Nick Collins

If the Packers don't get busy, they could have a big hole in their secondary.

The Green Bay Packers have 18 players in their contract year after Monday’s resigning of linebacker Brandon Chillar. However, the situation isn’t as dire as it may look.

The collective bargaining agreement – the agreement between the owners and player’s association that dictates the rules of the salary cap, free agency, guaranteed spending, rookie salaries, etc. – expires after this season. The current agreement states that 2010 has to be an uncapped year, meaning there will be no salary cap. It also states that if there is an uncapped year, the minimum number of years a player needs to become an unrestricted free agent increases to six.

That probably makes no sense, so let me try to simplify. A new agreement is unlikely to be struck before next season. 2010 will have no salary cap. In 2010, a player will need six years of NFL service before he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. Previously, a player needed only four or five years. Instead, those players with fewer than six years of service will be restricted free agents, meaning their current team has the right to match any offer they receive and will receive a compensatory draft pick or picks if they sign elsewhere.

This last wrinkle affects the majority of the Packers’ free agents.

If things turn out as I’ve outlined here, this is what the Packers’ free agent class will look like. Years in the league in parentheses.

Unrestricted: Ahman Green (12), Chad Clifton (10), Mark Tauscher (10), Ryan Pickett (9), Aaron Kampman (8)

Restricted: Nick Collins (5), Johnny Jolly (4), Jason Spitz (4), Daryn Colledge (4), Atari Bigby (4), John Kuhn (4), Will Blackmon (4), Derrick Martin (4), Tramon Williams (3), Deshawn Wynn (3), Josh Bell (2), Spencer Havner (1)

Exclusive Rights: Jeremy Kapinos (1)

Of the Packers unrestricted free agents, only two have real value – Pickett and Kampman. However, Kampman’s value is in the form of whatever the Packers can get for him via trade, as the converted defensive end has no future in the 3-4 defense.

Even though the Packers had more than $15 million in salary cap room prior to resigning Chillar, the team hasn’t made much of an effort to sign any of their restricted free agents.

“They ain’t signed nobody so I have no idea,” Collins said last week. “It’s out of my hands. As long as I got my teammates and got my family, we straight.”

Here’s a ranking of the Packers free agents, taking into account both their value to the team and the likelihood they may sign elsewhere.

1. Nick Collins, free safety (41 tackles, 6 interceptions, 1 sack)

Collins was a Pro Bowler last season and is playing at a Pro Bowl level again this season. Collins’ six interceptions rank fifth in the NFL. Even though he’ll be a restricted free agent, it would be unwise for the Packers to let Collins hit the market – he’s one of the best safeties in the league and if anyone is going to spend big money on the safety position, Collins, who is entering the prime of his career, is a good bet to get it. The problem for the Packers is Collins already feels slighted he hasn’t received a new deal yet.

2. Atari Bigby, strong safety (31 tackles, 1 interception)

Bigby has had injury problems throughout his career, but the Packers have no serviceable starters ready to take over if Bigby leaves and are particularly in trouble if both Bigby and Collins depart. That said, Bigby is the backbone of the Packers defense. He’s strong against the run and allows Collins the freedom to play the pass aggressively. In the three games Bigby missed this season, the Packers defense saw a major drop in production and the team lost two of three. Bigby won’t get the money Collins will, but he’s equally important to the Packers defense.

3. Ryan Pickett, nose tackle (32 tackles)

People are quick to point out Pickett is 30 years old and his career is winding down, but I disagree. Grady Jackson is still starting at age 36. Pat Williams is dominant at 37. Guys Pickett’s size (340 pounds) are hard to find and next to quarterbacks, defensive linemen are the most valuable commodity in the NFL. While B.J. Raji may take his starting spot, Pickett would remain a valuable part of the Packers’ defensive line rotation and the team would be wise to re-up him.

4. Johnny Jolly, defensive end (33 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble)

Jolly has not only solidified the Packers defensive line this season, he’s been a force at times. At 325 pounds, he’s the type of defensive end the Packers don’t have enough of and at 26, should only improve. I say should, because this has been Jolly’s first really good year and it comes in his contract year. The Packers have seen more than one defensive lineman play balls out during their contract year, get a big deal and then become fat and lazy (ask Cleveland about Corey Williams). Jolly isn’t the kind of guy you break the bank on, and he’s had some off-field problems, but he’s proven he can play at a high level this season and the Packers don’t have any options currently on the roster to replace him.

5. Tramon Williams, cornerback (40 tackles, 3 interceptions, 1 sack)

A lot of people want to point the finger at Tramon for committing too many penalties. Pish posh. Tramon is the heir apparent to Al Harris. He proved it last year when Harris was injured and he’s proving it again this year. Although he might get flagged from time to time, Williams is rarely out of position, he’s aggressive and strong. He needs to work on his technique a little, but other than that, he plays the game a lot like another Packers cornerback – Charles Woodson. Harris and Woodson can’t play forever, and the Packers would be wise to get Williams locked into a long-term deal at a reasonable price now.

6. Aaron Kampman, defensive end (42 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble)

Kampman is a great player… in a 4-3 defense. He’s a fish out of water in the 3-4. He can’t rush from a standing position and he can’t cover. That isn’t to say Kampman doesn’t have value. Pass rushers don’t grow on trees and if the Packers were running a 4-3, Kampman is probably at the top of this list. The bottom line is Kampman wants to play in the 4-3 and the Packers either need to move him or let him walk. Clouding the picture is Kampman’s torn ACL. If Kampman returns in the typical six-to-nine month time frame, he will be ready for training camp next season, but what is his trade value before then? That’s the question the Packers will likely have to explore. It’s not unprecedented to get good return on a player coming off an injury (Javon Walker), but Kampman isn’t signed for next season, so the Packers may have to apply their transition tag to move him. It would be nice to see the Packers get something back for one of the game’s premier pass rushers.

7. Will Blackmon, cornerback/returner (23.3 yards/kick return, 3.7 yards/punt return)

Blackmon hasn’t developed into a high-caliber cornerback, but you can see where the Packers’ return game has gone since he was lost for the season with a knee injury in week three – nowhere. Blackmon has three return touchdowns in his career and is the most dynamic return man the Packers have had since Allen Rossum or possibly even Desmond Howard. It’s hard to say the Packers can’t find a return man in the draft and you have to wonder if Blackmon will lose some of his explosiveness from the injury, but if he comes back full strength, Blackmon is worth keeping.

8. Jason Spitz, center/guard

Another one of the Packers walking wounded, Spitz is on IR with back problems. Spitz opened the season as the starting center, but essentially lost his job to Scott Wells after some shaky play early in the season. Wells has outperformed Spitz by a wide margin, but that isn’t to say Spitz doesn’t have value. He played guard last season and could easily move back to the position if the Packers lose Colledge (who is having a worse year than Spitz). Considering his restricted status, injury and play, it’s unlikely someone is going to try to poach Spitz from the Packers, so there’s no hurry to resign him.

9. Daryn Colledge, guard

Colledge has started every game this season and has shown some improvement as the line has improved as a whole. Still, if a guy named Allen Barbre wasn’t on the team, Colledge would be hands down the Packers worst performer on the offensive line. He doesn’t have the versatility Spitz does – his move to left tackle to fill in for Clifton was a disaster – and his play seems to have regressed since he was drafted. But he’s only 27 and the Packers will likely try to keep him around. Like Spitz, there’s no rush.

10. John Kuhn, fullback (18 yards rushing, 43 yards receiving, 3 total touchdowns)

Kuhn isn’t a guy who’s going to get the ball a lot, but he’s a damn solid fullback. The only reason he isn’t higher on this list is the Packers have two other fullbacks on the roster – Korey Hall and Quinn Johnson. Hall and Kuhn are almost carbon copies of each other, but the Packers drafted Johnson to hold the position for the next 10 years. While I’m sure we’d all missing yelling Kuuuuuuuuuhn when he touches the ball, this guy is pretty expendable and has little leverage in negotiations.

11. Spencer Havner, tight end (7 receptions, 112 yards, 4 touchdowns)

A converted linebacker, Havner has shown he can play tight end after Jermichael Finley got injured this season. He’s probably not going to be a No. 1 guy, but Havner provides quality depth, has shown a nose for the end zone and is a major contributor on special teams. Pretty simply, Havner is just the kind of guy you want to have around.

12. Derrick Martin, strong safety (20 tackles)

There’s a reason the Packers traded for this guy prior to the season, right? He hasn’t made much of an impact, but obviously Ted Thompson and the Packers’ coaching staff sees something in him. Other than that, the Packers are thin at safety and Martin will come cheap, so he has that going for him.

13. Ahman Green, running back (89 yards rushing, 18 yards receiving)

Is there any reason the Packers should bring Ahman Green back? No. He’s 32 years old. He’s injury prone. There’s no potential for him to be a starter. He has minimal value on the open market. So why don’t I have him at the bottom of this list? He has averaged 4.2 yards per carry and provided veteran leadership to a young club. It’s not as if he has nothing left to offer, but it would be hard to understand if the Packers don’t look for a better option.

14. DeShawn Wynn, running back (19 yards rushing, 19 yards receiving)

Wynn has had some flashes during his three years in Green Bay, but before going to IR this season, he looked terrible. Wynn is one of those guys who, if you can get him to work hard, has great potential. If you can’t, he’s pretty much useless. Wynn fell into the latter category this season. He started out as the Packers third down back before losing the job to Brandon Jackson and then getting injured. Again, the Packers would be better served to look elsewhere.

15. Chad Clifton, left tackle

When not injured, Clifton has been the Packers starting left tackle. Problem is, Clifton gets injured pretty often – he’s missed four games this season and parts of others. Compounding the problem is at 33, Clifton just isn’t good anymore. He commits more penalties than any veteran player should and has trouble handling big-time pass rushers. The Packers needed to replace Clifton this season and failed to do so. They have to find a replacement for 2010.

16. Mark Tauscher, right tackle

Tauscher admirably came back from a knee injury halfway through this season to mercifully replace Allen Barbre in the starting lineup. While the line has played better with Tauscher on the field, that’s more a reflection of how poor Barbre is, rather than how good Tauscher is. Like Clifton, Tauscher is old and creaky. That’s become apparent the more games he plays in. Like Clifton, the Packers need to find a replacement.

17. Jeremy Kapinos, punter (44 gross, 33.5 net)

Look, Kapinos isn’t terrible. He can kick the ball, but his net average isn’t what you want out of an NFL punter. Kapinos can’t kick directionally, he has little touch and he often outkicks his coverage. It’s a good bet Kapinos will be back with the Packers – he’s an exclusive rights free agent, meaning he can’t sign anywhere else even if he wanted to. However, there’s certainly no guarantee he’ll make the 2010 roster.

18. Josh Bell, cornerback

Bell was signed off the street after Al Harris went down. In his time with the Packers, he’s done exactly nothing. And when I say nothing, I mean it – the guy has no stat line. It shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Bell played for Denver last season, which had the worst pass defense in recent memory. In Green Bay, Jarrett Bush can get on the field, but Bell can’t. That should tell you something about him.

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