Roster implications of Packers releasing Christian Kirksey, Rick Wagner

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Zach Kruse
·3 min read
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The Green Bay Packers created nearly $9 million in salary cap savings by releasing linebacker Christian Kirksey and offensive tackle Rick Wagner on Friday.

The moves were mostly expected, given the Packers’ current salary cap situation. The team still needs to clear around $12 million more to get under the cap by next month. They have reasonable ways to shed more, although the options left aren’t quite as straightforward as cutting Kirksey and Wagner or restructuring David Bakhtiari’s deal.

While cap casualties are part of the business, especially during this unique offseason, every player subtraction creates a ripple effect for the outlook of the roster.

At this point, Kirksey appears far easier to replace than Wagner.

Signed to provide a veteran linebacker for former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Kirksey struggled early, missed five games to a chest injury and was eventually replaced as the team’s No. 1 linebacker. He intercepted two passes and produced two sacks, but he graded out as one of the NFL’s worst inside linebackers at Pro Football Focus during the 2020 season.

The Packers have young depth at inside linebacker. Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin played extensively as rookies, and both Ty Summers and Oren Burks are key special teams contributors. 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 type of inside linebacker. And Gutekunst wants better production from the position. While Barnes and Martin both flashed during their first season, neither is a sure thing and both could be liabilities if they don’t improve in 2021. This position has been a problem area for 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 only 20 sacks of Aaron Rodgers during the regular season. With Wagner out of the picture, and David Bakhtiari possibly unlikely to start the season while recovering from an ACL injury, the Packers look perilously thin at offensive tackle with free agency approaching.

Billy Turner could be the starter at left tackle to start 2021 if Bakhtiari isn’t ready, and he can also play right tackle. Elgton Jenkins, a Pro Bowler at guard, played right tackle in a pinch to start 2020 and could be an option. Jon Runyan, last year’s sixth-round pick, played tackle at Michigan but was only used at guard as a rookie. The Packers like Yosh Nijman’s upside at tackle, but he’s never played in a regular-season game.

Offensive tackle for the Packers looks like a position in need of some young, high-upside talent. Using a high draft pick – possibly even the 29th overall pick in the first round – could provide the position with long-overdue help. The Packers haven’t picked a true offensive tackle in the draft since taking Jason Spriggs in the second round in 2016.

While the Packers believe they’ll be able to search through the rubble of mass cap casualties and find veteran bargains for one year, the most likely replacements for Kirksey and Wagner are either on the roster currently or will be added through the draft in a few months.

The Packers can and needed to do better than Kirksey, who failed to fix a position that has long been a weak spot in the middle of the defense. Finding a replacement for a solid veteran offensive tackle will be more difficult. Neither player represents a roster-crippling subtraction, but creating cap space comes with creating roster holes. Inside linebacker and offensive tackle are certainly on the list of needs for Gutekunst and the Packers this offseason.

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