With the start of the official NFL league year just two weeks away, the Green Bay Packers have some difficult personnel decisions to make, and none will be more difficult then deciding what to do with wide receiver Greg Jennings.
Jennings, who was selected by the Packers in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft, has been an elite playmaker in Green Bay, catching 425 passes for 6,537 yards and 53 touchdowns during this seven-year stint with the team. In fact, he has been one of the most prolific receivers in franchise history, as he currently ranks in the top-10 in franchise history in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.
Entering the offseason, it seemed like the Packers had already decided to let Jennings walk via free agency. After all, the team already has three young, talented wide receivers in Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones and, after struggling with injuries for the second year in a row, Jennings may never be the same player that he was just a couple years ago.
However, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, recently reported that the Packers were still considering placing the franchise tag on Jennings before the March 12 deadline and that the chances of it happening are now 50-50.
There are a couple reasons why the Packers may want to place the tag on Jennings. One, the team may truly want him to return in 2013. Yes, he will turn 30 years old during the first month of the regular season, but he showed flashes near the end of the 2012 season of being his old self and the team may want to keep him in the fold for at least one more season as they make a run at another Super Bowl.
Or the Packers could just be using the franchise tag in an attempt to leverage a trade for Jennings in return for draft pick compensation. The team did something similar in 2008, when they placed the franchise tag on defensive tackle Corey Williams, then traded him to the Cleveland Browns for a second round draft choice.
The problem with the Packers placing the tag on Jennings and keeping him on the roster in 2013 is the salary cap implications of that move. If the former Western Michigan grad played the 2013 season under the tag, he would earn $10.36 million, which would make him the highest-paid player on the team next season (unless new contracts are awarded to Clay Matthews or Aaron Rodgers).
That’s a big number to pay to an aging receiver, particularly when the Packers do not have a ton of cap space, especially considering that Matthews is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Beyond the money, there is another part of this equation.
In large part due to Jennings absence, both Cobb and Jones came into their own last season. During the 2011 season, Cobb and Jones were targeted just 86 times, but in 2012, with Jennings shelved most of the season due to injury, the two were targeted 202 times and they responded in a big way.
In Jennings' absence, Cobb established himself as a dangerous weapon in the slot as he hauled in 80 passes in 2013 for 954 yards and eight touchdowns. The 2011 second round pick, also produced 19 plays from scrimmage that were over 20 yards, including a team-high 17 catches of over 20 yards. Jones was second on the team with 11.
Jones, who nearly left the team as a free agent following the 2010 season, proved he is a starting-caliber player, catching 64 passes for 784 yards, while also leading the league with 14 touchdown receptions. Jordy Nelson was also having a solid season before he was forced to miss four games due to injury, but he finished with 49 receptions for 745 yards and seven touchdowns.
In all, Jones, Nelson and Cobb combined for 29 touchdown receptions and 2,487 receiving yards in 2013, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Packers offense can still be very productive without Jennings.
So the question has to be asked; would keeping Jennings on the roster, even for one more season, hinder the development of Cobb, Jones and Nelson?
Cobb, in particular, could be affected, as he flourished the in the slot, the spot Jennings once dominated. Thus if Jennings were to return, the Packers would need to find a way to effectively utilize him and Cobb.
Furthermore, if the Packers do decide to keep Jennings, it could mean the writing is on the wall for enigmatic tight end Jermichael Finley, who has one year left on a two-year deal he signed last offseason. He is scheduled to earn over $8 million this season, and with the Pacers current salary cap state and so many long-term fixtures needing contracts, it's hard to imagine the team paying almost $20 million to Finley and Jennings in 2013.
Taking into consideration the youth and talent the Packers currently posses at wide receiver and the lack of a clear alternative at tight end, it seems clear that the Packers should re-invest in Finley as the starting tight end, while letting Jennings walk in free agency.
General manager Ted Thompson, has had great success drafting wide receivers in the draft, so if the Packers feel they need another wide out to team with Cobb, Jones and Nelson, then it should be addressed there.
The Packers have maintained long-term success because of their ability to make tough decisions, and the right decision in this case is to let Jennings walk, while reaching a modest long-term deal that will keep Finley in Green Bay for years to come. With Finley and those three wide receivers, Green Bay will have more than enough pass-catching talent to sustain losing Jennings.
In today’s NFL, you simply can’t keep everyone, and with clear alternatives on the roster, investing a large sum of money in a soon to be 30-year old wide receiver, whose injury prone is bad business. Unless Jennings is prepared to give Green Bay a generous hometown discount, it’s time to thank him for his tremendous contribution to the organization and move on.
Because the cold reality of the NFL is that every decision has implications and one mistake can have a drastic impact on the future of a franchise. Therefore, for the long-term health of the Packers organization, it’s time to say goodbye to Jennings once and for all.