Complete 2014 Green Bay Packers Offseason Preview and Predictions

Michelle BrutonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2014

Complete 2014 Green Bay Packers Offseason Preview and Predictions

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    Head Coach Mike McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson have some glaring issues to address in 2014.
    Head Coach Mike McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson have some glaring issues to address in 2014.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers' offseason has officially begun—and what follows is an in-depth overview of what decisions will be first on the docket to be made, including a handful of predictions about what will happen personnel-wise with free-agent re-signings.

    Who will stay? Who will go?

    And the burning question of the next three months: Who will the Packers select with the 21st overall pick in the 2014 draft?

    The following offseason primer touches on the key improvements head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson will look to make on both the pass defense and the run defense, the main issues the team struggled with in 2013 and how they can be addressed this offseason, and the most vital free agents on both offense and defense. 

    It also examines the team's biggest needs in 2014 and whether those are likely to be addressed through free-agent signings or the draft.

     

    All salary-cap information courtesy of OvertheCap.com unless otherwise noted.

Offense: Free Agents and Biggest Needs

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Top-level playmakers James Jones and Jermichael Finley are the two biggest impending free agents on offense, but Green Bay could lose talent across the board on this side of the ball in 2014.

    Running back James Starks, who has become valuable when used in tandem with Eddie Lacy in the backfield, has performed at such a level that he is likely to receive an offer in free agency that the Packers wont be able to match. Moreover, they have Johnathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris returning from injured reserve.

    Fullback John Kuhn finished the 2013 season as the No. 3 fullback in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but had a cap hit of $2.543 million last season. His experience is invaluable, but with so many departing free agents to consider, Ted Thompson may not be able to afford to re-sign him.

    On the offensive line, the Packers won't miss Marshall Newhouse, but they can't take lightly the prospect of Evan Dietrich-Smith walking. He played at a high level in 2013, allowing just eight quarterback hurries according to Pro Football Focus. (Compare that to fellow free agent Alex Mack's 18.) 

    Though the offensive line has been an issue for the Packers in seasons past, it could be an elite unit in 2014 if the team re-signs Dietrich-Smith to join Bryan Bulaga, T.J. Lang, Josh Sitton and David Bakhtiari. With so many other areas of the team in need of immediate attention, shoring up an entire unit with one re-sign delivers the greatest impact.

    And what about Jones and Finley, two key members of an elite receiving group? The offense would definitely feel the strain of both of them departing in one offseason. Even though Finley is almost certain to be cleared to return by his doctor, according to a report from Pro Football Talk, he's an expensive re-sign.

    Jones may not be seen as necessary in a group that includes Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the quickly developing Jarrett Boykin, but the Packers certainly don't want to be facing him against any other team.

    Especially given the Packers' struggles with red-zone efficiency in 2013, if they can't find room in the budget for neither Finley nor Jones, they'll need to draft a talent to develop—like BYU's Cody Hoffman. 

    Depending on how things shake out with their own free agents, offense will certainly be less of a need in the draft than defense, but finding a tight end is key, as could be finding a receiver in the later rounds. 

Defense: Free Agents and Biggest Needs

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Ted Thompson's last two drafts have been defense-heavy, and now, with 10 defensive players set to become free agents this offseason, the 2014 draft looks to be equally so.

    First, there are the wide bodies on the defensive line: B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson.

    Then there are the members of the secondary: Sam Shields, M.D. Jennings and Chris Banjo.

    And finally, there are the linebackers—Mike Neal, Jamari Lattimore and Rob Francois. 

    Safety is the lowest-performing position on defense by far—after all, the unit didn't produce a single interception for the first time in decades—but defensive line may turn out to be the biggest need overall simply in terms of bodies. Green Bay has the option of completely starting over on the defensive line, though it's safe to assume that Wilson, who has shown promise, gets an offer.

    Jolly's situation will depend on the healing of his season-ending neck injury, for which it is yet uncertain if he'll have surgery. 

    It's almost certain that either Pickett or Raji will walk. Both excel at nose tackle but are underwhelming at tackle or end, and it no longer makes sense to have both on the team.

    The Packers either will choose the short-term fix of re-signing the 34-year old Pickett to a two- or three-year deal, opting to let Raji seek the $8 million-plus he thinks he's worth with another team, or, if Raji doesn't get the offer he's looking for in free agency, could benefit twice over by signing him at a discount ($5 million?) and moving him back to nose tackle, where his production is almost sure to increase. 

    This draft is rich with talent on the defensive line, and Green Bay could find a Week 1 contributor in any of Ra'Shede Hageman, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt or Will Sutton. 

    If Green Bay is serious about rebuilding the safety position, there's no need to keep Jennings. Banjo should be a definite re-sign, and the team should also consider converting Micah Hyde from corner.

    The obvious safety choice in the draft would be Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round, but the team will still be leaps and bounds better at safety in 2014 with someone like Louisville's Calvin Pryor or Washington State's Deone Bucannon.

    A quality pass rush and a stout middle are two crucial areas in which this defense needs to improve, and so linebacker will be another area of focus in the draft. It seems unlikely that both Lattimore and Francois get re-signed, and of the two, Lattimore has earned it more.

    Neal wasn't originally converted from a defensive lineman to play outside linebacker, but injuries to both Clay Matthews and Nick Perry necessitated it for most of last season.

    Green Bay might give him a try with more snaps on the inside in 2014, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him walk. One year is hardly enough time to fully transition to a new position, especially after a dramatic 30-pound weight loss, but Neal should have been further along by the end of 2013.

    Kyle Van Noy would be an excellent addition on the outside; Ryan Shazier is another interesting prospect there. And the Packers are sure to finish the draft with a talented inside linebacker if they want one, having Shayne Skov, Chris Borland and Christian Jones as options.

    C.J. Mosley would, of course, be a game-changer but is likely to be off the board by the 21st overall pick.

Improving the Pass Defense

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The issue plaguing the secondary is twofold: talent level and execution. On one hand, the team has players that don't produce in the system, like M.D. Jennings, who aren't likely to return. On the other, there are veterans to whom the Packers have made long-term commitments, like Morgan Burnett, who simply didn't execute.

    And while the cornerbacks group, led by Sam Shields and Tramon Williams, was more fundamentally sound than the safeties, it wasn't without its own share of struggles. Shields, Williams, Micah Hyde and Davon House combined for just eight interceptions in 2014, while the safeties produced none. 

    The Packers secondary as a whole had 18 interceptions in 2013, which was eighth in the league. And the unit led the league in 2011 with 31 and was No. 2 in 2010 with 24. 

    Though lack of takeaways was the most easily quantifiable issue for the secondary in 2013, the issues boiled down to blown coverages and missed tackles. Jennings allowed the third-highest quarterback completion rating among all safeties, per Pro Football Focus, with 148.8.

    Burnett wasn't far behind, allowing an average rating of 139.0, which was eighth-worst in the league.

    The safeties also allowed opponents multiple opportunities to score, which put undue pressure on an offense that was already struggling without Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley for much of the year. Jennings allowed five touchdowns into his coverage and Burnett allowed another four, which were fifth- and ninth-worst in the league among safeties, respectively, per Pro Football Focus.

    The cornerbacks didn't give opposing quarterbacks as many opportunities, but they struggled with tackling. Sam Shields and Tramon Williams each had nine missed tackles on the year by Pro Football Focus' count. 

    Still, Shields was one of the highest-performing members of Green Bay's secondary and deserves to be re-signed. More importantly, the team shouldn't try to substantially bolster the cornerback and safety positions simultaneously; it'll do better to try to restructure Williams' deal and allow the two veterans to continue to lead that group.

    As for safety, that's a need that should be prioritized in the first or second round of the draft. Banjo should be re-signed, while Jennings hasn't proven he's worth a long-term deal.

Prediction: Sam Shields Will Receive a 4-Year Deal

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Given recent precedent, Sam Shields, who made a $2.023 million base salary in 2013, can probably expect to receive a four-year deal from the Packers in the neighborhood of $5 million per year.

    Bears cornerback Tim Jennings, who Chicago re-signed this offseason to a four-year deal, per Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times, will now earn an estimated $5.6 million per year. And last offseason, the San Diego Chargers offered former Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox a four-year deal worth $20 million.

    Shields played at a much higher level than Cox in 2013, and it's reasonable to expect that if the Packers want to keep him, they'll have to make a more competitive offer than what Shields could expect to see on the market. 

    Arguably, Shields should be Green Bay's highest priority out of all its impending unrestricted free agents. He led the team with four interceptions in 2013 and allowed a catch rate of just 50 percent, per Pro Football Focus, which was ninth-best among all cornerbacks. 

    Fellow corner Tramon Williams will earn $9.5 million in 2014 when bonuses are factored in, and it's possible that the Packers could offer Shields a deal worth even more than $20 million over four years if they front-load it with signing bonuses that don't count against the cap.

    Williams' deal is unhealthy for the cap and should be restructured, but that doesn't mean Shields will want to be that far off the mark from his teammate when he had a better season in 2013.

Improving the Run Defense

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    It started so well.

    The run defense exploded out of the gate in 2013, ranked No. 3 through six games and allowing just 79.0 rushing yards per game. 

    But starting in Week 7, the unit had the rug pulled out from under it, sliding down to No. 25 by the end of the season, allowing an average of 125.0 yards per game by Week 17. 

    Just like the secondary, the run defense got away from fundamentals, and that plagued it for an entire half of a season. Is there any measurable factor that is most to blame for the slide? 

    Not really. "We were playing the same defense," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said in late November, per Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. "We were just playing it better."

    The good news is the run defense demonstrated for six consecutive games that it was capable of executing at an elite level. 

    The bad news is that half of those players are set to become free agents this offseason.

    First, let's look at the players who will return in 2014. Defensive end Mike Daniels is a rising star. He was credited with 20 stops constituting offensive failures in 2013 by Pro Football Focus and finished the season ranked as the No. 6 overall 3-4 defensive end. 

    Defensive ends Jerel Worthy and Datone Jones have big years ahead of them after not having yet proven themselves with two years and one year on the team, respectively. Jones did have 3.5 sacks in his rookie year but needs to be more of a presence against the run. Worthy just needs an injury-free year to prove what he can do in the system. 

    And second-year player Josh Boyd will have more opportunities to prove himself in 2014 after showing a glimmer of promise in his limited snaps in 2013. He has great size for a 3-4 end at 6'3" and 310 pounds, and could be solid in rotation at the 3-technique position.

    After taking four defensive linemen in the last two drafts, it seems ridiculous that the Packers will be looking to take one in the first or second round in 2014, but that's the situation at hand with B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson all set to hit free agency. 

    The Packers can't expect to run an efficient 3-4 run defense without a veteran nose tackle at anchor, so either Raji must return to that role or Pickett must be signed on to satisfy that need in the short run. Jolly had an impressive return season before his neck injury, with 21 tackles and a sack. But his return is dependent on his health. Wilson has shown promise and would be inexpensive to re-sign.

    Linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones need help on the inside. The Packers let runners break past the second level of the defense too often in 2013, and they need to fortify the middle.

Prediction: Jermichael Finley Will Not Be Re-Signed

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Jermichael Finley thinks that his doctor is "99.9 percent" certain to clear him for contact in 3-4 weeks, according to a report from Pro Football Talk.

    However, his chances of returning to the Packers in 2014 aren't promising.

    In addition to lingering injury concerns about Finley, the Packers may also not be able to afford him. He signed a two-year deal worth $7 million before the 2012 season and may receive offers the Packers won't be able to match in free agency from teams less conservative about injuries. 

    Placing the franchise tag on Finley isn't an economical option, either. A projected one-year contract for tight ends in 2014 would have a cap hit of $6.709 million, according to Joel Corry of CBS Sports.

    However, because the Packers must pay Finley 120 percent of his cap number from the previous season, his franchise tag cap hit would actually be $10.14 million. He had a cap number of $8.75 million in 2013.

    And if Green Bay has any qualms about Finley's health, it won't be eager to designate him a franchise player. 

    Ultimately, the Packers may be forced to let Finley walk and try to develop Andrew Quarless or Brandon Bostick to replace him.

Prediction: Evan Dietrich-Smith Will Be the Center of the Future

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    Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    A year after earning the starting center job from veteran Jeff Saturday, Evan Dietrich-Smith has proven himself worthy of a new contract, which should come at a relatively affordable cost for the Packers.

    Grading out as No. 8 among centers in 2013 by Pro Football FocusDietrich-Smith can keep up with Green Bay's complex offense and is quick to respond to Aaron Rodgers' frequent audibles.

    He was ranked the No. 4 center in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus, giving Rodgers the time he needs in the pocket.

    Dietrich-Smith is a big part of the reason why sacks are down from 2012, when the Packers were No. 2 in the league in sacks allowed at 51. 

    Rodgers, for his part, has made his desire for Dietrich-Smith to return known. "It would be fun to go on a run with a guy for five, six, seven years because that quarterback-center relationship is very important," Rodgers told Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette (subscription required) 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."

    However, the Packers would have to make Dietrich-Smith a competitive offer, because he'd be likely to find a better one in free agency if they allow him to reach that point. He and the Cleveland Browns' Alex Mack would be the two best centers on the market in 2014.

    If Green Bay doesn't think it can afford Dietrich-Smith, it might choose instead to develop JC Tretter, a fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft who was on injured reserve for most of 2013 with a broken ankle.

    However, Dietrich-Smith has proven he has the ability to improve both the passing offense and the run offense, and Ted Thompson's big gaffe in acquiring the expensive Saturday only to bench him before the end of the season is likely fresh in his mind. Expect to see Dietrich-Smith don the green and gold for many seasons to come.

Prediction: With the 21st Pick, the Green Bay Packers Select...

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman out of Minnesota

    Free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is likely to have gone to the Tennessee Titans, St. Louis Rams, Chicago Bears or Dallas Cowboys by the time the Packers pick. C.J. Mosley, Louis Nix and Timmy Jernigan are probably gone, as well.

    With four defensive linemen set to become unrestricted free agents, Ted Thompson will select for ultimate value on the board.

    In that case, he can't do better than Hageman if he's still available. He could be Green Bay's J.J. Watt, an imposing presence (6'6" and 318 pounds) on the line whose sole job is to disrupt, disrupt, disrupt. Most importantly, he shouldn't have issues transitioning into a 3-4 scheme.