Ted Thompson and the rest of the Green Bay Packers front office will have to make 20 separate decisions on free agents this coming offseason.
The Packers leave 2013 with 17 unrestricted free agents (UFA), two restricted free agents (RFA) and one exclusive rights free agent (ERFA) to deal with. Below, we rank all 20 of Green Bay's free agents.
Note: Rankings reflect a combination of 2013 contributions, future projections and predicted chance of being retained.
20. RB Kahlil Bell, UFA
An emergency depth signing at running back, Bell played zero offensive snaps but saw action in three games on special teams. He returned one kick for 22 yards. With Eddie Lacy the clear starter and both DuJuan Harris and Johnathan Franklin returning from injury, there's simply no space or need for Bell to return. He'll go back on Ted Thompson's in-case-of-injury board.
19. QB Seneca Wallace, UFA
He'll be 34 by next August, and he's coming off season-ending surgery to repair a torn groin. That's not a great combination for a free agent quarterback, especially one who struggled during his limited playing time and appeared misfit for the Packers offense. His arm looked especially weak over 24 attempts and his mobility is nearly gone. The Packers are better off developing Scott Tolzien than giving Wallace another year.
18. S Chris Banjo, ERFA
Banjo is an exclusive rights free agent, which gives the Packers total negotiating power over his future. Why wouldn't he return? His unlikely emergence during last summer's training camp earned Banjo a roster spot, and he eventually became a key special teams contributor, totaling nine tackles with zero misses or penalties. He may not be an answer at safety, but there's little harm in bringing back cheap labor, especially at a position the Packers are so thin at.
17. S M.D. Jennings, RFA
The Packers have an interesting decision to make with Jennings, a 17-game starter in 2013. He's clearly unfit to be a starting safety in the NFL, and any defense with Super Bowl aspirations can't have him playing a primary role. But do the Packers want to keep him around by giving him a minimum tender or will they simply let him go loose? Green Bay can and should do better. But this is a team that gave Jennings 27 total starts over the last two seasons, and it's certainly possible they aren't yet ready to give up on him.
16. T Marshall Newhouse, UFA
Displaced as a starter, Newhouse regressed severely in 2013. And that's saying something considering how fantastically average he was as a 31-game starter from 2011-12. Newhouse played 261 snaps this season but somehow gave up 21 total pressures, and his overall grade at Pro Football Focus finished dead last among Green Bay's offensive linemen. Over his two starts, Newhouse allowed 13 total pressures. And his brief stint at guard in Detroit will make your eyeballs burn. As long as the Packers feel good about the health of Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod, Newhouse should be gone.
15. ILB Robert Francois, UFA
Francois has long been a core special teams player, but he's now 28 years old and coming off an Achilles' tear. The Packers have 2013 seventh-rounder Sam Barrington coming off injured reserve, and it's possible that Thompson will use a draft pick on an inside linebacker. Overall, Francois made just one special teams tackle before suffering the season-ending injury. It's probably time to move on.
14. DL C.J. Wilson, UFA
Once a starter at defensive end, Wilson played in just nine games and saw only 127 snaps in 2013. His best attribute is still holding up blocks against the run. The fact that the Packers have so many moving pieces on the defensive line, combined with the fact that Wilson won't demand much to retain, gives the former seventh-round pick a real chance to stick around. He still has use as a situational backup.
13. TE Andrew Quarless, UFA
Quarless would be higher up this list if the future of Jermichael Finley were more clear. He becomes much more important if Finley is not medically cleared to return to football. But instead of guessing on Finley, we'll break down what we know of Quarless. He's serviceable but underwhelming, and a starter only by necessity. Note that Quarless caught 32 passes for 312 yards and two scores over 16 games and 10 starts, while Finley had 25, 300 and three over just six games, two of which he was knocked out of early. In a perfect world, Quarless re-signs and then returns to being a very capable No. 2 tight end. We'll see.
12. ILB Jamari Lattimore, RFA
The Packers ought to tender Lattimore at the lowest level and then give him a fair shot—forget the money paid to Brad Jones—to start at inside linebacker in 2014. He might not be a significant upgrade over Jones, and he's certainly no NaVarro Bowman or Patrick Willis, but he at least showed some athletic ability and physicality when on the field in 2013. The Packers could use more of both on defense. Another year getting comfortable at inside linebacker could accelerate his development.
11. OLB Mike Neal, UFA
Four years into his NFL career, Neal finally played a full, 16-game season. The Packers transitioned him from defensive end to outside linebacker over the summer, and he went on to lead the team in overall quarterback hurries (37) and disruptions (46). He's still a work in progress as a 3-4 edge rusher, but there is some promise to be tapped into. In the long run, Neal might still be better suited as a 4-3 defensive end. He's expressed a desire to return, but it'd have to come at a price that benefits the Packers. The combination of a better situation and deal could certainly lure him away.
10. DL Johnny Jolly, UFA
Jolly was one of the great surprises of Green Bay's 2013 season. At 30 years old, Jolly returned from a three-year absence and once again became a valuable run defender for the Packers defense. He's coming off a neck injury and no longer has age on his side, but his likely price and obvious value to Green Bay make a reunion likely. Besides, Jolly should have a soft spot for this franchise, which took a risk it didn't have to take on his comeback to the NFL.
9. QB Matt Flynn, UFA
The unmitigated disaster that was the Packers backup quarterback situation in 2013 should provide incentive for Thompson to bring back Flynn, who failed in other starting gigs but once again looked at home in Green Bay. He doesn't have one above average attribute, but he knows the offense inside and out and again showed an ability to keep the Packers afloat when called upon. It simply wouldn't make sense for Flynn to entertain an offer anywhere else, unless the money is substantially more than what Green Bay puts on the table. That seems unlikely. Bring Flynn back at or near the veteran's minimum he deserves and forget about the worries at backup quarterback.
8. FB John Kuhn, UFA
The fullback may be endangered in the NFL, but the Packers have kept the position alive through Kuhn. While limited athletically, Kuhn has improved as a lead blocker and remains the offense's go-to pass protector. He's also a core special teams player, a leader in the locker room and a guy Aaron Rodgers trusts without question. If the price is right, bringing back Kuhn should be a no-brainer.
7. RB James Starks, UFA
I'll bang the drum for Starks' return, even if it looks unlikely. Once a hero of the Super Bowl run, Starks emerged in 2013 as one of the NFL's best backup running backs. And no, that's not an over-exaggeration. Starks ran for 5.5 yards per tote, averaged more yards after contact and a higher rate of missed tackles than Eddie Lacy and—maybe most importantly—stayed mostly injury free. The Packers kept him fresh and he looked oh-so-dangerous almost every time he touched the football. In fact, he averaged over 7.0 yards per carry over the final two games of 2013, contests in which the Packers probably should have used him more over a hobbled Lacy. Yes, DuJuan Harris and Johnathan Franklin will return and could back up Lacy without problem. But if Starks doesn't command big money somewhere, why not bring back Lacy, Starks, Harris and Franklin and then feature a position with as much talent and depth as any in football? Losing Starks would be a blow, in my humble opinion.
6. DL B.J. Raji, UFA
There simply aren't many human beings that weigh 330 pounds who can move as well as Raji does. That alone gives him immediate value, both to the Packers and to the rest of the NFL. But whether or not Raji returns will really come down to how much the Packers value him, and how badly Raji wants to continue playing in the 3-4 defense. In Dom Capers' system, Raji has been relegated to a two-down role in which he rarely gets opportunities to rush the quarterback. He might want to play in a defense that frees him to be a more disruptive inside rusher, much like he was early on in Green Bay. The Packers will then have to decide whether they want a former first-round pick, especially one that was hand-picked to be a cornerstone of their switch to the 3-4 defense, to walk without getting a second contract. He certainly didn't earn a big deal—the $8 million-a-year offer has already been tossed into the garbage and lit on fire—but he's a talent and a home-grown Packer. Raji will be the toughest decision of Thompson's offseason.
5. WR James Jones, UFA
Tough as nails, generally reliable and the polar opposite of a diva, Jones is an ideal match for what the Packers do on and off the field. He's also tested the market before and came up empty. Will that change once he turns 30 in March? His production has spiked since his last dealings in free agency, but teams don't typically break the bank for No. 2 or No. 3 receivers of his age. The Packers might also be ready to give more playing time to Jarrett Boykin, who emerged as a steady hand capable of being the No. 3 in 2014. But when you have Aaron Rodgers in his prime, you never want to take away trusted targets, especially if they come at a reasonable price. Something tells me Jones will be back on another manageable deal.
4. TE Jermichael Finley, UFA
Finley is probably the most difficult free agent to discuss. His health is a huge question mark, especially considering how cautious the Packers have historically been with neck injuries of Finley's type. Will team docs clear him? Will he be ready to play by the start of 2014? What kind of market would he have if cleared? These are all tough questions to answer right now. When healthy, Finley is a difference-making tight end who would have a sizable number of teams ready to make an offer. The position is also an important one in the Green Bay offense, and it showed when the middle of the field all but dried up in the passing game when Finley left in October. I find it difficult to envision the Packers clearing Finley medically and then satisfying him contractually as a free agent, but who knows. If he's cleared and projected to be ready by the start of 2014, he should become a priority for Green Bay.
3. DL Ryan Picket, UFA
Pickett will be 35 years old by next October, offers next to nothing as a pass rusher and there were signs of regression in 2013. But he's also the Packers best defensive lineman against the run, a leader in the locker room and he hasn't missed a game in two years. There shouldn't be too many teams lining up to offer him big money, so the Packers will have the option to retain him at a reasonable price. They should jump on that opportunity. If any combination of Raji, Jolly and Wilson leave, the Packers can't afford to see Pickett bolt. That's too much turnover up front. He probably has the best chance of any of the defensive linemen to return.
2. C Evan Dietrich-Smith, UFA
Many might scoff at the idea of EDS's placement on this list, but he was a rock-solid No. 2 from the get-go for me. He's made such significant strides that it would be a shame for the Packers to let him walk in free agency. According to PFF, Dietrich-Smith was the fifth-best center in the NFC and eighth-best overall in 2013. Plus, the Packers don't want Aaron Rodgers taking snaps from his fourth different center in as many years next season. Retaining EDS will maintain the always important cohesion along the offensive line, while also giving Green Bay a chance to feature its best five up front maybe in Rodgers' entire starting career. He should be a top priority.
1. CB Sam Shields, UFA
Shields is a no-brainer to round out the list. A potential shut down cornerback who is entering his prime in a passing league, Shields is more than ready to cash in. Will it be in Green Bay? The Packers gambled by not giving him a long term deal last season, instead extending the process out one year with a $2.023 million tender. Now, Green Bay is at the mercy of shark agent Drew Rosenhaus. The Packers have depth at cornerback, but losing out on Shields—a player plucked from the scrap heap who has gradually developed into a big-time player in Green Bay—would be a huge blow to Thompson's develop-and-retain style of roster building. Thompson must also know that letting a talent like Shields leave will do nothing to help fix a defense that is already lacking difference makers. Given the relative lack of good cornerbacks available in free agency, Shields will enter discussions with nearly all the leverage. For him to return, the Packers will likely need to swallow some pride and cave on a deal that almost certainly will favor the 26-year-old cornerback.
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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