While the Green Bay Packers coaching staff focuses on getting the team into the playoffs, general manager Ted Thompson and Vice President Russ Ball are considering which of the sixteen players who will soon become unrestricted free agents in March to re-sign.
Eight of those sixteen are starters, including Evan Dietrich-Smith, Johnny Jolly, James Jones, John Kuhn, Mike Neal, Ryan Pickett and Sam Shields.
Then, of course, there's defensive tackle B.J. Raji, whose worth some view as overvalued after Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that he has repeatedly turned down an offer from the Packers worth $8 million.
And while they're not technically starters, 2013 is also a contract year for tight end Andrew Quarless and running back James Starks. Both have proven themselves to be essential fixtures of the offense given the injury landscape this season.
Green Bay also has some decisions to make regarding Jermichael Finley, who has begun a three-to-four month recovery process after having a successful spinal surgery and who will also become a free agent at the end of the season.
The Packers are currently $9.86 million under the $123 million cap number, according to Bob McGinn, with the mega-deals signed by Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews set to count $29 million against the cap for next season.
Heading into the home stretch of the season, a handful of key players have distinguished themselves as being not only worthy of a contract offer this offseason but essential to the team's success. The players below should be must-sign targets for Thompson and Ball.
1. James Jones
Though Jordy Nelson's four-year, $13.989 million contract is worth more overall than the three-year, $9.4 million contract Jones is under, Jones is currently the Packers' highest paid wide receiver in 2013, earning $2.95 million this season with an additional roster bonus of $200,000.
However, his production hasn't quite matched his pay yet this year, even though he's played the second-most snaps after Nelson (442) according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and has certainly had the opportunity to make up for the playing time he lost sitting out two games due to a knee injury.
That may be because, despite returning three games ago, Jones is still experiencing pain in his leg, as reported by Ty Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Wednesday.
"I have to play with a little pain," Jones said. "I'm fighting through it and trying to be the best player I can be to help my team win."
Whether or not he's been at 100 percent, Jones has had a moderate season so far, with 27 receptions for 465 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, he has had two games this season with more than 100 receiving yards, and his average of 17.2 yards per reception is the fifth-highest in the league.
|Jordy Nelson||57||889||15.6||7||$2.7 million|
|James Jones||27||465||17.2||2||$2.95 million|
His big-play potential can serve as a double-pronged problem for opponents. It can draw defenders away from Nelson and Cobb (when healthy), giving them more opportunities. Or, if left open in zone coverage, Jones can break away for a big gain in space.
Some will argue that the emergence of Jarrett Boykin has demonstrated that the Packers can let Jones walk and spend the money elsewhere. For the numbers Boykin's putting up—he's tied with Nelson for yards per reception, at 15.6, and needs just one more to surpass Randall Cobb for second-most on the team—he is an absolute steal, making just $480,000 this season.
However, Boykin's spike in production just makes Jones more essential for the Packers to retain. It means Thompson's draft-and-develop system, which for financial and schematic reasons hinges on young players and rookies becoming meaningful contributors in order to balance out the big earners at their positions, is working.
The Packers have demonstrated that whether Rodgers is under center or not, they're going to run three-wide receiver sets regardless, because that's what this system is built around. Having four playmakers in Nelson, Jones, Boykin and Cobb means there's always a personnel formation available that makes the passing game a threat. This in turn creates more opportunities for Eddie Lacy and the run game.
In Cobb's and Jones' absences, Nelson demonstrated he could be dangerous playing from the inside. He scored two touchdowns from the slot against the Vikings in Week 8, while Boykin excelled in Jones' position on the outside.
When all four are healthy, the possibilities for moving them around the field are endless; each makes the other a stronger receiver.
"I believe we have the best receiving corps in the league because we all play every position," Jones told Tyler Dunne. "Nobody's an X, nobody's a Z. Everybody plays everything."
Moreover, Jones has demonstrated that he's a scoring threat throughout his career, ending 2012 with the most touchdowns in the league among wide receivers (14). Though Nelson leads the team currently, with 7 as compared to Jones' 2, having both of them running routes into the end zone increases the other's chances of getting open and putting six points on the board.
Now that Finley's return next season is up in the air, the Packers shouldn't cut down their receiving corps as it reaches new heights with this current solid grouping, especially after the loss of Donald Driver and Greg Jennings.
2. Evan Dietrich-Smith
The Jeff Saturday center experiment proved short-lived. Cutting him this past offseason was a savvy business decision, as he had underperformed expectations, and the move freed up $2.2 million in cap room.
Dietrich-Smith, who took over for Saturday in Week 16 of the 2012 season, is ranked eighth in the league among centers who have played at least 650 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Three years ago, not only would an argument that the Packers should re-sign Dietrich-Smith have seemed ridiculous, but the idea of him starting at center would have been downright ludicrous.
Dietrich-Smith not only overcame the obstacle of being cut from the team in 2009, due to lack of effort and maturity, but since his reinstatement in 2010, he has proven himself to be the center of the future for the Packers.
At a salary of $1.323 million in 2013, Green Bay won't have to break the bank with an offer to retain him.
The relationship between the center and the quarterback on a team like the Packers, when that quarterback is Aaron Rodgers and the offense is running a high amount of no-huddle and audibles, can't be overemphasized.
"If Aaron does change the play, we've rarely had a communication problem this whole year just rallying the calls," fellow offensive lineman Don Barclay told Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "He's done a great job with that."
Generally, when they're paying him as much as they are, what makes Rodgers happy makes the Packers happy, and he feels strongly that he should be lining up under Dietrich-Smith for the long run.
"It would be fun to go on a run with a guy for five, six, seven years years because that quarterback-center relationship is very important," Rodgers, who has had four different centers in his six seasons as a starter, told Hodkiewicz. "I think you see that with Evan and I. The opportunity to play together for an extended period of time, that would be kind of a quarterback's dream right there."
It's no wonder Rodgers has been so pleased with Dietrich-Smith's development—he's been graded the No. 1 center in the league in pass-blocking by Pro Football Focus, with a grade of 4.9.
It's been a mix of skill and luck that landed Dietrich-Smith the starting job, as both of the other players who might have competed with him for it, J.C. Tretter and Greg Van Roten, were placed on the PUP list and injured reserve, respectively. (Tretter returned to practice this past week).
His knowledge of the plays, ability to scout opponents and, frankly, the fact that he makes Rodgers happy are all reasons the Packers should rest assured that they've found their man at center and re-sign Dietrich-Smith this offseason.
3. B.J. Raji...For $8 Million, and Only $8 Million
You can't necessarily fault Raji's agent, David Dunn, for rejecting the team's first offer of $8 million.
After all, Dunn, who also represents Rodgers and Matthews, knows how to get his clients the offer they're worth. A rejection of the $8 million isn't a decision so much as a negotiating tactic.
The only problem for Raji is that $8 million is very likely the best offer he'll get, and it would be better not to learn that the hard way—out on the streets of free agency. Bob McGinn estimates the depth of the defensive tackle market heading into March will cause it to be in the $4-$6 million range, meaning Raji would be smart to possibly double his potential and stay in Green Bay.
Many have pointed out that Raji's career is headed in the wrong direction, as his production has decreased in the past couple of years. He hasn't recorded a sack since November of 2011, and his tackles totals in the last three seasons haven't come close to matching the 29 he recorded in 2010.
However, it's not entirely fair to use those numbers to conclude that Raji is playing worse. Raji was still playing at the nose tackle position in 2010, which afforded him more opportunities to record sacks and tackles. In 2011 and since, he moved to defensive tackle as Pickett took over at nose tackle.
"It's not a coincidence that my best statistical year was when I was a nose," Raji told Bob McGinn. "Right now, on first and second down, we're asked to grab guards. Dom [Capers] likes his linebackers clean. That's my job right now."
A smart move the Packers could make, and what may explain why they offered Raji $8 million right off the bat, would be to not re-sign Pickett, and then move Raji back to nose tackle.
Pickett counts for $5.4 million toward the cap number in 2013 and is in his 13th season in the league.
Mike Daniels has proven he can be explosive on the left and right ends of the line, and Datone Jones continues to improve every week. Their athleticism and quickness (each is almost 40 pounds lighter than Raji) allow them to make plays on the quarterback, and they've proven they can lead the interior pass rush. Raji is built to be a nose tackle and would anchor a line that has so much developing talent.
Which Player Should Be Packers' Top Priority in Re-Signing?
Additionally, releasing Pickett might allow the Packers to re-sign Raji and Jolly, as well.
Of course, the decision is Raji's to make. He may very well want to test the free-agency waters, in part to seek a higher offer, but also perhaps to move to a 4-3 scheme in which he might be given more opportunities to get after the quarterback. Letting Pickett walk and giving Raji the opportunity to move back to nose tackle might be a way to appease him and expand his role without having to put more money on the table.
Those are only three players out of 16, but they're the three whose absence would be most immediately felt by Green Bay. Thompson and Ball will still need to address the possibility of having to let Kuhn, Shields and/or Finley go to free up cap room.
All of these key players would be missed for the leadership roles they have taken on at their respective positions. Shields, especially, has proven to be essential to a young Packers secondary that's been unable to stay completely healthy, as four cornerbacks missed practice Thursday.
Coming off a one-year $2.023 million contract in 2013, the Packers might be able to re-sign Shields for a value, which is necessary considering Tramon Williams is due to earn $6.9 million in 2014.
As for who else shouldn't make the cut, it seems time for the Packers to part ways with Marshall Newhouse in 2014. It wasn't a good sign when rookie tackle David Bakhtiari was given the opportunity to guard Rodgers' blind side after Bryan Bulaga was injured in the preseason, relegating Newhouse to the reserve position that Bakhtiari was no doubt expected to fill when he was drafted.
It may feel early to begin thinking about the offseason when the Packers are still focused on getting to the postseason. However, with such an unusually large core group scheduled to depart, unless Thompson and Ball can work some magic with the numbers, these next six games could very well determine who gets an offer and who is playing his last games in Green Bay.