Still no decision from Aaron Rodgers with legal-tampering period hours away
Aaron Rodgers didn't want to hold the Packers "hostage" with a protracted decision-making process. Despite that, no resolution has transpired with the de facto start of free agency hours away.
The beginning of the NFL's legal negotiation window -- better known as the "legal-tampering period" -- arrives in just a matter of hours. Despite this, the future of Aaron Rodgers remains unresolved, leaving the Green Bay Packers and other parties in the lurch until further notice.
Today's edition of The Leap examines the effect of Rodgers' protracted decision-making process on the Packers as well as previews the team's biggest items of business as the de facto start of free agency approaches.
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At press time, Aaron Rodgers has still not revealed his plans for 2023. How much, if at all, does this affect the Packers' approach to free agency and the start of the new league year?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: The Packers would presumably handle certain pieces of business the same no matter what Aaron Rodgers decides. The team made its intention to compete in 2023 clear when it restructured the contracts of Jaire Alexander, David Bakhtiari, Kenny Clark, Aaron Jones, and Preston Smith, pushing money into future years while providing cap space in the near term. Accordingly, Green Bay will look to retain certain unrestricted free agents (Keisean Nixon chief among them) regardless of who starts under center.
Rodgers' indecision comes into play not so much with free agency but rather with other avenues of team-building. If, say, the Packers had a deal finalized to trade the four-time MVP quarterback to the New York Jets, the assets received in the deal could allow general manager Brian Gutekunst to explore potential acquisitions on the trade market. Jalen Ramsey just changed teams for the cost of a third-round pick and a tight end with one career reception. Likewise, Green Bay could conceivably flip an acquired mid-round pick for a veteran on a rebuilding club like the post-Tom Brady Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
By Rodgers extending his process into March 13, the Packers don't know whether they should commit to one version of themselves or another at a time when other franchises can formally make significant moves. By the time Green Bay has the necessary information to move forward, some options will have come off the table. In that sense, Rodgers has undercut his stated intention not to hold the team hostage.
Peter Bukowski: The Packers want to compete with Jordan Love or Aaron Rodgers, so I expect them to try and make the team better no matter who plays quarterback. At this point, the chance it’s Rodgers appears to be dropping precipitously, and that choice's true impact falls on the free agents and players themselves.
But it does still matter what happens with Rodgers. If Rodgers doesn’t play anywhere in 2023, that could entice Allen Lazard, for example, to want to return to Green Bay a bit more. He doesn’t have Rodgers to follow. If Rodgers plays, those calculations change.
That’s potentially true for any of the outgoing free agents, event players like Adrian Amos and Keisean Nixon. We don’t know how a potential trade would play in the locker room, what feelings it would engender among players, and how that might affect any player’s willingness to return to Green Bay.
It’s also not only possible but likely the team has been negotiating with players like Nixon or anyone else they want to bring back but without clarity at quarterback, there’s only so much they can control.
Four years ago, the Packers made a series of major splashes in free agency, signing a class that included Adrian Amos, Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith, and Billy Turner. With the advantage of hindsight, how do you view these moves?
JBH: The collection of acquisitions proved even more valuable than they seemed at the time. Back in 2019, the Packers garnered praise for bringing on both Za'Darius and Preston Smith to fix their pass-rushing woes. However, the addition of Adrian Amos raised some eyebrows as non-elite safeties rarely justify salaries as large as he commanded. Meanwhile, the Billy Turner signing drew even more criticism given his mostly sub-replacement-level performance to that point in his career.
The "Smith Bros." played as well as the Packers could have realistically hoped even if Za'Darius' run with the team ended early due to a combination of back issues and internal frustrations with management. Meanwhile, Amos proved well worth the price, never missing a game and delivering high-quality play through his first three seasons in Green Bay. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Turner acquisition looked inspired as he became an above-average right tackle and played three different positions overall.
The Packers might not have won a Super Bowl during their shared time with the team, but that shouldn't paint these moves in a negative light. All reached or exceeded the expectations set for them, a nearly impossible feat in free agency.
PB: Inspired. It’s nearly impossible to spend that much money in free agency and nail every single player. Don’t let the end of these deals color how terrific they were when they were signed. Brian Gutekunst made an enormous bet on Za’Darius Smith and despite a contentious ending, Z paid it off with two All-Pro caliber seasons that fundamentally changed the defense. They paid him a number that seemed preposterous at the time and he was worth every penny.
Adrian Amos, Preston Smith, and Billy Turner all contributed immediately in a meaningful way at key positions of need. Turner was mostly the victim of circumstance. If COVID never hits and the salary cap never plateaus, he may have been able to stay on the team. He was a worthy signing at a higher price and stabilized an offensive line that struggled with injuries.
They didn’t bring the Packers a Super Bowl, but there’s no way to separate that spring from the multiple 13-win seasons that followed from Gutekunst’s spending spree. It’s the kind of thing teams can’t do every year, but when they do, have to hit. Gutey hit it out of the park despite the lack of Lombardi’s and some disappointing endings to player careers in Green Bay.
NFL teams can begin negotiating with outside free agents beginning at 11 a.m. CT this afternoon. What do you anticipate will happen with the Packers' top unrestricted free agents?
JBH: The Packers have already signaled their interest in re-signing kicker Mason Crosby. At the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, Gutekunst made the case for bringing back the franchise's all-time leading scorer.
"[Crosby] went through a pretty significant little injury right before the season started," Gutekunst said. "I don't know if he was ever really able to completely catch up because of what we were asking him to do. He had to go out there and kick for us right away, so I think it's a credit to him. To be able to kick in Lambeau Field in clutch situations, I mean, any new kicker, that's gonna be tough for those guys. That takes time and Mason has that. He has that experience and stuff. I think you'll see a stronger leg and a different power in his leg on kickoffs this coming year just because he won't be coming off that surgery."
The Packers will have competition at kicker during training camp this year, but one should assume Crosby will have the inside track to that job after signing a new deal.
The more interesting discussion surrounds Nixon. An afterthought when he signed last March, Nixon eventually established himself as the NFL's premier kickoff returner, almost single-handedly transforming the moribund unit into a true threat with his explosive play.
Nixon won't come cheap, and not just because he earned first-team All-Pro honors this past season. In addition to his work as a return man, Nixon played 290 snaps on defense, 244 of which came in the slot. He allowed just 22 receptions for 214 yards, yielding zero touchdowns. He also picked off Justin Fields to help seal the Packers' come-from-behind win over the Chicago Bears in Week 13. No one will confuse Nixon's slot work with Charles Woodson's, but he can perform credibly in that role.
A high-end returner who can also positively impact a defense will have a sizable market in free agency. The Packers will make him their top priority, and they have the funds to make him a good offer. For those reasons, he seems more likely to spend 2023 in Green Bay than elsewhere, but it only takes one team to blow him away with a godfather offer.
As for Allen Lazard, the Packers probably won't meet the price he can command on the open market. This year's class of free-agent receivers leaves much to be desired -- the New England Patriots' Jakobi Meyers ranks as the premier option -- which bodes well for Lazard's leverage. Green Bay will make an offer, but he will probably follow the money elsewhere.
PB: There are going to be a lot of new faces in Green Bay for 2023 and not just at quarterback. The tight end room will likely be fully remade, though I won’t rule out the return of Marcedes Lewis. Allen Lazard will be getting plenty of money this offseason and as NFL Network reported, Rodgers’ landing spot will play a role.
If there’s one player I think the Packers will prioritize, it’s Keisean Nixon who not only played for Rich Bisaccia previously but starred as an All-Pro caliber returner last year. He was the best Packers special teams player since … Desmond Howard?
He’s the guy they have to make an effort to retain and I expect they will unless a team like the Bears just throws a crazy bag at him (which could happen).
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