GREEN BAY — At some point, as Elvis Presley once famously sang, the time will come for a little less conversation and a little more action.
But as the NFL’s negotiating window opened in advance of the official opening of free agency on Wednesday, the Green Bay Packers and Brian Gutekunst seemingly made good on the first-year general manager’s publicly-stated ambitious goal to “be in every conversation” in an effort to improve after last year’s playoff-less season.
After 13 years of limited forays into free agency under previous GM Ted Thompson, the Packers were certainly able to create a buzz on Monday, when the NFL began allowing teams to talk to players and their agents about potential deals. No deals can become official until Wednesday, but teams are now able to pursue players in what some call the “legal tampering” window.
And as Day 1 of the negotiating period drew to a close, the Packers — a team with glaring needs on defense at cornerback and outside linebacker — had reportedly gone on the offensive with offense-oriented exploratory talks, expressing an interest in three marquee players on that side of the ball: Tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Sammy Watkins and wide receiver Allen Robinson.
An NFL source confirmed multiple reports that the Packers, who are thin at tight end after last year’s failed Martellus Bennett experiment, are interested in Graham. The NFL Network reported the Packers’ interest in Watkins and Robinson, although acquiring one of them most likely would mean parting ways with one or both of veteran wide receivers Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb. Both Nelson and Cobb have salary-cap numbers in excess of $10 million for 2018 and their situations are uncertain.
Graham, 31, is a five-time Pro Bowl selection who spent the past three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks after breaking into the league with the New Orleans Saints as a third-round pick in 2010. A former basketball player at Miami (Fla.) who played only one year of college football, Graham caught just 57 passes for 520 yards (9.1-yard average) last season with the Seahawks but did have 10 touchdown receptions.
The Saints, who traded Graham to the Seahawks in 2015 for center Max Unger and a first-round draft pick, are reportedly interested in bringing Graham back to New Orleans, where he caught at least 85 passes for four consecutive years and had monster seasons in 2011 (99 receptions, 1,310 yards, 11 TDs) and 2013 (86 receptions, 1,215 yards, 16 touchdowns).
Richard Rodgers, a 2014 third-round pick who has played more snaps at tight end for the Packers than anyone else the past four seasons, is an unrestricted free agent. Packers coach Mike McCarthy has always believed that his offense is most effective when it has an athletic tight end who can work the middle of the field, as Jermichael Finley and Jared Cook have in the past and as Bennett was supposed to do last season. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham would fit the bill.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear just how hard the Packers are pursuing Watkins, who was traded from the Buffalo Bills to the Los Angeles Rams last August, or Robinson, who missed most of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee after going down in Jacksonville’s regular-season opener.
“We’d like to be really aggressive and see if we can be in every conversation,” Gutekunst said in Indianapolis during the annual NFL scouting combine. “Now, whether that leads to us ending up signing a bunch (of players) or not, we’ll see. Like I said, there’s limitations there. But we’d like to be as aggressive as we can to try to improve our football team.
“At the same time, (the free-agent market) is a smaller market and it’s a little bit riskier market. So I think as my mentor and predecessor (Thompson) would say, you have to be very cautious as you enter that. But I think we’d like to look at every option we can.”
Watkins, 24, was the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft by Buffalo but battled a foot injury that required two surgeries during his time with the Bills. Last season, he caught 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns in 15 games with the Rams.
Robinson, a second-round pick out of Penn State in 2014 by the Jaguars, had his best year in 2015, when he caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers are among the teams thought to be pursuing the 24-year-old Robinson, who told SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio’s Adam Schein Monday that he doesn’t think the ACL injury will hurt his market value or force him to take a one-year prove-it deal.
“For me, it’s a lot of teams out there who not only have interest in me, but who I have interest in,” Robinson told Schein. “It comes down to some other variables as far as kind of narrowing that down. But from what I’ve heard about Chicago, it’s an amazing city and football town.”
According to the NFL Players Association, the Packers have roughly $19.6 million in salary cap room, but with a large draft class coming and a defense in need of a talent infusion, it will be interesting to see if Gutekunst is willing to dole out significant money for a young receiver and part with two of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ closest teammates in Cobb and Nelson, with whom Rodgers has long had excellent chemistry.
The Packers’ most glaring need is at cornerback, where the team traded away 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall on Friday after three up-and-down seasons. Randall was shipped to the Cleveland Browns for backup quarterback DeShone Kizer. The Packers also flip-flopped with the Browns on their fourth- and fifth-round picks, meaning Green Bay will select at the top of each of those rounds.
One league source indicated the Packers are interested in Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson, although the 28-year-old is poised to cash in with a long-term deal after playing the past two seasons on the franchise tag with the Rams. The bidding for him could become too rich for the Packers’ blood, leading perhaps to a less expensive cornerback signing.
McCray, Clark tendered
The Packers made sure they didn’t lose two of their up-and-coming young players when they extended qualifying offers to exclusive-rights free agents Michael Clark and Justin McCray, ESPN.com reported.
McCray started eight games in 2017 and was the feel-good story of the season after making the team in training camp, less than a year removed from working at a hotel and playing in the Arena Football League. He’s a candidate to start at right guard if veteran Jahri Evans, the starter there last season, doesn’t return or decides to retire.
Clark, a former college basketball player who spent much of the year on the practice squad before being promoted to the 53-man roster late in the year, is an intriguing prospect because of his athleticism and size (6-6, 217). He caught four passes for 41 yards during his late-season call-up.