Saturday, March 15, 2014

Building The 53 - The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly 1.0

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson rarely makes headlines in free agency but on the brink of free agency Thompson did exactly that when he signed cornerback Sam Shields to a four-year, $39 million contract with $12.5 million guaranteed.  The fact that Thompson made headlines even before the start of free agency might have been a harbinger of things to come because so far Thompson has been very active in free agency by his standards.  Less than a week into free agency, here are my initial thoughts.

The Good
A few days ago I gave Thompson a blueprint for how to re-build the defense via free agency. Although Thompson did not sign the specific players I highlighted, he did follow four of my five pieces of advice: did not sign an expensive safety, signed a cost-effective outside linebacker in Mike Neal, signed a cost-effective defensive lineman in B.J. Raji, and signed an expensive pass rusher in Julius Peppers.  The only piece of advice that Thompson has ignored whole cloth is failing to sign Charles Woodson, which is still a possibly given that he is still free agent.  There is no doubt that Woodson would be a welcomed addition even considering all the moves made by Thompson so far this off-season.
Let's start with the Neal deal.  Thompson gave Neal a two-year, $8 million contract with $2.5 million guaranteed.  I thought a three-year, $7.5 million deal with $2.5 million guaranteed seemed fair so the deal Neal signed is slightly more expensive than I would have liked but still a reasonable, cost-effective move nonetheless.  After switching from defensive line to outside linebacker last season, Neal showed the ability to rush the passer but struggled to drop into coverage.  It will be interesting to see if the Packers keep Neal at outside linebacker given the addition of Peppers and the presence of Nick Perry on The 53.

Let's move on to Raji.  In the middle of last season the Packers reportedly offered Raji a long-term deal worth $8 million a year.  In less than six months things have changed dramatically for Raji given that he settled for a one-year, $4 million "prove-it" deal with the Packers.  Although Raji was less than impressive last season, some of that had to do with the lack of big plays the players around Raji produced so he has to be excited about the Peppers signing.

According to initial reports Peppers signed a three-year, $30 million contract with $7.5 million guaranteed that pays him $8.5 million next season.  The Packers rarely sign free agents that played for other NFL teams, let along 34-year old free agents that played for a divisional rival.  The reason that the Packers signed Peppers is that he is a versatile pass rusher that can lineup at outside linebacker or defensive end in a 3-4 or as an inside pass rush in the nickel.  I've long been a fan of Peppers, which is why I advised Thompson to add Peppers back in 2009.
Three years, $30 million feels like a lot of money for a player in his mid-30's but let's compare that to the deal that DeMarcus Ware just signed.  Ware is a very similar player in terms of versatility and production that is just two years younger than Peppers.  Ware recently signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Denver Broncos but $23 million of that deal is guaranteed.  If the Peppers experiment fails next season the Packers can cut Peppers with very little salary cap ramifications while the Broncos are married to Ware through 2016.  Although I like Ware slightly more than Peppers as a player at this point, when you factor in the structure of each of their contracts, I am a much bigger fan of the Peppers deal.

With Raji and Peppers in the fold, the Packers now have a ton of quality depth along the defensive line to go along with Josh Boyd, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, and Jerel Worthy. The Packers still have the option of resigning defensive lineman Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett but I would be surprised if the Packers signed either player unless they accept a cheap, one-year deal.

The Bad
Besides Jolly and Pickett, the Packers still have tons of free agents that were on The 53 last season that have not signed a contract with an NFL team for 2014.  I am not going to give another detailed breakdown of what Thompson should do since I already did that for the RFA's and UFA's in early January that I updated a week ago.  The one specific piece of advice that I will mention for Thompson is that I still think it is worth signing tight end Jermichael Finley or wide receiver James Jones to a long-term deal.  Besides that, Thompson should let other teams sign the remaining free agents to big money deals.  Once those deals are done, hopefully that will allow Thompson to sign the rest of the players to cheaper, short-term contracts.

The Ugly 
The Packers had 19 players on The 53 last season that were set to become restricted or unrestricted free agents this off-season.  Once Thompson resigned Shields, I thought resigning center Evan Dietrich-Smith became the highest priority.  Earlier this off-season I advised Thompson to sign EDS to a four-year, $16 million deal with $8 million.   Ultimately EDS signed a four-year, $14.25 million deal and $7.25 million guaranteed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so the Bucs and I clearly value EDS more than Thompson.  This marks the second year in a row that the Packers needlessly lost a free agent to the Bucs.  Last year the Packers lost tight end Tom Crabtree, which I thought was a huge loss at the time.  Unfortunately I think losing EDS is even worse than losing Crabtree.

I know center is not the sexiest position in football but the Packers struggled to replace center Scott Wells after he signed a big free agent deal in 2012 with the St. Louis Rams.  The Packers replaced Wells with Jeff Saturday, which was a huge downgrade till EDS unseated Saturday. Now the Packers have to start over again at center, which tells me they learned nothing from the Wells/Saturday debacle.  The 2014 NFL Draft doesn't look to have an immediate starter at center, which means the Packers will most likely have to fill that void via free agency or in-house.  The one silver lining is that the Packers look settled at tackle (David Bakhtiari at left tackle & Bryan Bulaga at right tackle) and guard (Josh Sitton at left guard and T.J. Lang at right guard) so they can focus on center.

If the Packers look to free agency the only top-end option left is former New Orleans Saints center Brian De La Puente.  I may be in the minority but I favor EDS over De La Puente so I am not sure it is worth breaking the bank for De La Puente.  That means Thompson will most likely have to fill the void a center in-house.  At this point it looks like a two-person battle between J.C. Tretter and Don Barclay.  Tretter tore ligaments in his ankle and fractured his fibula during an off-season workout on May 20, 2013 but thankfully recovered enough to make The 53 at the end of last season.  Barclay is sort of a wild card because he played well at right tackle last season in place of Bryan Bulaga.  When EDS was injured the Packers moved Lang to center, Barclay to right guard and inserted Marshall Newhouse at right tackle.  Barclay had mixed results at right guard, which makes me question how well he could do at center but some of that could be chalked up to how much Newhouse struggled at tackle.  Until the Packers inevitably suffer another injury along the offensive line that leaves Barclay without a job unless he can move to center so Barclay oddly looks like the front runner at center at this point despite never playing the position.

With the Peppers deal out of the way, I presume Thompson will lay low for the next week.  If Thompson makes any significant moves though, make sure to check back for full coverage in this space.

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