Green Bay Packers: Ranking Remaining Offseason Priorities
Packers general manager Ted Thompson accomplished many of Green Bay's most pressing offseason needs between March and May.
Such moves included re-signing B.J. Raji to a one-year prove-it deal and moving him back to nose tackle after the Packers elected not to re-sign Ryan Pickett, fortifying the bench behind Aaron Rodgers by re-signing Matt Flynn to back him up and drafting a starting-caliber free safety in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
However, the Packers still have a handful of less pressing but nevertheless important needs that Thompson should attempt to address now rather than mid-season or next offseason. Some of those moves are purely front-office decisions such as contract extensions, but others will come down to positional battles in training camp, such as the one for the starting center spot.
Ranked in ascending order, the most important of the following remaining offseason priorities revolve around locking down essential players' futures in Green Bay, with other concerns including solidifying the depth chart.
Restructure Tramon Williams' Contract
Tramon Williams is entering a contract year, but although the Packers had multiple opportunities to pick up a starting-caliber perimeter cornerback in the 2014 draft, they walked away with a sixth-round nickel corner in Demetri Goodson.
If the Packers plan to keep Williams after the 2014 season, which their draft strategy would seem to indicate, it's better to restructure his contract now rather than try to re-sign him as a free agent next offseason.
ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky noted back in February that the Packers might look to restructure Williams' deal this offseason, and since it hasn't happened yet it's low on the priority list.
Still, Williams is set to count a huge $9.5 million against the cap in 2014, broken down into a base salary of $6.9 million, a prorated bonus of $2 million, a roster bonus of $300,000 and a workout bonus of $300,000, per OvertheCap.com.
Sam Shields' new four-year, $39 million deal is structured so that the Packers sustain minimal cap hits this season and next season. Shields will only count $5.562 million against the cap in 2014, per Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette—almost half of Williams' hit.
The Packers could present a contract restructure to Williams in a way that keeps him happy by offering him a large signing bonus up front but amortizing it over the life of the deal and back-loading the cap hit.
Assess Current Tight End Situation
Despite drafting Cal tight end Richard Rodgers in the third round and possessing a deep pool at the position overall, it doesn't feel like the Packers currently have a Jermichael Finley replacement on the roster.
The door hasn't closed for Finley to return, and a continued priority for the Packers this offseason will be monitoring the status of his recovery. "In my mind, he's a Green Bay Packer, hopefully," Mike McCarthy said on May 14, per NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal.
But he'll have to pass their physical first, and for every Sean Richardson, whom the Packers cleared after he suffered a neck injury, there's a Nick Collins, who is currently out of the league.
If Finley isn't wearing green and gold in August, the Packers will have some decisions to make regarding who will start at the position, even if they decide to rotate players to take advantage of one's blocking skills and another's hands.
Of Richard Rodgers, Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor and Jake Stoneburner, there is not a player who is as skilled as Finley in both areas.
Quarless is probably the most complete in terms of a tight end who can block and catch effectively enough, and his snaps will reflect that, but Bostick may be Green Bay's big-play option in Finley's absence. Bostick's play is more than a little reminiscent of Finley's, and he could become a much-needed red-zone threat for Aaron Rodgers.
Taylor and Stoneburner are better blockers than pass-catchers, while Rodgers wasn't asked to block much for the Golden Bears, as their scheme didn't use him as a true tight end as much as an inside receiver.
But despite his high draft selection, Rodgers is certainly not a shoo-in for the starting job. His speed is rather pedestrian, as evidenced by his 4.87-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and he's not yet a complete enough tight end to be on the field on every drive.
The Packers could also still sign Colt Lyerla, whom they tried out in rookie orientation last Friday. He would be the most talented blocker and receiver among Green Bay's tight ends, but his behavioral and character issues could prevent him from ever reaching Finley's level.
Few of the Packers' positional groups are currently as uncertain as tight end, but training camp should help make the depth chart a little clearer.
Determine a Starting Center
Ohio State center Corey Linsley, whom Green Bay drafted in the fifth round, will compete in training camp with J.C. Tretter for the starting center job, vacated when Evan Dietrich-Smith departed in free agency.
Linsley and Tretter will need to prove they each possess the intelligence and strength so needed for the center position—in Green Bay especially, where Rodgers audibles frequently and the offense runs the no-huddle often.
The 6'3", 296-pound Linsley brings a good deal of physicality to the position—which will prove even more important now that Green Bay's offense will lean heavily on the run. He benched 36 reps at the combine and was a leader in that category.
Linsley also made all the line calls for the Buckeyes in 2013. Packers offensive line coach James Campen said "he's a visual and verbal guy that makes sure that everyone is in place and where they're supposed to go," per Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Tretter is more familiar with Green Bay's playbook, but center was Linsley's main position at Ohio State, while Tretter played tackle at Cornell. But Tretter has longer arms (33.375" compared to Linsley's 32), and his lighter feet could help him get the edge over his rookie competitor.
Extend Randall Cobb's Contract
Losing James Jones in free agency this offseason and seeing Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb both heading into contract years certainly factored into Ted Thompson's decision to select three wide receivers in the draft.
Thompson's decision to let Jones walk suggests that he'll extend Nelson and/or Cobb's contracts this offseason, for which he would need a considerable portion of Green Bay's remaining cap space—an estimated $15 million with the new rookie contracts factored in, per OvertheCap.com.
Jarrett Boykin has emerged as a promising No. 3 for Green Bay, and rookies Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis all have strong chances to make the 53-man roster. But Cobb and Nelson are essential weapons for Aaron Rodgers and to the Packers receiving corps as a whole.
Even if the Packers structure new contracts for Nelson and Cobb in such a way as to take advantage of the league salary cap rising by another $10 million in 2015 and in each season beyond, those two contracts could take the majority of the Packers' remaining cap space.
A new deal for Cobb may not be as expensive as one for Nelson, but it's as important. Recent precedence for receivers who play primarily out of the slot, most notably for Victor Cruz, could hurt Cobb. Last July, Cruz agreed to a five-year, $43 million extension with the New York Giants—well below what outside receivers (like Mike Wallace) got in that same offseason.
Still, Cobb's role in Green Bay's receiving corps extends beyond the slot, even if he sees more of his snaps there. At only 23 years old, Cobb is a player around whom the Packers can build their offense for years to come, and though he may have let weapons like Greg Jennings and Jones walk in free agency, Thompson will prioritize a young playmaker like Cobb.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the Packers offer Cobb a four- or five-year extension worth between $30 and $40 million overall.
Extend Jordy Nelson's Contract
Jordy Nelson already took less than what he deserved in order to stay with the Packers once before, so his agent likely won't let him do it again.
Extending Nelson's contract has reportedly been a priority for Green Bay since February, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, but the absence of a deal so far suggests either that talks have not yet begun or that the sides are still far apart on the terms.
Nelson agreed to an extension worth $13.35 million over three years in 2011, under which he has made about $4.8 million a year. He finished the 2013 season ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 2 wide receiver in the league due to his high catch percentage, low penalty rate and high number of touchdowns per reception (subscription required).
The Packers might want to convert a portion of Nelson's $3.050 million 2014 base salary into a signing bonus and prorate it over the life of a potential new deal—one which will probably be lucrative for Nelson, whose big payday is well overdue.
Green Bay can minimize the impact of a new deal for Nelson by building the majority of the cap hit into the final years.
Aaron Rodgers' favorite target, Nelson continues to fly under the radar in discussions of the best outside receivers in the league, but make no mistake: He's one of them. The Packers have been lucky to pay him at a discounted rate for as long as they have.
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