Packer Plus

Let the guessing games begin

- Zach Kruse

The Green Bay Packers hold the 29th overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft after finishing 13-3 but losing in the NFC championsh­ip game for the second straight year.

The Packers’ season is over and the Super Bowl is finished, which can only mean one thing: It’s officially time for mock drafts. And a lot of them. Probably too many of them.

Let’s take a look at who the Packers are getting in early off-season mock drafts, with the caveat of less focus on the actual players (draft work here is in the preliminar­y stages) and more on the positions and potential fit:

CB Aaron Robinson, UCF

Todd McShay, ESPN Takeaway:

Cornerback looks to be the most important need on the roster. Kevin King is almost certainly gone, Chandon Sullivan had an inconsiste­nt first season as the full-time starter in the slot, and Josh Jackson looks like a potential bust. This position needs another influx of talent. Potentiall­y firstround talent.

CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse

Chad Reuter, NFL.com

Takeaway: Same thought here. The players may change, but cornerback is going to be a popular position for the Packers in these mock drafts, especially early. Getting a player who can handle playing opposite Jaire Alexander in Joe Barry’s defense will be a priority, whether it’s in free agency or early in the draft.

WR Kadarius Toney, Florida

Luke Easterling, Draft Wire

Takeaway: Toney is going to be a popular player for the Packers during this process. He fits as a gadget-type player in Matt LaFleur’s offense who can win from the slot, create after the catch and be dangerous with the ball in space.

WR Tutu Atwell, Louisville

Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com

Takeaway: Atwell’s fit is similar to Toney’s. The Packers offense got great production from the receiver position in 2020, but the passing game did lack a quick-twitch player who can create those easy throws against physical defenses. Atwell could fit the bill.

OL Landon Dickerson, Alabama

Lance Zierlein, NFL.com

Takeaway: Investing in the offensive line isn’t sexy but winning the line of scrimmage wins games. The Packers have some big question marks up front entering 2021 with David Bakhtiari recovering from an ACL injury and Corey Linsley scheduled to be an unrestrict­ed free agent.

WR Rondale Moore, Purdue

Mike Renner, Pro Football Focus

Takeaway: It’s hard to imagine a better fit as a complement­ary receiver in the Matt LaFleur offense. Could Moore be Deebo Samuel for the Packers? Adding a dynamic player like Moore could really add another element to this already dangerous offense, while continuing to make Aaron Rodgers’ life a little easier.

DL Daviyon Nixon, Iowa

Dane Brugler, The Athletic

Takeaway: Arguably no position on the roster needs more help than the defensive line. Again, winning the line of scrimmage has such a huge impact on games, particular­ly big games. Investing in players who can disrupt in the trenches makes sense.

OL Jalen Mayfield, Michigan

Bucky Brooks, NFL.com

Takeaway: The Packers need to find a right tackle of the future. Rick Wagner is a likely cap casualty, and who knows which position Billy Turner will be playing to start 2021. Protecting Aaron Rodgers as he ages has to be a high priority.

Tyson Campbell, Georgia

Mel Kiper, ESPN: CB Takeaway:

Another cornerback. I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised none of the big mock drafts had the Packers taking an edge rusher, especially with Preston Smith’s uncertain future. But it’s also hard to argue against targeting a cornerback. The depth at this position is scary behind Jaire Alexander.

Houston — J.J. Watt is gone from the Houston Texans, and Deshaun Watson wants out, too.

The Texans have been making plenty of headlines this offseason. Not one has been good.

Watt was released on Friday, ending the tenure of the face of the franchise, and things could get even worse in Houston with a possible standoff looming with the star quarterbac­k. Watson has requested a trade. New general manager Nick Caserio has said they have “zero interest” in trading him, and coach David Culley said he expects him to be the team’s quarterbac­k next season.

The story line is a familiar one in Houston, where the Rockets recently dealt with a similarly stormy situation involving superstar James Harden. Rumors swirled all offseason that Harden wanted to leave, but the Rockets didn’t deal him before the season began. That led to a miserable Harden stuck on a team that limped to a 3-6 record. His time in Houston was punctuated by a postgame rant after a blowout loss to the Lakers when he berated the Rockets, saying, “We’re just not good enough.”

He was shipped to Brooklyn the next day, but not before being banned from practice and drawing the ire of his teammates for his attitude and comments.

Could the Texans be headed for the same fate with Watson? If he doesn’t want to be on the team would refusing to trade him make anything better?

Watson, who signed a four-year, $156 million contract last year, has been unhappy with the direction of the team for some time. Sports Illustrate­d reported weeks ago that Watson was upset the Texans didn’t initially request to interview Kansas City offensive coordinato­r Eric Bieniemy for their coaching vacancy. They eventually did interview Bieniemy before hiring Culley.

Some have put the blame for the current state of the Texans on owner Cal McNair, who has run the team since the death of his father Bob McNair in November 2018. Although there’s plenty of

blame to go around on this mess of a team, former coach and general manager Bill O’Brien, who was fired after an 0-4 start, deserves his fair share of criticism for decisions he made while in charge.

The worst of those moves came last March when he traded receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for running back David Johnson and a secondand fourth-round draft pick.

There are also questions about the rise of Jack Easterby, the executive vice president of football operations and a former chaplain for the Patriots with no personnel experience who gained power in the wake of O’Brien’s dismissal.

Houston could have tried to trade Watt instead of releasing him, likely receiving at least one draft pick in return. But the defensive end asked McNair to be released and the owner agreed.

“We felt this did right by J.J.,” he said Friday. “Not every decision is easy or easy to understand. You want to do what’s right for our players. We want to focus on bringing championsh­ips to Houston.”

So why is Houston refusing to acquiesce to Watson’s request after happily complying with the one from Watt? Keeping Watson on the team until training camp only to have him hold out is sure to be more detrimenta­l to the Texans than getting a big haul in exchange for the quarterbac­k.

Watson’s contract makes a trade more difficult because of the future dead money for Houston, which gave him a $27 million contract bonus that is prorated.

The Texans are coming off a 4-12 season and don’t have a first-round draft pick. So even if they keep the electric

Watson, it’s hard to envision them being much better next season.

McNair wouldn’t discuss Watson’s future on Friday, other than to say their conversati­ons are “private.” But he did insist letting Watt go is not a sign that they’re rebuilding.

“Let’s be clear. We’re here to win. We’re here to win today,” he said. “The NFL’s so competitiv­e that there’s really no time for rebuilding. We want our fans to know that we’re doing everything we can day in, day out to bring a championsh­ip to the city.”

“And every decision we make, even if it’s difficult it’s done with one (thought). And that’s: ‘Is it going to help us bring a trophy to Houston?’ And that’s our goal.”

Yet it seems like every move the Texans make is moving them farther from that goal.

The Matthew Stafford-Jared Goff trade not only has whet fans’ appetites for big deals, it’s caused a social media frenzy about which quarterbac­ks are headed elsewhere.

That could happen with the likes of Carson Wentz, Jimmy Garoppolo, Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton. And on a slightly less publicized level with Teddy Bridgewate­r, Jameis Winston, Sam Darnold and Mitchell Trubisky.

But before anyone gets the idea that half of the NFL’s starting signal-callers from 2020 will be employed by new teams in 2021, well, know that carousel is not spinning out of control.

Why not? Money.

More specifically, contract dollars. Dead money. Salary-cap repercussi­ons.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only reduced revenues for the NFL across the board, it also has forced a lower salary cap for 2021. That figure is undetermin­ed, though it won’t be less than $175 million and probably will be in the $180 million-$185 million range.

So any cap hits for trades involving QBs with mega-contracts will be built as much on finances as football skills. Sure, plenty of teams with questionab­le quarterbac­king would love to add a Watson or Wentz — and even inquire about the availabili­ty of the likes of David Carr or Matt Ryan. But the price tag is a paramount considerat­ion.

There are also the tricky contract dynamics for Dak Prescott and Ben Roethlisbe­rger. Prescott played under the franchise tag cost of $31.4 million but was injured in the Cowboys’ fifth game. Dallas is adamant about keeping Prescott, preferably with a long-term deal.

“One of the things that we’re going to have to really see where we are, and it will affect everybody, all 32 (NFL teams), and it will affect our team,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said, “is what the consequenc­es of the virus have had on our cap situation going forward, and where is that salary cap going to be and what kind of cap are we going to manage into. So all those things will play a role into

players that we keep that are under contract, where we can sign — obviously Dak being at the top of that list — and then going from there.”

Roethlisbe­rger has indicated a willingnes­s to redo his contract with Pittsburgh for what likely will be his final season. He’s set for a cap hit of $41 million, and that won’t happen.

There probably are fewer teams with long-term set signal-callers than those

in flux. For sure, the Patriots, Jets, Texans, Colts and Steelers in the AFC have uncertaint­y. Philadelph­ia, Washington, Chicago, New Orleans, Carolina and San Francisco in the NFC could be making significant changes.

Plus, Urban Meyer is sold on Trevor Lawrence as the first-overall draft pick for the Jacksonvil­le Jaguars. There are a handful of quarterbac­ks in this draft who also could wind up as starters next season.

“Who we pick at that quarterbac­k spot, that’s going to be one of the most important decisions I’ve made in my lifetime, along with the partnershi­p of our owner and general manager,” Meyer said. “I see some elite quarterbac­ks out there right now.”

The free-agent market doesn’t have those, unless Prescott lands there. The strength in free agency is on defense, from the line to the secondary.

Indeed, two of the keys to Tampa Bay’s championsh­ip, linebacker­s Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David, will be available if the Bucs don’t re-up them before next month.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians expects them back, as well as receiver Chris Godwin and the three additions Tom Brady recruited: Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette.

“I’m very, very confident,” Arians said. “I have all the trust in the world in (GM) Jason (Licht) and what he would do. These guys, they have a bond. There will be dollars involved. But I think that this group is so, so close that sometimes dollars don’t matter. But we’re going to do everything we can to get the dollars right, too, because they earned it.”

If they reach free agency, look for the likes of defensive linemen/edge rushers Leonard Williams, Trey Hendrickso­n, Haason Reddick, Matthew Judon, Bud Dupree and Yannick Ngakoue to cash in. Defensive backs John Johnson III, Justin Simmons, Marcus Maye and perhaps veteran Patrick Peterson, whose performanc­e has faded recently, could be popular.

Blockers and pass catchers seem most attractive on offense. In the trenches, two All-Pros might be free: center Corey Linsley and guard Brandon Scherff. So might Joe Thuney, Trent Williams and Taylor Moton.

In the pass-happy NFL, teams always are looking for receivers, and the top wideouts about to hit free agency are Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Finally, consider that finances could force some teams to make surprise moves. But bidding wars could be tepid this time around.

 ?? MIKE WATTERS / USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Central Florida defensive back Aaron Robinson (with football) could be a player the Packers take a look at late in the first round.
MIKE WATTERS / USA TODAY SPORTS Central Florida defensive back Aaron Robinson (with football) could be a player the Packers take a look at late in the first round.
 ?? TROY TAORMINA / USA TODAY SPORTS ?? After watching teammates leave the Houston Texans, quarterbac­k Deshaun Watson has asked the organizati­on for a trade, but the Texans do not plan on moving him.
TROY TAORMINA / USA TODAY SPORTS After watching teammates leave the Houston Texans, quarterbac­k Deshaun Watson has asked the organizati­on for a trade, but the Texans do not plan on moving him.
 ?? BILL STREICHER / USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Quarterbac­k Carson Wentz has probably played his last down for the Philadelph­ia Eagles.
BILL STREICHER / USA TODAY SPORTS Quarterbac­k Carson Wentz has probably played his last down for the Philadelph­ia Eagles.

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