packers a little more breathing room to sign one of their big fish set to hit the market.
If Turner stays, the right tackle position becomes a second-tier need for the team this draft. But the team also has Royce Newman as another versatile option to take a step into that role next season.
Newman, a fourth-round pick in 2021, is listed as a guard and started 16 games at that position this season, but can also kick outside to right tackle, where he played exceptionally well his entire senior year at Ole Miss.
If the Packers believe Newman to be the suitor for that spot, they could release Turner and push the need lower on their board.
I hate the thought as much as you do: Davante Adams may have played his last down in a Packers uniform. There’s a lot of speculation about him requesting $30M per year, and while this article isn’t about that, there is a scenario in which the Packers enter the draft with Allen Lazard (RFA) and Amari Rodgers as its top two receivers.
This position is interesting because Aaron Rodgers will have a great influence on it. If Rodgers doesn’t return in 2022, it’s fair to assume Adams looks to continue his dominance on another team while making a lot more money.
If Rodgers stays, is it dependent on Adams coming back? In the event they both come back, wide receiver slides to a second-tier need.
If Rodgers and Adams are both gone, leaving Jordan Love as the starting quarterback, does Gutenkunst really want his new signal-caller’s tenure to begin with Lazard and Amari Rodgers as his top two options?
You may be wondering “where’s Randall Cobb and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in all of this?”
Valdes-Scantling could end up being the forgotten man this offseason as Adams, and even Lazard’s likely return, steal headlines. The speedster is marked to hit free agency this offseason and it’s anyone’s best guess as to whether he’ll be back in the Green and Gold next season or not.
Cobb, while still on contract entering 2022, is slated to be a $9.6M cap hit. Despite his leadership value and relationship with Rodgers, Cobb is still a 31-year-old receiver with an injury history.
Entering an offseason with little cash to spare, he is likely to be cut, saving the Packers $6.8M in cap space.
Contrary to what many Cheeseheads have been clamouring for over the past half-decade, I am not a fan of taking wide receivers in the first round. I simply believe there is better value in drafting other positions, in most cases.
But if the nightmarish scenario of Lazard/Rodgers does present itself come draft day, the Packers could look to strike on an outside weapon for its young quarterback, in what would be one of the most ironic draft picks in team history, and a slap in the face for Aaron Rodgers.——————
Joshua Frey-Sam is a journalism student and aspiring sportscaster hailing from Winnipeg, Canada. A Packers fan since 2005, Josh has worked to master the financial and scouting aspect of the NFL over the past few years. Josh remains a firm believer that Dez did not, in fact, catch the ball. You can follow him on twitter at @jfreysam.