A number of decisions made by the Green Bay Packers this offseason are likely to have ripple effects into next spring, when general manager Ted Thompson will be looking at a number of his own building blocks potentially ready to cash in as unrestricted free agents.
Early decisions on at least two of those eventual free agents were made—at least in the short term—this week.
On Monday, cornerback Sam Shields signed his one-year restricted free agent tender after negotiations on a long-term deal went stagnant. Later, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that the Packers will let B.J. Raji play out his rookie contract before attempting to re-sign the former first-round pick.
If Shields doesn't receiver a suitable long-term offer, and the Packers are in fact willing to let Raji play the 2013 season on a one-year deal, both will add to an already significant list of free agents next spring.
The Packers scheduled free agents for 2014 currently includes Shields, Raji, Jermichael Finley, Morgan Burnett, Mike Neal, Ryan Pickett, James Jones, Marshall Newhouse and Evan Dietrich-Smith. As many as 10 potential starters next season might be up for new deals.
Thompson has always been proactive in keeping his players in Green Bay, but he may need to use a tool he's historically shied away from—the franchise tag—to keep the majority of his core intact.
Since taking over as the Packers general manager in 2005, Thompson has used the franchise tag only two times. Corey Williams received the tag in 2008 but was later traded to the Cleveland Browns, while Pickett signed a new long-term deal soon after getting the tag in 2010.
Thompson has recently had opportunities to use the tag again, most notably on Finley and Matt Flynn in 2012 and Greg Jennings this spring, but has refused. He might not have that luxury next spring.
Here's a far-too-early look at the free agents most likely to receive attention with the franchise tag in 2014:
DL B.J. Raji
2013 tag price: $11.175 million DE, $8.45 million for DT
Potential price tag: $6-9 million/year?
His first four seasons have been far from bust-worthy, but it's clear the Packers aren't yet comfortable giving the former first-round pick an expensive extension. It's a calculated risk for Thompson, who took Raji in 2009 to fill an important position in his 3-4 defense. While Raji has flashed moments of greatness, he's also lacked consistency at times and is still a step down from a player of Vince Wilfork's caliber. The risk for the Packers comes if Raji has a strong 2013 season, and especially if he starts producing the money numbers—sacks, tackles for losses and turnover plays. He could quickly become one of the prized free agents of the 2014 class if he blows up next season and refuses any long-term offers from the Packers. The franchise tag might eventually become Thompson's best tool for retaining Raji past next season.
CB Sam Shields
2013 tag price: $10.854 million
Potential price tag: $5-7 million/year?
Unless significant progress is made on the new contract front, Shields will enter next season in a similar spot as Raji—although without the benefit of being a former first-round pick. He won't be playing 2013 for free—he'll still make over $2 million on the tender—but it's clear Shields wanted the security of a long-term deal at some point this offseason. Skipping the start of the offseason program was all about leverage to get such a deal done, but Shields soon realized he was losing ground in a crowded cornerback battle and accelerated his return to camp. The same risks for the Packers with Raji exist with Shields, as the 25-year-old cornerback could make himself some cold, hard cash in 2013 with a strong season. Keep in mind, the 2014 free-agent class of cornerbacks is mostly void of big time names, save for maybe Charles Tillman (will be 33 years old next spring) and Tim Jennings of the Chicago Bears and the Seattle Seahawks' Brandon Browner. If Shields is as good next season as he was to close 2013—when he had a strong argument for being one of the best cover corners in all the NFL—the former undrafted free agent could easily become the No. 1 cornerback target on the free-agent market. In that scenario, might the only way to keep Shields in Green Bay beyond 2013 be to use the franchise tag?
TE Jermichael Finley
2013 tag price: $6.066 million
Potential price tag: $5-7 million/year?
Don't let the listed franchise tag price for Finley fool you. As reported here at CheeseheadTV in April, Finley will cost over $10 million to tag next spring because of his current salary cap number and new rules in the CBA. While using the tag would only add roughly $2 million to Finley's total cap number next season, the Packers might be reluctant to pay Finley over $10 million after attempting to renegotiate his $8.75 million hit in 2013. Of course, a monster season from Finley might change the Packers' tune on such an idea. He certainly has that kind of year in him, especially with Jennings in Minnesota. Also, a new long-term deal midseason seems unlikely for Finley, who would then be passing on a second opportunity at the riches of the free-agent market.
S Morgan Burnett: Slowly, Burnett has emerged as a consistent entity in the Packers secondary and a very valuable part of the safety puzzle. His price range doesn't figure to explode in 2013, and the franchise tag for safeties isn't as ridiculous as most positions, but there's still a chance the Packers could find it difficult to retain their best player at the position beyond 2013.
WR James Jones: He'll turn 30 years old next March, and it's worth noting that just two offseasons ago no one would even entertain the idea of signing him away from Green Bay. But 21 touchdowns later, including 14 in 2012, and Jones' ability as a receiver has finally been legitimized. Still, it's nearly impossible to envision Thompson slapping the franchise tag on Jones after he refused to do it with Jennings this past March.
DL/OLB Mike Neal: Non-stop injuries and a four-game suspension in 2012 threatened to make Neal an afterthought. But after a strong finish to 2012, in which Neal proved to be a capable pass rusher, the former second-round pick is now being prepped to play all over the Packers defense next season. Who knows if he'll stay healthy, and the May and June experiments at outside linebacker may end up being nothing more than a failed attempt to add depth on the perimeter. But if Neal can handle some edge rushing assignments, and then stays healthy for 16 games, there's a chance Neal could have a break out season in 2013. Coming close to 10 sacks in a contract year might push his price range out of the Packers plans.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at email@example.com.
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