Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Building The 25 - Brewers drastically overpay Garza

Up until a few days ago the only significant moves Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin made to The 25 were two separate trades. Melvin traded away relief pitcher Burke Badenhop and outfielder Norichika Aoki for what amounted to a couple left-handed pitching lottery tickets in Luis Ortega and Will Myers respectively.  Towards the middle of last week I even discussed how proud I was of Melvin showing fiscal restraint instead of handing out huge free agent contracts this off-season as a peace offering for what the team put their fans through last season.

Well it was all too good to be true.  Late last week reports leaked that the Brewers signed free agent starting pitcher Matt Garza to a four-year, $52 million deal.  The Brewers initially refuted that report via Twitter, which gave me hope that Melvin was rethinking whether to break the first of the five rules I gave him for how to build The 25 for 2014.  Ultimately the Brewers and Garza agreed to a four-year, $50 million deal could end up being a five-year, $67 million deal.  The Brewers ultimately announced the signing at the team's annual fan fest, which was free this year as a peace offering for what the team put their fans through last season.

Before I breakdown the largest contract ever given to a starting pitcher in Brewers franchise history in more depth, I thought I would give a little background on the starting pitching situation for the Brewers before the Garza signing to show why they did not need to overpay yet another free agent starting pitcher.  Going into the off-season, four of the five spots in their starting rotation were set essentially set in stone: Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada.  The fifth spot in the rotation looked like it was going to be a competition between guys currently in the farm system with the strongest candidates being Hiram Burgos, Mike Fiers, Johnny Hellweg, Jimmy Nelson, and Tyler Thornburg.  After the Brewers traded for Smith and signed Zach Duke to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. the Brewers had a ton of legitimate candidates fighting for the final starting spot in the rotation and the long relief role in the bullpen.

With Garza on The 25, if healthy, the starting rotation will be Garza, Lohse, Gallardo, Peralta, and Estrada in some order.  Given that the Brewers are not really in a win-now mode, I would much rather see them go into spring training with all their young guys fighting for the final spot in the rotation.  If one of the five odds on starters gets hurt in spring training, pending some drastic change in the performance in spring training, I would give Thornburg the first chance followed by Fiers, Burgos, Smith, Nelson, Hellweg, and Duke.

The first four years of Garza's deal are fairly straightforward with him earning $12.5 million in each of those years.  The only real quirks of the first four years of the deal is that Garza deferred $2 million each year that is paid annually on December 15th starting in 2018 through 2021.  Besides that, Garza can earn an extra $500,000 each time he starts 30 games or throws 190 innings in a season over the first four years of the deal.  If Garza achieves all of that, it makes the first four years of the deal worth $54 million.  The fifth year of this deal in 2018 is where this deal gets complicated.

According to Cot's on Contracts, Garza has a $13 million vesting option in 2018 if he meets three conditions in the first four years of the deal: starts 110 games, throws at least 115 innings in 2017, and does NOT end the 2017 season on the disabled list.  If Garza does NOT satisfy all three conditions, there are two other potential outcomes.  One, if Garza spends an extended period of time on the disabled list during the first four years of the deal, which is defined as 130 days over 183 day period of time, the Brewers can retain Garza's services for just $1 million in 2018.  Two, if Garza does not spend an extended period of time on the disabled list the Brewers can exercise their team option to retain his services in 2018 for $5 million.

As I discussed when I reviewed the Aoki/Smith trade, a win on the free agent market costs $6 million.  Leaving 2018 aside for now that means Garza will have to produce at least two wins above replacement (WAR) a season to justify his contract from 2014-2017.  Garza put together impressive seasons in 2008 (3.3 WAR) and 2009 (3.5 WAR).  After that, Garza's WAR numbers didn't break two besides 2011 (2.8 WAR). Last season Garza registered 1.4 WAR thanks mostly to pitching well for the Chicago Cubs following a long stint on the disabled list to the start the season.  The Cubs traded Garza to the Texas Rangers but Garza struggled for the Ranger.  Since Garza was traded mid-season last year the one silver lining is that unlike when owner Mark Attanasio signed Lohse to a three-year, $33 million deal last year, the Brewers did not forfeit their first round pick in the 2014 MLB Draft to sign Garza.

Unless Garza finds a legal fountain of youth that can also keep him healthy, the Brewers severely overpaid him each of the first four years of the deal.  Given how injury prone Garza has been throughout his career the only good part of the Garza deal is that the Brewers made the $13 million vesting option for the fifth year contingent on Garza staying healthy throughout the entire deal, which seems highly unlikely given his long injury history.

The Brewers are now paying six players on The 25 at least $10 million in 2014: Lohse ($11 million), right fielder Ryan Braun ($11 million), Gallardo ($11.5 million), second baseman Rickie Weeks ($12 million), Garza ($12.5 million), and third basemen Aramis Ramirez ($16 million).  Luckily Weeks, Ramirez, and possibly Gallaro ($13 million club option with $600,000 buyout) come off the books in 2015 so the Brewers can clean-up their bloated 2014 payroll.

I expect things to be quiet on the personal front until pitchers and catchers report on February 15th but if the Brewers decide to grossly overpay another veteran like they did with the Garza signing, make sure to check back for full coverage in this space.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Building The 25 - Melvin shows fiscal restraint

Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin avoided salary arbitration with right-handed starting pitcher Marco Estrada and first/third baseman Juan Francisco when he signed both to one-year deals essentially guaranteeing each a spot on The 25 for 2014.  Estrada, in his second year of salary arbitration, signed a one-year deal worth $3.3 million.  Francisco, in his first year of salary arbitration, signed a one-year deal worth $1.35 million.  Sure either player could have tried for slightly more money via the arbitration process but that usually only results in a slight bump for players of their stature and it comes at the expense of hearing the club rip apart your resume in the arbitration hearing.

More important than the deal just discussed, Melvin signed a ton of guys throughout the month of January to minor league contracts with an invite to spring training, which are exactly the kind of deals that I encouraged Melvin to sign in my advice to him for how to build The 25 for 2014.  The three most notable names that Melvin signed to the low-risk, potentially high-reward deals are left-handed pitcher Zach Duke, first/third baseman Mark Reynolds, and first baseman Lyle Overbay.

As a rookie Duke posted a 1.81 era and 3.4 wins above replacement (WAR) in just 14 starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2005.  That performance was good enough for Duke to finish fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting that season while current Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks finished tied for sixth.  Duke posted a 4.47 ERA and 2.7 WAR in 34 starts the following year.  Unfortunately following such a promising start to his career, Duke only posted one other season of above 2 WAR, which happened in 2009.  Since then Duke battled injuries and ineffectiveness as he played for a number of teams.  There is still a chance that Duke can turn things around given that he does not turn 31 till after the start of the 2014 season, which is why I am fine with Melvin taking a flyer on Duke.

After losing Corey Hart to the Seattle Mariners, the Brewers were left with Juan Francisco, Sean Halton, and Hunter Morris fighting for the starting spot at first base.  If I were in charge, I would give Morris every chance to win the starting job at first base even though he struggled a bit moving from AA to AAA last season.  Instead of giving Morris a chance, it looks like the Brewers are going to give a pair a guys that played first based for the New York Yankees last season in Reynolds and Overbay every chance to make The 25 this season.

Reynolds posted some impressive offensive WAR numbers early in his career but those came with severe strikeouts problems and defensive limitations that made him a little more than above average major leaguer despite his impressive offensive numbers.  The upshot with Reynolds is that much like Duke, he is not going to turn 31 until after the start of the 2014 season so I like that low-risk (one-year, $2 million deal with $500,00 in incentives) signing as well.

The Brewers originally added Overbay to The 25 along with Chris Capuano, Craig Counsell, Chad Moeller, Jorge De La Rosa and Junior Spivey in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks for Shane Nance, Richie Sexson, and Noochie Varner.  After two successful offensive campaigns with the Brewers in 2005 and 2006, the Brewers traded Overbay along with Ty Taubenheim to the Toronto Blue Jays for Dave Bush, Gabe Gross and Zach Jackson.  I can't say this often but the Brewers went two-for-two in their Overbay related trades.

Ultimately I think Reynolds has the best shot to make The 25 even though the Brewers are more familiar with Overbay because teams rarely sign guys like Reynolds unless they are going to give them every chance to make The 25.  The beauty of signing veterans to minor league contracts with an invite to spring training instead of splashing big money on free agents is that if they struggle in spring training, the Brewers can walkaway with almost zero financial ramifications.  If a couple of the guys perform well in spring training, the Brewers bought themselves inexpensive veterans for 2014, which is the fiscally prudent move given that 2014 looks like it will be a transition year anyhow.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Building The 53 - My Locks for The 53

Welcome to the last of my seven-part series of advice for how Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson
Advice for Ted Thompson
How to Handle Players on 8-Man Practice Squad
How to Handle Players on Injured Reserve
How to Handle 2014 RFA's on The 53
How to Handle 2014 UFA's on The 53
Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53
First Look at the 2014 NFL Draft
Locks for The 53 for 2014
should approach The 53 for 2014.  If you want to read any of the previous six parts, checkout the table to the right.  There is at least one restricted and a couple unrestricted free agents that I think are virtual locks to be resigned by Thompson and thus on The 53 for the Packers to start 2014, but the fact remains that those guys are still not resigned yet.  I am going to restrict my locks for The 53 to players that are currently signed through at least 2014.  If healthy, here are my 33 locks listed how I think they should be on the depth chart for The 53 to open 2014 for the Packers:

Offense: 17 players
QB: Aaron Rodgers and Scott Tolzien
RB: Eddie Lacy, DuJuan Harris, and Johnathan Franklin
FB: None
WR: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Jarrett Boykin
TE: Ryan Taylor and Brandon Bostick
T: Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari, Don Barclay, and Derek Sherrod
G:Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang
C: JC Tretter
Analysis: The most controversial of the locks above have to be the tight ends but Taylor's special teams abilities and the 10% chance that Bostick is an athletic tight end in the mold of a healthy Jermichael Finley make them cost-effective assets on The 53 in 2014 since both are still are on their rookie contracts.  There is a good chance that center Evan Dietrich-Smith signs a long-term deal with the Packers this off-season, which would give the Packers eight quality offensive lineman without even factoring in guys like Lane Taylor and Greg Van Roten.  I see Thompson resigning quarterback Matt Flynn and fullback John Kuhn but letting wide receiver James Jones and tight end Andrew Quarless test free agency.  Even if tight end Jermichael Finley isn't on The 53 for the Packers in 2014, assuming the Packers sign EDS and Kuhn, the Packers have an impressive offense for 2014 without even taking into account free agents or the 2014 NFL Draft.

Defense: 14 players
DT: Mike Daniels and Josh Boyd
DE: Datone Jones and Jerel Worthy
OLB: Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and Andy Mulumba
MLB: A.J. Hawk
CB: Casey Hayward, Davon House, and Jarrett Bush
S: Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde, and Sean Richardson
Analysis: The Packers have a ton of difficult decision to make along the defensive line given that Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, and C.J. Wilson are all set to become unrestricted free agents.  Even if all four leave via free agency, the Packers still have four nice young defensive lineman on The 53. There is a good chance that middle linebacker Brad Jones and cornerback Tramon Williams are on The 53 to start 2014 but given that I advised Thompson to cut Jones and get Williams to re-work his deal, I can't make either of them locks.  Finally, you will notice that I moved Hyde to safety.  If the Packers are able to resign cornerback Sam Shields, moving Hyde to safety is a no brainer.  The only thing that gives me pause is if the Packers actually draft Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Specialist: 2 players
LS:  Brett Goode
P: Tim Masthay
Analysis: Much like Jones and Williams, unfortunately I see Mason Crosby kicking for the Packers in 2014 but that doesn't mean that I agree with that decision.

With that, my seven-part series of advice for how Thompson should approach The 53 for 2014 is officially in the books.  It may sound crazy but I see this series as my resume if any Packer front-office positions open this off-season.  I expect things to be quiet on the personnel front for the Packers for the next month but if Thompson starts making moves to The 53, check back for full coverage.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Building The 53 - First Look at the 2014 NFL Draft

Four months from today I will post my review of the 2014 NFL Draft for the Green Bay Packers. Odds are that Packers general manager Ted Thompson will add at least 10 new players in the 2014 NFL Draft given that he currently has seven draft picks even before being awarded any compensatory draft picks.  Plus we know that Thompson loves to trade down to acquire more draft picks so that could mean as many as 15 new players along with a number of undrafted rookie free agents fighting for spots on The 2013 to open 2014.

Advice for Ted Thompson
How to Handle Players on 8-Man Practice Squad
How to Handle Players on Injured Reserve
How to Handle 2014 RFA's on The 53
How to Handle 2014 UFA's on The 53
Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53
First Look at the 2014 NFL Draft
Locks for The 53 for 2014
Lot's of things can change in the next four months, especially for players currently projected to go later in the draft or undrafted.  In case you missed it, I ranked the Top 25 NFL prospects that currently play for the Wisconsin Badgers irrespective of the year they will be eligible for the draft.  There is no question that the biggest positional needs (greatest to least) for the Packers are safety, tight end, linebacker, defensive line, offensive line, kicker, fullback, cornerback, wide receiver, running back, punter, and quarterback.  Given the Packers' current positional needs, there is a chance that Thompson actually drafts a Badger over the next few years.

Following their loss to the San Francisco 49ers, assuming Thompson doesn't trade up or down, the Packers are currently scheduled to draft 21st in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.  We know that Thompson likes to draft the best player available but given that safety, tight end, linebacker, and defensive line are the biggest needs so I am going to focus on how Thompson could address those needs with the 21st pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Right now it looks like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Calvin Pryor, or bust given the lack of quality safeties in the 2014 NFL Draft.  Ha Ha is a 21-year old junior from Alabama that at 6'1" and 208 lbs is not the biggest hitter but has the skills to start at safety as a rookie in the NFL in 2014.  Ha Ha reminds me a lot of Eric Reid, a standout rookie for the San Francisco 49ers.  Pryor has essentially the same build as Ha Ha but playing at Louisville as opposed to Alabama didn't prove he can do it on a big stage like Ha Ha did the last three years.  This feels a little bit like the the 2007 NFL Draft when the Packers desperately needed a running back so every mock draft had them taking Marshawn Lynch with the 16th pick.  Ultimately Lynch went 12th to the Buffalo Bills and the Packers took defensive lineman Justin Harrell, oh dang.  I obviously favor Ha Ha over Pryor at this point but we are still very early in the process so that might change by the 2014 NFL Draft.  Clearly Ha Ha or Pryor would fill a huge need for the Packers, which is why I would be shocked if the Packers actually drafted either unless they traded up in the first round.

The Packers could use a versatile linebacker in the mold of Brandon Chillar.  I know that seems like a weird comparison considering Chillar only had a couple good years in Green Bay but with how much trouble the Packers have covering running backs or tight ends with linebackers and considering all the nickel the Packers play on defense, a hybrid inside/outside linebacker is exactly what the Packers need.  I see Anthony Barr, Khalil Mack, and C.J. Mosley all going in the Top 10.  A couple of guys that project to be a rich man's Chillar are Ryan Shazier (JR, Ohio State, 6'2", 225 lbs, and 21-years old) and Vic Beasley (JR, Clemson, 6'2", 235 lbs, and 21-year old).  Shazier already declared for the draft while Beasley is still undecided.  Assuming both declare for the draft, I favor Shazier slightly over Beasley despite sharing a birthday with Beasley.

Given that the Packers have four players set to become free agents along the defensive line, despite having a bunch of quality young guys, the Packers still might draft a defensive lineman in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Since the Packers drafted defensive end Datone Jones in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, I would be shocked if they took another defensive end so I will focus on defensive tackles.  I see Timmy Jernigan going in the Top 10.  That leaves Louis Nix III (SR, Notre Dame, 6'3", 340 lbs, 22-years old) and Ra'Shede Hageman (SR, Minnesota, 6'6", 307 lbs, 23-years old) as options.  As long as the Packers can keep Nix motivated, I see him as a long term solution as a space eater along the defensive line in place of B.J. Raji or Ryan Pickett.  I got to see Hageman play in-person earlier this year.  Although I like Hageman's versatility to play any spot along the defensive line, I have some reservations about him being 24-years old before the start of the 2014 NFL season.  Despite Hageman's versatility, I would favor Nix ahead of Hageman.

Moving to the offensive side of the ball, even if Jermichael Finley returns to the Packers next year, you can never have too many athletic tight ends because NFL defenses continue to struggle with containing those types of players.  Add in that teams are splitting tight ends out as wide receivers and having multiple athletic tight ends is almost become a necessity as opposed to a luxury.  It looks like Eric Ebron will go in the Top 15.  That leaves Austin Seferian-Jenkins (JR, Washington, 6'6", 266 lbs, 21-years old) and Jace Amaro (JR, Texas Tech, 6'5", 255 lbs, 21-years old) as options for the Packers.  I see Seferian-Jenkins as a more athletic version of Andrew Quarless with the off-the-field issues being an unfortunate common thread between Seferian-Jenkins and Quarless.  Despite the off-the-field issues, Seferian-Jenkins's athleticism makes him slightly more appetizing than Amaro.

Assuming all the players I just discussed in-depth are available when the Packers are on the clock with the 21st pick in the 2014 NFL Draft I would obviously thank my lucky starts and draft Ha Ha without thinking twice.  If Ha Ha is off the board, here is the order (most to least) that I like the rest: Seferian-Jenkins, Shazier, Nix, Beasley, Pryor, Amaro, and Hageman.  Make sure to check back tomorrow for the final of my seven-part series of off-season advice for Thompson where I give the guys that are currently under contract for at least 2014 that if healthy should be locks for The 53 in 2014.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Building The 53 - Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53

As I discussed in my first installment of this seven-part series, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson projects to have at least $35 million in cap space in 2014.  That seems like a ton of money but at least $5 million of that will be spent on rookies drafted in the 2014 NFL Draft.  Add in that the Packers have 20 players currently on injured reserve or The 53, (restricted and unrestricted), that are set to become free agents and all of a sudden that is not that much cap space.  That means that every dollar under the salary cap must be used very wisely by Packers general manager Ted Thompson.  Even if Thompson uses every salary cap dollar wisely, he might still need to create some cap space by cutting or restructuring contracts of players currently on The 53.

Advice for Ted Thompson
How to Handle Players on 8-Man Practice Squad
How to Handle Players on Injured Reserve
How to Handle 2014 RFA's on The 53
How to Handle 2014 UFA's on The 53
Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53
First Look at the 2014 NFL Draft
Locks for The 53 for 2014
Before the season I broke down the five worst contracts on The 53.  A number of guys off that list are strong candidates of becoming salary cap casualties before the start of the 2014 NFL season.  Thompson strongly favors "pay-as-you go" contracts, which would allow him to walk away from some bad decisions he made in the last few years.  The most glaring of those bad decisions involves A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, the two current starting middle linebackers.  Unless both guys are willing to take significant pay cuts, Thompson needs to replace both guys before the start of the 2015 NFL season.

I know Jones just finished the first year of the three-year, $11.25 million deal with $3 million guaranteed but I would start by cutting Jones after June 1st.  Jones made $2.5 million in 2013 but his cap number jumps to $4 million next season and $4.75 million in 2015.  Jones has $2 million guaranteed left on his current deal so if Thompson cuts Jones after June 1st, the Packers would have $2 million in dead salary cap space that they could spread over 2014 and 2015.  It would be a rarity for Thompson to cut a guy less than a year after signing him to a three-year extension but given that Jones looks like just another guy on the field, I think it makes sense in this case.

With the plan for how to handle Jones, the next step is to sort out how to phase out Hawk.  Let me be the 10,000th person to say that if Hawk was even a late first round pick that he would be celebrated as one of the best linebackers in franchise history.  Since Hawk was the 5th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, expectations overshadowed his accomplishments in his eight seasons in Green Bay.

Although Hawk put up some nice single-season stats in 2013: 118 tackles (2nd highest of his career), 5 sacks (highest of his career), 1 forced fumble (second highest of his career), and 1 interception (tied for highest of his career); it is the general lack of overall big plays that have undermined Hawk's career.  Over eight NFL seasons Hawk only has 18.5 sacks, 3 fumble forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 9 interceptions, and zero defensive touchdowns.

Following the 2010 season Hawk used his leverage after becoming a free agent to get overpaid when Thompson signed Hawk to a ludicrous five-year, $33.75 million contract with $8 million guaranteed.  There is no question that Hawk is durable but that is way too much money to pay a ho-hum middle linebacker.  Luckily Thompson was able to renegotiated Hawk's deal last off-season, which involved Hawk taking a $7.5 million pay cut so he carries a salary cap charge of $5.1 million with $1.6 million guaranteed each of the next two seasons.  If the Packers cut Hawk this off-season it would result in $3.2 million in dead money and only $1.6 million in dead money if the Packers cut Hawk before the 2015 season.  Unless Jones and Hawk are willing to take pay cuts I would cut each of them after the June 1st over the next two years, Jones this year and Hawk next year.

Moving from middle linebacker to place kicker.  Mason Crosby is coming off his most productive season in the NFL, which means he is a strong candidate for regression next year since many studies have shown that kicking accuracy, good or bad, does not tend to continue year-to-year.  Crosby is signed through 2015 but restructured just the 2013 portion of his contract before the season to make it incentive-based.  Crosby ultimately earned every dollar he was owed before the restructure.  Crosby holds salary cap charges of $3.4 million in 2014 (8th highest in the NFL) and $3.55 million in 2015 (6th highest in the NFL).  If the Packers cut Crosby this off-season it would result in $1.2 million in dead money and only $600,000 if the Packers cut Crosby before the 2015 season.  I say draft a kicker late in the 2014 NFL Draft and cut Crosby after June 1st, which will give Thompson over $1 million more in cap space that he desperately needs.

Cornerback Tramon Williams is due $9.5 million with $2 million guaranteed in 2014.  That is the final year of the four-year, $33 million with $10.9 million guaranteed that Williams signed in November of 2010 when he was in a contract year.  Unless the Packers can get Williams to accept a pay cut, he will have the 8th highest average salary of all cornerbacks in the NFL, which is way too rich for Williams.  I would be shocked if the Packers kept Williams past 2014 given all of their young depth at cornerback but keeping Williams in 2014 might preclude Thompson from offering cornerback Sam Shields the big money deal he earned this off-season.  I would much rather have five years of Shields than one more year of Williams so unless Williams accepts a pay cut, I would treat Williams just like the Packers treated Charles Woodson last off-season.

Given all of the cuts I advised Thompson to make above, make sure to check back tomorrow for my initial thoughts on what Thompson should do in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Building The 53 - How to Handle 2014 UFA's on The 53

There are 13 players currently on The 53 for the Green Bay Packers that are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in early March, eight play offense and five play defense.  The eight offensive players are: Kahlil Bell (RB), Evan Dietrich-Smith (C), Matt Flynn (QB), James Jones (WR), John Kuhn (FB), Marshall Newhouse (OT), Andrew Quarless (TE), and James Starks (RB).  The five defensive players are: Ryan Pickett (DT), Mike Neal (OLB), B.J. Raji (DT), C.J. Wilson (DE), and Sam Shields (CB).  After reading all the names on the list, you can see that there are a number of very difficult decisions for Packers general manager Ted Thompson.  Back in November after the Packers lost on the road to the New York Giants, I gave very specific thoughts on how Thompson should handle the free agents.  My thoughts changed slightly since November.  As a general matter I see four ways to deal with the aforementioned free agents: let them become free agents, sign them to one-year veteran minimum deals, sign them to reasonable long-term deals, or sign them to expensive long-term deals.

Advice for Ted Thompson
How to Handle Players on 8-Man Practice Squad
How to Handle Players on Injured Reserve
How to Handle 2014 RFA's on The 53
How to Handle 2014 UFA's on The 53
Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53
First Look at the 2014 NFL Draft
Locks for The 53 for 2014
The no-brainers are letting Bell and Newhouse leave via free agency.  The Packers added Bell to The 53 in early December to give them some depth at running back but they have a ton of better, younger options at running back in 2014.  Newhouse started every game at left tackle for the Packers in 2012 with sub par results so they moved Bryan Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle and essentially handed the starting right tackle job to Don Barclay going into 2013.  When the Packers lost Bulaga for the season in the preseason, they inserted rookie David Bakhtiari instead of Newhouse so the only way Newhouse saw the field in 2013 was when the Packers suffered an injury along the offensive line.  For how bad Newhouse played in 2012, I actually think he played worse in limited action in 2013.  Given that the Packers have the aforementioned trio of Bakhtiari, Barclay, and Bulaga under contract along with 2011 first round draft pick Derek Sherrod, I would not even tender Newhouse a contract for 2014 because of how much Newhouse regressed the last two years.

I would tell Flynn, Quarless, Starks, and Wilson that they have a one-year, veteran minimum offer ready for them to sign.  Quarless and Wilson will garnering the least interest on the free agent market, which should allow the Packers to resign them both for the veteran minimum.  I would get both deals done right away to hedge in-case the Packers lose all their other free agent lineman (Jolly, Raji, and Pickett) and Finley is unable to return from the serious spinal cord injury he suffered in Week 5 against the Browns.

Flynn had the game of his life against the Detroit Lions to close out the 2011 regular season.  Since then, Flynn had an interesting year and a half where he earned millions of dollars thanks to his performance for the Packers against the Lions as a backup for three NFL teams (Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, and Buffalo Bills) that each showed him the door.  When I gave my thoughts on Flynn following the loss to the Giants, he had not played a meaningful snap for the Packers.  Fast forward a few months and it looks like the only place Flynn can be a serviceable quarterback is for the Packers.   Even though Flynn engineered a 23-point second half comeback on the road against the Dallas Cowboys, I see other NFL teams being leery that Flynn has only been successful as a member of the Packers.  Bringing Flynn back on a one-year deal allows the Packers to have a nice trio at quarterback of Flynn, Rodgers, and Scott Tolzien with Flynn and Tolzien fighting for the backup spot behind Rodgers.

I really struggled with whether Thompson should offer Starks a multi-year deal.  Talent has never been the issue for Starks, which was evident in the playoff run that lead the Packers to winning Super Bowl XLV.  What works against giving Starks a long-term deal are his injury issues and the quality depth the Packers have at running back since they have starter Eddie Lacy to go along with Johnathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris.  I would be shocked if another team didn't offer Starks a multi-year deal in free agency so I would be surprised to see him playing for the Packers in 2014.

There is no question that Kuhn had the two biggest blocks of the year for the Packers: lead block for rookie running back Eddie Lacy to start the improbable second half comeback against the Dallas Cowboys and the chip on Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers to give quarterback Aaron Rodgers just enough time to find wide receiver Randall Cobb for the go-ahead score to beat the Bears and win the NFC North.  Two blocks should not be the determining factor in giving Kuhn an extension but when you add in that he is a special teams maven, I totally support the Packers offering Kuhn a two-year, $3 million extension with $1 million guaranteed.

After an up-and-down start to his career with the Packers thanks to a mix of injuries and a PED suspension, it took a position change from defensive line to outside linebacker for Mike Neal to show his worth.  When the Packers drafted Neal in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, I thought that the Packers should have taken Ben Tate (RB), Terrance Cody (DT), or Charles Brown (OT) instead.  There is no question that Neal has been the least productive of the four but going forward it looks like Neal might be the best of the four over the next five years.  Despite having a healthy Nick Perry penciled in as the starter opposite Claymaker at outside linebacker in 2014, I would still resign Neal to a three-year, $6 million deal with $2 million guaranteed.

Thompson would love to resign Jones to give him a quintet at wide receiver of Jarrett Boykin, Cobb, Jones, and Jordy Nelson.  Unfortunately there is a salary cap and the Packers need to extend Cobb and Nelson before the end of 2014 so it looks like Jones will leave via free agency unless he accepts a below market deal like the one he just finishing.  I would not go much higher than three years, $10 million with $3 million guaranteed but my guess is that Jones is looking for more years and money since this is his last real chance to break the bank in free agency.  Even before the revelations that Jones played the last few games of the season, there was no question that he is a team player.  The question is whether Jones is willing to sacrifice financially to stay in Green Bay.

There were reports in the middle of this season that Raji's agent turned down a long-term deal offered by Thompson that was worth $8 million a year.  I get that Raji wants to test free agency but there is no way any NFL team, including the Packers, should pay Raji more than $6 million a year given his skill set.  At 34-years old, there is no question that Pickett is getting up there in age but he is a perfect space eater in the 3-4 that plays through injury so Thompson needs to think long and hard about whether it is worth resigning Pickett on the cheap instead of investing big bucks in Raji.

Even if the Packers replace defensive coordinator Dom Capers before next season, I would be shocked if they shifted from a 3-4 to a 4-3 so it makes no sense to invest big dollars in the defensive line since they are all essentially large space eaters as opposed to playmakers.  Sure there are outliers like Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata that are playmakers but Raji is no Ngata.  Ultimately I think it makes much more sense to resign a guy like Johnny Jolly or Pickett to a cheaper deal instead of breaking the bank for Raji given that the Packers have some quality young depth along the defensive line in Josh Boyd, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, and Jerel Worthy.

With all of that as background, let's get down to numbers for Pickett and Raji.  I would offer Pickett a two-year, $5 million deal with $2 million guaranteed.  I would offer Raji a four-year, $20 million deal with $5 million guaranteed.  If Raji turns down that contract I would not place the franchise tag on him, instead I would let him test free agency.

After the Jeff Saturday experiment crashed and burned in 2012, luckily the Packers have EDS waiting in the wings as a long-term answer at center.  The Packers have a ton of money invested in their starting guards with Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang signed through 2017.  Since the Packers have all their tackles on rookie contracts they are able to save some money at those spots, which allows them to lock down EDS long-term.  I know this is going to seem like a low-ball offer but I would offer EDS a three-year, $12 million deal with $6 million guaranteed.  If EDS turns that down, the highest that I would go is four-years, $16 million with $8 million guaranteed.

That leaves Shields.  We learned in 2013 that the Packers need a legitimate safety opposite Morgan Burnett.  We know that Chris Banjo and M.D. Jennings are fine backups but not the guy to fill that spot.  There is an outside chance that Sean Richardson is a legitimate NFL safety but he has been unable to stay healthy long enough to prove that on the field.  Why am I discussing safties given that Shields plays cornerback?  I've mentioned this at least five times in this space that I think the Packers should move Micah Hyde from cornerback to safety.  With all due respect to Jarrett Bush, that leaves the Packers with Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, and Davon House as their only legitimate NFL cornerbacks on The 53 in 2014 unless the Packers resign Shields.  Given the proliferation of the passing game in the NFL, a team can never have too many cornerbacks.  That is why I would offer Shields a five-year, $35 million deal with $10 million guaranteed.  Make sure the first year carries a low cap number because Williams is set to earn $9.5 million in 2014.  Once Williams comes off the books in 2015, even if Shields' cap number jumps, the Packers can justify that expenditure.

Thanks for sticking around for the fourth installment of my seven-part series of off-season advice for Thompson.  I know this one was by far the longest one but given how many players currently on The 53 that are set to become unrestricted free agents in March, clearly Thompson has some tough decisions ahead.  I am sure that I will revisit this post after the Super Bowl as the free agent market starts to form to if Thompson follows any of my advice.  Make sure to check back Monday when I discuss potential salary cap casualties currently on The 53 and signed through at least 2014.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Building The 53 - How to Handle 2014 RFA's on The 53

The Green Bay Packers have three restricted free agents currently on The 53: Chris Banjo (S), M.D. Jennings (S), and Jamari Lattimore (LB).  Banjo is a restricted exclusive rights free agent while Jennings and Lattimore are standard restricted free agents.  That means the Packers can deal with Banjo differently than Jennings and Lattimore so the Packers can retain Banjo in 2014 for roughly what he was paid in 2013 without any other team being able to sign him.  Given that Banjo earned a little more than $400,000 in 2013, even if he gets $50,000 raise, the Packers should tender Banjo so they have him on a non-guaranteed one-year contract for less than $500,000 in 2014.

Moving onto Jennings and Lattimore.  The Packers could tender them a one-year deal at various levels or offer them a long-term contract.  NFL teams usually tender one-year deals to restricted free agents to get them on the cheap for one more season before deciding whether to lock them up long-term since they become unrestricted free agents after their one-year restricted free agent deals expire.

Advice for Ted Thompson
How to Handle Players on 8-Man Practice Squad
How to Handle Players on Injured Reserve
How to Handle 2014 RFA's on The 53
How to Handle 2014 UFA's on The 53
Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53
First Look at the 2014 NFL Draft
Locks for The 53 for 2014
In 2013 the NFL had three levels of restricted free agents: $2.879 million for 1st round compensation, $2.023 million for 2nd round compensation, and $1.323 million for original draft round compensation.  If a player that was tendered a one-year, $2.879 million contract is offered a long-term deal by another team, the tendering team has the option to match that long-term deal.  If the tendering team does not match the long-term deal offered by another team, they get the other team's first round draft pick as compensation for losing that player.  Some NFL agents think that the restricted free agent system is rigged because players rarely change teams.  What happened last season for the Packers lends credence to that theory.

Last off-season the Packers rolled the dice by tendering a couple of starters lower than first round tenders.  The Packers tendered center Evan Dietrich-Smith a one-year, $1.323 million deal and cornerback Sam Shields a one-year, $2.023 million deal.  Since EDS was an undrafted free agent, if another team signed EDS to a long-term deal and the Packers did not match that deal, the Packers would have lost their starting center for no compensation.  At least with Shields, if another team signed Shields to a long-term deal and the Packers did not match that deal, the Packers would have gotten a second round pick as compensation.  As EDS and Shields showed on the field this year, they would have been great players to pluck from the Packers.  Both are among the 13 unrestricted free agents currently on The 53 that I will discuss how to handle tomorrow.

With all of that as background, let's actually talk about Jennings and Lattimore.  Being a borderline starter and a quality special teams contributor seems like the ceiling for both players.  I am more of a fan of Lattimore than Jennings but I am not sure either are worth paying upwards of $1 million in 2014 for their services so I would not tender either player.  I would approach both about accepting a one-year veteran minimum contract with an eye towards locking up Lattimore long-term, especially if the Packers decide to cut one of their two starting middle linebackers in 2013, A.J. Hawk or Brad Jones, before 2014.

Make sure to check back tomorrow when I give my advice to Thompson for how to handle the 13 unrestricted free agents currently on The 53.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Building The 53 - How to Handle Players on 2013 Injured Reserve

In case you missed it, yesterday I gave my thoughts on how Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson should handle the 8-man practice squad.  It turns out that later in the day Thompson signed six of the eight guys from the practice squad along with Chase Thomas (LB) and Jeremy Vujnovich (OT).  Thompson did not sign Lanier Coleman (G) and Tyrone Walker (WR) but they are still listed on the roster on  Given that Coleman is 27-years old, I am fine with the fact that Thompson did not sign him but I am shocked that Walker was not signed.  I get that all 10 guys are long-shots for The 53 in 2014 but Walker seemed to have the best odds of the group.

Today I wanted to turn to how Thompson should handle the 15 guys (ranked in the table below) that are currently on injured reserve.  A scan of the other 31 NFL teams shows that the Packers and Houston Texans currently have 15 players on injured reserve, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have 16 players on injured reserve, and the Indianapolis Colts lead the league with 17 players on injured reserve.

Advice for Ted Thompson
How to Handle Players on 8-Man Practice Squad
How to Handle Players on Injured Reserve
How to Handle 2014 RFA's on The 53
How to Handle 2014 UFA's on The 53
Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53
First Look at the 2014 NFL Draft
Locks for The 53 for 2014
Sheer numbers do not tell the whole story because as we saw when the Packers were without the services of starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, losing high-end players can be debilitating to a team.  That said, there is no denying that having to add 15 new players to The 53 is taxing on the front office and coaching staff.  Of the fifteen players currently on injured reserve, 11 are under contract for at least 2014 while four are set to become free agents.

Let's start with the four players that are set to become free agents: Jermichael Finley (TE), Robert Francois (LB), Johnny Jolly (DL), and Seneca Wallace (QB).  After being released by the Cleveland Browns before the 2012 season, Wallace did not get another look in the NFL till the San Francisco 49ers signed and subsequently cut him during the 2013 preseason.  Given how much Wallace struggled for the Packers this season, the easiest move is to let Wallace become a free agent.  Same for Francois.  Although Francois was a quality special teams guy, the Packers have a ton of other younger, cheaper options ahead of Francois at linebacker.

15 players on injured reserve
1. Jermichael Finley (TE)
2. Bryan Bulaga ()T)
3. Casey Hayward (CB)
4. Johnny Jolly (DL)
5. Jonathan Franklin (RB)
6. DuJuan Harris (RB)
7. Brandon Bostick (TE)
8. Greg Van Roten (C/G)
9. Sam Barrington (LB)

10. Robert Francois (LB)

11. Myles White (WR)
12. James Nixon (CB)
13. Kevin Dorsey (WR)
14. Sederrik Cunningham (WR)
15. Seneca Wallace (QB)
That leaves Finley and Jolly, which will be two of the hardest decisions for Thompson.  Both players are coming off serious spinal cord injuries with Finley's coming Week 5 at home against the Browns and Jolly's coming Week 14 at home against the Atlanta Falcons.  I had a bird's-eye view of Finley's injury and immediately thought that could be his last game in the NFL.  Jolly's injury, although serious, does not appear to be potentially career ending like Finley's injury because it happened to vertebra lower down the spine.  Both players need to be medically cleared by the Packers and given how cautious team doctor Pat McKenzie rightly was with Rodgers, I am not sure it is a given that those guys will be cleared but let's proceed as if both players are medically cleared.

Finley just completed a two-year, $14 million "prove-it" deal.  I would offer Finley another two-year deal but for $10 million total worth $5.5 million in 2014 (fully guaranteed) and $4.5 million (not guaranteed) in 2015.  Why $10 million? Apparently Finley has an insurance policy on his career worth that much money so that seems like the right financial carrot to waive in front of him.  If Finley shows that he is healthy, I would extend him long-term next off-season.  If Finley turns out to be a shell of his former self, the structure of the deal allows Thompson to cut Finley with no salary cap ramifications.

Moving onto Jolly, despite all of his off-the-field issues that resulted in him going to jail and prevented him from playing in the NFL for three years from 2010 to 2012, he looked like the same disruptive force along the defensive line in 2013 like he was in 2009.  I would sign Jolly to a three-year, $10.5 million contract with rolling guarantees in case injury or off-the-field issues hamper Jolly.

With the free agents out of the way that leaves the 11 other players currently on injured reserve that the Packers have under contract in 2014: Sam Barrington (LB), Brandon Bostick (TE), Bryan Bulaga (OT), Sederrik Cunningham (WR), Kevin Dorsey (WR), Johnathan Franklin (RB), Casey Hayward (CB), DuJuan Harris (RB), James Nixon (CB), Greg Van Roten (C/G), and Myles White (WR).

I see no reason to cut any of those 11 guys under contract at this point because if they are healthy, they are at least worth having around in training camp.  Of the 11 guys, I only see two guys as potential starters in 2014: Bulaga at left or right tackle and Hayward at nickel corner.

Of the nine guys left, I am highest on Barrington, Bostick, Franklin, Harris, and Van Roten.  Again if healthy, I see Franklin and Harris as virtual locks to make The 53 in 2014 while the fate of Barrington, Bostick, and Van Roten will be determined partly by their play and partly by others ahead of them on The 53.  That leaves Cunningham, Dorsey, Nixon, and White as long-shots to make The 53 in 2014 while most likely fighting hard to make the practice squad or show enough in preseason games next year to make another NFL roster.

Make sure to check back tomorrow when I breakdown how Thompson should handle the restricted free agents currently on The 53.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Building The 53 - How to Handle Players on 8-Man Practice Squad

I know the 2013 season is barely in the books for the Green Bay Packers following their 23-20 home playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers but Packers general manager Ted Thompson already has to starting planning The 53 for 2014.  Thompson currently has 76 players spread across The 53, 8-man practice squad, and 15 players on injured reserve under control until at least early March.  Although all 76 players do not have a contract with the Packers in 2014, I will do my best to advise Thompson on what players should stay and what players should go.  When you add in the draft and Thompson actually dabbling in the free agency if he wants the Packers to be a Super Bowl contender in 2014, there are a ton of decisions to make to put together The 53 for 2014.  In the past I wrote one long post about how Thompson should approach the off-season (2011, 2012, and 2013) but given all the moving parts, I am going to breakdown my advice into seven-parts.

Advice for Ted Thompson
How to Handle Players on 8-Man Practice Squad
How to Handle Players on Injured Reserve
How to Handle 2014 RFA's on The 53
How to Handle 2014 UFA's on The 53
Potential Salary Cap Casualties on The 53
First Look at the 2014 NFL Draft
Locks for The 53 for 2014
Thompson did not extend any players before the end of the regular season, which means the Packers will carry over roughly $9.8 million of cap space from 2013 to their 2014 salary cap.  The Packers have 48 players under contract for 2014 for a little more than $100 million.  Initial reports are that the salary cap will be roughly $127.5 million in 2014.  That sounds like the Packers will have a ton of salary cap space but they have 20 players that are set to either become restricted (3 players) or unrestricted (17 players) free agents in early March unless the Packers sign them to a contract extension, which makes every decision about The 53 for 2013 crucial.

8-man practice squad
1. Tyrone Walker (WR)
2. Garth Gerhart (C/OG)
3. Andrew Tiller (OG)
4. Antonio Dennard (CB)
5. Alex Gillett (WR)
6. Orwin Smith (RB)
7. Aaron Adams (OT)
8. Lanier Coleman (OG)
Without further adu, here are my thoughts on the final 8-man practice squad.  I am sure Thompson is going to sign all of the guys on the practice squad to future contracts.  That is essentially a cheap way to keep those players for the off-season on the cheap.

The guys with the best chance to make The 53 next season are Walker, Gerhart, and Tiller.  I am a huge fan of Walker's game so assuming he can contribute on special teams, I could see him as a cost-effective 5th wide receiver for the Packers in 2014.  The Packers have quality players at guard (T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton) and center (Evan Diretrich-Smith and JC Tretter) currently on The 53 but starting center EDS is set to become a free agent.  As I will discuss later this week when I breakdown how to handle the unrestricted free agents on The 53, I expect Thompson to re-sign EDS, but expect him to hedge with Gerhart and Tiller.  Although Gerhart is slightly undersized, I like his upside a little more than Tiller.

I know a discussion of the practice squad is not very sexy but make sure to check back tomorrow for my thoughts on how Thompson should handle the 15 players currently on injured reserve.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The 53 - Packers Lose Home Playoff Game to 49ers

The Green Bay Packers hosted the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the 2013 NFL Playoffs in front of 77,525 spectators at Lambeau Field.  The inactives for the Packers against the 49ers were: Chris Harper (WR, healthy scratch), Clay Matthews (OLB, broken thumb), Nate Palmer (LB, healthy scratch), Jumal Rolle (CB, healthy scratch), Lane Taylor (G, healthy scratch), Scott Tolzien (QB, healthy scratch), and JC Tretter (G, healthy scratch).

As we all know by now, the Packers fell to the 49ers on a last second field goal to end their season.  Since it is the last game of the season for the Packers, I will give a more traditional game review and my final rankings to The 53 (table blow).  I will not talk too much about long-term prospects for specific players on The 53 like I've done in previous reviews because starting tomorrow I am going to have a seven-part series of very specific advice for how Packers general manager Ted Thompson should approach The 53 for 2014.

Once upon a time the Green Bay Packers were 13-0 at home in the playoffs until 2001 when the Michael Vick lead Atlanta Falcons pummeled the Packers at Lambeau Field.  Including the loss to the Falcons and their loss last night to the 49ers, the Packers have now gone 3-5 at Lambeau Field with current Packers head coach Mike McCarthy just 2-3 at home in the playoffs.

Much like their recent playoff record at Lambeau Field, the Packers had a first quarter to forget.  The offense looked horrible going three-and-out on their first three drives.  The defense looked slightly better since they were able to hold the 49ers to two field goals, which meant that the Packers were only down 6-0 when they could have been down 14-0.  As if being down 6-0 at home in the playoffs is not bad enough, the Packers lost starting cornerback Sam Shields and outside linebacker Mike Neal for the rest of the game due to injury.

For how bad things went in the first quarter, the second quarter started off well as Packers cornerback Tramon Williams picked off 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  The interception gave the Packers offense the kick in the butt that they needed as they put together a great drive that ended with a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to wide receiver Jordy Nelson to put the Packers up 7-6.  On the ensuing drive the 49ers marched down the field and scored easily on a 10-yard run by running back Frank Gore.  The biggest play on that drive was a 42-yard run by Kaepernick.  The Packers got the ball back with 2:38 to play in the half and despite horrible clock management, they were able to kick a field goal to go into halftime down 13-10.

The 53
1. Aaron Rodgers (QB, LR 1)
2. Clay Matthews (OLB, LR 2)
3. Randall Cobb (WR, LR 3)
4. Jordy Nelson (WR, LR 4)
5. Eddie Lacy (RB, LR 5)
6. Josh Sitton (G, LR 7)
7. Sam Shields (CB, LR 6)
8. T.J. Lang (G, LR 8)
9. James Jones (WR, LR 9)
10. Tramon Williams (CB, LR 10)
11. David Bakhtiari (T, LR 11)
12. Evan Dietrich-Smith (C, LR 12)
13. Morgan Burnett (S, LR 13)
14. Mike Daniels (DL, LR 14)
15. Micah Hyde (CB, LR 15)
16. B.J. Raji (DL, LR 16)
17. Davon House (CB, LR 24)
18. Jarrett Boykin (WR, LR 17)
19. Don Barclay (T, LR 18)
20. Datone Jones (DL, LR 22)
21. Nick Perry (OLB, LR 23)
22. A.J. Hawk (MLB, LR 19)
23. James Starks (RB, LR 20)
24. Brad Jones (MLB, LR 21)
25. Tim Masthay (P, LR 25)
26. Ryan Pickett (DL, LR 26)
27. Josh Boyd (DL, LR 29)
28. John Kuhn (FB, LR 28)
29. Andrew Quarless (TE, LR 27)
30. Mason Crosby (K, LR 30)
31. Mike Neal (DL/OLB, LR 31)
32. Jamari Lattimore (LB, LR 32)
33. Jarrett Bush (CB, LR 33)
34. Derek Sherrod (T, LR 34)
35. Jerel Worthy (DE, LR 35)
36. Sean Richardson (S, LR 36)
37. Brett Goode (LS, LR 37)
38. Andy Mulamba (LB, LR 38)
39. Matt Flynn (QB, LR 39)
40. M.D. Jennings (S, LR 40)
41. Ryan Taylor (TE, LR 41)
42. J.C. Tretter (C, LR 42)
43. C.J. Wilson (DL, LR 43)
44. Chris Banjo (S, LR 44)
45. Scott Tolzien (QB, LR 45)
46. Victor Aiyewa (LB, LR 46)
47. Jake Stoneburner (TE, LR 47)
48. Nate Palmer (LB, LR 48)
49. Lane Taylor (G, LR 49)
50. Chris Harper (WR, LR 50)
51. Marshall Newhouse (T, LR 51)
52. Kahlil Bell (RB, LR 52)
The second half started with a whimper for both teams.  The 49ers received the ball but could not move it effectively so they were forced to punt.  The Packers returned the favor followed by the 49ers and Packers trading punts on three consecutive possessions.  With just over three minutes left in the 3rd quarter the Packers got the ball for the third time in the half.  As the drive spilled into the 4th quarter, thanks to an amazing escape by Rodgers, he was able to find wide receiver Randall Cobb for a 26-yard gain.  On the next play the Packers lost rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari to a concussion.  Despite having to put in the underwhelming Marshall Newhouse on the next play, Packers fullback John Kuhn scored on a one-yard run and attempted the worst Lambeau Leap in team history.  Even though Bakhtiari was going through the concussion protocol, he forced his way back on the field for the extra point to put the Packers up 17-13.

The 49er came back down and scored a touchdown thanks to two huge plays by Kaepernick, one with his feet and one with his arm, to put the 49ers up 20-17.  That meant the Packers got the ball back with just over 10 minutes to play.  The Packers put together a nice drive and faced a first and goal from the 9-yard line thanks to a 26-yard pitch and catch between Rodgers and Cobb.  On that play 49ers rookie safety Eric Reid got just enough of Cobb to prevent him from scoring.  Those are the kind of plays that the 49ers routinely make on defense while the Packers seem to make just every now and again.  After three unsuccessful attempts, the Packers were not able to get into the end zone so they settled for a 24-yard field goal by placekicker Mason Crosby to tie the score at 20.

The 49ers got the ball back at their own 20-yard line with just over five minutes to play.  Rookie cornerback Micah Hyde barely missed a pick-six that would have put the Packers up 27-20 with less than four minutes to play.  Just like cornerback Casey Hayward in 2012, Hyde has been a very good slot cornerback this season.  Hopefully both will be healthy in 2014 to give the Packers two very promising up-and-coming defensive backs.

The most pivotal play of the game came on 3rd and 8 from the Packers 38-yard line with just over a minute to play.  Given the cold conditions the 49ers were still out of field goal range and the Packers still had two timeouts.  The Packers much maligned defensive coordinator Dom Capers brought defensive back Jarrett Bush as a part of a six-man blitz.  Unfortunately Bush did not set the edge and the 49ers picked up the blitz so Kaepernick was able to get around Bush to scamper 11 yards for a first down.  That play was essentially the game because the 49ers milked the clock and place kicker Phil Dawson made a 33-yard field goal as time expired to give the 49ers a 23-20 victory.  Packers cornerback Davon House almost blocked the game winning field goal but was offsides so the block wouldn't have counted anyway.

If you can stomach it, here are the Packers/49ers game highlights.  As those highlights show, the margin for error in the playoffs is razor thin.  I can think of at least five plays, including a few discussed above, that if they went slightly different would have resulted in a Packers win instead of a heart-breaking loss.  There were a couple of things that seemed to hang over the Packers this season that were exposed against the 49ers: feast-or-famine offense, red-zone inefficiency by the offense, and the inability to contain a rushing quarterback on defense.

Let's start with the offense.  The Packers had two long, methodical touchdown drives but they also had five drives that picked up less than 10 yards and ended with a punt.  In just his second game back after almost a two month layoff due to a broken collarbone, Rodgers was just 17 for 26 throwing for 177 yards and a touchdown.  Those are not horrible numbers but much less that we've come to expect from the former NFL MVP.  The biggest killer on offense was having a first and goal from the 9-yard line down three points with less than seven minutes to play but having to settle for a field goal.  The Packers have the quarterback (Rodgers), running back (Lacy), and wide receivers (Cobb, Nelson and Company).  Whether it be an athletic tight end (Finley or another healthy guy) or a taller receiver, the Packers need a bigger red-zone target in 2014.

Shifting to the defense.  Kaepernick's passing numbers were not all that impressive (16 for 30, 227 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception) but his rushing numbers (7 carries for 98 yards), including the 11-yard run that salted away the game, were what killed the Packers.  Sure the Packers were without their two best outside linebackers (Matthews and Neal) and cornerback (Shields) for most of the game but injuries are still no excuse for Kaepernick running all over the defense.  ESPN's stats & info broke down how Kaepernick's scrambling ability added the two highest amounts to a team's win probability in a playoff game since 2006.  When the Vikings had Randy Moss, the Packers were forced to add taller defensive backs to counter him.  Although the 49ers are not in the same division as the Packers, they've played each other four times in the last two seasons so despite drafting six consecutive players to start the 2012 NFL Draft, the Packers will most likely have to re-load on defense again.

Every NFL season starts with 32 teams excited but ends with only one team ecstatic and the other 31 teams disappointed.  Unfortunately it has been quadruple disappointment for the Packers at the hands of the 49ers to start and finish the season the last two years.  Luckily the 49ers are not on the regular season slate for the Packers next season.  Although anything less than a Super Bowl victory is disappointing for the Packers, let's not forget that 2013 was an entertaining roller-coaster ride that included two of the five most entertaining regular season road games of my lifetime when Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in Week 15 and the Chicago Bears in Week 17.

In the past I've written one long post with advice for Packer general manager Ted Thompson.  This season I decided to spread that advice over the next week with a seven-part series starting tomorrow with how Thompson should handle the 8-man practice squad.  Make sure to check back regularly over the next week as I dispense my advice for how Thompson can improve The 53 for 2014 in hopes of winning Super Bowl XLIX.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Building The 53 - Top 25 Wisconsin Badger NFL Prospects from 2014 Capital One Bowl

The 19th ranked Wisconsin Badgers played the 8th ranked South Carolina Gamecocks for the first time in the 2014 Capital One Bowl.  This marks the second time in three years that the Gamecocks played in the Capitol One Bowl, two years ago they beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers 30-13.  The last time the Badgers appeared in the Capitol One Bowl was 2006 when then first-year Badger head coach Bret Bielema beat the Arkansas Razorbacks 17-14.  Bielema left Wisconsin to become the head coach at Arkansas between the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game and the 2013 Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately the Badgers continued their struggles in bowl games losing their fourth in a row. The Badgers lost three consecutive Rose Bowls: 21-19 to TCU in 2011, 45-38 to Oregon in 2012, and 20-14 to Stanford in 2013.  Following their 34-24 loss to the Gamecocks in the 2014 Capital One Bowl that means the last time the Badgers won a bowl game was the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl 20-14 over Miami.

The Gamecocks have a number of players that will play in the NFL.  The headliner of that group is junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney that declared for the 2014 NFL Draft right after the Capital One Bowl since he will most likely be the top pick. Other Gamecocks that impressed me were quarterback Connor Shaw, running back Mike Davis, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, and linebacker Skai Moore.

There are a number of other outlets where you can get the full recap of the 2014 Capitol One Bowl but I am much more interested in what Badgers from the 2014 Capital One Bowl will succeed in the NFL.  A college player must have been out of high school for three years in order to be eligible for the NFL Draft.  That means if a player red-shirts, he could technically enter the NFL Draft as a red-shirt ("RS") sophomore.  Any underclassmen (RS Sophomore, Junior, or RS Junior) must declare for the 2014 NFL Draft by January 15, 2014.  Here are the Top 25 NFL prospects current on the Badgers' roster:

#25) Young Non-Starting Offensive Lineman:  Seven Badger offensive lineman were taken in the NFL Draft the last three years, which is the most of any school in the country so there is a good chance that one of the following young Badger offensive lineman will be playing in the NFL in three or four years: Ray Ball (SO, G, 6'7" & 321 lbs), Hayden Biegel (FR, T, 6'6" & 281 lbs), Ben Hemer (FR, OL, 6'4" & 275 lbs), Walker Williams (FR, T, 6'7" & 322 lbs), or one of the handful of other big uglies not currently listed on the depth chart.

#24) Kenzel Doe (KR/WR, JR): Every year there is a slightly built but speedy return guy that makes a splash in the NFL.  Doe had a big return in the 2014 Capitol One Bowl to bring the Badgers within three points.  Those are the kind of game-changing plays that could catapult Doe from an undrafted rookie free agent in the 2015 NFL Draft to a spot on the practice squad or even The 53 of an NFL team in 2015.

#23) Vince Biegel (OLB, RS FR): If Biegel can improve his pass rushing moves, look for him to climb this rankings quickly and turn into a nice prospect for the 2017 NFL Draft.

#22) Pat Muldoon (DE, RS SR): This season Muldoon was named All-Big Ten honorable mention but I am not sure that is enough to get him selected in the 2014 NFL Draft.

#21) Ethan Hemer (DE/OLB, SR): Went from walk-on to finally earning a scholarship a year ago.  At 6'6" and 285 lbs, it will be interesting to see if Hemer can go through a Mike Neal-esque transition from defensive line to outside linebacker in the NFL.  Much like Muldoon, I expect Hemer to go undrafted in the 2014 NFL Draft.

#20) Derek Landisch (LB, JR): Despite being a middle-of-the-road recruit, Landisch was named Rookie of the Year in 2011.  Landisch's slight build at 6'0" and 230 lbs means he will really have to show well next season to get selected in the 2015 NFL Draft.

#19) Dan Voltz (C, RS FR): Came to Wisconsin as a tackle/guard but has seen action at center so far for the Badgers.  There is a chance that Voltz could swing to one of the guard positions but given that he is only 6'3", I would be shocked if he got a chance at tackle.  Needs to focus on one position to improve and give scours tape to judge whether he looks like a real NFL prospect.

#18) Dallas Lewallen (C, RS JR): Next season is going to be big for Lewallen because injuries really made it hard to tell whether he can play on Sundays.

#17) Kyle Costigan (RG, RS JR): Switched from defensive line to offensive line before the 2012 season.  The transition has gone better than I expected.  Hopefully with another year under his belt next season he will show enough to get drafted towards the end of the 2015 NFL Draft.

#16) Bart Houston (QB, FR):  The former De La Salle High School player had shoulder surgery on December 1, 2012 and only played in two games this season for the Badgers.  At 6'4" and 214 lbs, Houston projects as an athletic spinner with a good chance to start at quarterback for the Badgers in 2015.

#15) Derek Watt (FB, SO): The cliche description of Watt is to talk about his older brother J.J. but let's focus on Derek.  With all the spread offenses run in college and the NFL, the fullback position is continuing to be marginalized.  That means guys like Watt need to be one of the three or four best at the position along with showing that he can be a contributor on special teams in the NFL if he wants to play on Sunday.  I see Watt as a late round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

#14) Joel Stave (QB, RS SO): I really only ranked Stave this high because he plays quarterback.  Stave commits way too many turnovers, which is unacceptable given that the Badgers have arguably the most productive two-headed running back monster in college football.  With 19 games under his belt, the Badgers expect more from Stave.

#13) Beau Allen (DT, SR): I am shocked how many big-time Minnesota recruits in basketball and football decide to go to Wisconsin over Minnesota.  Allen is the next in a long line of natives of Minnesota that chose to become a Badgers over settling for being a Gopher.  It feels like Allen has been at Wisconsin for a million years given that he has played all four years.  Not sure whether Allen will get drafted in the 2014 NFL Draft but at 6'3" and 325 lbs he looks like a big enough space eater to play in the NFL.

#12) Dezmen Southward (S, RS SR): I was tempted to move Southward much higher on this list given that he is 6'2 and 210 lbs but he did not make enough plays on the field to warrant a higher ranking.  The safety position is weak in the 2014 NFL Draft after Alabama safety Ha'Sean "Ha Ha" Clinton-Dix.  If Southward tests well at the NFL Combine and Wisconsin's Pro Day, I could see him creeping up the draft board to possibly be a late round draftee in the 2014 NFL Draft.

#11) Tanner McEvoy (QB/S, RS SO): Let me set the stage.  McEvoy red-shirted for the Gamecocks in 2011 before transferring to Arizona Western College where he excelled at quarterback.  The Badgers played McEvoy at safety even though they are going to give him a chance to win the starting quarterback job next season.  Sure McEvoy might be able to spin the ball but at 6'6" and 223 lbs, given the proliferation of all the tall tight ends and wide receivers in the NFL, I would rather see McEvoy stick at safety since there are very few safeties even 6'2" in the NFL let alone 6'6".

#10) Tyler Marz (LT, RS SO): The NFL is looking for the next Joe Thomas as opposed to Gabe Carimi to come out of Wisconsin.  Meritz clearly had the body to be Thomas but those are pretty big shoes to fill given that Thomas is the best offensive lineman in program history.

#9) Corey Clement (FR, RB): Usually the Badgers have a nice stable of running backs but last year was their high watermark in program history with Montee Ball, James White, and Melvin Gordon because there is a chance that all three of those guys will get meaningful carries in the NFL by 2015.  With Ball getting drafted in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, everyone moved up one spot in the pecking order with White replacing Ball, Gordon replacing White, and Clement replacing Gordon.  In limited action this season Clement looks like the next coming of Melvin Gordon.  How healthy Clement stays will determine whether he turns into a bona fide NFL prospect by the 2016 NFL Draft.

#8) Michael Caputo (S, RS SO): One of the surest tacklers on the team gives the Badgers a real thumper at safety.  Caputo needs to put on some more muscle because I am still not sure he is strong enough to play on Sundays yet but given that he has the ball skills, two years in the weight room could turn him into a mid-round draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

#7) James White (RB, SR): After an impressive freshman season, White has been under the radar as he was overshadowed by Montee Ball the last couple years and Melvin Gordon this year.  Given White's shiftiness and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, I see him as a poor man's Darren Sproles in the NFL.  I see White as a late round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft that could be a one of the steals of the draft.

#6) Rob Havenstein (RT, RS JR): At 6'8" and 327 lbs, Havenstein is almost has too big of a frame for the NFL but if Havenstein can perform well while staying healthy, look for him to be a mid-round prospect in the 2015 NFL Draft.

#5) Ryan Groy (LG, SR):  Although guard looks like his best position, Groy can play any position along the offensive line so I see him being the eighth Badger offensive lineman drafted in the last four years.

#4) Sojourn Shelton (CB, FR): Although Shelton is only 5'9" & 172 pounds, he has been the most consistent defensive back on the team while leading the Badgers in interceptions.  Shelton is a pretty good tackler as well despite his slight frame.  If Shelton continues on his current trajectory, he might even sneak into the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. 

#3) Jared Abbrederis (WR, RS SR): Walk-on turned NFL draftee projects as a poor man's Jordy Nelson in the NFL.  I see Abbrederis as a mid-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft unless he can put up impressive numbers at the NFL combine and his pro day to improve his draft stock.

#2) Chris Borland (LB, SR): The first Badger defender named an All American since defensive end Erasmus James in 2004 is probably the best defensive player in program history.  Given all the injuries that Borland overcame in college, there is no question that he has the mental fortitude to play in the NFL.  Borland plays middle linebacker though so at 5'11" and 246 lbs we are probably looking at the defensive Russell Wilson, which means Borland will drop a little too far in the 2014 NFL Draft and three years from now the other 31 NFL teams will ask their scouting department why they didn't advise taking Borland earlier in the 2014 NFL Draft.  After watching Borland's entire career, trust me, whatever NFL team drafts him will not regret that decision.  My guess is that Borland goes in the 3rd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

#1) Melvin Gordon (RB, RS SO): Although Gordon is eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft, he recently announced that he is going to return to return for his junior season.  No disrespect to Ron Dayne or Montee Ball but even before the season there was talk that Gordon could be the best running back in Badger history.   If Gordon declared for the draft I would rate him as a late first or early second round pick.  Hopefully Gordon will put together a Heisman worthy season next year for the Badgers to make a push for the Top 10 in the 2015 NFL Draft.

If you enjoyed my extended thoughts on the best NFL prospects for the Badgers, make sure to check back as we get closer to the 2014 NFL Draft for even more draft coverage.