With the NFL Combine approaching and free agency slated to kick off in just under four weeks, we've officially entered the last giant prognostication period of the league year. While it's impossible to know for sure what players from around the league will be available once free agency begins, there is one number the Packers are surely focused on - their 11 unrestricted free agents. Like most years, Green Bay will have some tough calls to make when assessing how they want to proceed.
Here is my priority list, from most to least important:
1. TE Jared Cook - Throughout the "run the table" portion of the 2016 season, no offensive player made a more noticeable difference for the Packers. After missing six of Green Bay's first nine games, Cook returned against Washington in week 11 and was targeted 11 times, catching five passes for 105 yards and his lone regular season touchdown. From there, it was clear that opposing defenses were adjusting to make Cook a focal point of their gameplans, and the whole of the Packers offense became the beneficiary. His chemistry with Aaron Rodgers became more and more apparent as the season wore on, and culminated in Dallas with perhaps the most outstanding play of the NFL playoffs. Cook has expressed interest in returning to Green Bay and the Packers have reportedly mirrored that interest. If they want the offense to be as dangerous as possible next season, they'd do well to get a deal done.
2. DB Micah Hyde - On the flip side, perhaps no one did more on defense down the stretch than Micah Hyde. A mainstay in a secondary ravaged by injury in 2016, he once again proved his worth as a jack of all trades, even playing perimeter corner and reeling in an interception against Detroit in week 17. Add to that his ability to factor in the punt return game, and Hyde can provide the Packers with depth at multiple positions. His market presumably will not be overly hard, and I'd imagine there will be mutual interest re-signing.
3. OLB Nick Perry - The numbers pretty much speak for themselves here. Perry had 11 sacks in 14 regular season games. He played well despite wearing a club on his arm as well as the absence of Clay Matthews for the last quarter of the year. Perry has earned a new deal and I wouldn't expect him to give the Packers any sort of hometown discount, so they may have to come out of their financial comfort zone to make it happen.
4. G T.J. Lang - Of the top priority guys on my list, this one feels the most like a coin flip. It shouldn't, however, given how en vogue it is to talk about the importance of continuity along the offensive line. While guard isn't as flashy a title as, say, left tackle, Lang has been as important to Green Bay's sustained success as anyone. If the Packers do intend to re-sign him, his recent injury history could help them do that by softening the market and bringing his price down. On the other hand, those injuries could serve to make the folks at 1265 Lombardi a lot more hesitant. Lang's reliability (he's played in 93% of possible games in his career) speaks to what kind of player he is, and I believe he still has plenty to offer the team.
5. DE Datone Jones - It's easy to become frustrated with a player who has such incredible physical tools but has yet to maximize them on a consistent basis. Jones could probably be considered an outside linebacker, and his ability to move in the open field would justify that designation. He has shown, in flashes, an ability to make plays, but often neutralizes his successes with errors. The Packers could try to find a replacement via the draft, but sometimes it's better to stick with the devil you know.
6. LS Brett Goode - I know, I know - a long snapper? Really? It may seem like these guys grow on trees, but Goode is excellent at what he does and won't require a bank-breaking deal.
7. OL Don Barclay - Another player whose value lies in providing depth. Barclay can play multiple spots along the offensive line, and while he's not exactly the favorite son of Packer fans, has performed good enough to keep around. Green Bay could certainly move on, however, and probably not miss his services all that badly.
8. RB Eddie Lacy - This is probably the most speculated-upon decision the Packers face this offseason. Ty Montgomery's emergence at running back in 2016 has probably lowered the stakes of this decision, as one has to assume Montgomery will go into 2017 atop the depth chart. The release of James Starks, however, made things a little more interesting again. While it would surprise no one if they pursue a running back in the draft, cutting Lacy would make it essential to do so. However, as NFL teams continue to prove, someone is ALWAYS willing to overpay. I would expect he ends up coming back on a smaller deal, but it wouldn't rock my world if his run in Green Bay is over.
9. OL JC Tretter - Tretter has played his best football at center, a position at which the Packers should be pretty solidy set with Corey Linsley. Don Barclay will be cheaper to keep around and can be a backup at center. Nice to know you, JC.
10. RB Christine Michael - I know I'm not the only one who wound up a little disappointed with how Michael's time in Green Bay played out. Granted, he probably never had a full grasp on the playbook, but he straight up just went the wrong direction on more than one occasion. A re-signing here would be extremely unnecessary and, frankly, shocking.
11. OLB Julius Peppers - It's weird to see Peppers at the bottom of any list. While his play over the past three seasons has been more than adequate, he just simply looks to be running out of gas at age 37. That makes him the least of the Packers' worries as thet attempt to reconstruct a defense that proved too much of a liability too often in 2016.
For me, the top four on this list are level one priorities for the Packers going forward, though it may be financially difficult to keep them all. What does your list look like?
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