COMMENTARY | After a huge win over the Baltimore Ravens last weekend the Packers are back in prime position to defend their NFC North title as the season approaches the middle stretch. Add on the fact that the Packers' defense has shown vast improvement over the last couple games and they are starting to look like a team that is building momentum for 2013 and beyond.
Should the Packers maintain their defensive level for the rest of the year one would have to similarly assume that Dom Capers and his scheme will factor into the team's longer term plans -- at minimum through 2014. Taking this equation one step further means that the Packers' front office has to be focusing on how they can retain their core players in order to maintain continuity.
Looking at the Packers' current roster reveals a fairly clear pecking order of priorities and predictions for the team as they approach some key free agency decisions:
1. B. J. Raji -- The Packers' charismatic nose tackle has been an anchor on the defensive line since the team's Super Bowl run in 2010. Although he has been playing fewer snaps in 2013 with improved depth on the defensive line, Raji has arguably been even more effective in his duty of clogging up the line of scrimmage. Whether that's due to fresher legs or a veteran's mentality is neither here nor there. Re-signing this young, explosive player has to be the top priority for the Packers in 2013.
Prediction: B.J. Raji re-signs with the Packers
2. Ryan Pickett -- Another large presence on the Packers' defensive line is their veteran leader Ryan Pickett. Still extremely effective at 34 years old, Pickett has unquestionably become a locker room leader and fan favorite. The Packers may be able to re-sign the aging Pickett at a team-friendly rate, especially if they maintain their current defensive scheme. A modest deal would likely fulfill both parties' objectives and result in a win-win situation. These two big men are listed first because plugging the middle is the foundation on which Capers builds his entire scheme.
Prediction: Ryan Pickett re-signs with the Packers
3. Evan Dietrich-Smith -- After the 2011 season, the Packers made the questionable decision of letting their elite center, Scott Wells, walk in free agency. As a stop-gap measure, Green Bay signed the aging Jeff Saturday. It's doubtful the Packers will make the same mistake twice in such a short window of time, especially given that Dietrich-Smith won't demand a sky-high contract like Wells was seeking after 2011. A lack of depth at center is definitely a factor.
Prediction: Evan Dietrich-Smith re-signs with the Packers
4. James Jones -- In 2012 the Packers boasted an unparalleled stable of receivers led by Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson. The team has adapted to the loss of Jennings in 2013, but losing Jones would make a previously elite group suddenly look very vulnerable. Jones will likely have noted the somewhat mediocre success of other receivers that have departed Green Bay in free agency and possibly recognizes that signing a modest deal would allow him to remain with an incredible group of peers, a top-notch quarterback, and a contending team.
Prediction: James Jones re-signs with the Packers
5. Jermichael Finley -- The tight end position in Green Bay is where things get interesting. As of today, the Packers have only one dual-threat tight end -- Finley. When focused he has shown the ability to block effectively while offering an excellent package of receiving skills. However, Finley is currently signed at a pay rate that isn't sustainable in the long term and an extension would require this versatile athlete to take a significant cut -- a situation Finley may not be prepared to stomach. Despite Finley being a top priority for the Packers, this may be one of the few instances in which the economics of a future relationship simply don't add up. If James Jones leaves in free agency, the equation with Finley changes considerably. Either way, look for the Packers to use a top draft pick in 2014 on a highly touted collegiate tight end.
Prediction: Jermichael Finley departs in free agency
6. Sam Shields -- The Packers have been fortunate to strike gold in the last two drafts with some excellent cornerbacks, namely Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde. This removes some of the urgency in re-signing Sam Shields. Another factor in this equation is Tramon Williams - a declining veteran that currently projects out with the third-highest cap number in 2014. The Packers could make the decision to renegotiate or cut ties with Williams if his play doesn't pick up considerably in 2013. The savings from such a transaction could be used on Sam Shields and other free agents. The Packers pulled off a similar maneuver when they waived Charles Woodson after the 2012 season and subsequently extended Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews.
Prediction: Sam Shields re-signs with Packers, Tramon Williams is waived by the Packers.
Second-Tier Decisions -- Beyond the aforementioned free agents the Packers have several other players that will be given a serious look after their contracts expire in 2013. Of that group, it's likely that M.D. Jennings, Johnny Jolly, Mike Neal, Marshall Newhouse, and James Starks will be offered the best opportunity to return. Each of these second-tier decisions will likely be affected by injuries in 2013 and the Packers' draft prospects in 2014. Of this second group, M.D. Jennings is the least expendable.
Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a Green Bay Packers fan by night. He is a regular contributor at Yahoo Sports and The Bleacher Report. Tweet him @AndrewProchnow.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Jermichael Finley
- Ryan Pickett