COMMENTARY | Among players on the current roster, 20 Green Bay Packers are set to enter free agency in March. For better or worse, Ted Thompson won't be retaining all of them, but some extremely difficult decisions await the Packers' general manager.
Before we get started, let's lay down a few ground rules. First off, Green Bay could very well -- and likely will -- re-sign more than five players, but the salary cap will be Thompson's worst enemy in the coming weeks, especially after signing both Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews to long-term, lucrative extensions. Who we are selecting for this list will be based upon a combination of price, performance and need.
For instance, what is more important -- a backup running back or a starting nose tackle? What positions are areas where the Packers need help, and what kind of money will certain positions, and players, require?
We'll expand on the criteria as we explore the five players the Packers need to bring back in 2014. But first, the players that just missed the cut, and a brief explanation for each.
James Jones might come as a shock, but think about it -- the Packers are already deep at wide receiver, especially with Jarrett Boykin's emergence, and Jones will require more yearly than the $3.75 million he earned in 2013. He'll also be 30 years old in March.
Matt Flynn is someone Green Bay could afford to re-sign, and he would be a nice backup for Rodgers. But he's not necessary someone the Packers need to bring back, which knocks him down the list.
This could potentially ring true for Starks as well, although he put up solid numbers as a backup to Eddie Lacy. That could get his phone ringing and make him a tad too expensive for Thompson's liking.
Then there's linebacker Jamari Lattimore, who will be a restricted free agent, making it easier for the Packers to bring back the three-year pro. He filled in nicely for an injured Brad Jones and could be someone that evolves into a starter sooner rather than later. But as of now, Jones and A.J. Hawk (unfortunately) have those middle linebacker spots locked down.
Finally, B.J. Raji, the man who turned down an extension that was reported to be worth $8 million a year. Is that offer still on the table? Let's hope not, because 17 tackles, zero sacks and a severe decline in snaps played later, Raji isn't worth nearly that kind of money -- at least not to Green Bay.
Now, your five players that the Packers must bring back next season.
5. Mike Neal
Defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Mike Neal was faced with a difficult task this season. You guessed it -- a position change, a la Aaron Kampman. Neal battled injury throughout the second half of the season, but still gutted it out, starting in place of both Nick Perry and Clay Matthews.
Despite those injuries, Neal was third on the team in sacks (5.0) and finished the season strong. In 2010, he was a second-round pick of the Packers, but now he is set to become an unrestricted free agent. He did suffer a knee injury against the San Francisco 49ers, but it was deemed not to be serious, so it shouldn't impact how Green Bay pursues Neal.
The 2013 season was a big step for Neal as far as his role was concerned, and he played well enough to warrant a second contract. He's not necessarily an every-down guy, but he's a top-3 pass rusher on this team and will only get better with good health and natural progression.
4. Jermichael Finley/Andrew Quarless
We're cheating a bit here, but it's in regard to the health of Finley, who underwent successful spinal fusion surgery back in November. Even so, there's no guarantee that Finley can return to the football field, which would be a shame on several different levels.
Returning Finley or Quarless -- or potentially both -- to Green Bay would keep the offense a well-oiled machine. Not only would Finley's return (health pending) be a great story, but Quarless returned from a serious knee injury and produced at a serviceable level in Finley's place this season.
The tight end position is assumed to be a pressing need for the Packers in the NFL Draft, but that shouldn't mean Green Bay must avoid making a concerted effort to retain at least one of these players.
3. Evan Dietrich-Smith
A player that has really flown under the radar for the Packers is center Evan Dietrich-Smith, who will become an unrestricted free agent. This piece by Bleacher Report's Michelle Noyer-Granacki highlights just how important EDS has become to Green Bay's offense as not only one of the most reliable pass blockers on the team, but perhaps the best pass-blocking center in the NFL.
There is nothing more important to the Packers' success than keeping Rodgers upright, and Dietrich-Smith has helped to do just that. EDS' importance was also realized when he missed time with knee and ankle injuries, as T.J. Lang was forced to shift over to center.
Unless the Packers plan on starting a rookie or to seek other outside options, they would be in a bind without Dietrich-Smith around. At just 27 years old, he should be the center of the future in Green Bay.
2. Johnny Jolly
Two mainstays on the Packers' defensive line, it's entirely possible that both Raji and Ryan Pickett are playing elsewhere in 2014, not to mention free agent-to-be C.J. Wilson. That would leave an extremely inexperienced defensive line with players like Josh Boyd, Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy and Datone Jones.
That is, unless Johnny Jolly is back in the green and gold.
Despite missing the end of the season with a neck injury, Jolly out-performed both Pickett and Raji, even notching a sack as well as five tackles for a loss. There is a bit of concern regarding Jolly's neck injury, but should he return back to full strength, he's a must-sign for the Packers as a veteran presence that can also produce and fight his way into the opponent's backfield.
1. Sam Shields
Sam Shields is going to want himself some money, and the Packers would be wise to give it to him.
After settling for a one-year deal worth just over $2 million prior to the 2013 season, Shields proved why he was worthy of a long-term extension. He emerged as Green Bay's No. 1 cover corner, and with Tramon Williams stepping up his game toward the end of the season, the two could make a formidable duo next season.
Of course, Williams' contract is set to expire after the 2014 season, which makes locking down Shields a near necessity. Yes, Green Bay still has corners like Casey Hayward, Davon House and Micah Hyde, but Shields is No. 1 corner material and just turned 26 years old.
There's always the franchise tag, but you never know when someone with Shields' ability will come around again. Thompson would be wise to make Shields his No. 1 priority this March.
Dave Radcliffe is a resident of a little known Milwaukee suburb who is an avid follower of Wisconsin sports. He has contributed to JSOnline, as a featured columnist on other sites and publications, and been a guest on multiple sports talk radio shows.
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