5 Hidden Gems the Green Bay Packers Should Target in Free Agency
There are plenty of potential big-name free agents who could hit the open market by March 8 that the Green Bay Packers might be interested in. For example, safeties Jairus Byrd and Donte Whitner and defensive end Antonio Smith. But with 19 of their own free agents to re-sign, general manager Ted Thompson may dig a little deeper into free agency for less expensive key talent.
Sure, with $34.7 million in cap space, per calculations by Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it's possible the Packers go after a splashy veteran who could contribute in Week 1.
But there are a few players at Green Bay's positions of need (namely, defensive line, linebacker and safety) who won't require upwards of $6 million a year and could still be highly valuable additions to the team.
The following players certainly aren't unknowns, but they're also not the one or two marquee potential free agents in their position groups. Acquiring a couple veterans before May would allow the Packers more flexibility in the draft. They would be free to go after the best player on the board in the early rounds and would have fewer positions filled by young, developing players.
Salary information courtesy of overthecap.com.
Brandon Spikes: LB, New England Patriots
If the Packers realistically think linebacker C.J. Mosley could fall to them at No. 21 in the draft, they might not be interested in acquiring a veteran.
But there's no denying that Spikes is a proven run-stuffer who would go a long way toward fortifying the inside for Green Bay.
Even with starting inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones set to return next year for Green Bay, it was obvious the middle needed some help in 2013. Hawk had statistically one of his best seasons last year, but both 'backers struggled with speed. And Jones hasn't proven that he deserves the starting nod.
Spikes didn't require knee surgery this offseason, and the New England Patriots haven't even opened up talks with him to discuss a return, per the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe. As for the rumor that Spikes was placed on injured reserve due to poor attendance, nothing concrete has emerged that should highly concern interested teams.
It also helps that Spikes only made $837,500 in 2013, which is less than the 10 highest-paid free-agent inside linebackers.
Spikes could have an instant impact and help improve a run defense that began 2013 as an elite unit.
Garrett Graham: TE, Houston Texans
The two most prominent tight ends who were set to become free agents on March 8, Dennis Pitta and Jimmy Graham, have been retained by their respective teams. Now, the biggest name potentially available tight end is the Packers' own Jermichael Finley, who will also be the most expensive.
Would the Packers consider draft prospect Eric Ebron if he were to fall to them in the first round? In his latest mock draft Tuesday, CBS NFL Insider Pat Kirwan seems to think so.
With countless defensive needs and a host of pro-ready players to be taken in the first there, it seems unlikely that Green Bay would prioritize tight end so highly. Still, if Finley walks, the Packers will continue to struggle in red-zone efficiency like they did in 2013 unless they acquire another tight end with the same vertical skills and scoring potential.
But rather than find one in the draft, they could look to Garrett Graham, an under-the-radar potential free agent with huge upside.
NFL.com's Ian Rapoport first connected the Packers to Graham Tuesday morning, and indeed, if the Houston Texans aren't able to reach a deal with him, it's hard to imagine Thompson's interest wouldn't be piqued. Graham has experience lining up at multiple positions, which every ball-catcher in Green Bay's system is expected to do.
And despite being the No. 2 tight end in Houston, he had 545 yards and five touchdowns in 2013.
Linval Joseph: DT, New York Giants
By targeting the New York Giants' Linval Joseph—who made just over $1 million in 2013 and had an impressive contract year, posting 33 tackles, three sacks, six stuffs and a forced fumble—the Packers could kill two birds with one stone.
B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett are the team's two in-house options for the nose tackle spot, but neither will come for less than $6 million next season, and Green Bay could put itself in a great situation financially by letting both walk.
Joseph is a two-gapper who can collapse the pocket and could anchor Green Bay's front for a much smaller price tag than Raji or Pickett, who was once himself a free-agent acquisition. But now, at 34, he would be the oldest returning player on the team.
Chris Clemons: FS, Miami Dolphins
He's not the turnover machine you might expect from a free safety, but putting the Miami Dolphins' Chris Clemons opposite Morgan Burnett could increase the entire secondary's production. Moreover, the lines between the two positions have become so blurred, especially in Green Bay, that adding in Clemons could allow the Packers some flexibility in the safety group.
Don't underestimate how effective Burnett has been when he's been asked to play at free safety. He's not the most efficient tackler for a strong safety, having missed 11, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and the packers might find that his productivity increases if he's allowed to play farther back.
Per ESPN Wisconsin's Jason Wilde, Packers safeties coach Darren Perry has said that the team's two safeties "must be interchangeable," as demonstrated at the end of the 2013 season when Green Bay put Sean Richardson down near the box and Morgan Burnett played up high.
According to Wilde, Perry said he'd "like to see Burnett freed up to play more in the back end," which means the Packers could focus on adding a safety to complement him regardless of designation.
Chris Clemons isn't a ball hawk, but he's a hard-hitting safety who, if brought down to play in the box, could free Burnett up to make more big plays. However, Clemons is also a great cover safety who can protect against the deep ball, which would give the position group the versatility Perry wants.
Clemons also made less than $3 million in 2013, making him a less expensive option than bigger names like Whitner and Byrd, or even T.J. Ward, who could command a large pay increase next season.
If the Packers wanted to pursue Clemons in free agency and let M.D. Jennings walk, they would find the safety group instantly improved.
Tyson Jackson: DE, Kansas City Chiefs
Even a year ago, to suggest that the normally limited free-agency participant Packers should target the then-disappointing Tyson Jackson would have been ridiculous on both levels.
Now, however, the Packers find themselves with money to spend on veteran players, and Jackson just came off a career year, posting 25 tackles, four sacks and three passes defended.
Moreover, even though Jackson made $4.7 million in 2013—less than both Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji but more than bigger-name free-agent defensive ends Arthur Jones or Brett Keisel—the fact that Jackson had a few underwhelming seasons may help the Packers get him at an affordable cost. The Super Bowl-champion Jones may command more per year in 2014.
If the Packers lose both Raji and Pickett—and possibly Johnny Jolly or C.J. Wilson on top of that—they'll need to rebuild the entire defensive line. If Linval Joseph is a fantastic option to plug in at nose tackle, Jackson is well-versed as a defensive end in a 3-4 system. He was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) No. 10 defensive end overall against the run, and the Packers definitely need a stout line.
Even though, at 6'4 and 296 pounds, Jackson fills less space than wide bodies like Pickett or Raji, he's built in the same way as Datone Jones. That could be a plus for Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy; although at the combine, McCarthy denied that the team is looking to get smaller up front, it certainly wants to get faster and more athletic. Jackson fits that mold.