The Green Bay Packers created nearly $ 9 million in salary cap savings by releasing linebacker Christian Kirksey and offensive tackle Rick Wagner on Friday.
Most of the moves were expected, given the Packers’ current salary cap situation. The team still needs to settle about $ 12 million more to go under the cap next month. They have reasonable ways of getting rid of more, although the options that remain are not as straightforward as cutting Kirksey and Wagner or restructuring the David Bakhtiari deal.
While cap casualties are part of the business, especially during this unique offseason, subtraction from each player creates a ripple effect on roster prospects.
At this point, Kirksey seems a lot easier to replace than Wagner.
Signed to provide a veteran linebacker for former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Kirksey struggled early on, missed five games with a chest injury and was eventually replaced as the team’s number one linebacker. He intercepted two passes and produced two sacks, but was ranked one of the worst inside linebackers in the NFL on Pro Football Focus during the 2020 season.
The Packers have young depth as an inside linebacker. Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin played extensively as rookies, and both Ty Summers and Oren Burks are key special teams collaborators. The returning group shouldn’t stop general manager Brian Gutekunst from adding more to the position, potentially through free agency, but especially the draft. Under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, the Packers may want a different kind of inside linebacker. And Gutekunst wants a better production from the post. While Barnes and Martin both shined during their first season, neither is safe and both could be passive if they don’t improve in 2021. This position has been a problem area for far too long.
The offensive tackle puzzle without Wagner is harder to put together right now. An 11-game starter in 2020, Wagner was a key part of a Packers offensive line that allowed just 20 sacks from Aaron Rodgers during the regular season. With Wagner out of the picture, and David Bakhtiari possibly unlikely to start the season as he recovers from an ACL injury, the Packers look dangerously thin as an offensive tackle with free agency closing in.
Billy Turner could be the starter at left tackle to start 2021 if Bakhtiari isn’t ready, and he can play right tackle as well. Elgton Jenkins, a pro bowler on guard, played right tackle in a rush to start 2020 and could be an option. Jon Runyan, last year’s sixth-round pick, played tackle at Michigan but was only used as a rookie guard. The Packers like Yosh Nijman’s advantage at tackle, but he’s never played in a regular season game.
The Packers’ offensive tackle looks like a position that needs a young, high-potential talent. Using a high draft pick, possibly even the 29th pick in the first round, could provide the position with much-anticipated help. The Packers haven’t picked a true offensive tackle in the draft since they took Jason Spriggs in the second round in 2016.
While the Packers believe they will be able to search the rubble of massive casualties and find veteran bargains for a year, the most likely replacements for Kirksey and Wagner are currently on the roster or will be added through the draft in a few months.
The Packers can and should do better than Kirksey, who failed to fix a position that has long been a weak point in the middle of defense. Finding a replacement for a solid veteran offensive tackle will be more difficult. Neither player represents a subtraction that paralyzes the list, but creating space at the top comes with creating gaps in the list. The inside linebacker and offensive tackle are certainly on Gutekunst and the Packers’ need list this offseason.