It’s the offseason. Ugh. That means the Green Bay Packers will be turning their focus from actually playing football games to free agency and the draft.
We’ll get to the draft later, but the Green Bay Packers have more free agents this year than they typically do and a number of them are starters. That means there are going to be some holes to fill.
Here are the Packers free agents and their outlook for the future.
Matt Flynn — Flynn came in during the season and led the Packers to two wins. He also kept them in the playoff race while Aaron Rodgers sat. Flynn wasn’t brilliant, but he can obviously win games for the Green Bay Packers. Flynn failed twice as a starter — in Seattle and Oakland. Somehow, he’s able to flourish when starting in Green Bay. The problem here is the Packers like the potential of Scott Tolzien, who’s both under contract for next season and the guy Flynn had to replace in the starting lineup this year. Our bet is the Packers give Flynn a shot to compete with Tolzien for the backup job in training camp. They’ll have a tough decision if Flynn beats Tolzien though. Tolzien doesn’t have any practice squad eligibility left.
Seneca Wallace — Wallace was brought in to be Rodgers’ backup after training camp. The Packers praised his veteran leadership and the way he helped Rodgers in the film and meeting rooms. Then he tore his groin in his first start. At 33, Wallace is a real long shot to return.
James Starks — As the No. 2 guy in the 1-2 punch with Eddie Lacy, Starks was great. Not only that, he stayed healthy for probably the first time since college. Starks showed himself to be both a capable role player and spot starter. He had 132 yards rushing in week two after Lacy went out with a concussion. Starks finished the year with 493 yards and three touchdowns rushing. We’d suggest the Packers should make signing Starks a priority, but it’s not that simple. Starks may want to sign elsewhere — somewhere he has a chance to be the feature back. The Packers also have plenty of options at running back. After Lacy, they’ll get former starter DuJuan Harris and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin back next season. Running back is a strength for the Packers with or without Starks. That tells us the Packers will probably only re-sign Starks if they can get him for cheap.
John Kuhn — Kuhn proved himself invaluable down the stretch. That block on Julius Peppers in week 17 that allowed Rodgers to throw the game-winning touchdown pass alone should get him a new contract. Kuhn provides something else though. He provides veteran leadership. He’s a team guy, too. John Kuhn will go out and play special teams if that’s what he needs to do. We’re not saying the Packers don’t have enough team-first guys, but they do have a lack of veteran leadership. They could also use a bruising lead blocker for Eddie Lacy from time to time. The fullback position isn’t what it once was in the NFL. Therefore, we don’t expect a big market for Kuhn. The Packers would be wise to bring him back and we think they will.
Kahlil Bell — The Packers signed Bell late in the season to play special teams. They actually put him back on kickoff returns as well. With Micah Hyde faring pretty well as a returner and probably one or two speedy guys coming in during and after the draft, it doesn’t seem like there’s a future for Bell in Green Bay.
James Jones — Jones is a tough one. He’s planning on testing the free agent market and someone just might offer him some decent money. The last time Jones tested the market, he didn’t find any takers and came back to Green Bay for a fairly modest deal. After leading the league in touchdowns in 2012 and posting over 800 yards receiving, despite missing two games, in 2013, Jones is going to find a market this time. It’s not as if the Packers couldn’t use Jones or don’t want him, but they may not be able to afford him. And they may not want to either. With Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin, the argument could be made that the Packers are fine with or without Jones.
Jermichael Finley — The Packers missed Finley after he injured his neck. That isn’t to suggest they’ll be interested in re-signing Finley. Finley suffered an injury similar to the one that ended Nick Collins’ career. The Packers wouldn’t clear Collins to return to action and that might ultimately be the case with Finley. His future will largely depend on that — medical clearance. If the Packers think Finley can come back and he’s cleared to play, there’s no reason they shouldn’t want to sign him. He’ll probably even come fairly cheap because of that uncertainty. If the Packers don’t clear him, Finley’s career is probably over, which leaves the team with a big hole at tight end.
Andrew Quarless — God’s Gifts started after Finley went down. He showed some flashes, with good games against Dallas and Atlanta down the stretch, but wasn’t Finley. Quarless finished the season with 32 catches for 312 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers like to load up on tight ends, but if both Quarless and Finley are gone, then they’re down to Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor and Jake Stoneburner. We can see the Packers bringing back Quarless at a bargain-basement rate, but they’re more than likely going to have to draft a tight end.
Evan Dietrich-Smith — The Packers’ center hasn’t always been the most dominant guy, but he came into his own this season. Gone were the gaffes in the passing game that led to Aaron Rodgers running for his life. Additionally, the Packers had one of the best running attacks in the league. There’s also something to be said for continuity on the offensive line. If Dietrich-Smith leaves, the Packers could turn to 2013 fourth-round pick J.C. Tretter, but our feeling is this guy is probably the Packers No. 2 free agent priority right now.
Marshall Newhouse — Oh boy. Newhouse was consistently a disaster at tackle when forced into action. Couple that with the fact that Bryan Bulaga will be back and former first-round pick Derek Sherrod has to play at some point and there’s really no reason for the Packers to sign Newhouse. When Bulaga returns, the Packers actually have a good problem. Are they going to sit David Bakhtiari at left tackle in favor of Bulaga? They shouldn’t. Are they going to sit Don Barclay at right tackle in favor of Bulaga? There’s probably a good chance. That leaves a former starter in Barclay and a former first-round pick as your backup tackles. Good riddance, Marshall Newhouse.
Ryan Pickett — Pickett will be 35 during the 2014 season. He didn’t play at a particularly high level in 2013 either. A year after having 51 tackles in 2012, Pickett only tallied 19 in 2013. The Packers defensive line was a weak spot for most of the season. That isn’t all Pickett’s fault, but he didn’t really help the problem either. We know Ted Thompson doesn’t think much of old guys, so we have a hard time seeing Pickett playing for the Packers next season.
B.J. Raji — The Packers offered Raji $8 million per season to re-sign during the season. He didn’t take it and that looks like a pretty stupid move now. Raji was literally invisible for most of the second half of the season. He finished with just 17 tackles and no sacks. This guy has regressed since 2010, when he had a career year with 39 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Raji was part of the problem this year. However, Ted Thompson loves his draft picks (see: Hawk, A.J.) and we’re betting the Packers will still try to re-sign Raji, nonetheless. It will depend on the market, but does Raji deserve a big deal? No, not in any realm. It’s time for the Packers to retool up front in our estimation.
Johnny Jolly — Jolly missed the last three games of the regular season because of injury, but before that he was the emotional leader of the Packers defense. Simply, the Packers don’t have enough guys like Johnny Jolly. He finished with 21 tackles and a sack after spending three years away from the game because of drug issues. In three fewer games, those are better stats than both Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji put up. Jolly may not be the player he used to be, but he was the team’s best defensive lineman this year. He also provided that spark that no one else on the defense does. We can’t see Jolly getting a lot of money and the Packers would be wise to re-sign him.
C.J. Wilson — Wilson has been a spot starter for the Packers and has been fairly solid against the run during his career. That being said, he was the forgotten man on the defensive line this year, playing in just eight games and registering just eight tackles. That tells us the Packers don’t think Wilson can ball, especially considering how bad the defensive line was this season. No one is going to break the bank for this guy, so there’s a decent chance he’ll return on a minimum deal, but he’ll face a real battle to make the roster in 2014.
Mike Neal — The Packers finally got something out of the former second-round pick, Neal, in 2013. After battling injuries for his first two seasons, Neal finished strong in 2012 with 4.5 sacks. He converted to outside linebacker during training camp in 2013 and turned in his best campaign as a pro — 47 tackles, 5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pick. All of those were career highs. Neal wasn’t a game changer, but he was also adjusting to a new position and should only get better at that position. The Packers have invested a lot in him and we expect him to be back, providing some idiot team doesn’t throw a bunch of money at him like the Colts did with Erik Walden last offseason.
Robert Francois — Francois’ season was over after just four games. He plays a position that, in our estimation, needs a complete overhaul — inside linebacker. Francois can be a capable backup when he’s healthy. That bodes well for his chances to return. No one is going to want to pay a guy coming off a season-ending injury who backed up two of the worst inside backers in the NFL. Francois is one of those guys who’s a candidate for a minimum deal late in free agency that lands him back in Green Bay.
Jamari Lattimore — Lattimore showed some flashes as a spot starter when Brad Jones was out. That is, he showed he could make plays. On the other hand, he also showed he could get beat for big plays. With a little more seasoning, Lattimore is a solid backup at worst and possibly a serviceable starter at best. In other words, he’s not Patrick Willis, but neither are Brad Jones or A.J. Hawk. Lattimore is one of the valuable backup guys that the Packers always seem to re-sign… unless there’s someone out there who sees him as a potential starter.
Sam Shields — The Packers No. 1 cornerback is and should be the team’s No. 1 free agent priority. Shields was one of the few standout defenders this season for the Packers. He was a borderline shutdown corner. The Packers haven’t really had a guy like that since Al Harris. Yes, Charles Woodson, but he was more of a playmaker than a shutdown guy. The main issue here is Shields is likely looking for around $7 million per season. The Packers owe Tramon Williams $7.5 million next season and they should want to keep him around the way he closed 2013. It’s going to be tough for the Packers to pay two corners $7 million a season. This could be a standoff that lasts for a while, but it would behoove the team to figure out a way to make it work.
M.D. Jennings — Let’s cut to the chase here. M.D. Jennings shouldn’t be starting at safety in the NFL. This should be the Packers’ No. 1 priority for an upgrade in the offseason. Next to Morgan Burnett, the Packers have chosen to go with a bunch of undrafted guys. Joining Jennings in that group are Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo. We literally see zero difference in ability to make plays between the three of them. The Packers’ safeties had zero interceptions this season. That needs to change and our bet is it’s probably going to change personnel-wise with a high draft pick. That means the Packers have no more use for Jennings.