Setting Odds for the Packers Signing Their Top 8 Free-Agent Targets

Bob FoxContributor IFebruary 10, 2014

Setting Odds for the Packers Signing Their Top 8 Free-Agent Targets

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    Darren Hauck/Getty Images

    When it comes to free agency, the Green Bay Packers will have a lot to think about.

    I mean a lot.

    The Packers have 17 unrestricted free agents who will be eligible to play with any other team in the NFL in a little over a month when free agency begins.

    The list includes:

    • Cornerback Sam Shields
    • Defensive linemen B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson
    • Tight ends Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless
    • Center Evan Dietrich-Smith
    • Wide receiver James Jones
    • Linebackers Mike Neal and Robert Francois
    • Fullback John Kuhn
    • Running back James Starks 
    • Quarterback Matt Flynn

    According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Packers are approximately $28 million under the $126.3 million salary cap.

    So the Packers have some money to play with. Also, the team can use the franchise tag on a key player if contract negotiations get stuck in the mud.

    In addition, the team must keep in mind that two of their best wide receivers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, will be eligible for free agency after the 2014 season.

    Here's the bottom line: Both general manager Ted Thompson and Russ Ball (the vice president of football administration/player finance) have a lot of work to do.

    I believe the Packers will bring back a number of players whom I won't mention in the upcoming slideshow, including Kuhn, Flynn, Quarless, Francois and Wilson.

    At this point, I don't see the Packers bringing back Starks due to the depth at the running back position. They also likely won't offer another deal to restricted free-agent safety M.D. Jennings.

    Also don't expect the Packers to re-sign two other unrestricted free agents: offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse and quarterback Seneca Wallace.

    In the following slides, I will talk about some other key free agents, plus I will offer my opinion on one other NFL player whom the Packers should be interested in signing in free agency. 

Cornerback Sam Shields

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds of re-signing: 3/2

    Sam Shields has to be the priority among all of the Packers' free agents. He is the fastest player in the secondary, and he often gets the assignment of covering the opponent's best wide receiver.

    He has seen his tackling skills get better over the past couple of years, but there is always room for improvement in that area. He had 51 tackles last season, which was a career high.

    No. 37 had four interceptions in 2013, including a couple of key ones versus Dallas and Chicago on the road. In his four-year career, he has 13 interceptions.

    Shields is one of the options for the franchise tag, should it come to that. The cost of doing that would be approximately $10 million.

Defensive Lineman B.J. Raji

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    Genevieve Ross/Associated Press

    Odds of re-signing: 3/1

    The Packers had an $8 million per-year offer on the table to B.J. Raji earlier this year, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But that offer is now reportedly off the table, according to Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin.

    In 2013, Raji picked a bad year not to be real productive. No. 90 had only 17 tackles last season (a career low) and did not record a sack.

    He hasn't had a sack since the 2011 season.

    Granted, his job at times is to tie up blockers so the linebackers can come in and make the tackle, but one would expect more production in terms of tackles and sacks.

    The one positive for him is that his agent is David Dunn, who is also the agent for Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. Dunn secured long-term deals for both last season.

    In fact, Rodgers is the highest-paid player in the NFL right now, while Matthews is the highest-paid outside linebacker in the league.

    Raji is also a candidate for the franchise tag. The cost of doing that would be approximately $9 million.

Tight End Jermichael Finley

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Odds of re-signing: 5/1

    Jermichael Finley was having the best season of his career in 2013, when he suffered a season-ending neck injury in Week 7 against the Cleveland Browns.

    At that time, No. 88 had 25 receptions for 300 yards and three touchdowns in just six games. Plus, he had missed most of the Cincinnati game due to a concussion.

    The big problem for Finley is that he needed cervical fusion surgery after his injury, which meant the disk was removed and replaced with a bone. Then, a titanium plate is then screwed into two vertebrae (the C-3 and C-4) to hold them together.

    Nick Collins had the same type of surgery, and the Packers refused to clear him to play due to the risks involved. He was later released.

    I also had cervical fusion surgery, but the vertebrae involved were the C-5 and C-6, which is similar to the procedure that Sean Richardson had, and the Packers did clear him to play again late last season.

    Odds are if the Packers would not consider clearing a very talented defender like Collins, who wants to play in 2014, according to Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I would not expect the Packers to clear Finley either.

Center Evan Dietrich-Smith

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Odds of re-signing: 2/1

    The only thing that center Evan Dietrich-Smith should do as he contemplates free agency is look at the past—first with his own status and then with what happened with guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang the year before they were eligible to be free agents.

    Last year, when Dietrich-Smith was a restricted free agent, the Packers gave him the lowest possible offer, per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Packers tendered him an offer of just $1.323 million.

    What does that mean? No team would have had to compensate the Packers had it signed No. 62.

    In the case of both Sitton and Lang, the Packers signed each to a contract extension the year before they became eligible for free agency.

    That hasn't been the case with Dietrich-Smith for some reason. The Packers really like offensive lineman J.C. Tretter, who spent most of the 2013 season on the PUP list, before joining the roster late in the year. He looks like a natural center.

    The Packers also gave Don Barclay some reps at center in training camp before injuries forced him back to right tackle. He seems to be a better fit on the inside of the line.

    Still, the Packers might re-sign Dietrich-Smith if the asking price is not too high. And based on the way the Packers treated him as a restricted free agent last year, he has to feel a bit like Rodney Dangerfield—as in no respect.

Defensive Lineman Ryan Pickett

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Odds of re-signing: 2/1

    The odds of re-signing Ryan Pickett depend on the negotiations between the team and B.J. Raji. If the team strikes a deal with Raji, then it doesn't seem likely that the team would also re-sign Pickett.

    However, if negotiations with Raji stall, the Packers will most likely bring Pickett back, as he has said that he wants to continue playing in the future, per Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    Like Raji, Pickett did not have a lot of production statistically, as he only had 19 tackles. But also like Raji, No. 79 is able to tie up multiple blockers to free the linebackers to make tackles.

    Coincidentally, he signed with the Packers as a free agent in 2006 and has been with the team ever since as one of the better run-stuffers.

    Because of his age (34 years old), he would cost a lot less than Raji (27), perhaps as much as a third less. He might cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million per year, which would be less than half of what Pickett made in 2013.

Outside Linebacker Mike Neal

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    Odds of re-signing: 4/1

    For the first time in his career, Mike Neal (26) was able to play in all 16 games in the regular season. This was after making a position change from defensive end to outside linebacker.

    In his first three years in the NFL, he only played in 20 games total due to multiple injury issues. But in 2014, he had the best season of his career with 39 tackles, five sacks, one forced fumble and one interception.

    Even with that production, the injury cloud hung over his head most of the year. Most weeks, Neal didn't practice very often due to various ailments. Then in the NFC Wild Card Game against the San Francisco 49ers, he missed most of the game because of a knee injury.

    Besides his checkered medical history, the Packers also have a number of younger outside linebackers on the roster like Nick Perry (23), Andy Mulumba (24) and Nate Palmer (24) to play opposite Clay Matthews.

    In addition, the Packers will probably be looking to add another outside linebacker in the 2014 NFL draft.

Wide Receiver James Jones

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    Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

    Odds of re-signing: 2/1

    Wide receiver James Jones has already played the free-agency game after the 2010 season. When it was all said and done, he returned to the Packers after getting some support from his quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

    Jones signed a three-year deal worth $9.4 million in 2011.

    Now he has to play the game again.

    He had a solid 2014 season, battling through a knee injury early and later broken ribs at the end of the year. Still, he had 59 receptions for 817 yards and three touchdowns in 14 games.

    In his career in Green Bay, he has been very productive with 310 catches for 4,305 yards and 37 touchdowns. In the postseason, he has also been good with 28 receptions for 410 yards and four touchdowns.

    The Packers don't have a tougher individual on their team, plus Jones is also an excellent teammate who is willing to mentor the younger players.

    Based on that, the Packers will make every effort to bring back No. 89, as long as the price is reasonable.

Safety Jairus Byrd (Buffalo Bills)

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    Odds of signing: 5/1

    In terms of other players in the NFL, nobody could help the Packers more than safety Jairus Byrd. But will Ted Thompson and Russ Ball be willing to pay the price involved to sign a player like him?

    According to Patrick Moran of Buffalo Sports Daily (h/t, he wants a big payday after being tagged by the Buffalo Bills last season. A salary of $9 million annually is a lot of money for a safety.

    But his production warrants it. In his five-year career in the NFL, Byrd has 256 tackles, three sacks, 22 interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) 11 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries.

    The 27 year-old has also been named to three Pro Bowls.

    So will Thompson consider signing him? Probably not, at least based on his track record in free agency. Then again, when Thompson signed Charles Woodson as a free agent in 2006, Woodson received $52 million over seven years, including at least $10.5 million in his first year.

    Byrd has similar attributes to Woodson, and Thompson knows that the gamble to sign Woodson paid off big time.

    In his seven-year career in Green Bay, Woodson had 38 interceptions for 568 yards. No. 21 returned nine of those picks for touchdowns. He also had 11.5 sacks, 15 forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown).

    He was also named the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and was instrumental in helping the Packers win Super Bowl XLV.

    So while the odds don't appear too good in signing a player of Byrd's ilk, one never knows.