Green Bay Packers Free Agency: Keep, Walk or Tag Options for Every Free Agent

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2014

Green Bay Packers Free Agency: Keep, Walk or Tag Options for Every Free Agent

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    With 20 players becoming free agents this offseason and just over $9 million in cap room to carry over, Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers have some difficult decisions to make regarding key players at positions on both sides of the ball. 

    Veterans James Jones, John Kuhn, Ryan Pickett, Sam Shields and B.J. Raji join 12 other unrestricted free agents the Packers will have to let walk or re-sign in the near future. 

    The big storylines of the offseason will include whether or not the Packers re-sign cornerback Shields, if Raji's $8 million offer is still on the table (and, if not, if a subsequent offer has been made), if Jones fits into the receiving corps moving forward and, of course, if Jermichael Finley's spinal-fusion surgery has jeopardized his chances of being re-signed in Green Bay. 

    In addition to the 17 unrestricted free agents, Green Bay also has two restricted free agents (Jamari Lattimore and M.D. Jennings) and one exclusive-rights free agent (Chris Banjo).

    Expect the Packers to tender the lowest contract to Lattimore, to provide depth at the linebacker position. While they may do the same with Jennings, so that they're not re-building the safety position from the ground up, his play hasn't earned anything higher than the absolute-lowest tender.

    And, even then, if they can draft a safety like Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix or Dion Bailey, they won't miss him if they let him walk and move Micah Hyde to safety. 

    The following slides examine each of Green Bay's free agents in depth and whether the Packers should re-sign or let them walk, as well as players on whom the Packers could possibly place the franchise tag, though Thompson is reticent about using it and is not incredibly likely to do so.

    Criteria considered were, first and foremost, the potential cap hit, followed by production in 2013 and depth at the position, i.e. if the Packers could develop a player to replace the departing free agent in 2014.

    Free agency begins on March 11, and the deadline to designate a franchise player is March 3. The Packers must prioritize key players on this list (such as Shields and Evan Dietrich-Smith) who, if allowed to get to free agency, may receive offers from other clubs the Packers cannot match.

Marshall Newhouse: Walk

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    Ted Thompson has many tough decisions ahead of him in free agency that will require an agonizing amount of thought. Letting Marshall Newhouse walk shouldn't keep him up at night.

    He had become the whipping boy for Packers fans in 2013, often deserved, sometimes unfairly. It's hard to deny that when Newhouse entered a game last season, things had already turned south for the offensive line. At the same time, watching the tape from his season paints a sometimes ugly picture.

    Newhouse had the opportunity to start at right guard, right tackle and left tackle in 2013 and came up lacking at each position. While he'll clearly never be a starter again after his incredibly disappointing stint at left tackle in 2012, he's not even the right option for depth on the bench.

    Especially with tackle Derek Sherrod having been taken off the injured-reserve list at the end of the season and with another offseason ahead of him to recover, Newhouse is an easy loss for the Packers to swallow, freeing up $1.3 million toward the cap in the process. 

Johnny Jolly: Keep

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    There isn't supposed to be an ounce of emotion involved in the decision to re-sign a player in free agency, but it's hard to imagine that will be the case with the Packers and Johnny Jolly. 

    After remarkably giving him a second chance after he violated the league's substance-abuse policy, Jolly rewarded the Packers' faith in him with a solid 2013 performance. He was well on his way to returning to 2009 form, in which he led the league in passes defended, with 10

    After proving he could overcome three years out of the league by the quality of his play, Jolly's task of recovering from his season-ending neck injury seems simpler by comparison. 

    His bulging disc was at the C-5 vertebra, per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, not the worrisome higher vertebrae, and whether or not he has surgery may play a role in the Packers' decision to re-sign him. 

    But the potential he demonstrated in his triumphant return is too intriguing for the Packers to pass up, and aside from Wilson, he is the most affordable free-agent lineman the Packers have. 

    As long as nothing derails his recovery, the Packers would be smart to give Jolly another second chance.

Jermichael Finley: Walk

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    It would be difficult to find anyone who does not want to see Jermichael Finley return to the Packers in 2014, inside or outside of the Packers organization. Unfortunately, given the team's needs at other key positions, it's unlikely they will be able to make him an offer. 

    After undergoing successful spinal-fusion surgery in mid-November, Finley has been tirelessly working toward getting into football shape ahead of the beginning of free agency on March 11

    Two factors limit the possibility that Finley returns to Green Bay. First, given the conservative nature of the Packers' medical staff, which did not clear Nick Collins to play after he underwent spinal-fusion surgery on reportedly the same vertebrae as Finley, per Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin (the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae), Finley has to demonstrate exceptional rehabilitation. 

    But compounding injury concerns surrounding Finley, the Packers may also not be able to afford him. After signing a two-year, $7 million deal before the 2012 season, Finley may be able to garner some legitimate interest in free agency, receiving offers the Packers cannot match. 

    It will be especially interesting to see if, even after his neck injury, Finley maintains as he did in the 2013 offseason that he would be unwilling to return to the team at a reduced cost.

    One option would be for the Packers to place the franchise tag on Finley. A one-year contract at the projected franchise tag value for tight ends in 2014 would equal a cap hit of $6.709 million. However, it would actually cost Green Bay more than that to place the tag on Finley.

    Because teams must pay whichever is higher of the designated franchise tag value of $6.709 million or 120 percent of the player's cap number in the previous season, with Finley having counted $8.75 million against the cap in 2013, his franchise tag cap hit would actually be $10.14 million.

    Additionally, if the team has even the slightest doubt about Finley's health and recovery, it won't want to designate him as a franchise player. 

    Ultimately, and unfortunately, Green Bay may be forced to let Finley go and try to groom Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick to replace his pass-catching abilities and red-zone presence.

Ryan Pickett: Walk

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    With Raji, C.J. Wilson, Jolly and Pickett all set to become unrestricted free agents in 2014, it's unlikely all four will be reporting to training camp for Green Bay. The situation potentially allows Thompson to focus on down linemen in the draft, replacing at least one and possibly more of the four players headed for free agency through that avenue. 

    At 34, Pickett has played a lot of snaps. Though he's remained durable, his production has declined over the last five seasons. Most worrisome, he earned $5.4 million in 2013 with a cap number of $6.7 million once bonuses were taken into account. Re-signing Pickett and investing upward of $6 million in him, at age 34, goes against Thompson's usual strategy. 

    The decision to let Pickett walk may largely depend on what the Packers decide to do with Raji. Losing both would be a blow to a defensive line which has been grounded by the two veterans. One option is to elect not to re-sign Pickett and move Raji back to nose tackle, the position at which he posted by far his most productive season in 2010. 

    Because keeping Raji and Pickett in addition to Wilson and Jolly is almost certainly not an option for the Packers given their cap situation, the strategy above leaves them with a veteran nose tackle and the option to draft and develop a strong 3-technique tackle. 

    Perhaps Pickett would be willing to take a lower offer to stay, something he indicated to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn back in December. 

    "At this point, I'm not trying to break the bank or anything like that," Pickett, who has claimed he wants to retire a Packer, said. 

    Still, as the oldest player in Thompson's notably young group, Pickett may not see that goal come to fruition.

Evan Dietrich-Smith: Keep

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    Aaron Rodgers advocated for Evan Dietrich-Smith to get the starting center job, and after a year, not only has Dietrich-Smith proven himself worthy of a new contract, but doing so would not break the bank for the Packers. 

    Ranked No. 8 among all centers in 2013 by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), compare Dietrich-Smith's 2013 salary of $1.323 million to that of fellow top-10 center John Sullivan, whom Minnesota will pay $3.65 million in 2014. Dietrich was a bargain in 2013 for the Packers, and Green Bay should be prepared to offer him a competitive contract to keep him in the system. 

    Rodgers would certainly benefit from it. "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 told of the Green Bay Press-Gazette (subscription required) back in November. 

    "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."

    Dietrich-Smith can match Green Bay's up-tempo offense and responds well to Rodgers' frequent audibles. He was ranked the No. 4 center in pass-blocking by Pro Football Focus, helping give Rodgers the time he needs in the pocket. That effort brought sacks down from 2012, when the Packers were No. 2 in the league in sacks allowed, at 51. 

    The question is whether or not Dietrich-Smith accepts an offer if the Packers make one.

    Per Tyler Dunne and Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, when asked Monday if he would return to Green Bay if the decision were his to make, he responded: "I don't know. I feel good about the year I put together. Obviously I have a lot of fun playing with these guys, I'm very fond of them, but the game is the game, and the business side also happens, too. So, we'll see what happens."

    Sounds like a player who knows he was a top-10 center in 2013 and wants to test the waters in free agency to see what he's worth. It's possible if the Packers do make him an offer, he finds a better one elsewhere.

    Green Bay may also choose to let him walk and develop JC Tretter, selected in the fourth round of the 2013 draft but sidelined most of the season by a broken ankle which landed him on the injured-reserve list. 

    There's no doubt the Cornell job could handle Green Bay's fast-paced, intricate offense, but Dietrich-Smith has proven he has the ability to improve both Rodgers' pass game and the run game. His contract is one the Packers should make a priority.

Robert Francois: Walk

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    Up until he tore his Achilles in Green Bay's Week 5 matchup with Detroit, Robert Francois had played all 73 of his snaps on special teams, per Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette

    Now that he's set to become an unrestricted free agent, it's likely the Packers choose to tender a contract to their restricted free-agent inside linebacker, Jamari Lattimore, rather than offering Francois a competitive offer ahead of free agency. 

    Especially because linebacker is a position Green Bay will address in the draft, coupled with the fact that Green Bay will have Sam Barrington returning from injured reserve in 2014 to provide depth behind A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, Francois is one unrestricted free agent to whom the Packers are unlikely to offer a contract.

James Starks: Walk

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    Another player whom the Packers would keep if the money were right, James Starks has likely played his last season in Green Bay. 

    Starks provided a formidable one-two punch when paired with Eddie Lacy in the backfield and averaged even more yards per carry than Lacy, at 5.5.

    Still, while the Packers need a reliable change-of-pace back to keep Lacy's carries under control, they still have Johnathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris returning from injuries in 2014, both of whom are promising developing players. 

    As he demonstrated in Green Bay's system, Starks is the perfect player to have on deck to spell a starting back, and if he reaches the free-agency period without a new deal from the Packers, it's likely another team is going to offer him more than the Packers can.

    Though the Green Bay backfield was more intimidating than it has been in years with Lacy packing a punch and Starks spelling him, the Packers can trust that Harris and Franklin can get the job done next season.

C.J. Wilson: Keep

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    It's worth restating that defensive linemen Jolly, Raji, Pickett and Wilson are all unrestricted free agents this offseason. 

    Green Bay could completely clean house, or the Packers could opt to re-sign and continue to develop the younger talent of the group. 

    If the Packers let Pickett walk and move Raji to nose tackle or else also let him walk to seek his imagined worth of more than $8 million, they should elect to re-sign Wilson, one of their best run defenders, to ensure they're not starting completely from scratch on the line come draft time. 

    Re-signing Wilson makes financial sense. He'll be affordable and he has proven effective at stuffing the run. If the Packers do choose to re-sign Jolly, he can provide valuable experience on the line, while Wilson keeps in line with Thompson's draft-and-develop strategy. After all, a good wide body can be hard to find.

Andrew Quarless: Keep

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    It's too soon to tell what exactly Quarless could become, and that fact combined with the uncertainty surrounding Finley may lead the Packers to make him an offer before the free-agency period opens. 

    Many have decided that Quarless simply isn't the red-zone threat the Packers need out of a tight end, and he's certainly no Finley there. Moreover, it's clear that of Quarless and Bostick, the latter is the one being groomed to more closely resemble Finley's play. 

    Still, Quarless had an impressive season and is on the upswing. He had career highs in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns when given the opportunity to play more, yet many are still divided as to whether he's a viable offensive weapon. 

    Certainly, if the Packers are unable to clear Finley to play, it makes sense to continue to develop Quarless. If Green Bay does decide Finley is healthy enough to return, perhaps Quarless walks. There's also the possibility the Packers address the position in the draft; even though they have Jake Stoneburner and Ryan Taylor on the depth chart, neither is any better of a red-zone threat than Quarless. 

    Though the team likely doesn't see him as a franchise player just yet, in some ways it also makes sense for the Packers to use the franchise tag on Quarless.

    Aside from kicker/punter, tight end is the lowest-projected franchise-tag value of all positions, at $6.709 million. It doesn't make sense for Thompson to tag any of the pricier options like Shields ($11.256 million) or Dietrich-Smith ($11.126 million). 

    If the Packers let Quarless walk and clear Finley to return, perhaps they use the tag on him.

Mike Neal: Walk

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    It's not that Mike Neal didn't play like he wanted to keep his job in a contract year; In 2013, Neal had 36 tackles and five sacks, a career high. He dropped 30 pounds last offseason to move from defensive line to play on the outside, per Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, demonstrating a clear commitment to the organization, despite being skeptical of the position switch. 

    And there's no denying depth at outside linebacker is as valuable as any position; Matthews and Nick Perry missed 10 games between the two of them in 2013. In the Wild Card Game against San Francisco, after Neal injured his knee, the Packers were literally down to one outside linebacker—rookie Andy Mulumba. 

    Depth is important at the position, but with the cap space needed to re-sign other players who start at their positions, the reluctant-OLB Neal doesn't fit into the Packers' future. Additionally, linebacker is certainly one position Green Bay will address in the draft. 

    It's clear from watching his film that Neal is better-suited as a 4-3 defensive end, and the good news for him is that he avoided a serious knee injury last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, meaning he'll likely find success on the free-agency market. 

    As for depth, look for the Packers to continue to develop Mulumba, who made the most of being thrown into the starting position after the rash of injuries on the outside this season. The money for Mulumba—he is due to make just $495,000 in 2014—is certainly right, whereas the Packers may decide Neal isn't worth the investment.

Sam Shields: Keep

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    There's no doubt Shields is one of, if not, the biggest free-agent re-signings on Thompson's list this offseason. 

    For multiple reasons, Shields deserves to return to Green Bay in 2014. The first, of course, is his play; Shields allowed opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of just 72.7 in 2013, which was in the top 20 among all cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

    Though the team got off to a slow start in creating turnovers early in the season, Shields' four interceptions by the end of the regular season are tied for fourth-most in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, with four defended passes, also tied for fourth-most among cornerbacks. 

    He provides veteran leadership at the position group, which the Packers can balance out by continuing to develop Jarrett Bush and Davon House. (Additionally, perhaps keeping Shields would allow Green Bay to move Micah Hyde to safety, a position at which he could excel).

    Because the safety group is in such a position of flux and will be given priority attention in the draft, it doesn't make sense for the Packers to attempt to rebuild both the safety and cornerback positions simultaneously. 

    Having earned $2.023 million in 2013, Shields' will be an expensive contract for the Packers to negotiate.

    But placing the franchise tag on him is not a viable solution, as the 2014 franchise-tag-value estimate for cornerbacks is projected to be $11.256 million, all of which would count against the Packers' cap, per Joel Corry at Green Bay will do better to re-sign Shields and plan to let other, less-essential players go to account for the cap hit.

John Kuhn: Keep

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    Though of all their 17 unrestricted free agents, a fullback is arguably the position the Packers need the least, they are more likely to re-sign John Kuhn than the majority of this list. 

    I previously postulated here that, though Kuhn has immense value in Green Bay's system despite the cries around the NFL that the fullback position is dying, it was possible 2013 would be his last season with the Packers. 

    However, Kuhn's value in the system far exceeds the amount of money the Packers would have to offer him to stay, which is a basic tenet of free agency. 

    Kuhn graded out as the No. 3 fullback in the league in 2013, per Pro Football Focus, and the No. 2 in blocking. His one touchdown in the regular season was his fewest since 2009, but more and more the Packers have been taking advantage of Kuhn's pass-blocking and run-blocking skills and relying on him as an offensive weapon less. 

    He proved his worth after Rodgers' injury, greatly increasing his snap counts and opening up gaps for Lacy, but he cemented it upon Rodgers' return, when he held his block long enough to give Rodgers the opportunity to score the game-winning touchdown against the Chicago Bears in Week 17. 

    Kuhn's base salary in 2013 was $1.8 million. The Packers should be able to find an affordable way to keep him, and, in so doing, retaining some valuable experience on the offense, as he knows McCarthy's offense in and out.

Seneca Wallace: Walk

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    It goes without saying that the Packers won't be carrying four quarterbacks over to training camp in 2014.

    The Packers like Scott Tolzien, who is under contract for next season, earning a base salary of $645,000. "He's got a bright future" Mike McCarthy said in December, per Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    But Matt Flynn and Seneca Wallace are unrestricted free agents, and while neither of their futures is certain, Wallace's is considerably less bright. 

    With so many other hard decisions needing to be made in regard to who the team can afford to keep, Wallace is an easy player to let go. Expect the Packers to let him walk and the journeyman quarterback to test the free-agency waters.

James Jones: Keep

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    Many people think the Packers don't need to re-sign James Jones and would be content to see him walk. 

    Certainly, the rapid development of Jarrett Boykin was unexpected and could potentially change how the Packers deal with the decision to offer Jones a deal ahead of free agency. 

    Still, Jones has immense value in Green Bay's system. The Packers' receiving corps has traditionally been strong precisely because no individual receiver is an X or a Z; each player can line up all over the field, drawing defenders off the others and creating havoc in the end zone. 

    When Rodgers has the option to hit Jones on a crossing pattern, Jordy Nelson on a fly route, Randall Cobb on a slant, Boykin on a wheel route—or any combination thereof—very rarely does he find himself without an open man. Still, there were times at the latter end of the 2013 season, with all his receivers finally healthy, when Rodgers clearly had nowhere to go. 

    Imagine how that checkdown would have looked for Rodgers with Jones out of the mix. 

    Of course, there's a difference between keeping Jones if possible because he's a great player (with a career-high 817 yards in 2013) and overpaying for him, which Thompson won't do. It was clear Jones wanted to test his worth on the free-agent market in 2011 and didn't quite get the chance. But per reports by Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Jones is ready to test free agency now.

    "People know what I can do. I'm excited about it," Jones said.

    Jones was already the highest-paid Green Bay wide receiver in 2013, with a base salary of $2.95 million (and a cap hit of $3.75 million). What is most likely to happen is that the Packers will make Jones an affordable offer and he'll receive a better one from another team, much like Greg Jennings did last offseason when the Packers offered him roughly $8 million per season to stay.

    The decision may ultimately be Jones' to make, and while, per Hodkiewicz, he's not looking to break the bank, having said he's "not one of those guys who sits at home and says I'm worth $30, $40 million," the offers bound to come in may be too tempting to resist, though the wide receiver also said he hopes to finish his career in Green Bay.

    Moreover, Nelson and Cobb will be entering contract years in 2014, so the Packers need to be mindful of those pending contracts when deciding what to do with Jones.

B.J. Raji: Keep*

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    Note the asterisk after the word "keep" next to Raji's name. 

    Really, it only makes sense for the Packers to re-sign Raji if they let Pickett walk and move Raji to nose tackle and if they can do it all for less than the $8 million they initially offered him. 

    Players built to be effective 3-4 nose tackles don't come around every draft, and Raji has already proven he's one of them. By moving him back there, they open themselves up to drafting a 3-technique defensive tackle to take over Raji's duties there, while grounding the defensive line with his veteran experience at the nose.

    Using the franchise tag on Raji can essentially be ruled out, as the projected tag value for a defensive tackle in 2014 is $9.182 million, which equals about the total cap room the Packers carry over with them from 2013 and is over $1 million more than Green Bay's $8 million offer Raji rejected.

    From his rejection of the initial offer, it seems obvious Raji wants to test his worth on the free-agent market, even though Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel estimates that the depressed defensive-tackle market figures to be in the $4 million to $6 million range. 

    Thus, the situation which needs to play out for Raji to remain a Packer would be for Green Bay to opt not to re-sign Pickett, Raji to receive offers of $4 million or even $6 million and ultimately return to the Packers, who could then get him for less than the $8 million they initially offered. 

    It's somewhat of a long shot. The Packers could keep Pickett, or Raji could get a surprisingly high offer elsewhere (perhaps from a team that sees him fitting into its 4-3 scheme) and accept it. But if things shake down just so, there is a scenario in which it makes sense to re-sign Raji.

Kahlil Bell: Walk

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    Kahlil Bell's greatest upside to the Packers after being signed on December 3 was always going to be on special teams, not in the backfield.

    Acquired mainly to fill a void left after Franklin was placed on injured reserve, Bell played in just three games for the Packers, and it's not likely the team will have a place for him next year when Franklin returns. 

    Expect Bell to walk this offseason.

Matt Flynn: Keep

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    Money certainly wouldn't seem to be a motivating factor for Matt Flynn anymore, as he picked up approximately $15 million between leaving the Packers in 2012 and signing a one-year deal with them in November 2013. 

    Yet after his experience bouncing around between three teams—the Seattle Seahawks, the Oakland Raiders and the Buffalo Bills—before re-signing with the Packers, it seems likely that if Green Bay wants to bring Flynn back at any cost, he'd be interested.

    Seneca Wallace is almost undoubtedly not getting an offer from the Packers this offseason. If there's one thing the team learned in 2013, it's that they should probably not operate with fewer than three quarterbacks on the roster.

    Signing Flynn to another short-term contract, while continuing to develop Scott Tolzien behind Aaron Rodgers, allows the Packers to use the draft pick they might have used on a quarterback on another vital position (try safety or defensive line), so long as Flynn's arm strength is not a lingering issue.

    Knowing Flynn will be motivated by his recent experience more so than money, the Packers can likely keep him for a relatively low cost. Whether Tolzien is the answer at No. 2 in the future is another issue, one keeping Flynn on the roster perhaps gives the team another year to ponder while they first focus on what do to do with their 17 unrestricted free agents.


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