The Green Bay Packers' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
When it come to free agency, general manager Ted Thompson of the Green Bay Packers rarely uses it in its pure form, which is signing fairly well-known players who are free to play for any NFL team. Instead, he prefers to sign street free agents or rookie free agents.
But things might be different in 2014.
For one thing, Ian Rapoport recently reported that the Packers could be big spenders in free agency this year and perhaps sign as many as five players.
That would be a shock to Packers fans, as Thompson hasn't come close to doing anything like that since 2006, when he signed five free agents, including defensive back Charles Woodson and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett.
But if there ever was a year to perhaps make a splash in free agency, this is the year.
According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Packers are almost $35 million under the salary-cap limit of $133 million that is set for the new year starting March 11 by the NFL.
The Packers have 19 players (17 unrestricted and two restricted) who could be free agents starting March 11.
They are normally a draft-and-develop team under Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy, but this year, free agency might help bolster the roster along with the new draft selections.
Get Safety Jairus Byrd
If any position on the Packers in 2013 clearly lacked production, it was the safety position. Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings missed way too many tackles and assignments.
Neither player had an interception last season, nor did any of the backups, and that was the first time that has happened for the Packers since the early 1950s.
That is why the news from Sunday should get the Packers excited. Joe Buscaglia from WGR 550 in Buffalo reported that the Buffalo Bills were not expected to sign or franchise safety Jairus Byrd before free agency begins on March 11.
Landry expected Byrd to be back with the Bills, but now it appears that he will be given the option to look elsewhere for work in the NFL when free agency begins.
Looking at his five-year career in the NFL, it is obvious he is an elite safety. In his time with the Bills, he had 22 interceptions for 409 yards and two touchdowns, plus 11 forced fumbles.
His former defensive coordinator in Buffalo, Mike Pettine, is now the head coach in Cleveland, so it seems logical that Byrd could end up with the Browns. But does Byrd want to be part of another rebuilding process in Cleveland like he has experienced in his years in Buffalo?
That should give Super Bowl-contending teams like the Packers an advantage. The Packers should schedule a visit with Byrd as soon as it is possible after free agency starts. They should try and get a deal done with the playmaking safety before the contract process gets inflated by offers from other NFL teams.
In 2006, Ted Thompson's second year in charge of the front office and Mike McCarthy's first as the head coach, the Packers signed five free agents.
Included in that haul were wide receiver Marc Boerigter, safety Marquand Manuel, linebacker Ben Taylor, defensive lineman Ryan Pickett and defensive back Charles Woodson.
While Boerigter, Manuel and Taylor did not last long in Green Bay (two years combined between them), Pickett and Woodson did last quite awhile in Titletown and helped the Packers win Super Bowl XLV.
Pickett is still with the team, although coincidentally he will be a free agent starting March 11. But in his eight years with the Packers, he has been solid as a run-stuffer along the defensive line. He also made a huge play in Super Bowl XLV, when he, along with Clay Matthews, forced a key fumble from Rashard Mendenhall of the Pittsburgh Steelers at the start of the fourth quarter.
Woodson had the best years of his NFL career in Green Bay, where he spent seven seasons. In his time with the Packers, No. 21 went to four Pro Bowls and in 2009 was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. He also had 38 picks (nine returned for touchdowns), 11.5 sacks, 15 forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown).
The Packers need to look back on 2006 and see what a big impact free agency made for the team, as they brought back another Vince Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay four years later.
Be Wise in Re-Signing Players
As I mentioned earlier, the Packers have 19 free agents, with 17 unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents. And even though the team has a fairly large surplus of cap room, it must be careful about whom it re-signs to new contracts.
Some of the potential free agents include cornerback Sam Shields, defensive linemen B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight ends Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless, wide receiver James Jones, outside linebacker Mike Neal, fullback John Kuhn, running back James Starks and quarterback Matt Flynn.
The Packers have a number of important decisions to make. Safety Chris Banjo recently signed an exclusive rights tender offer, so that is one less player to worry about.
Earlier in 2013, the Packers had an $8 million per-year offer on the table to Raji, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but that offer has since been removed, according to Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin.
Just a couple of days ago, ESPN's Adam Schefter announced that a deal would not be struck with Shields either before free agency begins.
Plus, McGinn also recently reported that the Packers might be willing to let Jones walk away once free agency begins.
So what does this all mean? The Packers should not overpay to keep anyone. They were wise in removing the contract offer to Raji. The team still might re-sign him, but it would be at a much easier contract to digest than the original offer.
The same holds true for Shields. His agent is Drew Rosenhaus, who has had a dubious history in negotiating with the Packers. Another former client, cornerback Mike McKenzie, also had a contract issue with the team in 2004 and later was traded.
It would seem that the Packers must carefully gauge the value of all of their free agents. There are big decisions to make. Green Bay should try to re-sign the players who will continue to positively impact the team for the next few years.
But that should also be done at a fair price for both sides.
Some of Green Bay's Free Agents Aren't Worth Keeping
When I look at the list of potential free agents for the Packers, I see a few names that they should not even consider re-signing.
Those players include restricted free agent safety M.D. Jennings, and two unrestricted free agents: offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse and quarterback Seneca Wallace.
Jennings just doesn't make big plays, although he did return a fumble for a touchdown in 2013. But he also missed a number of tackles, blew a number of coverage assignments, didn't have an interception and was always a second or too late in coverage.
He did not have even one pass defended last season. Not one.
The Packers have seen the play of Newhouse get progressively worse the past three seasons. He started 29 games in 2011-12 but was beaten out by rookie David Bakhtiari at left tackle and by Don Barclay at right tackle last season.
The reason for his demotion was the trouble he had in pass blocking at times, not to mention his soft run-blocking ability, which was apparent even when he was a starter.
When he got an opportunity to play in 2013 due to injuries, his play was once again below average.
The Packers signed Wallace just before the regular season to be the backup to quarterback Aaron Rodgers. After Rodgers fractured his clavicle in Week 9 versus the Bears, Wallace came in, but he got injured (groin) just a week later and was put on injured reserve.
With quarterback Scott Tolzien coming back in 2014 and possibly free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn as well, there is no need to bring back Wallace. The team might also draft a quarterback this year.
Look to the Future
As the Packers deal with free agency in 2014, they must also look ahead to 2015, when two of their biggest stars will also be potential free agents.
The Packers must make sure that they will have ample room in the salary cap to re-sign both of them, preferably well before they become free agents.
In 2013, Nelson may have had the best year of his six-year career in Green Bay, as he had 85 catches for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns. No. 87 had a number of terrific receptions, plus he also played almost half the year without quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing him the football.
Overall in his career, Nelson has 302 receptions for 4,590 yards and 36 touchdowns. He has also produced in the postseason as well, with 40 catches for 495 yards and four touchdowns.
Cobb was expected to have a huge year in 2013, after his breakout year in 2012, when he had 80 receptions for 954 yards and eight touchdowns.
But he broke his leg in Week 6 against the Baltimore Ravens and didn't come back until Week 17 versus the Bears.
And what a return it was. He ended up with just two receptions, but they both were for touchdowns, including a game-winning 48-yard touchdown catch from Rodgers with just 38 seconds left in the game on a 4th-and-8 play.
For the 2013 season and in just six games, Cobb had 31 catches for 433 yards and four touchdowns. That projects as approximately 83 receptions for 1,155 yards and 11 touchdowns for the full season.
Production like that is reason enough why the Packers need to re-sign Nelson and Cobb to contract extensions in the near future.