Wednesday, July 27, 2011

2011 Free Agent Shopping Guide for Ted Thompson

Just as a quick refresher, I gave Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson advice on how to approach the off-season back in February. Following my review of the 2011 NFL Draft for the Green Bay Packers, I gave my first look at how the 2011 Green Bay Packers roster would look when the Packers host the New Orleans Saints to open the 2011 NFL season.

All of the aforementioned advice and predictions were made without knowing the details of the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") between the NFL players and owners. I stand by all my advice and predictions but now that we have most of the specifics of the new CBA, its time to take another stab at how the Packers should proceed.

The Packers reportedly signed sixteen undrafted free agents* to add a ton of camp bodies for the strangest training camp in recent memory. The reason I mention the undrafted free agents is that two of the top three cornerbacks for the 2011 Green Bay Packers are former undrafted free agents (Tramon Williams and Sam Shields) so checkout the footnote because there is a chance that at least one of those guys makes a 53-man roster for the 2011 NFL season.

It is the strangest training camp in recent memory because instead of having a free agency period of a few months before the NFL Draft, free agency is going on simultaneously while training camps are opening. As of Tuesday, teams are free to consummate trades. Besides that, teams can cut players but those cuts do not become official until Thursday, July 28th at 3:01 pm CST. Furthermore, teams can negotiate with unrestricted free agents but those guys cannot sign deals till Friday, July 29th at 5:00 pm CST**. Finally, teams must be under the $120 million salary cap for the 2011 NFL season by Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm CST.

At the start of the week the Packers had 11 unrestricted free agents: Atari Bigby (S), Daryn Colledge (G), Mason Crosby (K), Korey Hall (FB), Brandon Jackson (RB), Cullen Jenkins (DE), James Jones (WR), John Kuhn (RB/FB), Anthony Smith (S), Jason Spitz (C/G), and Matt Wilhelm (LB). Before I could even reiterate my advice, Ted Thompson signed Crosby to a five year, $14.75 million deal and told Daryn Colledge they will not resign him. I agree with both moves, although it feels like Crosby is getting a little overpaid. Green Bay is one of the worst places to kick in the NFL once the weather gets cold despite the nice new DD GrassMaster playing field but Crosby's contract still feels a little rich based on past performance and projected future performance.

That means the Packers have to decide what to do with their nine remain unrestricted free agents. Let Bigby, Hall, Jackson, Smith, and Wilhelm leave. After that make competitive short-term offers to Jenkins, Jones, Kuhn, and Spitz. It is more likely that Kuhn and Spitz would sign cheap deals but Jenkins and Jones look poised to break the bank somewhere besides Green Bay. I would actually rather have Jenkins resigned for a few years than Jones signed long-term despite Rodgers' recent comments about wanting to keep Jones and Tauscher in 2011. Either way it looks like most if not all of the unrestricted free agents will leave via free agency.

Let's turn to guys actually under contract with the Green Bay Packers for 2011 for a minute. It looks like the first Packer to get cut is former starting middle linebacker Nick Barnett unless the Packers can trade him, which seems highly unlikely at this point. I am on record as saying despite the expensive deals given to younger middle linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk, the Packers should have kept all three guys despite Barnett's base salaries of roughly $6 million a year in 2011 and 2012. For the record I would have cut Chillar (clears $2.3 million in cap space) instead of Barnett to clear at least some salary cap space. I know only two middle linebackers play at a time in the base 3-4 defense but the Packers only played the base 3-4 defense 33% of the time in 2010. As a result, the Packers could utilize sub packages to get Barnett, Bishop, and Hawk on the field at the same time.

Either way being able to cut a guy like Barnett but still having three potential starting middle linebackers on the roster (Bishop, Chillar, and Hawk) just shows how much quality depth the Packers have at almost every position. Since Daryn Colledge looks to be playing somewhere else in 2011, left guard is the only starting spot that the Packers would need to fill. There are plenty of candidates already on the roster to start at left guard in 2011: Bryan Bulaga (if they put someone else at right tackle), Evan Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang, Nick McDonald, Marshall Newhouse, or Caleb Schlauderaff. Besides left guard, the Packers could use some depth at center, defensive end, and defensive tackle.

Look for other higher paid veterans to follow Barnett out the door in the next few weeks. Prime candidates to get cut unless they opt to renegotiate for much less money are: Brandon Chillar (MLB), Justin Harrell (DE/DT), Brady Poppinga (OLB), and Mark Tauscher (T). After that, the roster is filled with either young guys on cheap rookie contracts (i.e. Bryan Bulaga) or veterans that are worth keeping around even if they are getting paid very well by NFL standards (i.e. Charles Woodson).

Transitioning from inside the organization to outside the organization. I know there is a 1% chance that Ted Thompson will sign any free agents from other teams but here are three big name guys that I wish Thompson would at least attempt to sign:

My biggest off-season crush was Marshal Yanda (OG/OT, 6'3", 315 lbs, 26 years old) because he is the perfect guard/tackle combo that could start at left guard (with Daryn Colledge leaving via free agency), right tackle (if the Packers move Bryan Bulaga to left guard), or act as an expensive floating sixth offensive lineman in 2011 before joining the starting offensive line in 2012 when Chad Clifton either gets cut or retires. Unfortunately recent reports have Yanda re-signing with the Baltimore Ravens for five-years, $32 million. With a ton of young, raw talent along the offensive line already on the roster it would make no sense to commit that much money to Yanda. Sorry for that detour, onto my wish list.

#1) Carl Nicks (G, 6'5", 343 lbs, 26 years old): let me talk out of both sides of my mouth for a second. With how big, fast, and strong defensive tackles are becoming (think B.J. Raji), the value of big guards has dramatically increased in the last five years. Despite having the aforementioned young, raw talent on the offensive line when you have a chance to get a guy like Nicks you do it. Nicks is a restricted free agent so he is virtually unattainable. As a result the New Orleans Saints will do anything humanly possible within the confines of the salary cap to make sure this stud guard is playing for the Saints not the Packers when the 2011 NFL season opens in Titletown.

#2) Brandon Mebane (DT, 6'1", 311 lbs, 26 years old): much like Yanda, I originally wanted the Packers to target defensive tackle Barry Cofield but word on the street is that Cofield already agreed to terms with the Washington Redskins. Since the Redskins always seem to "win" the off-season but that usually never translates into wins on the field, may be I am wrong about Cofield. Either way with Cofield no longer available the Packers could use a guy like Mebane to be another space eater along the defensive line. Adding a starting caliber defensive tackle like Mebane would reduce the work load on current starting defensive tackle B.J. Raji. Furthermore Mebane could team with Raji on passing downs to reduce the workload on Ryan Pickett and Howard Green as well.

#3) Mathias Kiwanuka (DE/OLB, 6'5", 265 lbs, 28 years old): despite coming off a season ending injury, Kiwanuka could be the perfect compliment opposite current starting outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

I would put a .0001% chance that any of the agents of the aforementioned guys even gets a call from the Packers. As a result here are some more lower profile (aka cheaper) guys that Ted Thompson should consider signing:

Samson Satele (C, 6'3", 300 lbs, 26 years old): young, big centers are hard to find. Unfortunately the odds that Satele would sign with the Packers knowing that barring injury he is going to be a back-up are slim.

Kyle Cook (C, 6'3", 316 lbs, 28 years old): the undrafted free agent went from just another guy on the Minnesota Vikings practice squad to a starting NFL center for the Cincinnati Bengals...another great move by the Vikings. The real upside for Cook is that he is a few years younger than current starting center Scott Wells but probably comes with too big of a price tag to add as a back-up to Wells.

John Greco (G, 6'4", 329 lbs, 26 years old): has the frame to be the big, dominate combo guard/center of the future for the Packers. Think of Greco as a younger, healthier version of Jason Spitz.

Daniel Muir (DT, 6'2", 312 lbs, 27 years old): the former Packer could give the Packers some much needed quality depth at defensive tackle.

Alan Branch (DT, 6'6", 338 lbs, 26 years old): has been a disappoint so far in his NFL career but Branch looks like the perfect hybrid DE/DT for the Dom Capers' 3-4 defense.

Marcus Thomas (DT/DE, 6'3", 316 lbs, 25 years old): much like Branch, Thomas has been a bit of a disappointment so far. If the Packers could add a guy like Thomas on the cheap it would be worth bringing him into camp to create a little competition along the defensive line.

Stephen Bowen (DE, 6'5", 306 lbs, 27 years old): last year Bowen played in a 3-4 defense for the Dallas Cowboys so the transition would be smooth. Plus Bowen would be an upgrade over C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn in 2011 but would have a hard time beating out presumptive starter Michael Neal assuming Cullen Jenkins is not resigned.

Manny Lawson (OLB, 6'5", 240 lbs, 27 year old): has been underwhelming since being picked 22nd overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2006 NFL Draft. This is 50% based on playing video games (an absolute athletic freak in Madden) and 50% based on Kevin Greene being the outside linebackers coach for the Packers (if Greene can't get him to be a quality NFL outside linebacker then no one can).

All of the free agent talk is probably useless since Ted Thompson rarely signs free agents. Furthermore, without signing a single unrestricted free agent the Packers already have a ton of guys to choose from:
- 16 undrafted free agents*
- 16 guys coming off injured reserve
- 53 guys that won Super Bowl XLV
- 10 guys the Packers drafted in the 2011 NFL Draft

Truth be told it is actually a good thing that Ted Thompson does not spend a ton of money on free agents because it does not usually result in Super Bowl wins (think Washington Redskins since Daniel Snyder bought the team). Teams that draft well and make occasional free agent splashes are usually the teams that contend for Super Bowl wins (think Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, and Pittsburgh Steelers). Plus when Thompson does flash the cash to swoop up unrestricted free agents (think Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett, and Brandon Chillar just to name a few), it is money well spent.

Thanks for bearing with me for what will ultimately prove to be a mostly academic post that we can look back at in five years to see whether any of the aforementioned players turned out to be studs on other NFL teams. Check back throughout the next few days for more updates on possibly the craziest week in NFL history.

* = Diondre Borel (QB/RBWR, Utah State, 6'0", 199 lbs), Anthony Bratton (S, Delaware, 6'0", 213 lbs), Ray Dominguez (G, Arkansas, 6'4", 337 lbs), Sampson Genus (C, South Florida, 6'0½", 315 lbs), Tori Gurley (WR, South Carolina, 6'4", 215 lbs), Jon Hoese (FB, Minnesota, 6'2", 238 lbs), M.D. Jennings (CB, Arkansas State, 5'11½", 187 lbs), Elijah “Peanut” Joseph (ILB, Temple, 6'1", 243 lbs), Elisah Joseph (DL, Temple, 6'2", 290 lbs), Jamari Lattimore (OLB, Middle Tennessee State, 6'2", 230 lbs), Brandian Ross (CB/S, Youngstown State, 5'11½", 196 lbs), Brandon Saine (RB, Ohio State, 5'11", 220 lbs), Theo Sherman (G'T, James Madison, 6'3", 302 lbs), Antoine “Shaky” Smithson (KR/WR, Utah, 5'11", 202 lbs), Vic So’oto (OLB, Brigham Young, 6'3½", 260 lbs), Kerry Taylor (WR, Arizona State, 6'0", 196 lbs) source.

** = Players who sign contracts must report to their new team but they can not participate in actual physical activities until start of league year on Thursday, August 4th (source).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Steve Stricker's Three-peat at the John Deere Classic

Steve Stricker got off to a hot start on Thursday in his bid for a three-peat at the John Deere Classic shooting a 66 (5-under par) thanks in large part to birding the last two holes, which put Stricker at 51-under for his last nine rounds at the TPC Deere Run.

Stricker, a University of Illinois alumni, played even better on Friday on "Illini Day" posting a 64 (7-under par). That put Sticker at 58-under par for his last 10 rounds (3 eagles, 62 birdies, and 10 bogeys) at the TPC Deere Run. It also meant that Stricker was 12-under par halfway through the 2011 John Deere Classic which put Stricker in a tie for second place with Steve Marino and two strokes behind Chez Reavie with 36 holes to play.

Stricker continued to improve his play on Saturday as he started off his third round with a bang by dropping a 75-foot putt on the first hole. Stricker posted a 63 (8-under par), which put Stricker at 66-under par for his last 11 rounds at the TPC Deere Run. Heading into Sunday, Stricker was 20-under (193 strokes) and lead Brendon de Jonge by two strokes.

Stricker started out with a birdie on the first hole on Sunday followed by three pars so it looked like he was going to cruise to victory until he approached the 5th hole (a Par-4). On the 5th hole Stricker dumped his approach shot in the green side bunker where he drew a horrible lie. It took Stricker two shots to get out of the bunker (not the only time it would happen to Stricker during his final round) and he missed the bogey putt to card a double bogey.

Stricker rebounded with three birdies capped with a 50-foot bomb for birdie on the 9th hole to go 22-under par and make the turn with a five stroke lead over Kyle Stanley. Stricker looked like he was going to coast to an easy victory till Stanley's putter got hot on the back nine (on the 13th hole he nailed a 26-foot birdie putt, on the 14th hole he nailed an 18-footer birdie putt, and on the 15th hole he nailed a 36-foot birdie putt). Stanley carded five birdies on his first six holes of the back nine to take the lead.

Stricker carded consecutive bogeys on the 15th and 16th holes to put him two strokes behind Stanley with two holes to play. Stricker won the PGA Tour comeback player of the year award twice so he does not give up no matter how dire the situation looks but down two strokes with two holes to play seemed to put the three-peat out of reach. Stricker rebounded on the 17th hole carding a birdie to put him one stroke behind Stanley with one hole to go. Stanley bogeyed the 18th hole to post a round of 64 on Sunday and finish with a four-day total of 263 strokes.

That left Stricker tied with Stanley so a par on the 18th hole by Stricker would send the tournament into extra holes. Unfortunately Stricker pulled his drive into the fairway bunker on the left side of the fairway on the 18th hole. Stricker could have played conservative but he decided to go for broke despite having an awkward stance in the fairway bunker with one foot in the bunker and one foot out of the bunker as well as water lining the left side of the green. Long story short Stricker needed to hit a perfect shot from an awkward stance out of a bunker and over water to even stay alive in the tournament.

Stricker hit what can only be described as a miraculous shot over the water and through the green to set up a 25-foot putt to win the 2011 John Deere Classic. I would guess that 99 times out of 100 a player chooses the conservative route and two putts to send the tournament to extra holes. Stricker is arguably the best putter on the PGA Tour so all he was thinking about was making the putt. True to form Stricker canned the putt in dramatic fashion to three-peat at the John Deere Classic. PGA Tour analyst David Feherty summed it up the best when he said "that is the most spectacular up and down I have ever seen" as he interviewed Stricker on the 18th green.

Stricker finished at 22-under, four strokes worse than his 2010 victory but two strokes better than his 2009 victory. Stricker joined an exclusive list of three-peat winners at the same PGA Tour event since 1940*. Thanks to winning the Memorial earlier this year, Stricker's victory at the 2011 John Deere Classic put him in a very select group of golfers that won multiple PGA Tour events for three years in a row**. What is even more impressive is that Stricker is becoming the cougar of the PGA Tour because 8 of his 11 PGA Tour wins*** came after he turned 40 years old.

As you can tell by now Steve Stricker is my favorite golfer despite the fact that Stricker is a Chicago Bears fan. Not only is he the best current Cheesehead golfer but he is possibly the nicest guy on the PGA Tour. Stricker can not only pull off amazing shots but watch him fist bump the crowd on the way to one of the biggest putts of his career.

Two Cheesehead were in the the top 6 of the FedEx Cup standing before the start of the 2011 British Open with Steve Stricker in 2nd place and Mark Wilson in 6th place. Enjoy the final round of the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George's Golf Club. Unfortunately barring a miracle, Stricker will not win his first Major and hoist the Claret Jug.

* = Tiger Woods (6), Arnold Palmer (2), Ben Hogan (1), Gene Littler (1), Billy Casper (1), Jack Nicklaus (1), Johnny Miller (1), Tom Watson (1), and Stuart Appleby (1).

** = Steve Stricker (2009-11), Phil Mickelson (1996-98, 2000-02, and 2004-09), Tiger Woods (1999-03 and 2005-09), Vijay Singh (2002-05), Ernie Els (2002-04), David Duval (1997-99), Mark O'Mera (1995-98), and Nick Price (1991-94).

*** = Stricker won twice in 1996 and won a WGC golf event in 2001 before he went on a long drought. After turning 40, Vijay Singh won 22 tournaments and Sam Snead won 17.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The K-Rod Trade

It is obvious that K-Rod has put together quite impressive numbers throughout his career*. If K-Rod was acquired to be the primary set-up guy to closer John Axford, I am 100% behind the trade. With Kameron Loe sputtering as the primary set-up guy to closer John Axford, the Brewers needed a better 8th inning option. Unfortunately based on Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin's comments, it looks like the Brewers are going to have dual-closers following the K-Rod trade.

If the Brewers do in fact go with dual-closers I don't like the K-Rod deal for two non-statistical reasons. First, it messes up the pecking order in the bullpen. Second, even though it is not my money, the Brewers took on a big chunk of payroll in the K-Rod trade (reportedly $5 million) so they will probably not be able to take on more money via trade if they want to upgrade the left side of their infield for a playoff run. Let's delve into each of my issues with a deal in more detail:

First, the "closer by committee" strategy never seems to work. For better or worse baseball players are like little children, they need to be fed three time a day and need to live a very structured life. That is even more pronounced in the bullpen because the entire staff is built from the end of the game forward. Until the K-Rod trade everyone in the bullpen knew that John Axford was the closer but now the Brewers have two guys that might end the game. The bullpen seemed like a tight group from an outsiders perspective despite the fact that they struggled through injuries (Hawkins and Saito) and ineffectiveness (Braddock and Loe).

K-Rod's presence as the dual-closer will stunt the growth of the deserving closer John Axford. One way to remedy this situation is to use K-Rod as the primary set-up man and the second option at closer. Most managers bring in their closer in the top of the 9th if the game is tied when they are at home. In those specific spots I would pitch K-Rod as well as all the other standard 8th inning set-up spots. Besides those specific situations just mentioned, I would allow John Axford to stay in the traditional closer role since he has thrived** in that spot since assuming that role once Trevor Hoffman lost his mojo in 2010. Sometimes closers only work in short spurts (Danny Kolb, Solomon Torres, and Derrick Turnbow) but Axford has been very good in his sophomore campaign as closer in 2011*** so I am completely opposed to going closer by committee.

Second, the Brewers will not be able to add any more money to their payroll after adding K-Rod. That means the Brewers are stuck with Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee making up the left side of the infield for the stretch run. The Brewers only have spot starters on the bench in the big leagues (Craig Counsell and Josh Wilson) and no real viable options in the minors (Erick Almonte, Mat Gamel, Andy Gonzalez, Taylor Green, and Edwin Maysonet). That means the Brewers would have to look outside the organization to improve at shortstop or third base. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio has added money in the past (i.e. C.C. Sabathia) and it looks like K-Rod is the big moved as opposed to adding the more coveted New York Met...shortstop Jose Reyes.

Quick side note. I saw Gallardo and Greinke pitch in person a few weeks back at Wrigley Field. It just so happened that general manager Doug Melvin and assistant general manager Gord Ash sat in a box above my seats. Following Greinke's start (a loss where Greinke looked absolutely lost on the mound), Melvin (left) and Ash (right) were leaving Wrigley Field as you can see in the picture when a Brewer fan behind me yelled "come on Doug (Melvin) trade for Jose Reyes (shortstop for the New York Mets)". Melvin did a double-take, which actually got me excited. There is a .001% chance that the Brewers go after Reyes now, especially following the Greinke, Marcum, and K-Rod trades. Trading for Reyes at this point would leave me as the top prospect in the Brewers' farm system.

All of the above analysis did not even take into account that K-Rod was involved in a physical altercation in the locker room last year or the fact that he recently hired Scott Boras as his agent. Don't get me wrong, K-Rod deserves to be a closer somewhere in baseball based on his performance in 2011**** just not Milwaukee. I understand teams want to stock pile quality arms but I don't get why Melvin would add an established closer with issues (K-Rod) when you have a young closer with no issues (Axford) to work as dual-closers. Even if the Brewers don't have to give the Mets very good prospects for K-Rod, the trade still doesn't seem worth it unless K-Rod is the set-up man who gets an occasional spot save opportunity when Axford is overworked.

* = 32-27 record, 773 strikeouts in 619 2/3 innings (good for 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings), 2.54 ERA and 291 career saves (129 more than Mariano Rivera at the same age) in 573 relief appearances.

** = Converted roughly 90% of his save opportunities (47 of 52).

*** = In 42 appearances Axford has a 2-2 record, 23 saves and a 2.83 ERA thanks to allowing only 17 walks and 39 hits while striking out 53 batters over 41 1/3 innings.

**** = Converted 23 of 26 save opportunities, 3.16 ERA, and 1.41 WHIP.