Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Building The 53 - Roster Heading Into the 2013 NFL Draft

Besides signing Clay Matthews to a mega contract extension, as usual, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson made very few splashy moves this off-season.  Thompson made more headlines for the players from the 2012 team that he either cut (Charles Woodson) or did not re-sign (Greg Jennings, Tom Crabtree, and Erik Walden) than for the guys he actually signed (Kevin Hughes, Giorgio Tavecchio, Loyce Means, Matthew Mulligan, and Sederrik Cunningham).

As the 2013 NFL Draft approaches, I thought I would take a look at the current roster because although Thompson usually drafts the "best player available", he will have to focus on certain positions much like he did the 2012 NFL Draft when he selected defenders with the first six picks.  Here is how the roster currently looks with the players listed by position, ordered how I would order them on the depth chart, along with my analysis of the positional turnover:

Quarterback (3): Aaron Rodgers, Graham Harrell, and B.J. Coleman
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: There are rumors that Rodgers and the Packers are on the cusp of agreeing to the most expensive contract in NFL history but both sides are a few million dollars per year apart with the Packers reportedly offering $21 million a year and Rodgers reportedly asking for $23 million a year.  With a Super Bowl ring on his finger and an NFL MVP Award under his belt before his 30th birthday, there is no question that Rodgers deserves to be one of the highest paid players in football but there is a caveat.  Let's say the Packers and Rogers meet in the middle at $22 million per year.  The salary cap is set to be $123 million in 2013 so Rodgers would account for almost 18% of the salary cap.  Far be it for me to take money away from Rodgers but he needs to keep in mind that the difference between earning $18 million a year and $23 million a year will severely hamper the team's ability to pay other players.

Running Back (3): DuJuan Harris, Alex Green, Brandon Saine, and James Starks
Lost: Cedric Benson (free agent) and Ryan Grant (free agent)
Added: None
Analysis: We will never know how interested the Packers were in former St. Louis Rams and current Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson.  What we do know is that the Falcons and Jackson agreed to a three-year, $12 million contract with $4 million in guarantees.  I hope Jackson just picked the Falcons over the Packers because the Packers desperately need a three-down running back, which is what Jackson will give the Falcons at a reasonable price.  I know Jackson is about to turn 30 but the Packers have been looking for a franchise running back ever since Ahman Green left town the first time.  A few years ago the Packers had a chance to get Marshawn Lynch reportedly for a third round pick but would only offer a fourth round pick so Thompson has a history of holding the line despite having a desperate need. The Packers have not shown any interest in re-signing Grant and will most likely wait till after the draft to determine whether to offer Benson a one-year deal for the veteran minimum.

Fullback (1): John Kuhn
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: I see Kuhn being phased out of the offense and not even making the opening 53-man roster for 2013 if some of the younger tight ends I will discuss below can show any ability to block.

Wide Receiver (6): James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jeremy Ross, Jarrett Boykin, and Sederrik Cunningham
Lost: Donald Driver (retired) and Greg Jennings (Vikings)
Added: Sederrik Cunningham
Analysis: A number of outlets reported that last season the Packers offered Greg Jennings a four or five year contract extension worth $11 million a year, which Jennings turned down because he thought he was worth Larry Fitzgerald/Calvin Johnson money ($15 million a year).  Ultimately Jennings signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract with $18 million guaranteed with the Minnesota Vikings.  The Vikings have a rich history of unsuccessfully (James Jones and Aaron Kampman) and successfully (Brett Favre, Robert Ferguson, Ryan Longwell, and Darren Sharper) signing a number of former Packers.  I don't blame Jennings for signing with a divisional rival because fans root much harder for laundry than players. What is lost in the shuffle is that luckily the Packers were not able to extend Jennings at $11 million a year before the 2012 season because they have three stud wide receivers (Jones, Nelson, and Cobb) due extensions in the next few years, which would have been impossible to do with Jennings earning $11 million a year.  In non-Jennings news, the Packers actually signed a free agent wide receiver but don't get too excited because Cunningham looks like nothing more than a camp body that projects as a special teams contributors at best in 2013.

Tight End (6): Jermichael Finley, D.J. Williams, Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick, and Matthew Mulligan
Lost: Tom Crabtree (Buccaneers)
Added: Matthew Mulligan
Analysis: After Jennings left via free agency that allowed the Packers to pay Finley his $3 million roster bonus as a part of his $8.25 million salary in 2013.  Finley is set to become a free after the 2013 season.  With the Matthews extension in place, look for the Packers to approach Finley about an extension that drops his 2013 cap number while keeping him under contract through at least 2017.  For how much the Packers are paying Finely, for some reason they balked at matching the two-year, $1.6 million contract that Crabtree signed with the Buccaneers despite the fact that Crabtree wanted to stay in Green Bay.  Instead the Packers signed Mulligan to a one-year, $800,000 contract.  That seems like bad business since Crabtree played the second most snaps at tight end last season for the Packers while Mulligan will be lucky to make the opening 53-man roster. 

Offensive Tackle (6): Bryan Bulaga, Don Barclay, Marshall Newhouse, Derek Sherrod, Andrew Datko, and Kevin Hughes
Lost: None
Added: Kevin Hughes
Analysis: The Packers have a developmental tackle (Hughes), an average left tackle (Newhouse), two effective right tackles (Barclay and Bulaga), and two injury prone left tackles (Datko and Sherrod).  Despite having a number of tackles on the roster, the Packers are going to have some tough decision ahead on which ones to sign to expensive extensions since most of their rookie contracts are set to expire before the end of 2014.  Assuming that everyone is healthy, despite having shorter arms than most left tackles, I would give Bulaga first crack at left tackle and Barclay first crack at right tackle.  After that, let health and performance determine the final two spots between the rest of the guys currently on the roster along with whomever they draft or sign as an undrafted rookie free agent following the draft.

Offensive Guard (4): Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Greg Van Roten, and Joe Gibbs
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: The Packers have a pair of guards in Sitton and Lang signed to long-term, expensive extensions to go along with a nice developmental backup in Van Roten so they look set at guard, which means it should not be a priority in the draft unless a quality swing guard/center falls in the mid-rounds of the draft.

Center (2): Evan Dietrich-Smith and Garth Gerhart
Lost: Jeff Saturday ("retired")
Added: None
Analysis: The Packers tendered EDS the $1.3 restricted free agent tender so a team could have offered EDS a contract and if the Packers did not match it, they would not have gotten any draft pick compensation.  That seems like a pretty risky route to take for your "center of the future" but the Packers lucked out since EDS signed the tender.  I expect the Packers to approach EDS about a long-term deal before the start of 2013.  The only way that will change is if the Packers use a high draft pick on a center/guard.  In that case, EDS could be playing for a free agent contract elsewhere in 2014.

Defensive End (4): C.J. Wilson, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels, and Jerel Worthy 
Lost: None 
Added: None 
Analysis: I know the Packers rarely dabble in free agency but with their lack of quality 3-4 defensive ends it makes no sense to me that they did not chase one of the premier 3-4 defensive ends in free agency or even bring back a more cost effective option like Cullen Jenkins.  Thus the Packers enter 2013 with question marks at defensive end after Wilson for various reasons: Neal (injuries/PED suspension in 2013), Daniels (high motor but undersized), and Worthy (rehabbing a torn ACL suffered at the end of the 2012 season).  The Packers hosted Steelers restricted free agent defensive lineman Steve McLendon.  The Packers have two things working in their favor.  One, McLendon played for a 3-4 defense.  Much like the Packers did with EDS, the Steelers signed McLendon to the $1.3 million tender so the Packers would not have to sacrifice a draft pick if they tendered McLendon a contract (need to do so by Friday) that the Steelers did not match (have five days from the day a restricted free agent signs an offer sheet).  No matter what happens with McLendon, given their lack of depth, I totally support the Packers using an early draft choice on a defensive lineman.

Defensive Tackle (4): B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly, and Jordan Miller 
Lost: None 
Added: Johnny Jolly (re-instated by the Commissioner) 
Analysis: The Packers have a young (Raji, 26) and old (Pickett, 33) stud set to become free agents after the 2013 season.  Besides those guys the Packers have a young (Miller, 25) and old (Jolly, 30) question mark.  Jolly is the X-Factor.  After spending less than a year in jail despite being given a six-year sentence for violating the terms of his probation, the word is that Jolly is going to be in Green Bay participating in off-season activities.  The Packers usually do not given second chances like they are giving Jolly.  I am sure the only reason they are doing this is that they are hoping Jolly can return to being the disruptive space eating force he was along the defensive line in the late 2000's.

Middle Linebacker (6): Desmond Bishop, A.J. Hawk, Robert Francois, D.J. Smith, Jamari Lattimore, and Terrell Manning
Lost: None
Added: None
Analysis: After losing Bishop to a season ending injury in training camp, the Packers were clearly missing his physical presence in the middle last year.  The Packers thought they had a budding star in Smith but his uneven performances combined with the fact that he suffered a season ending knee injury makes his star not shine as bright, if at all, in 2013.  It pains me to say this but Hawk actually played well in 2012 filling in for Bishop and Smith.  Thankfully Hawk took a pay cut because he is only entering the third year of a five-year, $33.75 contract.  All told Hawk agree to forgo roughly $5 million in salary over the next three seasons but before you start feeling too bad for Hawk, remember that he is set to earn close to earn almost $11 million over that time frame, which still feels like too much money to pay the Business HJ.  The Packers must see something in Francois because despite all the injuries they suffered at middle linebacker last season, Francois did not play in the middle yet Francois signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum reportedly in part because he was told he will be given a chance to play middle linebacker next season.  Francois is a special teams ace so I totally support signing him to a one-year deal for the veteran minimum, I guess Francois hopes the Packers give him the best chance to showcase his talent in hopes of landing a big payday next off-season.  Finally Lattimore and Manning look like long-shots to make the roster, especially if the Packers select any linebackers in the draft.

Outside Linebacker (5): Clay Matthews, Brad Jones, Nick Perry, Dezmen Moses, and Micah Johnson
Lost: Erik Walden (Colts) and Frank Zombo (Chiefs)
Added: None
Analysis: According to initial reports, Matthews signed a five-year, $66 million extension that will keep him in Green Bay through 2018.  When you factor in that Matthews is set to earn $3.73 million this season, Matthews is due $69.73 over the next six seasons.  If you ignore the last year of his rookie contract then Matthews has the highest average yearly salary of any linebacker in NFL history but various outlets have done a good job of showing how Matthews really didn't get a better deal than DeMarcus Ware or Terrell Suggs when you look at how much he is set to earn over the first three years of the deal or the amount of money guaranteed over the life of the contract.  Assuming Matthews is clean, he was way underpaid on his rookie contract (five-years, $13.1 million) and now properly paid in his second professional contract (five-years, $66 million) with a chance to get paid one last time in his early 30's.  Juxtapose that with Brad Jones who just got way overpaid by the Packers when he signed a three-year, $11.75 million contract.  That makes Jones the 11th highest paid player on the entire roster even though he will most likely not be one of the starting 11 defensive players in 2013.  I put Jones at outside linebacker despite the fact that he strictly played inside last season because the Packers already have their starters in place at middle linebacker (Bishop and Hawk).  Perry's rookie campaign was cut short by injury but the Packers are counting on him to be their starting outside linebacker opposite Matthews so that leaves Jones as the Jarrett Bush of the linebackers, a highly compensated backup/special teams player that should not play on defense if at all possible. In terms of former Packers leaving for "greener pastures", I get the Chiefs signing Zombo to a cheap, short-term deal (John Dorsey was a long-time member of Packers front office and was just named the general manger) but I do not get why the Colts gave Walden a four-year, $16 million contract.  I don't like the Jones extension for the Packers but I absolutely hate the Walden extension for the Colts.

Cornerback (7): Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Davon House, Jarrett Bush, James Nixon, and Loyce Means
Lost: None
Added: Loyce Means
Analysis: The Packers lucked out that Sam Shields is going to play for $2 million next year since they did not offer him the highest restricted free agent tender.  Armed with the fact that no one tried to poach Shields from the Packers, both sides need to come to a long-term agreement before the season because I see Sheilds and Hayward as their long-term solutions at cornerback.  Thus if Williams wants to be on the team in 2014, he needs to agree to a pretty significant pay cut like Hawk did to make the last two years of his five-year, $38 million contract more palatable.  Leaving aside the "Big 3" cornerbacks the Packers have an often injured guy (House), a special teams maven that struggles on defense (Bush), and two unknown commodities (Nixon and Means) so as crazy as it sounds, they might be looking at a cornerback sooner rather than later in the draft.

Safety (5): Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, Jeron McMillian, Sean Richardson, and Chaz Powell
Lost: Charles Woodson (free agent)
Added: None
Analysis: The Packers need to start talking with Burnett about an extension because besides Burnett they have four young unknown commodities at safety since they cut Woodson earlier this off-season.  The tepid interest in Woodson is not that surprising, what is surprising is that the Woodson re-signing with the Packers banter has not gotten any traction.  Unless the Packers use a high draft pick on a safety, look for the Packers to approach Woodson about playing as a hybrid gambler in the secondary in Green Bay in 2013.

Specialist (4): Tim Masthay (P), Brett Goode (LS), Mason Crosby (K), and Giorgio Tavecchio (K)
Lost: None
Added: Giorgio Tavecchio
Analysis: Absent injury the Packers are set at punter and longer snapper but that is not the case at kicker.  After an abysmal 2012 season for Crosby, the Packers added Tavecchio to create some much needed competition for the wildly overpaid Crosby.  May the best leg win and if it is close, cut Crosby so you can go with the cheaper leg.

All told the Packers currently have 66 players under contract heading into the 2013 NFL Draft.  Armed with 8 picks, which I am sure will increase because Thompson loves to trade down, by the end of April the Packers could have 80 players under their control when you factor in signing undrafted rookie free agents.

I plan to have a ton of Packer related draft coverage next week but make sure to check back tomorrow because the NFL is set to release their 2013 schedule so I will give my initial thoughts.

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