Questions Emerge Due To Contract Concerns
by Mike Conklin
April 20, 2013
'Tis the season.
As the draft approaches, countless mock drafts are linking a multitude of college prospects to the Packers in order to fill perceived needs.
This begs the question...exactly what are those needs? And which of them are most pressing?
When the Packers gave up 579 yards in their playoff loss to the 49ers, the obvious answer seemed that they needed more help on the defensive side of the football even despite investing heavily there in last year's draft. There may be more to the story, however.
Ted Thompson and the front office staff have the task of making the moves necessary to field a winning team right away in 2013, but they also have to take into consideration what the team will look like three or more years from now. The Packers believe not only in winning now, but also in setting themselves up for sustained success. Sometimes that may result in a bigger picture view of team needs than what may appear at first glance.
Many experts across the NFL landscape have the Packers choosing a tight end with their first pick, and in many respects that makes sense. It is well-publicized that Jermichael Finley is entering the final year of his contract, and a productive tight end only makes both Aaron Rodgers and the other receivers more dangerous.
But Finley isn't the only major contributor entering the last year of his contract. Now that Clay Matthews has signed an extension, B.J. Raji is the prominent name that is most often mentioned as being in a contract year. (He technically has a voidable year in 2014, but for all intents and purposes it appears this would be the final year of his deal unless he signs an extension.) But what may have flown under the radar is that there are several positions on the Packers roster with key contributors that may be entering their final year with the Packers. (Much of this information can be found at Spotrac.com or Rotoworld.com.)
One of the big stories early this offseason was that the Packers receiver corps dwindled when Greg Jennings left in free agency. Despite a 14-touchdown season in 2012, James Jones will likely be allowed to do the same thing next year when his contract expires within weeks of his 30th birthday. This would leave Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb as the primary wide receivers, both of whom will be free agents in 2015. A case can be made that the Packers should consider drafting and developing another target for Aaron Rodgers, particularly if they are unable to replace (or re-sign) Jermichael Finley. After all, Ron Wolf is on record stating that one of his biggest regrets with the Packers was that he did not surround Brett Favre with more talent. Having served under Wolf, Ted Thompson is certainly aware of that fact and has shown a willingness to draft receivers early and often.
Another area that is prominently mentioned as a primary position of need for the Packers is safety, and rightly so. Charles Woodson was released in March, and while Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings received significant playing time last season when Woodson was injured, neither of them strike fear into opposing offensive coordinators at this point in their careers. While Jennings seems trustworthy enough in coverage, he lacks ideal size. McMillian seemed like a classic Ted Thompson pick last year when he was drafted out of a small college (Maine) and the Packers seem to like him, but the jury is decidedly still out on whether he can be a viable starter. And while Sean Richardson has the size that Jennings lacks, he is recovering from neck surgery in January. Questions surround each of these players.
In comparison, Morgan Burnett seems like "Old Faithful" in the secondary. But when one considers that he is also entering a contract year and this could theoretically be his last season with the Packers, the need for safety seems to increase exponentially.
It appears possible that nearly a third of the salary cap may be used up by the impending deal with Aaron Rodgers combined with the blockbuster extension Clay Matthews just signed. As a result, might there not be a legitimate concern that the Packers would be able to pay Burnett as much as other teams may be willing to pay him? He is still a young, ascending player in many respects.
And that doesn't even take into consideration that Raji will likely command a large sum as well. Nose tackle is a premium position in the 3-4 defense, and as the Ravens (Haloti Ngata) and Steelers (Casey Hampton) have proven over the past several years, a good nose tackle is a cornerstone for a good defense.
Even if Raji is re-signed, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that the Packers could be in desperate need of defensive linemen a year from now. Although unsung, Ryan Pickett has been a stalwart on the defensive line for years now, but he will be 34 this season and he is entering the last year of his contract. Jerel Worthy was drafted last year to play the other defensive end spot and he was thrust into the lineup quickly as a rookie, but his immediate future is murky due to a late-season injury. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that both C.J. Wilson and Mike Neal are entering the last years of their respective contracts. Wilson is a hard-working run defender who fills a definite need on the team. And Neal finally began to fulfill some of the promise coaches were hoping for after an injury-marred start to his career.
It is hard to imagine that the Packers will keep all four of those defensive linemen with expiring contracts, so the need to draft a defensive lineman only increases when that is taken into consideration.
When examining, the roster, even perceived positions of strength may not necessarily hold up to scrutiny. At first glance, cornerback seems like a strong position for the Packers. Casey Hayward was a revelation as a rookie, and if the NFL were to have a "do-over" of last year's draft it is hard to imagine that he would make it past the top ten picks. Davon House was one of the bright stories of last offseason, as he emerged during OTA's and training camp and may have even earned a starting spot had he not injured his shoulder. Meanwhile, Sam Shields had a bounce-back season and turned into a solid bookend across from Tramon Williams.
But upon further examination there may be more questions than answers at cornerback. Shields will be a free agent next year at a highly coveted position. Williams is slated to earn more than $7 million in 2014, and unless he returns to his pre-injury form of 2010 the Packers may not be willing to continue to make him one of the highest-paid players on the team. And while Davon House showed potential last year, injuries have kept him off the field for well over half the games in his short career.
Two other areas of concern that must certainly qualify as needs for the Packers are offensive tackle and center. Bryan Bulaga is a bona fide starter in the NFL, and from all indications it appears that he is recovering well from a hip injury that cost him seven games in 2012. He only has two more years under contract, and his future (and his contract) must be a consideration for the Packers. The other tackle spot is more of a pressing need, however. Marshall Newhouse may have exceeded expectations for a fifth-round draft pick, as he was originally pressed into duty due to injury at the position and has been able to remain healthy and stay on the field for 16 games each of the last two seasons. He has received mixed reviews in terms of production, however. The beauty is in the eyes of the beholder with Newhouse, as some people seem to be enamored with his quick feet for a man his size while others just look at the bottom line and see that he has given up the most sacks on the team. Either way, Newhouse is another player who is entering the final year of his contract, and the Packers will have to make a decision on him. Derek Sherrod was drafted in the first round to theoretically fill that left tackle spot, but due to a severe injury as a rookie it remains questionable just how much the Packers will be able to get out of him.
And while Aaron Rodgers and the coaches talk a good game about how much they like Evan Dietrich-Smith, the fact that the Packers were willing to gamble and only offer him the lowest possible tender as a restricted free agent has to say something. Unless the Packers sign him to a long-term contract, he would also be a free agent next year. At any rate, it is hard to imagine the Packers entering the season with Dietrich-Smith as the only viable center on the roster.
Add to the mix the fact that the Packers are thin at outside linebacker across from Clay Matthews (only Nick Perry and Dezman Moses), and a case could be made that the Packers should add to the depth there as well.
Because the Packers do not invest heavily (if at all) in free agency, the draft is always important. This year has the feel of being even more important, however. When we look back upon this draft years from now, this may very well turn out to be a crossroads moment for the Packers. Their depth may be challenged a couple years from now, especially considering the fact that the contracts of their high-profile players will make it increasingly difficult to re-sign other good players. They may even need to start working on an extension for Randall Cobb soon, as he has emerged as a key cog in the offense.
Even though it is not the most exciting thing for fans, it seems a likely possibility that the Packers will listen closely to offers to trade down and garner more draft picks. A close inspection of their roster reveals that they may have more needs than may appear at first glance, and Ted Thompson has gone on record many times that he prefers to have more chances "at bat."
While the Packers raised eyebrows by trading up three times last year, it would not come as a surprise at all if the same thing happened in the opposite direction this time around. The Packers could use an infusion of talent across the board.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/Mike Roemer