Sunday, March 9, 2014

Building The 53 - Updated Advice for Thompson on Members of The 53 for Packers in 2013

I ran an extensive seven-part series in early January for how I thought Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson should approach the off-season (Practice Squad, Injured Reserve, RFA's, UFA's, Potential Cap Casualties, First Look @ 2014 NFL Draft, and Locks for The 53 in 2014).  So far Thompson has not followed very much of my advice besides re-signing cornerback Sam Shields.  We are still awaiting the final details of the contract but early reports are that it is a four-year, $39 million deal.  It will be interesting to see the structure of the contract because before that the Packers had roughly $35 million in salary cap space, my guess is that Shields will eat up at least $10 million of that salary space in 2014.

Anyone that follows the NFL knows that Thompson rarely signs free agents.  Even if Thompson does signs free agents, it is usually younger, low-priced players or guys that grew up as a Packer.  Besides Shields, the Packers have not resigned any of their impending unrestricted free agents that spent time on The 53 for the Packers in 2013.  At the very least, almost all of those players are worth resigning for next season to a one-year, veteran minimum deal (center Evan Dietrich-Smith, quarterback Matt Flynn, wide receiver James Jones, fullback John Kuhn, outside linebacker Mike Neal, defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, tight end Andrew Quarless, defensive lineman B.J. Raji, running back James Starks, and defensive lineman C.J. Wilson) besides (running back Kahlil Bell, linebacker Robert Francois, offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, and quarterback Seneca Wallace).  Obviosuly some of those guys are worth more than just the veteran minimum so here are my updated thoughts on that front.

Last season Kuhn proved that the fullback position is still relevant given that Kuhn's block helped spring the two biggest plays of the season: Lacy's 60-yard run to spur their miracle comeback against the Cowboys and the Rodgers to Cobb touchdown pass to beat the Bears to win the NFC North.  Despite signing fullback Ina Liaina earlier this off-season, the Packers should resign Kuhn to a two-year, $2.5 million deal with $500,000 guaranteed.

Although I like quarterback Scott Tolzien more than Flynn as a long-term prospect behind Rodgers, in the short run Flynn gives the Packers a better chance to win if Rodgers is out for an extended period time next season.  I would expect the interest in Flynn to be tepid given that he has a reputation for being a 9-to-5 guy with a below average arm that was cut from two quarterback needy teams (Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills) last season.  Flynn already made upwards of $20 million between stints in Green Bay so his next contract has to be more about comfort than hammering paychecks.  I would offer Flynn a three-year deal worth slightly more than the veteran minimum with a $500,000 signing bonus and some performance guarantees.  Even if Flynn gets a more lucrative offer elsewhere I wonder if he would want to join his fifth NFL team in less than two years. My guess is that Flynn winds up with the Packers next season.

The Packers have to give wide receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson expensive long-term extensions in the next year, which cuts against offering Jones a contract but if Jones is willing to sign an identical deal to the one he just completed (three-years, $9.7 million with $2.3 million guaranteed) the Packers might be able to keep Cobb, Jones, and Nelson for the next three years while shuffling in Jarrett Boyking-eque players as 4th and 5th wide receivers.

The Packers could have a totally revamped defensive line next season if they lose all four of their free agent defensive lineman: Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, and C.J. Wilson.  If that happens it would leave the Packers with four young guys along the defensive line in Josh Boyd, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, and Jerel Worthy.  Although Raji might have the highest upside, Jolly and Pickett have proven to be useful 3-4 defensive lineman that could be more cost-effective given that most 3-4 defensive lineman are more space eaters than playmakers.  Despite Jolly coming off a serious spinal cord injury, after Raji, I like Jollly slightly more than Pickett.  Even given the flood of quality 3-4 defensive lineman set to be on the free agent market, I would offer Jolly and Pickett identical two-year, $3 million deals with $1.5 million guaranteed.  If either of them are offered a richer contract by another NFL, I would ask them to at least check back before signing elsewhere but I would be surprised if either got a bigger contract offer on the open market.

There was some speculation a few months ago that former defensive lineman turned outside linebacker Mike Neal might get a similar deal to what outside linebacker Erik Walden signed last off-season with the Indianapolis Colts (four-years, $16 million).  That seems ridiculous to me but I would support the Packers giving Neal a three-year, $7.5 million deal with $2.5 million guaranteed that contained some sack and tackle for loss incentives.

The Packers reportedly offered Raji a long-term deal that averaged $8 million a year last season that Raji turned down.  Yikes, either Raji or his agent clearly miscalculated his value because the Packers now reportedly only have a one-year, $4 million "prove it" deal on the table.  Given that defensive lineman in a 3-4 defense do not rack up big sack or tackle for loss numbers, if Raji wants to sign a lucrative long-term deal I actually think it makes more sense for Raji to take a one-year "prove it" deal with a 4-3 team instead of returning to the Packers.  Only time will tell but $4 million for 2014 for Raji's services seems like a great deal for the Packers but a horrible deal for Raji so I expect him to test the free agent market.

Athletic hybrid tight end/wide receivers are a requirement for NFL teams as opposed to a luxury at this point and when healthy, Finley is exactly that type of player.  By all accounts it looks like Finley is rounding into playing shape.  The question is whether Pat McKenzie, the notoriously conservative Packers team doctor, will give Finley a clean bill of health.  If McKenzie signs off on Finley's health, the Packers should throw out a long-term deal (i.e. five-year, $25 million deal) with a modest signing bonus ($5 million) that contains rolling guarantees payable in each subsequent league year.  That contract structure would allow the Packers to get Finely's services long-term at a more cost-effective number.  If Finely turns out to be healthy the next few years and outplays his deals, the Packers could always re-negotiate to add money to Finley's contract.  If Finley is not healthy enough then the Packers could walk away at any point without any significant salary cap ramifications due to the structure of the rolling guarantees.

I am sure there are some Packers fans that are delusional enough to think that they can break the bank for center Alex Mack.  The Browns placed the transition tag on Mack but have so much salary cap space that even if the Packers offered Mack a severely front-end loaded deal, the Browns would most likely match it.  Even leaving aside that spending big money on centers in a zone-blocking scheme seems foolish, the Packers know that Evan Dietrich-Smith fits well in their up-tempo offensive scheme.  The four-year, $16 million deal with $8 million guaranteed that I said Thompson should offer EDS earlier this off-season still feels like a fair deal for both sides.

The Packers are usually proactive in locking up their own players long-term before they become unrestricted free agents.  Unfortunately they did not do that this year presumably in part because the salary cap was projected to be almost $10 million less than it turned out to be.  If the Packers pushed hard to get some of the guys just discussed above to sign extensions earlier this off-season, it would have allowed them to sign some of those guys to below market deals under the guise of having salary cap constraints that never actually came to fruition.  Now that $10 million more became available for each team the asking price increased for some guys, which might have priced guys like Jones and Neal out of Green Bay.  With my updated thoughts for how I think Thompson should approach members of The 53 for the Packers in 2013 out of the way, make sure to check back tomorrow for my thoughts on how Thompson can realistically re-build the defense via free agency.

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