The Green Bay Packers signed Whitney Mercilus in October, but he only played in five games before getting injured. However, he might still be a critical re-signing for general manager Brian Gutekunst as he tries to maintain a competitive roster for next season — especially if fellow edge defender Za’Darius Smith turns out to be a cap casualty.
Mercilus had relationship problems with former Houston Texans head coach David Culley, and they cut him. He signed with the Packers for the veteran minimum two days later, costing Green Bay $716,000 for basically half a season. And although his numbers weren’t great, Mercilus elevated the edge depth, a unit that suffered from various injuries – Za’Darius, Randy Ramsey, and Chauncey Rivers – throughout the season.
The Mercilus signing earned praise from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who commended Gutekunst at the time.
“I’m a big fan of the Mercilus signing for a number of different reasons,” said Rodgers. “But the way that Preston has played this year and his leadership and obviously the way that Rashan has played, and then bringing in a stud like Whitney who is motivated and can still play at a high level, I really like that signing.”
Mercilus finished the season with a 62.4 PFF grade, even though he only played in only four games. He suffered a severe biceps injury during his best game in green and gold, a shutout win against the Seattle Seahawks, where he recorded a sack. He had already had three sacks in six games with the Texans earlier in the year. Mercilus ended the regular season with four pressures (one sack, two hurries, and one quarterback knockdown) for Green Bay, playing 42% of the snaps in the games he appeared.
After missing almost two months, Mercilus made a fast comeback in time to play the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs. However, he had a limited role in Green Bay’s 13-10 loss.
Mercilus’ case for 2022
Rashan Gary is the only bona fide established edge defender guaranteed to be with the Packers next season. He will be in the fourth year of his rookie contract.
The Smith Brothers would be essential to the team, but the Packers moved huge parts of their contracts last season to free up cap space. Now they’re both in the last year of the deals they signed in 2019 and with significant cap hits. The Packers owe $27.66 million for Za’Darius and $19.72 million for Preston. It’s safe to assume neither of them will play with these hits.
While Preston Smith made an excellent case for the Packers to extend him, Za’Darius Smith lost almost all of the 2021 season with a back injury and is a prime candidate to be cut.
“I think obviously we’re going to have to do something there (with his contract),” acknowledged Gutekunst. “That (cap) number is pretty high.”
The Packers also have Jonathan Garvin and Tipa Galeai under contract, plus La’Darius Hamilton on a futures deal. Randy Ramsey and Chauncey Rivers will also probably return because they are exclusive-rights free agents. That means the Packers have bodies, but it’s hard to enter the season with so little depth, especially with an all-in approach.
Considering the Packers’ cap issues, Gutekunst must find cheap talent. That’s why edge is a significant need going into the draft, and this could well be the top Packers pick with the 28th-overall selection. Notwithstanding, it’s almost impossible to have an immediate impact from a rookie edge defender drafted so low. It could happen, but it can’t be Plan A.
Mercilus played well for the Packers and had the confidence of defensive coordinator Joe Barry. But he couldn’t put up numbers that catch the eye, which might be a positive factor for the team now. Experts don’t consider Mercilus one of the top free agents, and it’s realistic that he would agree to sign a one-year, prove-it deal to try and put a solid and healthy season in Green Bay before going back to the market in 2023.
If the Packers manage to put together Gary, one of the Smith Brothers (probably Preston), Mercilus for something near the minimum, and a high draft pick to their current group, that’s a good enough depth to compete.