The Green Bay Packers have several important players who will be free agents after the 2020 season. The list includes Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kenny Clark, All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, star running back Aaron Jones, starting center Corey Linsley and starting cornerback Kevin King. But which one of them should be the team’s top priority? And how many of them will the Packers be able to fit under the salary cap a year from now?
Here is a look at the top three candidates and why each player should be considered as the team’s top priority:
3. RB Aaron Jones
Jones is a talented and young star but he finds himself in a potentially difficult situation. Right now, he is a valuable cog in the Green Bay offense. He led the team in rushing yards with 1,084 and touchdowns with 20 and was second in pass receptions in 2019 with 49. Jones will turn 26 this December.
Jones is arguably the next most valuable offensive skill position player on the Packers outside of Rodgers right now, but the Packers have strong depth at running back with Jamaal Williams and rookie A.J. Dillon. Williams is also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020 and it is unlikely the Packers will re-sign both backs.
Also, running backs are mostly viewed as replaceable in the modern NFL. Teams are wary about the short career span of most running backs and how they are one injury away from losing effectiveness.
Former Los Angeles Rams back Todd Gurley is a prime example of why teams are reluctant to give running backs long-term and lucrative contracts. Gurley was an All Pro back, signed a big contract and then developed arthritis in his knee. He was much less effective after that and the Rams let him go after the 2019 season. Many teams question whether Gurley will ever regain his earlier dominance.
While a quarterback or offensive lineman can often play a decade or more in the NFL, most running backs are done before they hit 30.
The Packers would love to retain Jones as he is an excellent fit in Matt LaFleur’s offense, but they may not be willing to shell out big bucks to do it. Jones may even sign an extension sooner than either Bakhtiari or Clark, but he is unlikely to be the team’s top priority among their potential free agents.
2. LT David Bakhtiari
Bakhtiari has been the Packers starting left tackle since his rookie campaign back in 2013. The former Colorado star is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and an All Pro. Bakhtiari will turn 29 in September and therefore will turn 30 soon after he starts playing on his next contract.
The biggest reason to value Bakhtiari is simple: he is one of the best pass blockers in the NFL today. He has helped give Aaron Rodgers enough time to work his magic for seven seasons and counting. Keeping your future Hall of Fame quarterback upright and able to throw the ball downfield is obviously vital in the modern NFL.
In addition, with long time right tackle Bryan Bulaga now playing for the Chargers, it would be difficult for the Packers to replace both starting tackles in back-to-back years.
Bakhtiari is also a good run blocker and a leader on the Green Bay offensive line. Maintaining some continuity here and protecting Rodgers well as he gets older and less mobile should be high priorities for the organization.
The biggest obstacle to keeping Bakhtiari in Green Bay beyond 2020 is his age. The Packers have historically hesitated when asked to give contracts to offensive linemen as they approach 30. Bulaga, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang were all playing at a very high level but the Packers let them all go as free agents. With Sitton and Lang, the move turned out to be the correct one as their bodies broke down and injuries prevented them from living up to the large free agent contracts they signed with other teams.
It remains to be seen if the Packers will treat Bakhtiari differently or whether he heads elsewhere in 2020.
1. DL Kenny Clark:
Clark is entering his fifth NFL season in 2019 but he won’t turn 25 until October of this year. The former UCLA star earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last season after posting a career high 62 total tackles including six sacks and nine tackles for loss.
Clark has that rare combination of size, speed and quickness that makes him one of the few interior defensive linemen who can both stuff the run and consistently get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Right now, the Packers don’t have any other players on their roster who can do what Clark does. After Clark, the talent level and production level on the defensive line drops dramatically.
Clark’s age, his rare combination of talent and the lack of an available replacement all work in Clark’s favor to make re-signing him the team’s biggest priority.
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