First things first, a hat tip to CheeseheadTV's own Andrew Garda for bringing up the topic of the Packers' 2013 free agents over at Bleacher Report's NFC North blog. He predicted what would happen with six such players in a post Thursday. Go give it a read.
I respectfully disagreed with some of things he wrote there, which spawned this breakdown of every free agent facing the Packers' brass next offseason.
That said, GM Ted Thompson has some important decisions to make down the road. Things can change in a second when you're talking about the NFL, but here's a quick look at the Packers' free agents for 2013 and their overall prospects for staying with the team beyond 2012.
NOTE: List does not include practice squad players from 2011.
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs)
WR Greg Jennings
The most important player on this list, bar none. The numbers (over 6,000 career receiving yards, 49 TDs in six NFL seasons) tell most of the story, but there's no downplaying the impact Jennings has on the entire offense. Look no further than the Packers' Week 15 defeat in Kansas City for proof of that fact, as Green Bay's offense sputtered without one of the NFL's best route runners on the field.
The Packers have ample depth at receiver, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which they let Jennings—at 28 years old and still in his prime—walk next spring.
How much will it cost to get a deal done?
Jennings doesn't possess the "diva" personality that accompanies many of his receiver peers, but contracts were signed this offseason that should set his market. While Jennings is not in the $100 million territory of Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson, the five-year deals in the range of $45-55 million might be starting points for a potential agreement. Vincent Jackson got five years and $55 million from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency, while DeSean Jackson re-signed with the Philadelphia Eagles on a five-year, $47 million deal. Most would argue Jennings is better than both players.
The end of a comparable deal for Jennings would also put him in the 34-35 year range, an ideal time frame for the life of a big contract.
When push comes to shove, the Packers should get something done sooner rather than later. He could be a candidate to get done during the season.
Jennings will make just $3.885 million during the final year of the four-year, $26.885 million deal he signed in 2009.
G T.J. Lang
Garda suggests that the Packers could let Lang walk, but I'm not in agreement with that thinking. The Packers simply don't have an answer if Lang leaves, and this case isn't the same as the one that saw Daryn Colledge walk in free agency last summer.
Lang will turn just 25 years old during the 2012 season (Colledge was 29 when he left) and the Packers knew they had both Lang and 2011 first-rounder Derek Sherrod available to fill the void when Colledge bolted. That's not the case now. Considering the Sherrod-at-left-guard experiment ended before it ever really started in last year's training camp, there's no reason to think the Packers have any interest in playing him there long term. He should be considered nothing more than a tackle moving forward. There isn't much behind Lang—in terms of long-term starting potential—with Sherrod out of the picture.
And while Lang obviously wasn't the game's best left guard during 2011, I'd argue he was a clear upgrade over Colledge. Pro Football Focus ranked him in the top-10 of interior linemen as a pass protector, too. Expect the Packers to get Land extended, and at a price that doesn't even get scratch the ceiling of Colledge's deal (five years, $27.5 million).
WR Donald Driver
Barring some miraculous season, 2012 should be the last for the veteran receiver. Unless Driver is dead-set on playing until he's 40, retirement looks like a good bet after next season. There's too much depth at the position to think Driver could last more than one year in Green Bay, too.
S Charlie Peprah
A journeyman safety for most of his NFL career, Peprah has been thrown into the starting mix in each of the last two seasons because of injury. He was serviceable during the Packers' Super Bowl run in 2010, but offenses exposed Peprah as the liability he is last season. Not having Nick Collins alongside him and the Packers' lack of pass rush were certainly other contributing factors to Peprah's slide in 2011. At 29 years old, Peprah is likely to get swept aside next offseason as the younger safeties—M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, Anthony Levine—eventually emerge as capable players.
LB Erik Walden
The Packers gave Walden every opportunity to hold down the outside linebacker position opposite Clay Matthews last season. But in 15 games, Walden was underwhelming. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the game's worst 3-4 linebacker and one of the worst run defenders. If he can recapture his role as a reserve rusher and special teams contributor, Walden could stick.
G/C Evan Dietrich-Smith
Dietrich-Smith probably isn't going to develop into an every-week, starting-caliber player, but his versatility inside gives him plenty of value beyond 2012. He can play either guard position and also center, where the Packers are short on players behind 37-year-old Jeff Saturday. EDS wasn't overwhelmed when pressed into duty at times in '11. He has a very good chance to be back on the cheap.
LB Brad Jones
Jones registered his first sack in two years when he brought down Matthew Stafford in Week 17 last season. His spot on the 2012 team is very much in the air, especially if one of the younger linebackers (Dezmon Moses?) emerges as a better player in training camp. Jones has versatility and experience in the 3-4, but there's not much upside in the 26-year-old.
LS Brett Goode
It is only a matter of time before Goode is re-signed. He's been nearly flawless as a long snapper in four years with the Packers.
DL Anthony Hargrove
Hargrove only got a year from the Packers this spring, and losing eight games (suspension) from that brief stint won't exactly help his chances of returning. But there's a reason why Thompson brought Hargrove in, and that's to be an interior defensive lineman that can get to the quarterback. If he's back to his early Saints' days over the last eight (or more) games, Hargrove could stick around for 2-3 years. Will need to make it through camp first.
DL Phillip Merling
The Packers are giving Merling a chance to revive a career that floundered late in Miami. There's some talent here—Merling was a top-32 pick back in '08—but he hasn't been the same player since hurting his Achilles in 2010. If he's closer to 100 percent, Merling could make the team and contribute on a rotational basis. Projecting any further down the line makes little sense.
DL Daniel Muir
Thompson and the Packers staff has some familiarity with Muir, but the former Colts defensive lineman is sitting in the same boat with Merling. Muir needs to show something in camp—where the defensive line battle will be competitive—to even make the team in 2012. He'll be fighting to stay on a roster for the rest of his career.
T Herb Taylor
Green Bay signed Taylor when Derek Sherrod landed on IR late last season. He has an uphill climb to make the team in 2012.
DL Jarius Wynn
It was discovered this week that Wynn has begun battling Bell's Palsy, a condition that causes paralysis and weakness on one side of the face. The long-term effects of the condition shouldn't hinder his shot at taking part in the competition to be a rotational player on the defensive line. He showed flashes in that role last season but was too often a ghost, especially when the Packers asked him to play a lot of snaps. Wynn is likely on the bubble.
Restricted Free Agents (RFAs)
CB Sam Shields
2012 will be the most important season of Shields' young NFL career. He has two young corners (Davon House, Casey Hayward) breathing down his neck, and 2011 did not represent the kind of progression some thought they'd see in the former University of Miami receiver. To be fair, no player on the Packers' roster was hurt more by the lockout last summer than Shields. He needed to have a full offseason to hone a craft he's only starting to master. However, that excuse is no longer valid for 2012. Shields needs to show improvement, but there's still a solid chance he's back—even with a poor '12.
P Tim Masthay
Given Masthay is a RFA, the Packers don't have to rush any decision. But why wait? Masthay has shored up a position that went through its share of transition following Jon Ryan. As long as there isn't any massive decline from Masthay in camp, Thompson should re-up his deal.
LB Frank Zombo
Might as well throw Zombo in with Brad Jones as players whose ship may have sailed. After an encouraging rookie campaign in 2010, Zombo fought through injuries for most of '11 and registered just one sack in five games. He needs to stay healthy in camp or the Packers won't have a spot on the 53 for him.
LB Rob Francois
You have to wonder where Francois fits in now that Terrell Manning was taken in the 2012 draft. A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith and Manning will make it difficult for Francois to crack the final roster.
TE Tom Crabtree
Now that Andrew Quarless is likely out to start the 2012 season, Crabtree's spot on the 53-man roster is probably secure. He is the team's go-to blocker at the tight end position and appeared to take a step forward as pass-catcher last season. How the younger tight ends (Ryan Taylor, D.J. Willams) progress may ultimately determine how long Crabtree is in Green Bay, however.