Now that the Green Bay Packers have officially come to terms on long-term contract extensions with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews, the time has come to ask, "Who's next?"
According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, among other sources, the Packers are approximately $13.5 million under the salary cap for 2013.
"They will need about $5 million to $6 million to sign their draft choices and undrafted free agents, leaving them with about $7 million to use on contract extensions to 2014 free agents such as cornerback Sam Shields, nose tackle B.J. Raji and wide receiver James Jones if they wish," writes Silverstein.
The Packers can carry over salary cap space to 2014 if there is room left over, but it's possible the Packers sign at least one more player before the start of the season if for no other reason than the security it provides by not having to compete against other teams on the free agent market.
The following players whose contracts are scheduled to expire following the 2013 season are ranked based upon my perception of the Packers' priorities to keep them in Green Bay. Whether or not it's in the each particular player's priority to stay in Green Bay or test free agency is another matter.
1. Defensive Lineman B.J. Raji
Just because the Packers added another defensive lineman in the first round of the NFL Draft in Datone Jones doesn't mean they can afford to let Raji go. Jones and Raji are two very different players. As general manager Ted Thompson will tell you, there just aren't that many men with the size and athleticism of Raji on this planet.
Considering that Ryan Pickett is also scheduled to become a free agent after 2013, the Packers can ill afford to lose two players over 330 lbs. in one offseason. They can always go back to the drawing board in the 2014 NFL Draft, but relying upon a rookie is a risky proposition, as is looking for a replacement in free agency.
Seeing as David Dunn is the agent for Rodgers, Matthews and Raji, he did a pretty good job at leaving some salary cap space left over for the third of his Packers' clients.
A compelling argument can be made that Raji has underachieved ever since the Packers' Super Bowl season in 2010, but he played very well in the second half of last year following an ankle injury that forced him to miss two games at midseason. Barring a serious injury, you can bet that some team in the NFL would be very willing to offer Raji a lucrative contract if he were to reach free agency no matter what kind of season he has in 2013.
At 26 years old, the Packers would probably be making a mistake to let Raji walk without at least making him a competitive offer.
2. Safety Morgan Burnett
When the Packers didn't add any player at safety in the recently completed NFL Draft, it left the position as perhaps the thinnest of any on the team. At some point, the Packers may add a veteran free agent for purposes of depth, perhaps even courting Charles Woodson, but that will do little to secure the long-term future at the position.
Beyond Burnett, the only other players with any experience on the Packers' roster are M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian and Sean Richardson, all of whom show promise but have little to show for it at the NFL level.
Burnett has been an ascending player ever since coming into the NFL as a rookie. And considering that former high-round safeties drafted by the Packers like LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper and Nick Collins waited to really blossom until their fourth year in the NFL, Burnett may just be coming into his own.
He'll be another player sure to garner interest on the free agent market, and the Packers might be wise to offer him a contract now before his asking goes up if he has a solid season.
3. Cornerback Sam Shields
When Shields didn't sign an offer sheet with any other NFL team by the Apr. 19 deadline, it ensured he would be in Green Bay for at least the 2013 season. He still has yet to sign his one-year tender offer, however, and it's possible that Shields signs a multi-year deal before the start of the season.
Just 25 years old, it's also possible Shields could sign a modest two- or three-year deal and still hit free agency one more time in the prime of his career.
The Packers have a lot of depth at the cornerback position between Shields, Casey Hayward, Tramon Williams, Davon House and by adding Micah Hyde in the NFL Draft, but considering the way Williams hasn't been able to overcome his shoulder issues the past couple seasons, Shields becomes even more of a priority.
Shields is arguably the fastest player on the team, and while he hasn't been a ballhawk, his coverage skills are among the best on the team. Letting him go him go would be another risk, but you can bank on agent Drew Rosenhaus getting as much money for his client as humanly possible.
4. Wide Receiver James Jones
To see a player like Jones so far down this list might imply he's not a priority to re-sign, but that's simply not the case. For a player who had his best season in the NFL last year and led the NFL with 14 receiving touchdowns, Jones is finally cashing in on the potential he showed for years ahead of time.
One thing preventing Jones from being a higher priority is the depth at the wide receiver position with the highly productive Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson also being effective targets for Aaron Rodgers.
Granted, in Mike McCarthy's spread schemes, it's important for Rodgers to have as many weapons as possible. But at 29 years old, Jones is also the oldest player among the top five this list and the player most likely to see Father Time to catch up to him.
The Packers might be more willing to sign Jones to a two- or three-year extension rather than a four- or five-year deal.
5. Tight End Jermichael Finley
One of the reasons Finley signed a two-year contract before the 2011 season was so he could reach free agency once again in the prime of his career. He probably won't let that opportunity pass him by.
As our own Zach Kruse outlined in a post a few weeks ago, placing the franchise tag on Finley very likely isn't an option (however, it is an option for some of the other players listed above). And continuing to pay Finley a contract in the range of $8.5 million is going to be difficult for several reasons:
A) The Packers also have several other players fighting for the same chunk of money as listed above. And B) Finley's production compared to other NFL tight ends hasn't been commensurate with this salary. His 61 receptions ranked ninth among players at his position last season and he only found the end zone two times.
In allowing Finley to leave, however, the Packers' would be losing another top target just one season after losing Greg Jennings to free agency. That would put a lot of pressure to find Aaron Rodgers' another receiving weapon in next year's NFL Draft.
The following list of players also have contracts that expire following the 2013 season, but the Packers most likely will let the season play out before deciding to re-sign any of them.
Center Evan Dietrich-Smith
Playing under a one-year tender offer, Dietrich-Smith enters a prove-it season. If he can take a leap forward and effectively protect Aaron Rodgers and be the quarterback of the offensive line, he'll boost his value. Dietrich-Smith would make sense for a mid-season extension if he proves he deserves it.
Tackle Marshall Newhouse
Newhouse enters 2013 as the most critical season of his career. Either he'll cement himself as the Packers' current and future left tackle, or the Packers will move on to find other options. Either way, they don't figure to make a decision on his future until a later date.
Fullback John Kuhn
At 30 years old, the Packers must decide how they feel about John Kuhn and the fullback position in general. Following the NFL Draft, they have a stable full of ball carriers and no longer need Kuhn to touch the football. They need a jackhammer of a fullback if they choose to continue to keep one on their roster.
Defensive Lineman Mike Neal
Neal took a step forward in 2012 by staying relatively healthy and productive, but not so much that he's a given to stick around. The addition of Datone Jones puts pressure on Neal to perform.
Defensive Lineman C.J. Wilson
Wilson might be a cheap alternative to Ryan Pickett as a designated run-stuffer if he can continue to make strides.
Defensive Lineman Ryan Pickett
As the oldest player on the Packers' roster, Pickett doesn't have many years left. But they might welcome him back on a one- or two-year deal if he comes on the cheap.
Quarterback Graham Harrell
Harrell isn't a sure bet to hold off B.J. Coleman this season, let alone in the future.
Linebacker Jamari Lattimore
Lattimore was voted a postseason special teams captain by his teammates last season, showing his leadership and team-first attitude are perhaps his best qualities.
Linebacker Rob Francois
Francois will reportedly get an opportunity to start this season, but he hasn't shown he can be anything more than a part-time fill-in yet.
Running back James Starks
After taking Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in the NFL Draft, there might be only one roster spot available between Starks and Alex Green in 2013, and even that isn't guaranteed.
Tight end Andrew Quarless
Before the Packers decide on Quarless' future, they first have to determine if he's over a devastating knee injury suffered in 2011.
Defensive Lineman Johnny Jolly
After three years away from football, Jolly is a long shot. He has a ton to prove between now and the end of training camp.
Tight end Matthew Mulligan
Whether the Packers have any interest in keeping Mulligan will depend upon how he performs as a blocker during the 2013 season.
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