Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson has several decisions to make in the next few weeks and months, some more difficult than others. One of the tougher ones is how to handle free-agent-to-be Scott Wells.
As of 4:00 pm EST on March 13th, Wells will be an unrestriced free agent, free to shop his services to any of the 32 teams in the NFL. Obviously, Wells has been a valuable contributor to the Packers offense over the course of the last several years, none more so than 2011 when he played the best football of his career and was easily the Packers' best performing offensive lineman.
Bob McGinn reported back in November that Wells and the Packers were nowhere near an agreement and Ty Dunne revealed last week that three months has done little to move the two parties closer to a compromise.
Wells, according to McGinn, wants to be paid like one of the top 5 centers in the league. It's hard to argue that he would not be worth the investment, especially due to his mastery of the protection calls in McCarthy's offense. As Thompson has proven by drafting two offensive linemen in the first round, protecting the Packers' franchise quarterback is a high priority.
Would Thompson be willing to let Wells walk? The veteran center would seem to have a good deal of leverage here simply due to the fact that the Packers have no one on hand to replace him. Nick McDonald was the supposed heir apparent, but bombed in training camp and was cut.
There are probably two centers in the draft that Thompson could target, Wisconsin's Peter Konz and Georgia's Ben Jones, who could most-likely transition directly into an NFL starting job, but there's no guarantee either will be available when the Packers draft. Also, spending yet another early pick on the offensive side of the ball and bypassing defensive help might be a hard pill to swallow for a G.M. that uses the draft almost exclusively to procure new talent and that saw his defense turn in the worst statistical performance in the history of the league.
We saw this same kind of scenario play out last year with the New York Giants who let their well-liked veteran center Shaun O'Hara walk and then signed former 49ers center David Bass in free agency. The problem when applying this to the Packers' situation is twofold. First, Wells is playing much better than O'Hara was. Secondly, there is no center currently set to be available in free agency who would be considered on the same level as Bass. (UPDATE: Thanks to commenter "Cole" for pointing out that Texans center Chris Myers is set to become a free agent. If he hits the market, he will undoubtedly be the number one center on teams free agent boards)
So do the Packers pony up for Wells, despite Thompson's well-recorded reticence when it comes to signing players to big contracts after their 30th birthday? For comparison's sake, lets look at what the top 5 centers salaries are:
Ryan Kalil, Carolina Panthers: $8.186 million
Nick Mangold, New York Jets: $7.725 million
Jason Brown, St. Louis Rams: $7.5 million
Jeff Faine, Tampa Bay: $6.25 million
David Baas, New York Giants: $5.5 million
Four of the five players listed above signed their deals in their mid-to-late twenties, with Bass signing his deal at the age of 29. If, as expected, the Packers cut or reduce the salaries of left tackle Chad Clifton and wide receiver Donald Driver, you have to think the team could use that savings to pay Wells somewhere in the vicinity of the above.
In the end though, my gut feeling here is that Wells will make it to free agency, much like Clifton did a few years ago. Unlike Clifton, however, I think Wells will find more than one possible suitor (who may or may not have been genuinely interested) especially with how thin the free agent talent pool seems to be at the position.
Whatever the case, its no forgone conclusion that Wells will be back with the Packers next season. The stare-down between the two sides continues with a realistic possibility being a new center for the Packers offense in 2012.
UPDATE: Some chatter in the comments section about the possibility of placing the Franchise Tag on Wells. Not going to happen. Offensive line is grouped together when it comes to the tag determination, which obviously includes left tackles. As commenter "frank" notes, that designation puts the tag for olineman at around $9 million. There's no way Ted Thompson places that on a 31 year old player.