Green Bay Packers: State of Franchise at the Start of the 2014 Offseason
The Green Bay Packers have been in their offseason since January 6, but now that the confetti from Super Bowl XLVIII has been cleared away, the offseason action can really get going. There are a handful of important dates on the horizon that will affect the Packers in 2014, including the first day to designate franchise players on February 17 and the official beginning of free agency on March 11.
Before the Packers begin re-signing any of their 19 unrestricted free agents, using the franchise tag or finalizing their draft board, however, let's take a look at the state of the franchise as it stands today.
We'll look back at the 2013 season, including the biggest inhibitors to success and how they can be addressed in 2014. We'll look at cap space available and go into depth on every single one of the impending free agents and whether or not they might be back in 2014. And we'll preview the 2014 draft, including areas of need and players to target in every round.
What follows is a comprehensive examination of all the factors that will come into play this offseason for the Packers.
All stats from ESPN.com unless otherwise noted. All salary cap estimates from OvertheCap.com unless otherwise noted.
2013 Season in Review
2013 Regular-Season Stats:
Passing Offense: No. 6
Rushing Offense: No. 7
Pass Defense: No. 24
Run Defense: No. 25
2013 was a season of notable milestones for the Packers. They had their first 100-yard rusher in a game since 2010 in James Starks, and first running back to reach 1,000 yards on a season since 2009 in Eddie Lacy.
Of course, not all the firsts were positive. It was the first time Aaron Rodgers didn't start two consecutive games in a row since he became the starter, the first time the safety group didn't produce an interception in decades and the first time the Packers had a negative turnover differential since 2006.
There were glaring, unexpected calamities that cropped up during the year on which it would be easy to place the blame for the disappointing season—a season that ended in an opportunity to make the playoffs more so because of the late collapse of the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions than because of the Packers' play.
The loss of Rodgers for the better part of eight games affected more than just the passing game. As I wrote in November, after Rodgers' injury, the run game and the defense both began noticeable declines. Opponents put seven-plus men in the box twice as often, daring backups Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn to pass.
Meanwhile, the offense couldn't sustain long drives, increasing the amount of time the defense was on the field. The run defense collapsed; because the Packers played from behind in the second half in almost every game without Rodgers, opponents ran the ball to control the clock and to limit risks.
Another huge issue in 2013 that was present both before and after Rodgers' injury was red-zone efficiency. After leading the league in red-zone scoring percentage in 2012, with 68.52 percent, per TeamRankings.com, the Packers converted just 50.72 percent of their red-zone trips in 2013, finishing 26th in the league.
The loss of Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb for much of the year likely limited the quarterbacks' ability to find an open target in the end zone, but the drop-off in efficiency percentage is nonetheless worrisome, especially considering it was still poor in games with Rodgers at the helm.
On defense, the pass rush was in poor form, which wasn't helped by the loss of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry for 10 games between the two of them.
However, injuries plagued every team in the NFL this season. Sure, the four teams that made it to the championship games hadn't played multiple games without their starting quarterbacks, but it's frankly too simplistic to write off 2013 as a series of unfortunate events and bad luck.
The fact is, Ted Thompson wasn't prepared with suitable backups at multiple positions, including quarterback, outside linebacker, tight end and center. The team continues to reel from the losses of Nick Collins and Charles Woodson, two veteran presences the team simply hasn't replaced.
And before he can even think about adding an outside veteran free agent, Thompson is faced with the potential departures of key leaders Evan Dietrich-Smith, Jermichael Finley, Sam Shields, B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett.
Draft and develop is a sound strategy. It protects the cap by rewarding marquee players at key positions and expecting production from a vast pool of young players who don't break the bank and who learn the system in and out. However, with 19 impending free agents, the Packers suddenly find themselves handing the keys to the car to a teenager with a permit.
Without experience and veteran leadership, that car will be headed for a ditch in 2014.
In some ways, 2013 was more valuable because of the adversity and disappointment. Winning a championship when all these problems lay just under the surface might have buried them, away out of sight; now, Thompson and McCarthy will be forced to address them in 2014.
Projected 2014 Salary Cap: $126.3 million, per Albert Breer of NFL.com
Green Bay Current Estimated Cap Space: $27.468 million
Before the draft and before considering the possibility of pursuing a veteran free agent, Green Bay must decide which of its free agents to re-sign. As noted above, the Packers are estimated to be working with about $27 million in cap space.
The 10 free agents the team would arguably most want to re-sign are listed below, along with their 2013 base salary.
Sam Shields: $2.023 million
Evan Dietrich-Smith: $1.323 million
James Jones: $2.95 million
Ryan Pickett: $5.4 million
B.J Raji: $4.49 million
Jermichael Finley: $4.45 million
James Starks: $630,000
Johnny Jolly: $715,000
Mike Neal: $630,000
John Kuhn: $1.8 million
It's immediately clear that the Packers will have a lot of holes to fill from the outside in 2014, as the numbers simply don't work out.That's a total of $24.411 million just to re-sign core players at their 2013 base salaries, not taking into account the significant raises players like Raji, Jones, Dietrich-Smith, Shields and Pickett would expect.
Even by backloading these contracts for a minimal present cap hit, and including high signing bonuses upfront, the Packers won't even be able to re-sign half this list and still pay all their drafted players.
Then, there are the veteran free agents many fans hope Ted Thompson will pursue, a situation that looks more and more unlikely when the numbers are crunched.
Below is a list of the veteran free agents who would make the most sense for the Packers (if not otherwise re-signed by their organizations) and their 2013 base salaries.
Jairus Byrd, Safety, Buffalo Bills: $6.196 million
Donte Whitner, Safety, San Francisco 49ers: $3.85 million
Dennis Pitta, Tight End, Baltimore Ravens: $2.023 million
Alex Mack, Center, Cleveland Browns: $3.732 million
In terms of cap space, $27 million isn't a bad number at all, and the Packers are better off than most other teams in the NFL thanks to Thompson. However, with an unprecedented 19 free agents, it's unlikely the Packers re-sign even a third of their own departing players, let alone make a play for a free agent on the market.
Chris Banjo (Exclusive Rights): Signed to a one-year exclusive-rights free-agent deal last offseason, safety Chris Banjo's two options are to sign a two-year minimum contract with Green Bay or to leave the NFL.
The Packers must offer the deal by March 10, and Banjo cannot sign with any other team. Banjo had a promising season, and there's no reason why, for such a small amount, the Packers wouldn't let him prove he's a worthy special teams contributor as well as a rotational safety.
Evan Dietrich-Smith (Unrestricted): A must for the Packers to re-sign, Evan Dietrich-Smith has proven himself to be the center of the future. Aaron Rodgers has advocated for him to remain on the team for the rest of his own career in Green Bay.
After finishing the 2013 regular season ranked as the No. 8 overall center by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Packers should plan to make Dietrich-Smith one of their re-signing priorities and offer him a competitive offer to keep him from leaving for greener pastures.
Jermichael Finley (Unrestricted): As Pro Football Talk reported on Friday, Jermichael Finley's doctor is "99.9 percent certain" Finley will be cleared for contact in three to four weeks. However, at the price tag he'll require, this development still may not be enough for the Packers to make the tight end an offer.
Using the franchise tag on Finley isn't a wise option. He would actually be owed 120 percent of his prior year's cap number, which amounts to $10.14 million, as his 2013 cap number was $8.75 million. And it's unlikely the Packers would be willing to match some of the offers he could see in free agency, which Finley has indicated he would take if the Packers can't come up with the cash, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.
Matt Flynn (Unrestricted): Will Matt Flynn ever land a first-string quarterback spot again? The best thing for Flynn and the Packers is for him to remain in Green Bay. After failed stints in Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo, it's unlikely Flynn gets an offer to start for a club this offseason. He excels in Green Bay's system, keeping the team alive long enough for Rodgers to return and lead them into a playoff game.
The Packers should, and probably will, continue to develop Tolzien behind Rodgers. But if there's one lesson Thompson should have taken away from the 2013 season, it's that he needs at least two capable quarterbacks on the bench. Why change a good thing when Flynn could be signed relatively inexpensively?
Rob Francois (Unrestricted): Linebacker is a position the Packers can be expected to address in this year's draft, and being one of four bench players behind starters A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones (the others are free agent Jamari Lattimore, Sam Barrington and Victor Aiyewa) doesn't make Francois an incredibly likely target for Green Bay to re-sign.
Francois had the opportunity to prove himself in 2013 after Jones missed action with an ankle injury, but then he himself suffered a torn Achilles. Ultimately, Lattimore has more utility on special teams and put together a nice season in 2013, with two sacks and a forced fumble, while Francois had just two tackles and two forced fumbles.
M.D. Jennings (Restricted): He's only due the league-minimum tender...but should the Packers give M.D. Jennings even that? He was an easy scapegoat for all that plagued the secondary in 2013 and more particularly the safety group, which didn't have a single interception on the season. However, most of the criticism directed Jennings' way was deserved.
He allowed opposing quarterbacks an average rating of 148.8, which was the third-worst among all safeties, per Pro Football Focus. The Packers need to rebuild the safety position around Morgan Burnett, and Jennings shouldn't be a part of that.
In addition to drafting a top talent such as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor, the team could also consider moving corner Micah Hyde to safety, where he would be well-suited.
Johnny Jolly (Unrestricted): Four defensive linemen appear on this list, and while the Packers won't be able to re-sign all of them, Jolly proved his worth in 2013.
His opportunity to play for the Packers in the postseason was taken from him for the second time last season (the first being, of course, his suspension in the 2010 championship season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy), after he suffered a neck injury.
It's unclear at this point whether Jolly will have surgery to repair his neck, which will factor into Green Bay's decision to offer him a contract. But his showing in 2013 indicated he is capable of returning to his dominant play of 2009.
James Jones (Unrestricted): Is the fact that the Packers have veteran Jordy Nelson, slot star Randall Cobb and breakout talent Jarrett Boykin on their receiving corps reason to let James Jones walk...or a stronger argument to bring him back?
Green Bay consistently has one of the most productive receiver groups in the league precisely because it's always stacked with talent. Each player can be the X receiver, the Z receiver or the slot receiver, rather than be tethered to one area of the field. And Rodgers can trust that he can hit any player in any order in his checkdowns and that he'll make the catch nearly all of the time.
It was just two seasons ago that Jones led all receivers in touchdowns, and he's a consistent big-play threat for the Packers, with the fifth-longest catch among receivers in 2013 (83 yards). With Nelson and Cobb both set to become unrestricted free agents in 2015, Green Bay may look to extend Cobb's deal this offseason and thus may not be able to afford Jones.
There are talented receivers in the later rounds of the draft, like BYU's Cody Hoffman, but Jones would be missed in this offense.
John Kuhn (Unrestricted): There's only one player who has been on the Packers longer than John Kuhn and knows the offense better, and that's Aaron Rodgers. The veteran does a lot for the offense that doesn't show up on the stat sheet, and he finished the 2013 season No. 2 in blocking among all fullbacks, per Pro Football Focus. (In fact, Kuhn's blocking made Rodgers' touchdown pass to Cobb that propelled the Packers to the playoffs possible.)
Fullback may be a dying position elsewhere in the league, but it's very much alive in Green Bay, and Kuhn's role on the team is a varied and important one. With 20 impending free agents, however, is it an essential one, worthy of more than $2 million? More questions surround the fullback position after Thompson signed free-agent fullback Ina Liaina on January 27. While the signing doesn't mean Kuhn's out the door, it does muddle the process a bit.
Jamari Lattimore (Restricted): To briefly re-state from the Francois section above, of the two linebackers, expect Lattimore to return to Green Bay. He's a restricted free agent who won't command a large deal, and his two sacks and two forced fumbles in 2013 promised that the Packers could expect to see more out of his development in 2014, even if he is largely in a special teams and backup role.
Mike Neal (Unrestricted): The move from defensive lineman to outside linebacker hasn't been resoundingly successful for Mike Neal...yet. Is there a possibility Green Bay keeps him on in 2014? Of course. But with the struggles Green Bay experienced in the pass rush in 2013, one has to assume that picking up an outside linebacker in the mid-rounds of the draft is in Thompson's plans.
Still, if Neal gets re-signed, it will be with the 2013 season at the front of Thompson's mind—when Clay Matthews and Nick Perry missed 10 games between the two of them, converting Neal to outside linebacker suddenly seemed like an act of foresight.
It's possible the Packers make him a deal to let him continue to develop at the position in their system rather than another team's, while benefiting from the depth he adds.
Marshall Newhouse (Unrestricted): He's filled in at left tackle, right tackle and right guard and hasn't impressed at any position. Newhouse no longer makes sense for the Packers even just for depth and probably won't receive an offer to stay.
Ryan Pickett (Unrestricted): If Ryan Pickett were re-signed by Green Bay this offseason, he would be the oldest player on the roster at 34. He's been a solid nose tackle but can't be factored into the future of the team. With four defensive linemen currently set to become free agents, re-signing Pickett to a two or three-year deal may not make the most sense.
One option would be to let Pickett walk and move Raji back to nose tackle, where he has been far more effective than elsewhere on the line. Though Pickett would be one of the less expensive 3-4 nose tackles in the league, it's a short-term fix for a line that should value longevity and strength above all else.
Andrew Quarless (Unrestricted): If the Packers elect not to re-sign Finley, is Andrew Quarless the best pass-catching tight end replacement? He certainly tried to prove as much at the end of the 2013 season, with two 66-yard games in a row, both of which also included a score.
However, he hasn't proven he can play at the level Finley could as a receiver, and he struggles in run blocking. He also needs to prove he has surer hands. Don't put it past Thompson to pick up a tight end in the draft if the value is there, but it would also be surprising to see Quarless walk.
B.J. Raji (Unrestricted): When Raji was moved from nose tackle in 2011, the premise was that he would be given more freedom to make plays; in fact, the move has largely silenced his production. Without true leeway to get after the passer and mainly asked to grab guards, and with Mike Daniels emerging as the star pass-rusher in subpackages, it's now no longer beneficial to Raji or the team to keep him in at the 3-technique position.
Raji's rejection of the team's initial $8 million offer in mid-November no doubt hints at his frustration with his position. But two questions now present themselves. Would a move back to nose tackle, with pass-rushing privileges, entice Raji? More importantly, could the Packers re-sign him for no more than $6 million.
If the answer to both is yes, expect Raji to stay. If the answer to either is no, don't be surprised to see him moved to a 4-3 defensive tackle in another club's scheme.
Sam Shields (Unrestricted): Shields should be the team's highest priority to re-sign this offseason, after leading the team in interceptions (four) and allowing just a 50 percent catch rate into his coverage, per Pro Football Focus. If Green Bay is going to rebuild the safety position around Burnett—and there's nothing to indicate that the team can avoid that any longer—it's wiser to keep the current pieces in place at corner.
It's possible that in order to re-sign Shields, the Packers may have to restructure Tramon Williams' deal. He's currently set to receive $6.9 million in base salary in 2014, with a monster cap hit of $9.5 million. By offering Williams a large signing bonus and backloading his cap hit, Green Bay can then lock Shields down and expect both to continue to produce.
James Starks (Unrestricted): Starks may be the player on this list who most deserves to get an offer from the Packers but won't receive one.
He proved himself to be a fantastic one-two punch with Eddie Lacy in the backfield, but with Johnathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris both returning from injured reserve, and with cap space filling up quickly with genuine needs, Starks just isn't an essential re-sign. He's a pipe dream, but it's a virtual certainty that another team is going to extend him a deal that's higher than the Packers would be able to offer.
Seneca Wallace (Unrestricted): Journeyman quarterback Seneca Wallace can expect to continue his travels this offseason, as the Packers are more likely to re-sign Flynn and continue to develop Tolzien or even to spend a low draft pick on a backup quarterback than to make Wallace an offer.
C.J. Wilson (Unrestricted): The eager-to-prove-himself Wilson has the fewest factors working against him out of Green Bay's four defensive linemen about to hit free agency. The status of Jolly's health after his season-ending neck injury is still unclear, Raji has already rejected one offer and may feel he's worth more than the Packers can offer him and Pickett is the oldest player on the team.
Wilson, on the other hand, is a young, developing player who has been especially effective at stopping the run. Though missing action with an ankle injury hurt his ability to prove himself in his contract year, if the Packers are looking to build their run defense of the future, they'll include Wilson.
2014 Draft Preview
2014 Draft Position: No. 21
Top Needs: Safety, defensive line, linebacker, tight end
Thompson won't reach for a player of need if the value isn't there in the 2014 draft, as he usually operates—and that could be a good thing this year.
If Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is on the board at the 21st overall pick, the Packers should and probably will take him. The move would satisfy the team's top need at an incredible value, as he could be off the board as early as the Tennessee Titans' No. 11 pick.
However, the Packers should think seriously about selecting one of the defensive-line prospects on the board in the first round, some of whom are rare talents the team wouldn't usually be in a position to draft, such as Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman (featured in the above video).
The following rundown highlights the key players likely to be on the Packers' draft board in each round.
C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, Brigham Young
Stephon Tuitt, DT, Notre Dame
Deone Bucannon, SS, Washington State
Kelcy Quarles, DT, South Carolina
Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin
Shayne Skov, ILB, Stanford
Christian Jones, ILB, Florida State
Craig Loston, SS, LSU
C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa
Dion Bailey, FS, USC
Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia
Tyler Larsen, C, Utah State
Michael Schofield, OT, Michigan
Devon Kinnard, OLB, USC
Denicos Allen, OLB, Michigan State
Cody Hoffman, WR, BYU
Cornelius Lucas, OT, Kansas State
Max Bullough, ILB, Michigan State
Eathyn Manumaleuna, DT, Brigham Young
Ethan Westbrooks, DE, West Texas A&M
Coaching Staff Changes
Though it's unlikely the big offseason coaching staff change many have been clamoring for—the firing of defensive coordinator Dom Capers—will happen, already there have been some notable personnel changes on this end of team that will send ripples into 2014.
First, quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo was hired by the New York Giants to be their new offensive coordinator on January 14. McAdoo was highly valued in the organization, to the extent that, as Dan Graziano reported, the Packers had blocked him from interviews in the last two offseasons because they thought so highly of him.
However, the team didn't have a choice this offseason, as McAdoo's contract expired. Rodgers was supportive of the move on his weekly radio show on ESPNMilwaukee.com, but there's no doubt the effects will be felt in the organizations next season.
Green Bay promoted running backs coach Alex Van Pelt to replace McAdoo, and it's likely to be a smart move. Van Pelt played quarterback in the NFL and has coached the position for other teams. His main task will be developing a solid No. 2 behind Rodgers.
In a shocking announcement, Kevin Greene made the decision to step down from his position as the Packers' linebackers coach to spend more time with his family. This change will certainly send shockwaves deep into 2014, as Greene is credited with the emergence of Clay Matthews and was in the process of developing Nick Perry to complement him on the other side when he departed.
Greene hasn't been given much to work with since the gift Matthews proved to be. Perry was a first-rounder, sure, but injuries have slowed his development. More often than not, Greene was tasked with turning defensive linemen into playmaking outside linebackers, such as Neal, who dropped about 30 pounds to move outside.
Now, that will be someone else's problem—one which needs to be solved fast. The inside has been struggling as well, and the Packers will need to give Matthews help on the outside and Hawk help in the middle if that unit is going to be dominant.