Monday, April 7, 2014

Building The 53 - The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly 2.0

The 2014 NFL off-season is turning out to be one of the most active of Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson's tenure.  Thompson followed up the Julius Peppers signing last week by adding another former NFC North foe when he signed former Minnesota defensive tackle Letroy Guion to a one-year, $1 million contract with $100,000 guaranteed.  Slowly but surely Thompson is building the defensive portion of The 53 to be the most versatile of his tenure.  Here is my second look at Thompson's performance so far this off-season.

The Good
Despite the fact that Thompson is spending money like a drunken sailor compared to previous off-season, the Packers will always be predominately built through the NFL Draft.  The NFL recently awarded the compensatory picks for teams that lost free agents following the 2012 season for the 2014 NFL Draft.  The Packers got an extra 3rd round pick (98th overall) for losing wide receiver Greg Jennings to the Minnesota Vikings (signed a five-year, $45 million deal with $17.8 million guaranteed) and a 5th round pick (176th overall) for losing outside linebacker Erik Walden to the the Indianapolis Colts (signed a four-year, $16 million deal with $8 million guaranteed).  I would say the Packers won big-time by letting both guys leave because not only did they both sign what look like a above market deals relative to their skill sets but the Packers can use the salary cap space that would have been allocated to overpaying both guys to invest in better, younger players.  Even better, Thompson gets two extra picks in one of the deepest drafts in the last decade for showing fiscal restraint.

I seem to be in the minority with this viewpoint but as the market for pass rushers continues to shake out, I continue to think the Peppers deal looks like a steal.  The Packers only committed $7.5 million in guaranteed money to Peppers while the Bears signed former Viking Jared Allen to a four-year, $32 million deal with $15.5 million guaranteed.  The Peppers contract is worth a maximum of $26 million over three years not $30 million as was originally reported.  Given the versatility that Peppers gives the Packers to play defensive end or outside linebacker, I would much rather have Peppers than Allen despite the fact that Allen is a few years younger than Peppers.  That is even before you compare the money and years committed to each player.  Although the Packers are scheduled to pay Peppers slightly more on an annual basis ($8.67 million for three years) than the Bears are paying Allen ($8 million for four years), the Packers have much less guaranteed money invested in Peppers than the Bears do in Allen.  Clearly Peppers is not the second coming of Reggie White but he does give the Packers a defensive weapon they sorely lacked last season.

Currently the best front seven defensive players signed for 2014 are: outside linebacker Clay Matthews, Peppers, defensive lineman B.J. Raji, defensive lineman Mike Daniels, middle linebacker A.J. Hawk, defensive end/outside linebacker Mike Neal, and middle linebacker Brad Jones.  The Packers also have some interesting backups in defensive lineman Josh Boyd, Guion, defensive lineman Datone Jones, outside linebacker Nick Perry, and defensive lineman Jerel Worthy.  There is no question that the Packers have a number of versatile pass rushers, which hopefully will allow them to pressure the quarterback and create turnovers that were borderline non-existent last season.

Sometimes the deals you don't sign are the best deals of all.  The Cincinnati Bengals signed underwhelming guard/tackle Marshall Newhouse to a one-year, $805,000 contract with $50,000 guaranteed.  The Newhouse signing feels a little bit like when the Bengals signed former Packer tight end Donald Lee.  Let's just say the Packers did not miss Lee one iota, which I already know will be the same feeling for Newhouse given how much he regressed last season.

Same goes for defensive lineman C.J. Wilson.  I was very high on Wilson at the beginning of 2013 but as the season progressed, Wilson's playing time diminished.  Ultimately former Packer front-office member and current Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie signed Wilson to a one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,000 guaranteed.  It makes senses to let Wilson leave because he would have been one of the oldest defensive lineman on The 53, yet he would have been no higher than 7th or 8th on the depth chart.

Moving onto another underwhelming former Packer.  Even though safety M.D. Jennings started all 16 games for the Packers last season and was a restricted free agent, the Packers decided not to tender him.  Before the Packers signed Peppers, the Chicago Bears signed the much maligned Jennings to a one-year, $745,000 contract.  For most people Jennings will always be remembered as the guy that helped end the NFL ref lockout thanks to the Monday Night Football "Fail Mary" in Week 4 of the 2012 NFL season but I think of Jennings routinely missing tackles or getting beat deep.  You can surmise that I am actually happy Jennings signed with a divisional rival because it will allow the Packers to exploit him if he actually play meaningful snaps for the Bears  The one-year deal Jennings signed with the Bears is a pittance in NFL terms but with how much Jennings struggled last season, I would rather see the Packers draft Ha-Ha Clinton Dix or Calvin Pryor if they are available in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.  If the Packers fail to land a quality safety in the draft, they should give Micah Hyde a look at safety but also make sure Chris Banjo and Sean Richarson are ready as well.

The Bad
Besides Wilson, McKenzie recently signed two other players with ties to the Packers.  McKenzie signed wide receiver James Jones to a three-year, $10 million contract with $3.7 guaranteed in 2014 but nothing in 2015 or 2016.  After McKenzie signed Jones, he signed cornerback/safety Charles Woodson to a one-year, $3.5 million contract.  Woodson is one of my favorite Packers of all-time and while my affinity for Jones is not as high, I do appreciate the toughness he gave the Packers despite his occasionally shaky hands.

The Packers look to have a fair amount of depth at wide receiver in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Jarrett Boykin but all three are due new contracts sooner rather than later given that Boykin is a restricted free agent after 2014 while Nelson and Cobb are set to become unresticted free agents after 2014.  Hopefully Thompson is going to allocate the money that could have gone to Jones to locking down that trip long-term.

Following last season cornerback Tramon Williams, the only member of the secondary over the age of 30, said the defense needed to add some veterans.  That seemed very unlikely given Thompson's desire to choose younger guys ahead of older guys.  Thompson veered from his usual strategy when he signed Peppers and could have continued to improve the defense by adding Woodson.  Instead Woodson resigned with the Raiders for what could be his last season in the NFL.  Ultimately the decision not to bring back Woodson is even more curious than letting Jones go, especially given that Woodson would be a perfect mentor for the young Packers secondary.

Thompson passed on Jones and Woodson but signed oft-injured running back James Starks to a two-year, $3.25 million contract with $750,000 guaranteed.  I know that Starks was instrumental in the playoff run that resulted in the Packers winning Super Bowl XLV but the Packers did not have the running back quartet of Eddie Lacy, Jonathan Franklin, DuJuan Harris, and Michael Hill on The 53 in 2010.  Sure Franklin and Harris are coming off serious injuries but everyone besides Hill are borderline locks for The 53 so I am shocked that Thompson invested that type of money in Starks.  The Starks signing leaves the Packers with more NFL caliber running backs than wide receivers.  Instead of signing Starks, I wish Thompson would have allocated that money to Jones or Woodson.

Thankfully the Starks signing did not dissuade Thompson from resigning fullback John Kuhn.  Thompson signed Kuhn to a one-year, $1 million contract with $100,000 guaranteed.  There is no question that Kuhn brings a ton of intangibles to The 53 given that he has a such a positive locker room presence.  I've been critical of Kuhn in the past but more of that was due to the fact that the Packers overpaid Kuhn $7.6 million from 2011-13.  In terms of on-field contributions, not only is Kuhn a quality special teams contributor, but he made the two biggest blocks of the 2013 season: Lacy's 60-yard run against the Cowboys and Rodgers-to-Cobb to beat the Bears.  When you put it all together, Kuhn is finally cost-effective member of The 53 at $1 million in 2014.

The Packers did not make a strong strong push to resign 2013 starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith so it looks like they are going to give JC Tretter the first chance to win the starting center job in 2014.  Recently the Packers hosted veteran center/guard Mike McGlynn.  Ultimately McGlynn signed a modest two-year, $2.7 million contract with just $200,000 guaranteed with the Washington Redskins.  I am fine with giving Tretter a chance to winning the starting center job but given how cheap it was to sign McGlynn it seems foolish that Thompson did not sign McGynn as a cost-effective insurance policy as a backup guard/center.

The Ugly
Last week tight end Jermicahel Finley worked out for the Seattle Seahawks and apparently failed his physical.  Later reports surfaced that Finley will not be ready for football action for "months", which is after the 2014 NFL Draft.  The Packers have a number of tight ends under contract for 2014: Brandon Bostick, Andrew Quarless, Jake Stoneburner, Ryan Taylor, and Raymond Webber.  When healthy, Finley is the far and away the most dangerous receiver of the group just discussed.

The jury is still out on Stoneburner and Webber.  Taylor is a special teams standout but has not shown much on offense.  That means the Packers have high hopes for Bostick and Quarless.  Thompson just resigned Quarless to a two-year, $3 million contract with $350,000 guaranteed.  Of all the tight ends just mentioned, Bostick has the most potential to be a Finley-esque tight end but needs to stay healthy long enough to validate the so far unfulfilled promise.  Fortunately everyone besides Quarless is on essentially a rookie minimum contract so the Packers do not have that much money invested in the position.  The Packers hosted former Wisconsin Badgers tight end Owen Daniels for a visit but allowed him to sign with the Baltimore Ravens for a one-year, $1 million contract for 2014.  Despite having so many tight ends under contract and Finley's status up in the air, I expect Thompson to use a fairly high pick on a tight end in the 2014 NFL Draft.

That leaves the Packers with six unrestricted free agents that were members of The 53 in 2013: Finley, quarterback Matt Flynn, linebacker Robert Francois, defensive lineman Johnny Jolly, defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, and quarterback Seneca Wallace.  If Finley can prove that he is healthy, he is the only guy that will command an expensive long-term deal that I totally support the Packers offering.  The rest of the guys are one-year, veteran minimum guys at this point so here are my rankings for most to least important: Flynn, Jolly, Pickett, Francois, and Wallace.

Since Guion (Vikings) and Peppers (Bears) were cut by the team they played for in 2013, they will not factor into what compensatory picks the Packers receive for the 2015 NFL Draft.  As it stands right now, it looks like the Packers are in line for a few late-round compensatory picks since so far this off-season they've lost EDS, Jones, Newhouse, and Wilson.  If I had to guess right now, I see the Packers getting a fifth and seventh round compensatory pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

No matter what happens between now and the 2014 NFL Draft, I plan to roll out a huge "preview" of how I would approach the draft if I was Thompson at the end of April and the beginning of May.  I still see a few moves on the horizon for Thompson ahead of the draft, if Thompson does in fact make any moves, make sure to check back for full coverage

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