The NFL Combine is in the books. Next comes free agency and the Draft.
Here’s eleven things the Packers need to do in order to become more competitive on the football field and get back to a Super Bowl level…
- Clear salary cap-space by restructuring A.J. Hawk’s contract––In order to sign Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and others to contract extensions, as well as become competitive in free agency, the Packers need still more space than the roughly $20 million they already have under the salary cap. Hawk’s salary cap figure in excess of $7 million in 2013 is dragging down the team for somebody who doesn’t create turnovers and is only a two-down player. With both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith coming off injuries, there’s good reason to keep Hawk around, just at a reduced salary. If he’s unwilling to negotiate, then cut him, but hopefully things don’t get to that point.
- Sign Clay Matthews to his contract extension now and then do Aaron Rodgers mid-season––It’s exceedingly difficult to figure out how much salary cap space and flexibility the Packers will have––both in 2013 and in future seasons––without factoring Matthews and Rodgers into the equation. The Packers really have no choice but to bite the bullet. Matthews will become one of the highest-paid defenders in the NFL and Rodgers will become one of the highest-paid players regardless of position. Matthews only has one year left on his contract while Rodgers has two. Give Matthews his money now, and then sign Rodgers to his extension midway through the season. They’ll save a couple million dollars in 2013 by waiting on Rodgers. B.J. Raji will just have to wait his turn.
- Accept a third-round draft choice for Jermichael Finley––If the Packers want to trade Jermichael Finley, they have to do it before March 12 when the new league year begins and he’s due a $3 million bonus. With only one year left on his contract, Finley isn’t going to command a first or even a second round draft choice, but the Packers might be able to fetch as high as a third. If they’re able to find a partner, they shouldn’t be afraid to pull the trigger. Either Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz or Gavin Escobar is likely to be available in the first round of the upcoming Draft. Even spending a day-two pick on a guy like Vance McDonald or Travis Kelce becomes easier if you’re getting something in return for Finley. If the Packers can’t trade Finley, they have two options available, either cut him and wipe his $8-plus million cap figure off the books or keep him and hope for the best. Either is a possibility.
- Attempt to pull the ol’ tag-and-trade with Greg Jennings––The NFL doesn’t look kindly upon the so-called tag-and-trade deals, but there’s nothing in the rulebook that explicitly prohibits it. If Jennings were to leave free agency, the Packers would get possibly get as high as a third round compensatory draft choice in 2014 at best, and that’s assuming they don’t sign any other unrestricted free agents. A fourth round draft choice in 2013 is as good as a third round choice in 2014. It doesn’t sound like much for trading away Greg Jennings, but the Packers are not in a position of leverage. Getting one more year out of Jennings under the franchise tag wouldn’t be a bad idea, but the Packers risk alienating a player with only a one-year offer.
- Make Chris Canty a competitive offer––Chris Canty makes more sense as a free agent target than a guy like Ricky Jean Francois for two reasons: 1) Canty has the length the Packers desire at 6-7 and 2) Canty won’t count in the compensatory draft pick equation like Jean Francois because he was cut by the Giants. Certainly, Canty’s injury history is a concern, but the Packers will just have to roll the dice and hope for the best. If healthy, he can both stuff the run and rush the passer, which makes him a valuable commodity. And by going after a defensive lineman in free agency, it become a less urgent need to address during the Draft.
- Save as much money as possible in restricted free agency: First of all, offer Sam Shields and Evan Dietrich-Smith second-round tenders at most. There’s some risk involved in doing so, especially in the case of Shields, but history has shown that restricted free agents very, very rarely get signed away by other teams. The Packers also shouldn’t offer any tender whatsoever to tight end Tom Crabtree and linebackers Rob Francois and Frank Zombo. The risk here is that they would automatically become unrestricted free agents and be free to sign with any team in the NFL, but that’s a risk the Packers should be willing to take. If Crabtree or Francois can find a better deal outside of Green Bay, more power to them. The Packers can ease their pain by offering them a small signing bonus and giving them just slightly above the veteran’s minimum.
- Add a safety in the first two days of the Draft––Ask just about anyone and they’ll tell you that safety is one of the deepest positions in the 2013 NFL Draft. It’s not imperative that the Packers take a safety in the first round, but it would probably be wise to do so before the end of the third. From Jonathan Cyprien to Eric Reid to D.J. Swearinger to J.J. Wilcox to Shamarko Thomas, there’s plenty of options available. And the list doesn’t end there.
- Stand pat at tackle and outside linebacker in the first round––The Packers have taken an offensive tackle in the first round in two of the past three drafts. And they took an outside linebacker in the first round in 2012. There’s a degree of risk in doing so, but the Packers should put all their eggs in with Bryan Bulaga, Derek Sherrod and Nick Perry. It’s especially risky because all three ended last season on injured reserve. But to draft a player in the first round at any of these positions would mean giving up on either Sherrod or Perry prematurely. They deserve to the opportunity to prove that they can bounce back. And that doesn’t mean the Packers can’t address these positions in the mid to late rounds.
- Round out the Draft with at least one linebacker, wide receiver, running back and offensive lineman––In reality, the Packers have plenty of needs. It’s not out of the question to select a player at any position, especially in the later rounds. But the Packers would be wise to address these positions at some point rather than wait for undrafted free agency. Hopefully they’ll find a diamond in the rough, and at the very minimum, at least add depth at these positions.
- Offer Cullen Jenkins a modest deal––At 32 years old, the Packers shouldn’t break the bank to bring Jenkins back into the fold. But if he’s open to signing a contract in the neighborhood of the veteran’s minimum, there’s little risk involved in seeing what he has left in the tank. He could always be cut if things don’t work out. If Jenkins is holding out for significantly more money, however, then let him.
- Bring in competition for Mason Crosby––It’s been years since the Packers have brought another kicker into training camp to provide competition for Mason Crosby. They don’t necessarily have to give up on Crosby if he shows he’s able to bounce back from a poor 2012 campaign, but bringing in a challenger is a must. It doesn’t matter if the Packers draft a kicker or go the undrafted route. If they wait until after the Draft, they should be able to have their pick of the litter as most kickers will view Green Bay as a place where they realistically have a chance of winning a job.
Brian Carriveau is the author of “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” and editor of Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview.” To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.