General Manager Ted Thompson has long had a draft-and-develop philosophy toward building a roster and that viewpoint will be put to the test this offseason. The Packers have holes throughout the defense as well as a couple key openings on offense that likely cannot be solved by the draft alone. It has been reported that Green Bay is willing to spend big money in free agency but historically Thompson has refused to overpay for his own players, much less free agents, which has led to Green Bay’s inactivity. If the Packers do plan to pursue free agents, this could be the year for it. The Packers have plenty of cap room and there are some quality starters at positions of need. However, they cannot overdo it because Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Bryan Bulaga are among those with expiring contracts after 2014.
Potential Cap Casualties
The Packers have plenty of cap space with $35 million currently free (per overthecap.com), sixth-most in the league. Because of the abundance of cap space and Ted Thompson’s desire to keep dead money off the books, it’s extremely unlikely that any player will be cut before the preseason. If they are looking to open up some more cap room, there are a couple options available to them from a monetary standpoint.
– Tramon Williams is due for a $9.5 million cap hit in the final year of his contract, $7.5 million of which would be saved if cut. However, with the uncertainty surrounding Sam Shields’ return, Green Bay cannot afford to risk losing two starting cornerbacks.
– A.J. Hawk’s decision to slim down last year helped him in coverage duties, but his run defense was one of his worst performances. His release would free up $1.9 million in cap space, but based on positive comments about Hawk’s season from the organization it would be surprising to see him cut.
– Jarrett Bush has been an integral part of the Packers’ special teams units for several seasons now but he has little impact on defense (he has played 9% of defensive snaps over the last two seasons). Cutting the soon-to-be 30 year-old would save $1.7 million in cap space.
Last offseason Green Bay chose not to extend B.J. Raji’s contract and instead let him play out the final year of his deal to prove his worth—a decision that has paid off for the Packers. Raji primarily played nose tackle in his breakout 2010 campaign, but since moving to defensive end the following season he has looked like a different player. He graded as the worst run defender in the league for his position and struggled to generate pressure as a pass rusher.
Mike Daniels was the Packers’ best defensive lineman last year, and maybe the team’s best defensive player overall. He played well against the run and excelled as a pass rusher to earn a +22.4 overall grade (sixth among 3-4 defensive ends), despite being given limited playing time. His role should continue to expand heading into the 2014 season. Last year’s first-round pick Datone Jones will also be expected to make more of an impact after a disappointing rookie year.
Free agent fix: If the Packers indeed want to spend money in free agency, Jason Hatcher would be a good fit. Hatcher has experience as a 3-4 end and would allow the Packers to generate a more effective pass rush from their defensive line. If the market for Hatcher proves to be too expensive, Tyson Jackson may be a more cost-effective option. Although Jackson has not played up to his third-overall draft status, he has played very well against the run over the last couple seasons. He’s an average pass rusher at best, but that could allow the Packers to utilize Jones and Daniels in passing situations.
The season began with promise but a season-ending neck injury halted Jermichael Finley’s contract year early. Finley was on pace to challenge his career highs in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns before his injury. He looked even more dangerous after the catch than in years past. On just 25 catches he was able to force 10 missed tackles, more than all but six other tight ends had in full seasons. His return is up in the air since he has yet to be medically cleared after spinal fusion surgery. Finley’s replacement, Andrew Quarless, will also be a free agent. Like Finley, Quarless is a below-average blocker and primarily a receiver. Unlike Finley, however, Quarless doesn’t have the same level of talent and he was only average as a receiver (-0.9).
Free agent fix: Re-sign Finley, but only if healthy and at the right price. Outside of the injury concern, there is not a better free agent tight end available on the market. Because of his high ceiling, another team may be willing to look past the injury risk and offer more than the Packers. Whether or not Finley re-signs with Green Bay, the team should address the position in the draft considering the remainder of the free agent tight ends are underwhelming.
Evan Dietrich-Smith is coming off of his first season as a full-time starter at center after starting the last few games in 2012 for a declining Jeff Saturday. Dietrich-Smith graded out as an average run-blocker, which was a slight improvement over 2012. His jump in pass blocking was more significant. He did give up five sacks, but only allowed nine other pressures all season to finish with our fourth-highest pass blocking grade (+6.1) among centers.
The departure of Dietrich-Smith would leave the Packers very light at the position. Currently J.C. Tretter, a fourth-round pick from last April’s draft, is the only center listed on the roster (also listed as a guard). However, he has no game experience at center at any level and has not taken a single offensive snap in the NFL. That’s not to say he cannot succeed at center, but the Packers would be taking a risk by putting so much stock into an unknown.
Free agent fix: Re-sign Dietrich-Smith. Cleveland’s Alex Mack was the top center available in free agency and has been given the ‘transition tag’ by the Browns. The Packers could make an offer but he is sure to command a large contract that the Browns could still match. While Mack would be an upgrade, Dietrich-Smith would come at a lower cost and has proven performance in the Packers’ system.
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