Monday, March 10, 2014

Building The 53 - How Thompson can Rebuild the Defense via Free Agency

Yesterday I posted my updated thoughts on how Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson should approach players on The 53 for the Packers in 2013 that are set to become free agents.  Thompson rarely delves into free agency but today I wanted to give him a realistic blueprint for how to fix the defense via free agency.  I could just advise Thompson to sign the top five defensive free agents but we know that is virtually impossible for any team to do, let a long a team like the Packers that rarely dabbles in free agency, so here are the types of players that Thompson should target in the free agency to help rebuild the defense for next season.

Avoid Expensive Safeties: The free agent safety position is very deep this year and coincidentally that is currently the biggest need for the Packers.  Right now Jarius Byrd and T.J. Ward are the two most attractive free agents but there is also a second tier of free agent safeties that includes the likes of Malcom Jenkins, Donte Whitner, Antoine Bethea, Mike Mitchell, and Louis Delmas.  Given the positional need I was tempted to advise Thompson to spend heavily on a safety but for three reasons.  First, the Packers gave safety Morgan Burnett a five-year, $26 million deal with $8.25 million guaranteed last off-season and the Packers can only commit so much money to the position.  Second, since the Packers signed Sheilds to a four-year, $39 million contract they now have five potential starting cornerbacks on The 53 in Shields, Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, Davon House, and Micah Hyde.  Instead of handing out a big free agent contract to Byrd or Ward, it makes much more senses to move Hyde to safety. Third, even if the Packers move Hyde to safety, they might be able to get Ha Ha Clinton Dix or Calvin Pryor with their first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, which would give them a couple more cost-effective options than Byrd or Ward.  Leaving all that rational thought aside players like Byrd and Ward rarely hit free agency so if there was no salary cap I would be fine with the Packers signing either of them to a contract that is slightly more expensive than Burnett's contract but realistically it just makes more sense to move Hyde to safety, draft a safety, or sign a cheaper veteran to a short-term deal.

Cost-Effective Outside Linebacker: A week ago it looked like Brian Orakpo and Jason Worilds, the two most attractive free agents at outside linebacker, were going to get to test the free agent market.  Unfortunately their employers for 2013 used different tags to essentially take them off the market: Orakpo (Franchise Tag, Redskins) and Worilds (Transition Tag, Steelers).  If the Packers tried to sign Orakpo to an expensive long-tern deal it would cost them two first round picks on top of the expensive contract they gave Orakpo, which makes no senses. The Packers might have offered Worilds a long-term deal since it would not have cost them draft picks to do so given that the Steelers only put the transition tag on him.  The upshot of the transition tag is that it gives teams the right to match whatever offer-sheet a player signs but given that the Steelers have very little salary cap space, they most likely would not have been unable to match any front-end loaded deal another team offered Worlids.  This is all water under the bridge given that Worilds signed his tender, which prevented him from shopping around for a lucrative long-term deal elsewhere, an odd choice by Worlids to say the least.  That leaves veterans over the age of 30 like Shaun Phillips and Calvin Pace or younger players like O'Brien Schofield.  I've long been an admirer of Schofield's talents dating back to his days at Wisconsin.  Unfortunately Schofield was rehabbing a serious knee injury heading into the 2010 NFL Draft, which caused him to drop from a first round prospect to a mid-round prospect.  It seems like that injury has clouded Schofield's NFL career so far.  Given that Schofield re-negotiated his deal last season to take less money as a member of the Seattle Seahawks and just finished his rookie contract, I am sure that he is looking to get paid this off-season.  A two-year, $2.5 million deal with $750,000 guaranteed makes sense to me for Schofield.  Moving onto the older options, I favor Phillips over Pace.  The Packers rarely sign free agents, let alone guys that are in their 30's but the beauty of giving Phillips a one-year, $1.5 million deal is that he gives the Packers a proven pass rusher opposite Claymaker.  Sure that might stunt Nick Perry's grow or mean that Mike Neal signs elsewhere but the Packers need actual production at outside linebacker from someone besides Claymaker.

Expensive Pass Rusher: The Packers used first round picks in the last two drafts on pass rushers: defensive end/outside linebacker Nick Perry in 2012 and defensive lineman Datone Jones in 2013.  So far Perry and Jones have been underwhelming to say the least.  Part of that is due to the fact that the Packers are not playing both guys in their proper position.  The Packers tried to get Perry to play outside linebacker even though he played defensive end in college because the Packers are desperately seeking an outside linebackers to play opposite Clay Matthews.  Jones looked like Cullen Jenkins 2.0 going into the 2013 NFL Draft but struggled last season to live up to the hype as a rookie.  I expect Jones to have a huge sophomore season in the NFL next year given that defensive line has one the highest learning curves from college to the NFL.  I've long advocated that the Packers should occasionally line-up in a 4-3 scheme mostly because it would play to the strengths of The 53, especially Jones as an inside pass rusher and Perry from his natural position of defensive end.  If the Packers don't want to mix it up on defense then throwing big money after Michael Bennett or Michael Johnson is just throwing good money away but if they are open to playing some 4-3 then spending some serious money on Bennett or Johnson, i.e. five-years, $30 million with $12.5 million guaranteed, actually seems prudent.

Charles Woodson (S): Last season was the first year that the Packers went an entire season without an interception by one of their safeties in over 60 years.  Woodson was only a member of The 53 for the Packers for seven seasons but I don't think it is a coincidence the year that Woodson leaves the safeties fail to get an interception.  I valued Woodson so much for the Packers last year that I advocated for them to keep him at his bloated $10 million salary instead of cutting him like they ultimately did.  Woodson ultimately played for the Oakland Raiders for a fraction of $10 million last season but his presence might have been the difference last season for the Packers.  I know that seems totally impractical given that Woodson is more of a gambler at this point in his career but with how many big plays the safeties gave up last season for the Packers, at least if Woodson was on the team you know some of those plays would have been turnovers.  In honor of his number, the Packer should give Woodson a one-year, $2.1 million deal to finish out his career in Green Bay.  Assuming Woodson stays healthy, worst case scenario he plays a hybrid corner/safety for the Packers and creates a handful of turnovers in 2014.  Best cases scenario, Woodson takes Hayward and Hyde under his wing to help them turn into younger, better versions of him for the Packers for the next decade.  Plus I want to be able to wear my Charles Woodson jersey some weekends again next season to give my Eddie Lacy jersey an occasional rest.

Moderately Prices Defensive Lineman: There is a ton of depth at defensive line in free agency, which is helpful for the Packers given that they could lose all three players (Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett, and B.J. Raji) that started along the defensive line for them last season to free agency.  There are too many options to name but on the more expensive side I favor the likes of Linval Joseph, Lamar Houston, and Arthur Jones while on the more cost-effective side I favor the likes Tyson Jackson, Ziggy Hood, Justin Tuck, and Willie Young.  Of all the player just discussed, Joseph looks like the perfect combo defensive lineman to play all three defensive line positions for the Packers in 2014 so I hope the Packers offer Joseph a five-year, $20 million deal with $7.5 million guaranteed.

Teams can negotiate with free agent but cannot officially sign most of those players until Tuesday.  Hopefully Thompson will take some of my advice above.  Either way, make sure to check back in this space for full coverage this week as players actually start to sign.

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