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.

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