Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Building The 53 - Initial Advice for Ted Thompson

The Green Bay Packers usually have at least a 20% turnover of their 53-man roster from one season to the next so that means general manager Ted Thompson will have some tough decisions to make over the next month.  Just like I've done the last two off-seasons (2011 and 2012), here is my friendly advice for how to deal with the players on the current roster at the end of the 2012 season:

#1) Approach Jeff Saturday about retiring.  After a lackluster season with the Packers that ended with him being voted the starting center on the NFC Pro Bowl team despite not starting for his own team, Saturday played his last snap as a Packer.  Just to frame the decision, Saturday signed a two-year, $7.75 million contract before the 2012 season and made roughly $4 million in 2012.  If Saturday retires, the Packers save $3.8 million in cap room ($1.35 million base salary, $2.4 million roster bonus, and $50,000 potential pro bowl bonus) in 2013 and only have to count $825,000 of his pro-rated signing bonus on the 2013 salary cap instead of only saving $2.2 million when the Packers inevitably cut Saturday if he doesn't retire.

#2) Extend tenders to all restricted free agents.  There are some restricted free agents the Packers should value more than others but absent injury, all deserve a chance to earn a roster spot in 2013 so I would tender Tom Crabtree (TE), Evan Dietrich-Smith (C), Robert Francois (LB), Sam Shields (CB), and Frank Zombo (OLB).  According to Albert Breer of the NFL Network the restricted free agent tender amounts for 2013 are $2.879 Million (1st Round compensation), $2.023 Million (2nd Round compensation), and $1.323 million (original draft round). All the restricted free agents are undrafted free agents, which makes the lowest tender risky since the Packers could lose all of them without any immediate draft pick compensation but could get compensatory draft picks the following year.  I would give Shields the highest tender of $2.879 million and give Crabtree, Dietrich-Smith, Francois, and Zombo the second round tender of $2.023 million.

#3) Approach A.J. Hawk, John Kuhn, and Charles Woodson about taking a pay cut.  If all three are not interested in taking a substantial pay cut then things get interesting.  If the Packers cut Hawk after June 1st, they save $5.5 million of cap space in 2013 but that puts $3.2 million of dead money on the 2014 salary cap.  That is not usually the Packer way but delaying the hit till 2014 makes sense if Hawk will not take a paycut.  If the Packers cut Kuhn, they get almost $2.5 million in salary cap space in 2013 and the only cap charge they would take is $250,000 for the amortization of his signing bonus.  If Woodson won't take a pay cut, keep him on the roster for at least 2013 because I am convinced 2012 was an aberration as opposed to the start of his decline.  Even though Woodson will be 36 at the start of next season, he is the perfect hybrid cornerback/safety to roam the field looking for turnovers.  Don't believe me?  Aaron Rodgers agrees with me and let's not forget the last time Rodgers spoke up about a personnel decision it was for the Packers to re-sign James Jones after the 2010 season so Rodgers is both selective in speaking up and usually correct.  Plus we need to see Woodson doing Woodson things for the Packers for at least one more season.

#4) Franchise tag on Greg Jennings.  This presumes that Hawk, Kuhn, and Woodson take a pay cut while Saturday retires.  If all of those things don't happen, the Packers would not have the temporary salary cap space to franchise and trade Jennings.  The recent chatter is that Jennings will not get anywhere close to the five-year, $55,555,555 contract with $26 million guaranteed but I still see at least one wide receiver starved NFL team offering their first round pick (or second round pick at worst) in exchange for Jennings.  That or look for the Dolphins and Packers to franchise tag and trade Jake Long (LT) for Jennings straight up.  Despite Long struggling in the zone blocking scheme under former Packers coaches Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman last season that ended with him going on injured reserve, he is still one of the best left tackles in the NFL.  Don Barclay, Bryan Bulaga, Marshall Newhouse, and Derek Sherrod are all fine NFL offensive tackles but can't hold Long's jock. The Dolphins need a wide receiver and the offensive coaches in Miami worked extensively with Jennings.  This trade makes too much sense so the chances of it happening are slim but it seems like the perfect win-win deal for both teams where they can control the contract negotiation process with their now asset instead of bidding against a number of other suitors in free agency.  Even if the Long for Jennings trade is a pipe dream, losing Jennings for merely a late round compensatory draft pick like they did with Aaron Kampman and Cullen Jenkins is foolish.

#5) Sign Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji to contracts extension before the start of the 2013 season.  There is a ton of future salary cap uncertainty hanging over the Packers since Matthews and Raji are set to become free agents after the 2013 season.  Athletes First currently represents five Packers: three high profile (Matthews, Raji, and Rodgers) and two backups (Graham Harrell and Ryan Taylor).  Although Athletes First wants to maximize every dollar for their clients, they need to make sure there is enough money to go around for their three high profile clients because one way or another, all three will be wearing the green and gold well beyond 2013.  The question is how much will that cost the Packers?  Rodgers will make the most followed by Matthews and Raji.

#6) Let some, not all, unrestricted free agents leave.  The Packers should let Donald Driver, Ryan Grant, and Brad Jones leave via free agency.  The decision on Grant is the easiest since he was the 6th or 7th best running back on the roster in 2012.  The decision to let Jones leave via free agency is partially due to the glut of capable middle linebackers (Bishop, Smith, Hawk, Manning, and Lattimore) already on the roster combined with how horrible Jones looked in coverage down the stretch after a promising start.  That brings us to DD, who is currently my second favorite Packer of all-time, wedged right between Favre (#1) and Rodgers (#3).  It is sad how 2012 played out in the field for DD but that does not diminish the legacy of one of the all-time great stories in Packers and possibly NFL history.

#7) Don't extend Aaron Rodgers yet.  There is all this talk that the Packers need to extend Rodgers sooner rather than later but I disagree.  Let's not forget that the Packers signed Rodgers to a six-year, $65 million contract with $20 million guaranteed after only a few professional starts in 2008.  Rodgers knows the Packers are committed to him but if they give Rodgers too much money they will not be able to pay the protectors (offensive lineman), weapons (skill position players on offense), and defensive cogs (Matthews, Raji, et al.) to keep the team competitive.  Look for the Packers to wait till after the 2013 season unless Rodgers will sign a "club friendly" contract because absent a career ending injury, Rodgers will sign at least one more mega contract with the Packers no matter what.  The Packers might as well sign a mega deal that they don't have to keep re-negotiating like they did with Favre to create new cap room every off-season.

#8) Negotiate a long-term extension with Jermichael Finley (TE) that lowers his 2013 cap charge
.  Finley signed a two-year, $14 million contact before the 2012 season.  As a part of that deal, Finley is due a $3.5 million roster bonus on the 15th day of the 2013 league year.  If Finley's agent is unwilling to discuss an extension, at least get Finley to push back his roster bonus a few months while both sides discuss a long-term deal.  Let's not forget that in the middle of December it looked like Finley was going to be a salary cap casualty thanks to the aforementioned roster bonus and an $8.75 million cap hit for 2013.  After a strong finish to the season, Finley has to be in the team's long-term plans.  Much like Matthews, Raji, and Rodgers...the question is how much will Finely cost?  The New England Patriots set the market for Finley because he probably deserves to be paid more than Aaron Hernandez (seven-year, $41 million contract with $16.4 million guaranteed) but less than Rob Gronkowski (eight-year, $55 million contract with $14 million guaranteed).  A six-year, $45 million deal with $20 million guaranteed seems fair for a guy that I predict will end up going to the NFL Hall of Fame.

#9) Play the "wait and see" approach with Cedric Benson and Erik Walden.  Both Benson and Walden are set to become unrestricted free agents.  Let both test the free agent market to see if they can get something more that a one-year deal for the veteran minimum.  If so, thank them for their services and let them leave.  If not, offer them both a one-year contract for the veteran minimum after the draft.

#10) Draft a place kicker in the 6th or 7th round of the 2013 NFL Draft and cut Mason Crosby after June 1st
. Place kicker accuracy is inherently volatile, a study over a ten year period found that there is no correlation between previous and future place kicking performance.  Thus a Bottom 10 kicker in terms of accuracy is just as likely to be a Top 10 kicker the following so cycle hot kickers on the cheap.  Crosby is currently the 10th highest paid place kicker thanks to the insane five-year, $14.75 million contact with a $3 million signing bonus he signed in 2011.  The Packers would gain roughly $3 million of cap space in 2013 at the expense of a $1.8 million cap charge in 2014 if they cut Crosby after June 1st.  Presuming the kicker they draft makes $600,000 in 2013 that gives the Packers $2.4 million in cap room to spend on extensions for the plethora of players discussed above.

I obviously find all of the aforementioned moves sensible but would be shocked if even half happen.  Check back for more Cheesehead sports coverage in the next few weeks as the NBA trade deadline and spring training approach.

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