Ranking the Biggest Free Agency Priorities for the Packers
General Manager Ted Thompson shocked many in Packer nation in 2012, when he signed a number of free agents before training camp. Included in that group were defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Daniel Muir and defensive lineman Phillip Merling. Later, after training camp started, Thompson also signed running back Cedric Benson.
Saturday and Benson made the club, while the others did not.
Will Thompson try free agency again in 2013? Perhaps. But first he has to determine what to do with the free agents the Packers have on their own roster.
After the release of defensive back Charles Woodson and center Jeff Saturday, the Packers are now around $20 million dollars under the 2013 salary cap, which is expected to be around $122 million per team in the NFL.
The Packers currently have a number of unrestricted free agents. This list includes Benson, wide receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Erik Walden and linebacker Brad Jones. I would not be surprised if Jones was the only one re-signed in this group.
Plus, you have the restricted free agents. This group includes includes center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Tom Crabtree, linebacker Robert Francois, linebacker Frank Zombo and cornerback Sam Shields. Expect a portion of the money that the Packers have available to go towards contract tenders to these players, especially Dietrich-Smith and Shields, who should get the highest tenders.
The Packers also need to make sure that they have several million dollars available for the 2013 draft class.
Finally, the Packers are evaluating at what point they will do contract extensions for core players such as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive lineman B.J. Raji.
Bottom line, I expect Thompson to continue to do what he does best—using the draft to supplement the roster. The Packers are a draft-and-develop team. Thompson also uses "street" free agency quite often in adding undrafted rookies and other players of that ilk, like cornerback Tramon Williams.
Thompson has used that method to secure players such as Shields in 2010, plus last season when he signed offensive lineman Don Barclay and outside linebacker Dezman Moses as undrafted rookies.
If Thompson uses free agency again this year, expect him to be quite thrifty. There won't be any big splashes. Expect a number of veteran minimum-type signings to be the norm if Thompson does indeed use free agency.
I'm listing some of the position areas in which Thompson and his scouting staff, led by Eliot Wolf (director of pro personnel), may look at in free agency.
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The biggest need the Packers have on the offensive line is at center. Right now, Evan Dietrich-Smith is all Green Bay has at the position. However, there aren't many centers in free agency who the Packers might be interested in. The list includes Todd McClure of the Falcons, Brad Meester of the Jaguars and Jeff Faine of the Bengals, who are all over 30 years old.
The Packers tried that strategy with Jeff Saturday last season, and he ended up getting benched in favor of Dietrich-Smith late in the season. The Packers officially released Saturday on Monday.
Another area where the Packers might look to improve at is at left tackle. Here there are some intriguing possibilities. This group includes Will Beatty of the Giants, Brandon Albert of the Chiefs and Sam Baker of the Falcons. All three are 28 years old or younger.
However, the price tag of acquiring one of those three players, will most likely steer that Packers away from that possibility.
Expect the Packers to once again use the draft to add talent and depth to the offensive line, especially inside, like at center.
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The Packers have a number of linebackers on their roster, both inside and outside, but that may be changing fairly quickly.
The Packers have already released both Charles Woodson and Jeff Saturday, and A.J Hawk may end up being a roster casualty too, because of his cap number.
The Packers also have two linebackers who are free agents themselves, in Erik Walden and Brad Jones. If I had to guess, I would expect only Jones to be re-signed.
In free agency, there are two big name outside linebackers who would definitely interest the Packers if the cost wouldn't be so high. They are Anthony Spencer of the Cowboys and Paul Kruger of the Ravens.
Another player who is also very talented, but less pricey, is Connor Barwin of the Texans.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. The Packers already have Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Dezman Moses at outside linebacker right now. That's true, but you can never have enough playmakers at that position—especially when there are injuries, as the Packers found out last season.
The Packers are expected to get back both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith at inside linebacker in 2013, after both suffered season-ending injuries last season.
There is now an available option in free agency at that position who should be familiar to fans of the Packers. That would be Nick Barnett, who has been with the Bills the last two seasons. However, I wouldn't expect the Packers to come calling for Barnett, who will be 32 years old this season.
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With the release of Charles Woodson, the Packers now only have three youngsters to battle for the starting job at strong safety. They are M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian and Sean Richardson.
All three have potential, but are still in the development stage. Of the three, I expect McMillian to make the biggest jump in 2013.
Still, I expect the Packers to add to the position, either through the draft or free agency.
There are a number of candidates in free agency, but one name to consider is Kenny Phillips of the Giants. Phillips was hurt (MCL injury) for most of the 2012 season, but when he is healthy, Phillips can be very productive at the strong safety position.
Phillips picked off eight passes in five years with the Giants, including four in the 2011 season, when the G-Men won Super Bowl XLVI.
Phillips is just 26 years old, too. The price tag for Phillips might be affordable as well.
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The Packers have some options in free agency, if they decide to fortify the running back position there. They can go back in time if they like, and sign someone like Cedric Benson again, or perhaps one of two other former Packers who are also available. They are Brandon Jackson of the Browns and Kregg Lumpkin of the Seahawks.
There is also a running back who is not yet a free agent, but soon could be. That would be Steven Jackson of the Rams. Jackson has yet to meet with the Rams to discuss his status, and free agency is less than a month away.
Jackson has the ability to void the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. Jackson could also play out the final year of his contract, or just sign an extension with the Rams.
If Jackson becomes available through free agency, I would expect the Packers to have some real interest, depending on the cost.
Otherwise, expect the Packers to draft a running back in the top four rounds, or perhaps even signing someone like Brandon Jackson at a minimum contract. Why? The Packers were very comfortable with the play of Jackson on third downs, especially the year the Packers won Super Bowl XLV.
Jackson picks up blitzes very well as a blocker, plus catches the ball effectively.
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The Packers are trying to get bigger on the defensive front, especially at defensive end. In free agency, there are a number of players who fit that criteria, among them being Chris Canty of the Giants, who is 6'7" and 317 pounds.
The Packers were interested in Canty when he was a free agent in 2009, but he signed with the G-Men instead.
Canty can be productive, as he had seven sacks the past two years. The cost to sign Canty should not be a huge obstacle, as he is 31 years old now.
A former Green Bay defensive end may soon be a free agent again, too. I'm talking about Cullen Jenkins, who has played the last two seasons with the Eagles. Rumor has it that the Eagles may release Jenkins and his $4.5 million dollar cap hit at some point in the near future.
The Packers have tried for the past two years to replace the productive Jenkins at defensive end. Jenkins played very effectively for the Packers there, especially when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. He had seven sacks that season.
Jenkins played pretty well the last two seasons for the Eagles, as he started every game in both years, plus had 9.5 sacks. Jenkins is now 32 years old, however.
Bottom line, expect the Packers to solidify the defensive line one way or the other, either through the draft or free agency.