Darnell Savage, Keisean Nixon among key Packers free agents

Safety Darnell Savage was limited to 10 games last season due to injuries and can become a free agent this offseason. Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- There isn't a "must re-sign" player left on the Green Bay Packers' list of unrestricted free agents, which means it's possible that general manager Brian Gutekunst could let more than a half-dozen full- or part-time starters pursue deals with other teams when the negotiating window opens March 11.

Their futures could become clearer after this week's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, where agents for several of those players are scheduled to meet with Packers executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball, who handles negotiations for Gutekunst.

While the Packers aren't completely clear from salary cap troubles, they're at least unburdened from the $40.3 million in dead money that Aaron Rodgers counted against last year's cap. They're slightly over their projected salary cap for this season but could free up as much as $40 million if they moved on from tackle David Bakhtiari, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and outside linebacker Preston Smith, depending on the timing (pre- or post-June 1). Smith seems the most likely to return, but perhaps with a renegotiated deal.

There also could be other renegotiations -- perhaps even with running back Aaron Jones, who took a pay cut last offseason, for the second straight year -- that could free up more space to sign other teams' free agents.

"I think we're getting to a little bit better spot than we have been in the past," Gutekunst said of the salary cap situation. "It's never perfect, but I do feel that whatever opportunities are out there to improve our team in free agency, that we'll be able to do that, so I feel good about that."

Before that happens, here's a look at some of the decisions Gutekunst faces with his own free agents.

S Darnell Savage

Savage was one of three Packers players whose contracts voided last week. The Packers added void years when they redid the fifth-year option on the 2019 first-round pick's rookie deal. Savage made $7.901 million last season, part of which turned into a signing bonus and then was prorated over the void years (2024-27) for cap purposes.

When his deal voided, it meant Savage would count $5,456,800 in dead money on the 2024 cap.

The Packers could have avoided that by signing Savage to an extension before the void kicked in. Despite having a tough year physically with calf and shoulder ailments, the Packers' coaches lauded Savage's leadership even while he was on injured reserve. Savage then returned and had a major impact on the wild-card playoff win over the Cowboys, including a pick-six, although he didn't have as strong a showing in the loss to the 49ers.

"Darnell loved his time in Green Bay, and we remain optimistic that a deal can get done before the league year," Seth Katz, Savage's agent told ESPN. "But realistically, the window for free agent communication is around the corner, and there will be significant interest in Darnell."

One league source who has analyzed the free agent market estimated that Savage would be the highest-priced player among the Packers' free agent class this season, estimating he would garner a deal with an annual average between $5 million and $7 million.

Savage has some tangential connection to new Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. One of Hafley's defensive assistants at Boston College was Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, who was Savage's position coach at the University of Maryland. In fact, Abdul-Rahim had Savage talk to BC safeties via Zoom calls the previous two seasons.

However, at this point, there have been no negotiations between Savage and the Packers.

G Jon Runyan

The writing was on the wall for the 2020 sixth-round pick when the Packers began rotating Runyan and 2022 second-round pick Sean Rhyan at right guard halfway through the season.

By the end of the season, Runyan could sense it. He became emotional when talking about his four seasons in Green Bay during his last interview of the season.

"Just the brotherhood is unreal," Runyan said wiping tears from his eyes. "This organization, everybody inside, the people out of the facility, the fans. It's a special place. There's some really good people here. I hope I don't leave. It's a good time. I really appreciate it."

While the Packers liked Runyan's performance on the field and the way he handled the rotation at his position without complaints, they prefer having a less expensive option at right guard. Rhyan, entering the third year of his rookie deal, will count $1.3 million on the 2024 salary cap.

The market for Runyan, according to the source, is pegged between $4 million and $6 million.

CB/KR Keisean Nixon

The past two offseasons, Nixon signed one-year deals with the Packers. The first was for the veteran minimum of $965,000 and then $4 million last year.

In return, he gave the Packers two All-Pro season as a kick returner. Last season, he became the full-time nickel cornerback.

It's harder to peg Nixon's market value because of his dual role, and it's even harder to predict if the Packers will be willing to pay it.

Nixon made it sound after the season like he would prefer to remain in Green Bay.

"The moment I signed my contract and put that G on my helmet, man, it [meant] everything," Nixon said. "They pour everything into me in this organization, and I pour everything back into them, and two All-Pros later."

Like Savage, Nixon's contract voided last week, and he will count $1.48 million in dead money this season.

RB AJ Dillon

No one has embedded themselves in the community more than Dillon, who married a Green Bay native and was dubbed the unofficial "Mayor of Door County" for how much time he spends and how much he promotes the Wisconsin summer vacation area.

Dillon had plenty of chances this past season, while Jones was injured, to prove he's a No. 1 running back, but he performed more like a No. 2.

He might be a cheap option to re-sign, with the source estimating his annual salary at the lowest end of the market -- between $1.5 million and $3 million. Dillon missed the final three games, playoffs included, because of a severe stinger.

"AJ's been a great member of our team, and certainly I think you gotta have multiple backs in this league," LaFleur said. "You have to. It's just the pounding these guys take. And I think you could really see his value every year towards the end of the season.

"[The stinger is] one of those weird injuries. I fully expect him to have a full recovery from it. But yeah, I told him, shoot, I'd love to have him back here."

Other key free agents

Among the impending free agents with experience as a starter are tackle Yosh Nijman, safety Jonathan Owens and safety Rudy Ford. Special teams standout Eric Wilson, who recovered Nixon's fumble in the playoff game against the 49ers, and tight end Josiah Deguara (a former third-round pick), also will be unrestricted free agents.

If they re-sign, it likely would be with one-year, budget-friendly types of contracts.

Nijman was the other player who had his contract voided last week and will count $2,543,200 in dead money. He entered training camp last summer as the No. 3 tackle but was surpassed by Rasheed Walker, who ended up starting at left tackle after Bakhtiari's recurring knee problems flared up.

"I think it's always hard to gauge the future and where the cap's going to go," Gutekunst said. "But I think we have a pretty good idea of where it's going to go, and we feel we're in pretty good shape right now."