Picking the Ideal Free Agent to Fill Each of the Green Bay Packers' Holes

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2014

Picking the Ideal Free Agent to Fill Each of the Green Bay Packers' Holes

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers don't make a habit of targeting veteran free agents, but with an estimated $28 million in cap space, according to figures obtained by Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from a source with NFLPA salary knowledge, Thompson may surprise us all this offseason and acquire one to fill a key position.

    Though Thompson has been consistent in his reliance on the "draft-and-develop" method, he did say this offseason that the Packers would consider taking a veteran free agent if the terms were right.

    "If we get the opportunity, if it presents itself and makes sense for the club with the way we put things together, we're going to do it," Thompson said in January, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We've done it in the past. We try to do it selectively."

    It's not guaranteed that Thompson would make an offer to even one player on this list, let alone all five. And in keeping with his usual methods, he very likely won't target a single external free agent.

    But in terms of filling their holes at safety, nose tackle, tight end, center and defensive end, if the Packers wanted to look to a free agent (external or internal) rather than promote a younger player from the squad or acquire through the draft, the following players are some they may target.

    As for criteria, the only limitations were that each player had to be a pending free agent—either another team's or the Packers'but not a 2014 draft prospect or a younger Packer who could move up into the role, and the move had to make sense financially. 

    The external free agents included herein have not presently been re-signed by their teams, but they could be before free agency officially begins in March.

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

Safety: Donte Whitner

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    It would be surprising if Green Bay went after a safety in free agency rather than seeing if they could walk away from the 2014 draft with Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Louisville's Calvin Pryor. However, if San Francisco can't reach a deal with Donte Whitner, Ted Thompson would be remiss not to give him due consideration.

    Whitner is an example of a veteran signing that would make sense for the franchise and the way it operates—the terms Thompson outlined that would be necessary to facilitate such a signing. The team has made numerous attempts to develop young safeties, all with varying degrees of failure. 

    Since Nick Collins' injury in 2011, there has been Charlie Peprah, Jerron McMillian, Chris Banjo, Sean Richardson and M.D. Jennings. Two of the five are no longer on the team; a third, Jennings, is all but nearing his exit date this offseason, and Banjo and Richardson, though both have shown promise, may be better as rotational players and on special teams. 

    Meanwhile, the loss of Collins and Charles Woodson has never been more apparent, with a safety group that whiffed its way though 2013 with nary an interception to show at the end of the season. Perhaps the only way to replace the leadership of these two veterans is with another veteran—Whitner. 

    With a base salary of $3.850 million in 2013 and a total cap hit of $4.933 million, Whitner is more costly than a rookie, but he's economical in terms of veteran free agents, a group that includes Buffalo Bills free safety Jairus Byrd, who is likely to command a contract worth upward of $40 million based on his $6.916 million base earnings in 2013. 

    And with Whitner, the Packers would get what they'd pay for. He had two interceptions and 12 passes defended in 2013 and was a key member of a San Francisco pass defense that finished the season No. 7 in the league. 

    He graded out as the sixth-best safety in the NFL in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rankings, allowing opposing quarterbacks an average passer rating of just 66.8. Compare that to Morgan Burnett (139.0) and Jennings (148.8). 

    In addition to his stats, Whitner's technique is sound, which helps eliminate another big issue the secondary had in 2013: missed tackles. 

    The Packers' most obvious hole to fill in the secondary is at free safety, and Whitner plays strong safety. However, that shouldn't cause the Packers to overlook him if he reaches the open market.

    At the end of 2013, to accommodate Sean Richardson playing closer to the line, the Packers moved Morgan Burnett to free safety. Talent could be plugged in anywhere in the defensive backfield.

    Of course, Whitner has to reach free agency before any of this could be possible—but that's a bigger possibility than it may seem. With 10 unrestricted free agents and just an estimated $7 million in cap space, the San Francisco 49ers may not be able to afford him. And while Green Bay has 17 of its own players ready to walk out the door, it has considerably more cap space to work with. 

    It's not that draft prospects Clinton-Dix, Pryor or even Deone Bucannon couldn't be instant contributors in Green Bay's defense. But if the Packers truly and finally want to replace Collins and Woodson, Whitner should be consideredfor the right price. 

Nose Tackle: B.J. Raji

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Packers just aren't a franchise that's likely to fill all of its positional needs by targeting external free agents; often, the move that makes the most sense for the team is re-signing one of its own veterans.

    That's the case with B.J. Raji, whom the Packers should re-sign for no more than $4-$6 million and promptly move back to nose tackle. 

    Nose tackle Ryan Pickett is the oldest member of the team, at 34, and the Packers have two other defensive linemen set to become unrestricted free agents. Especially with so many other players to consider, Thompson may be tempted to re-sign Pickett to an inexpensive, two-year deal and keep him at nose tackle and then build out the defensive line through the draft.

    However, when he played at nose tackle in 2010, Raji was elite.

    He posted 6.5 sacks, 29 tackles and three passes defended. Most of the decline in his production over the last two seasons has been due to the nature of his new role, lining up as the 3-technique in the Packers' 3-4 scheme.

    His primary responsibility is to keep the linebackers clean and shore up the middle, which doesn't afford many pass-rushing opportunities. Admittedly, some of the drop-off in Raji's play may be attributable to a dissatisfaction with his current position, but a move back to nose tackle and, with it, the occasional green light to rush the passer should keep him happy while also improving the line.

    As Raji is highly unlikely to find an offer in free agency greater than the long-term deal worth $8 million Green Bay initially offered him, the Packers should get the opportunity to re-sign him at a lower cost and make the transition. 

Tight End: Dennis Pitta

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    If Thompson is going to be intrigued by the free-agent options at any position enough to make an offer, it'll be tight end.

    Among the players who have yet to be re-signed by their respective teams, in addition to the Packers' own Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless, are Jimmy Graham, Dustin Keller, Brandon Pettigrew, Scott Chandler, Fred Davis, Dennis Pitta and Dallas Clark.

    Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is among those who think the Packers are "pretty unlikely" to re-sign Finley, given that team physician Pat McKenzie wouldn't clear Nick Collins with the same injury at the same high-risk vertebrae (C-3 and C-4). 

    Is free agent Andrew Quarless the answer to replace Finley? While he's worth a re-sign, the Packers really need a pass-catching tight end who can contribute right away, particularly in the red zone. After leading in red-zone scoring percentage in 2012, per TeamRankings.com, Green Bay finished 26th overall in 2013, and losing a major red-zone target in Finley was a huge factor (as also, of course, was Aaron Rodgers' injury).

    Of the potential veteran free-agent tight ends, Pitta could be a solid option for Green Bay, and his price tag shouldn't make Thompson wince.

    Pitta's prior APY of $2.023 million wouldn't translate into nearly as high a contract as Finley would command—upward of $5 million a year without bonuses, or a franchise-tag number of $10.14 million (120 percent of his 2013 cap number of $8.75 million).

    Like the Packers, the Baltimore Ravens' red-zone performance noticeably decreased when Pitta was out with a hip injury for most of 2013—they finished No. 31 in the league at just 46.15 percent, per TeamRankings.com.

    But despite his injury, which was thought at the time to be season-ending, Pitta was activated from injured reserve and returned to play on December 8, with 48 yards and a touchdown.

    Pitta was a big contributor to the Ravens' championship season in 2012, with seven touchdowns and 669 yards.

    Will the Ravens let him walk this offseason? Two other Ravens tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark, are free agents as well. It seems likely that of the three, Pitta would be the one to receive an offer.

    But if Baltimore does let Pitta go, this move may be the veteran free-agent acquisition that makes the most sense for the Packers.

    Unlike safety, defensive line and linebacker, Thompson won't be so easily able to fill the tight end need in the draft. The first opportunity to do so would probably be Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third round, and the Packers quite frankly shouldn't select a tight end so high due to their overwhelming defensive needs that should be addressed in the higher rounds.

Center: Evan Dietrich-Smith

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Another instance in which the best free agent for the job is a home-grown one? Evan Dietrich-Smith at center. 

    Both in terms of cost and effectiveness, it would be difficult for the Packers to make an improvement on Dietrich-Smith. Other veteran free-agent options could include the Chicago Bears' Roberto Garza or the Cleveland Browns' Alex Mack, but neither would be less expensive than Dietrich-Smith.

    All in all, the Packers would probably plan to spend between $2-$3 million a year for a long-term deal on whichever free agent they targeted at center.

    After ending 2013 No. 8 among centers overall and fourth in pass-blocking, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Dietrich-Smith will be looking for a competitive contract—and the Packers should be sure to offer one.

    And Aaron Rodgers has been vocal about wanting consistency in his center, ever since the failure of the Jeff Saturday acquisition led to Dietrich-Smith getting the starting nod.

    Having an experienced center in a high-tempo offense that runs the no-huddle as often as Green Bay does is essential. Players like Garza or Mack could step into that role, but for the same price tag, why not value experience in the system?

    There aren't many positions on the 53-man roster that directly affect the quarterback's play on every single snap, and in that regard, center has become one of the Packers' most gaping holes to fill this offseason. 

    Failing to re-sign Dietrich-Smith after his 2013 season, which saw him prove definitively that he can be the center of the future for this team, would be a huge error for Thompson to make.

Defensive End: Johnny Jolly

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    Even if the Packers are able to re-sign Raji to play nose at half or three-fourths what they were initially planning to pay him, they won't be able to fill one of their other three defensive-line slots with an outside veteran free agent.

    There are some top-notch defensive ends available, including Houston's Antonio Smith and Baltimore's Arthur Jones, but the Packers will look to re-build the line with young, inexpensive talent.

    However, that doesn't necessarily mean they need to go exclusively through the draft.

    While the Packers should be considered likely to go after a defensive lineman in this talent-rich draft, they can also look to keep Jolly on at 5-technique, where he was thriving until a neck injury ended his season prematurely. 

    That's another consideration; it is currently unknown if Jolly will undergo surgery on his neck, and whether he does or not could weigh heavily in the Packers' decision to bring him back or let him walk. However, if he's cleared to return, there's no free agent who would be better-suited to fill the holes at defensive end than Jolly. 

    After a successful season in 2009 in which he led all defensive ends in batted passes, with 10, and posted a sack and a forced fumble, Jolly was off to a strong start in his second-chance 2013 season.

    For the cost (he earned a base salary of $715,000 in 2013), the Packers can't go wrong re-signing Jolly, as long as he's healthy. They can further supplement the line with a rookie like Ra'Shede Hageman out of Minnesota or Stephon Tuitt out of Notre Dame, but signing a higher-priced free-agent defensive end than Jolly won't be an option.