Uncertainty looms for several Packers who soon will become free agents

Uncertainty looms for several Packers who soon will become free agents

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Blake Martinez

Packers linebacker Blake Martinez ranked second in the NFL with 155 regular-season tackles in 2019, four behind Seahawks' Bobby Wagner. 

GREEN BAY — As he emptied his locker — perhaps permanently — on Monday afternoon, Blake Martinez was able to control his emotions better than he had in the visitors’ locker room of Levi’s Stadium roughly 16 hours earlier.

The pain of the Green Bay Packers’ 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game — and the stark reality that he might’ve just taken his No. 50 green, gold and white jersey off for the final time — had hit the veteran inside linebacker hard. That’s when his eyes welled with tears.

But there was no crying during locker clean-out day at Lambeau Field on Monday, just acceptance for Martinez and a host of other veterans that uncertainty will rule the day in the coming weeks and months before the new league year starts on March 18, and the free-agent negotiation window opens two days before that.

“It’s been a tough year from that aspect, of understanding it could be my last one with the Packers,” Martinez said when asked about how emotional he was after the game. “I put a lot into this year, whether it was the offseason, OTAs, fall camp — everything. It was a great group of guys to be a part of. It was a special year to me. I’ll look back at this as one of the most fun years I’ve had on a football team, and then the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next.”

Asked if the Packers, be it coach Matt LaFleur or general manager Brian Gutekunst, had given him any indication of how interested the club is in bringing him back, Martinez replied, “Not really. I talked to my agent this morning. It’s wait-and-see. We’ll see what pans out over the next couple weeks and have more answers down the road. For now, it’s focusing on getting the body right and ready to go for whatever lies ahead.”

Martinez wasn’t alone. He is one of 15 unrestricted free agents-to-be, a group that includes three of the four players from the 2010 team that won Super Bowl XLV that remained on the roster in 2019: Right tackle Bryan Bulaga, kicker Mason Crosby and cornerback Tramon Williams. If all three were to depart, quarterback Aaron Rodgers would be the last man standing from that championship team.

“It’s something that, no matter what happens this offseason, I think it’s something that I’ll be able to reflect on and look back on and say that I got to play with arguably one of the best quarterbacks, one of the best players, to play in this league,” Bulaga, the Packers’ 2010 first-round pick who became the youngest player in league history to start a Super Bowl, said of playing with Rodgers.

“I got to play with him and put up crazy numbers with him and got to be a part of a lot of his success. That’s something that I’ll cherish forever. Not everybody gets to play with guys like that. It’s something that’s been really special. The friendship and relationship that I’ve built with him off the field, as well, is something that I’ll also cherish.

“I don’t know that the outside gets to really see him and speak to him besides about football, but getting to know him — probably not so much my rookie year; I think it was a little bit like, ‘Stay away from me, Rookie’ — but just going through the years and being able to spend a lot of time with him, it’s been fun.”

This year was particularly fun for Bulaga, who battled several injuries (finger, knee, concussion, illness) but nothing like the three season-ending injuries (a hip injury in 2012, and torn ACLs in 2013 and 2017) he endured earlier in his career. Bulaga started all but one of the Packers’ 18 games and had arguably the best season of his career in the last year of the five-year, $33.75 million deal he signed the last time he reached free agency, in March 2015.

“I think we’ll approach it just like we did the last time going through free agency or getting to that period,” Bulaga said. “We’ll see what happens.”

In the 35-year-old Crosby, the Packers have one of the best veteran kickers in the league and one who is coming off what was statistically the best season of his 13-year career. After beating out challenger Sam Ficken during training camp — despite the distraction of Crosby’s wife, Molly, being diagnosed with a cancerous lung tumor on the eve of camp – the 2007 sixth-round pick made 22 of 24 field-goal attempts (a career-best 91.7% success rate) and 46 of 47 extra points, including playoffs.

“(I) haven’t really thought about it,” Crosby said when asked what comes next. “We’ll go through that process here in the next few weeks and see where the chips fall. I’ve been here for 13 years and have a great relationship with this organization and everyone upstairs. I’m hopeful. It’s hard when the season ends, and all these things start becoming real and reality with family. You’ve got to process through all of that.

“I’ve been so fortunate to have a few contracts here. I’ve never hit free agency. We’ll see if that happens again. I’m optimistic that we’ll at least have the conversations and hopefully try to get something done.”

The Packers’ other unrestricted free agents include tight end Marcedes Lewis, outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell, wide receiver Geronimo Allison, fullback Danny Vitale, returner Tyler Ervin, inside linebacker B.J. Goodson, defensive back Will Redmond, wide receiver Ryan Grant, safety Ibraheim Campbell, tackle Jason Spriggs and tackle Jared Veldheer.

Veldheer, who retired during the offseason from the New England Patriots but then changed his mind in late November and landed with the Packers, proved to be a valuable late-season addition and key backup to Bulaga. He told reporters Monday he hasn’t decided whether he wants to play in 2020.

Lewis, meanwhile, has decided – and he wants to play a 15th NFL season and a third in Green Bay. With Rodgers lauding Lewis’ unselfishness in accepting his role and insisting his locker-room leadership was vital to the team earning its 13-3 regular-season record and No. 2 playoff seed, Lewis certainly would be an inexpensive luxury. He played this season on a one-year, $2.1 million deal and caught 17 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown (including playoffs) after being miscast as purely a blocking tight end by the previous coaching staff in 2018.

“Honestly, I felt like mentally and physically, I was in a really good place this year,” Lewis said. “At 35 years old, I felt like I was getting better every day. My rep count went up to the mid-30s (per game) towards half the season.

“I’d love to come back. When I wake up in the morning, I still love it. I really think, physically (the ability) would leave before mentally, as far as me wanting to come back and play. Physically, I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life knowing that I’m older in the tooth. It has to be that way. There was not one game where I went into it feeling like I was at a disadvantage.

“I was in Jacksonville for 12 years and been on some good teams there and some not-so-good teams there. Even the not-so-good teams, the locker room is a thing that you miss about it. It’s crazy that it had to end that way (with the loss to the 49ers), especially for the young guys to actually get a taste of the playoffs and understand that doesn’t happen often. That was my third time in the playoffs, second time being in the championship game, and I just finished my 14th year.

“This league is very good. There’s no room for too much error. It is what it is. You experienced the growth and you take it into next year.”


Photos: Green Bay Packers can't hang with San Francisco 49ers in NFC title game

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