by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLrosters
While the Packers players will spend their off-season looking back at what could have been after falling short in the NFC Divisional Round, GM Ted Thompson is already looking forward to tomorrow. He has roughly $22 million of cap space, but he has the displeasure of trying to re-sign some important prospective free agents. The Packers have an improving defense to pair with their bewildering offense, so where do they go from here?
Aaron Rodgers, Scott Tolzien (UFA), Brett Hundley, Ryan Williams (FUT)
Rodgers will be entering his 12th season; while he did not miss any games last season due to injury, he’s in the back nine of his career. Enter Brett Hundley, who did not have much pro-style experience entering the NFL. Since then, he has improved to the point where the team is confident is his ability to take over the team if Rodgers were to go down. That says a lot, considering Rodgers has missed significant time in two of the last three seasons. Incumbent backup Scott Tolzien is no longer required and probably won’t be retained, although he has shown some potential to be a suitable short-term #2. He would like a shot at a starting job anyway.
Ryan Williams, a 24-year-old ex-Hurricane, is similar to Chad Pennington: intelligent, accurate, limited athletic ability and arm strength. He could stick around as a practice squad QB, but if anything were to happen to either Rodgers or Hundley, an outside FA will probably be signed instead–maybe even Tolzien.
With Rodgers still in his early 30’s, the team should be in contention as long as #12 is under center. With Hundley, the Packers may also feel like they have a chance to contend even if that isn’t the case.
Eddie Lacy, James Starks (UFA), John Crockett; John Kuhn (UFA), Aaron Ripkowski
Lacy took a lot of heat in 2015 for his weight and production issues, but he is a complete back that can catch and pass block. The team hopes that losing possibly 30 lbs. will help him return to the success he had in 2014. He is still the front-runner at starter based on his potential (and draft status). His success could create ample play action opportunities and stress the back end of the defense as coordinators have to decide whether to play run or pass. Last year, the defenses were allowed to relentlessly rush the passer without a consistent rushing threat.
Starks is an excellent change of pace back that can not only break long gains, but also break tackles. However, he wishes to be the main man for a franchise and will likely leave. It is possible he re-signs after spending some time in a saturated free agent market; his best shot at starting might be to beat out Lacy. Third-stringer John Crockett is just average, but has potential as a backup. If Starks does leave, a flyer might be used in this area in the draft.
Fullback John Kuhn is a good blocker and fairly effective in short yardage. He should be re-signed if they can get him for a little less than $1 million, because he gets a veteran cap discount. However, Ripkowski has similar ability, so how long can the team afford two fullbacks?
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
WR: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones (UFA), Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis, Ed Williams (FUT), Jamel Johnson (FUT)
TE: Richard Rodgers, Andrew Quarless (UFA), Justin Perrillo (ERFA), Kennard Backman, Mitchell Henry (FUT)
“If only Nelson hadn’t been injured…” was the story line of the 2015 Packers. It wasn’t obvious just how important he is until he was out for the year. Signing James Jones was a huge help, yet the whole receiving corps was absent for much of each game. They had trouble beating any sort of coverage, which put too much pressure on Rodgers to hold the ball and take hits.
Nelson and Cobb will be back as #1-2 for a combined $17 million. The other receivers under contract are young and promising (and cheap), so re-signing Jones may only hamper their development. Although the team would love Adams to finally play up to the #3 role, this will be an exciting camp competition.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before — tight end is a position of need for the Packers. Rodgers earned some fan love catching a hail mary against Detroit, but would be best served as a #2 until he can improve his consistency and blocking. The team has been waiting for Quarless to step up, but injuries, limited production, and personal problems don’t help. It might be best for the Packers to just cut ties with him, as he is a free agent. Perrillo, however, is a fairly decent player and is certainly worth retaining as an ERFA. He isn’t the receiver Rodgers is, but he blocks a bit better. The other guys are just guys, so one might be cut during camp or before, if money is an issue.
Starters: LT David Bakhtiari, LG Josh Sitton, C Corey Linsley, RG T.J. Lang, RT Bryan Bulaga
Reserves: J.C. Tretter, Don Barclay (UFA), Josh Walker, Lane Taylor (RFA), Matt Rotheram (FUT), Jeremy Vujnovich (FUT)
When healthy, this group is fairly strong. Sitton, Lang, and Bulaga have been together since 2010, and Bakhtiari (2013) and Linsley (2014) started as rookies. Unfortunately, a few health problems hit this team at tackle in 2015 and caused a lot of disruption. Some problems turned out positive, as shown in the ascendance of backup J.C. Tretter. Others, like the extended use of Don Barclay, failed.
The whole starting lineup will return in 2016, with the two elite guards fortifying two starting-grade tackles and center. Tretter has proved to be an invaluable sixth man that can play at any position. Barclay has been around for a while, and although he had a terrible year, he provides tackle depth in case Tretter needs to be used at guard or center. The Packers’ other tackle, Walker, is still in development, so Barclay should be inexpensively re-signed.
For at least one more year, Sitton, Lang, and Linsley will be pushing people around in the middle. The backup guard, Lane Taylor, should be tendered for $1.5 mil as an RFA due to his run blocking ability. Thanks to Tretter’s flexibility, the team can get away with 8 OL’s and have backups for every position.
Mike Daniels, B.J. Raji (UFA), Datone Jones, Letroy Guion (UFA), Josh Boyd, Mike Pennel, Christian Ringo (FUT), William Campbell (FUT), B.J. McBryde (FUT)
Former 4th-round pick Mike Daniels has blossomed into a Top 10 3-4 DE, and is now paid as such. On the other side, former 1st-round pick Datone Jones has finally become a serviceable starter. The team is still figuring out how to use him, but he had a few sacks (2 vs. MIN) and has improved against the run. In the middle, man-mountain B.J. Raji did not have a great second half, as he appeared somehow able to be moved after suffering a groin injury. Daniels and Jones will return, but Raji is a UFA. Many teams may shy away due to his injury status (he also missed all of 2014), so he may be re-signed on another 1-2 year deal for around $3 mil per year.
If Raji gets more interest than the Packers thought and he can’t be re-signed, then Guion would be the cheaper fallback. Since Boyd is showing some promise as a run defender, there would be no need for both Raji and Guion. Mike Pennel has also had his moments as a rusher and run defender, so five of the first six listed should almost be sufficient. It would help if the Packers looked in the first three rounds of the draft to find someone like Raji used to be early in his career to help close the running lanes.
ILB: Clay Matthews, Jake Ryan, Nate Palmer, Sam Barrington, Joe Thomas
OLB: Nick Perry (UFA), Julius Peppers, Mike Neal (UFA), Jay Elliott, Andy Mulumba (RFA), Carl Bradford (FUT)
Sam Barrington’s injury, coupled with the inexperience of the remaining ILB candidates, forced Matthews to move inside early in the season. While Matthews learned how to defend the pass a little better, he gets paid to create havoc in the backfield. It would be beneficial for the Packers to spend an early pick on a 3-4 ILB to start next to Barrington, with the others mixing in. In this scenario, Matthews would then move outside, pairing with Perry. Although Peppers still has fuel in the tank, he would be best served as a package player, and he would be an expensive package player. Having Matthews, Perry, and Peppers on the field in a nickel package sounds good to me, but the release of Peppers would create room for Casey Hayward. Thompson may have to make that choice. More on this later.
The team does need to re-sign Perry. He may not have caught on immediately, but 2015 was his career high in TFL and QB hits. He also plays solid run defense. It might be worth a 4 year/$15-20 mil deal for him. Little-used backup Mulumba provides some decent depth, but not for the RFA tender of $1.5 mil. He can probably be signed more cheaply after refusing tender. Neal will not be worth much to the Packers at this point, and can move on in free agency.
CB: Sam Shields, Casey Hayward (UFA), Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Demetri Goodson, Ladarius Gunter, Robertson Daniel
S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde, Sean Richardson (UFA), Chris Banjo (RFA)
There has been a youth movement in the secondary over the past few years, and Thompson has done a decent job finding college players that could transition well to the pro game. As it seems, a team can develop young guys for cheap, but then unfortunately get penalized for that development. Casey Hayward, the highest graded Packers CB by Pro Football Focus, will probably command an $8 mil per year contract. Randall and Rollins are not quite at starter level, but would be spectacular 3rd and 4th CB’s. It isn’t a great plan for a team to dismantle one of their strengths (DB) to fix a weakness (LB). I’ve gone back and forth on this, but in the end, Peppers will probably retire after the 2016 season (and he’s no longer under contract.) The Packers have to spend some serious money after 2016, and locking into a contract for Hayward with Randall in the wings might not be the best choice for the long term. It might benefit the team to keep Peppers and try to find depth at CB in the draft.
Clinton-Dix and Burnett had good years as well, which created a fairly formidable defensive backfield. Hyde and Banjo, who should be tendered as an RFA, also showed some ability as depth and during dime packages. Richardson, on the other hand, hasn’t seen the field much and hasn’t shown a lot of reason for Green Bay to re-sign him.
Mason Crosby (K, UFA), Tim Masthay (P), Brett Goode (LS, UFA)
Crosby seems to have left his case of the yips in the rear-view mirror, as he’s put together a few good seasons in a row. His consistency and poise under pressure is worth the money paid to Top 10 kickers. He should be re-signed for about $3 mil per year. Masthay didn’t have an impressive year, but unless the team can find a stud UDFA punter, he’s the guy for now. If they were to find someone else, cutting Masthay would save $1.3 mil if needed. Long snapper Brett Goode is trying to recover from an ACL injury, and if he does so in a timely manner, he will probably get re-signed for $700-900K.
Biggest Needs: TE, ILB, NT, RB, CB