Friday, May 18, 2012

Which Packers are Due for a New Contract?



With the Philadelphia Eagles locking up running back LeSean McCoy to a long-term deal the franchise has most of their core guys signed for the next few years.  That includes quarterback Michael Vick, McCoy, wide receiver Desean Jackson, defensive end Jason Babin, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. 

While the Eagles were making those decisions it’s likely the Packers were having the same difficult conversation at 1265 Lombardi Ave.  And for a team like Green Bay, which doesn’t reach into free agency on a regular basis, it’s vital they make smart decisions on who to sign to extensions and who to let go.

Listed below are the ten most important players, in order, that the Packers need to reach new deals with at some point in an effort to stay among the elite teams in the NFL.  

*Dollar figures are from Spotrac and indicate what the player will count against the salary cap in the given year.

1) QB Aaron Rodgers
Contract: 2012: $11.1M
               2013: $12.4M
               2014: $13.6M

The reigning Most Valuable Player still has three years left on his deal, but he is vastly underpaid compared to some of his less accomplished colleagues. His cap number is $11.1M this season, which places him behind the likes of Tony Romo, Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan. With the current issues Drew Brees is having in getting a new deal from the Saints, it’s hard to fathom Green Bay will allow Rodgers contract situation to get to that point. Rodgers has won about 65-percent of the games he’s started since taking over for Brett Favre in 2008, and if he continues on his current path, it’s likely he’ll become the fourth Green Bay quarterback (Arnie Herber ‘66, Bart Starr ‘77, and Favre ‘15????) to make it into the Hall of Fame. Though he has three years left on his deal, it's in the Packers best interest to keep the face of the franchise happy.  Getting a new deal would go a long ways toward doing that.

2) WR Greg Jennings
Contract: 2012: 7.95M

Jennings easily could have been number one on this list seeing as his contract is up after the season. It’s a bit surprising Green Bay has yet to lock up the two-time pro bowler. Jennings will likely move into the franchise’s top five for yards and touchdowns this season, and he’s missed just eight games since coming into the league as a second rounder in 2006. One issue might be some of the contracts being signed by receivers in the past year. The Eagles signed DeSean Jackson to a five-year deal worth $47-million, while Santonio Holmes got $45-million over five-years from the Jets last August. While it’s unlikely Jennings is holding out hope to get a contract in the Larry Fitzgerald ($128.5M) or Calvin Johnson (150M) range he’ll definitely want more than Jackson and Holmes. 

Mentioning Fitzgerald reminded me of a scene I witnessed inside the Arizona locker room after the Packers-Cardinals preseason game last year. Jennings was walking through with his good friend Fitzgerald, and as they were making their way out to the player buses, Fitzgerald made an effort to introduce Jennings to Cardinals GM Rod Graves. He said something to the effect that Jennings only had two years left on his contract, and he was imploring Graves (half jokingly) to sign him if/when he became available. Graves just laughed it off, and Fitzgerald and Jennings continued on their way. Obviously with the Cardinals taking Michael Floyd in the draft it’s unlikely they’d pursue Jennings, but it was an interesting interaction nonetheless.

3) OLB Clay Matthews
Contract: 2012: $1.9M
               2013: $2.6M

Matthews has 29.5-sacks in his first three seasons in the NFL, but because he was drafted near the end of the first round, he’s not getting paid like the elite pass rusher most believe he is. His 2012 cap number of $1.9-million would place him 75th in the league among linebackers. With the release of Nick Collins and Chad Clifton, the Packers have enough money to get a long-term deal done with Matthews, who despite constantly showing up on the injury report, has missed just two games in his career. It will be important for Matthews to show that last years 6.5-sacks were just a fluke. He’ll probably be the biggest benefactor of the Packers first two selections, Jerel Worthy and Nick Perry, but he needs to take some responsibility for the inept pass rush last season too. When you’re blocked one-on-one you have to be able to win those match up’s more often than not.   

4) NT B.J. Raji
Contract: 2012: $3.8M
               2013: $4.5M

Raji is the type of nose tackle that is needed in a true 3-4 defense. The Packers first-pick back in ’09 danced his way into the nation’s consciousness during the team’s run up to Super Bowl XLV. However, the big plays seen down the stretch that year weren’t as visible a year ago when Green Bay’s defense got shredded.  A nose tackle’s job is rarely noticed, and on a number of occasions last year Raji bristled at the idea he wasn’t playing at the same high level. Like Matthews, he’s likely to benefit from the selection of Jerel Worthy, and it will be key for them to push the pocket back into the quarterback’s face, so he can’t step up and away from pressure off the edge. It’s possible the Packers will wait and see what Raji they’ll get this year before committing long-term, but I doubt he makes it through the season without a new deal.

5) LG T.J. Lang
Contract: 2013: $1.4M

Lang finally got a position to himself and started all 16 games in 2011 after starting just three in his first two seasons in the league. Like most young players, Lang was inconsistent at times and had at least four false starts during the regular season. However, for the most part the former second round pick had a solid first year as the teams starting left guard. In fact, profootballfocus.com, which breaks down every player in every game of the year, had Lang ranked in the top 10 for pass blocking efficiency among guards and centers.  With right guard Josh Sitton getting paid last year the Packers would be wise to lock Lang up, as there is currently no one behind him that can be considered a legitimate long-term starter. An added bonus is Lang is well-liked in the locker room and gained even more respect with the way in which he handled his father's death during the season last year.

6) RT Bryan Bulaga
Contract: 2012: $1.4M
               2013: $1.6M
               2014: $1.9M

Bulaga still has three years remaining on his rookie deal, but if he continues to improve, and proves head coach Mike McCarthy correct in saying the right tackle is on the verge of being a pro bowler, it may be prudent to get a deal done sooner than later. (see Jordy Nelson) Many have speculated about the Packers moving Bulaga over to left tackle now that Clifton is no longer with the team. Though McCarthy shot that down during the draft, a move to the left side would result in a larger contract. At right tackle last year he ranked 10th in pass blocking efficiency according to profootballfocus.com. With Sitton signed through 2016 the Packers could have a dominate right side of the line for the foreseeable future.

7) TE Jermichael Finley
Contract: 2012: $5.25M
               2013: $8.75M

Never one to lose confidence in his ability, Finley bet on himself during the off-season in signing only a two-year deal. His hope is to bounce back from an inconsistent year that still saw him tie a career high with 55-catches and set career highs in yards and touchdowns. Drops plagued him at times, which is difficult to understand as several teammates, including Rodgers, have said Finley has the best hands on the team. If he’s able to correct that, and be more consistent, the sky is the limit for the athletic tight end, who is just 25-years-old.

8) SS/FS Morgan Burnett
Contract: 2012: $708,775
               2013: $793,775

Burnett has really only played one season after getting hurt in October of his rookie year, so it’s still early to know how good he can be. It’s important to remember that the first three years of former Packers safety Nick Collin’s career were less than impressive. For Burnett, he needs to show he can handle his assignments and help the newer players get comfortable as soon as possible.

9) CB Sam Shields
Contract: 2012: $492,500 

Shields will be a restricted free agent after the season. After bursting onto the scene in 2010 as an undrafted free agent, Shields struggled to the point that in the playoff loss the Giants, defensive coordinator Dom Capers inserted Jarrett Bush on early downs because of his willingness to tackle.  That is something Shields was less than enthusiastic about doing.

The lockout last summer probably hurt Shields as much as anyone.  It’s the Packers hope that having an off-season will allow him to make the jump they normally see from players in between their second and third years. If Shields isn’t up to the challenge, Green Bay has several guys waiting in the wings for their chances, including rookie Casey Hayward and Davon House.

10) WR James Jones
Contract: 2012: $3M
          2013: $3.65M

Jones signed a three-year deal last summer but was the forgotten man in a Packers offense that put up the second most points in NFL history. While his number of catches dropped to 38 last year, he had a career high seven touchdowns, and the glaring drops that were evident in Green Bay’s run to the Super Bowl title in ’10 weren’t there last year. How quickly Randall Cobb, and the other younger receivers, come along will likely determine whether Jones signs another contract with the team. He’s currently the oldest (28) receiver on the roster other than Donald Driver. 

Others: Marshall Newhouse has two years on his deal, and I don’t see the Packers even talking to his agent until he can prove he’s the every down left tackle they need him to be.

Defensive end Ryan Pickett, who will be a free agent after the 2013 season, will turn 33 in October. As has been the trend for the Packers it’s unlikely he’ll be around for another big contract.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Worthy Planning to Use Criticism to his Advantage


It’s starting to bother Jerel Worthy. 

Though he answered most questions with a smile and laugh on Friday as Green Bay opened their rookie minicamp, the new defensive end has to be getting tired of the question. Reporters can sugar coat how they ask it, but let’s make it simple. Does the second round pick take plays off?

It’s a criticism that many believe was a major reason Worthy dropped out of the first round in last month's draft before eventually being selected by the Packers with the 51st overall pick.   

During his conference call with reporters after being drafted, Worthy said it’s unrealistic to say someone can go full-out on every play. While that wasn’t the politically correct answer, there is plenty of truth to it. Now, with fans and coaches alike hoping Worthy can help out an anemic inside pass rush, he was forced again Friday to answer the questions about his work ethic. 

“Everybody that talks bad about you is just motivation,” said Worthy. “The same people that say I don’t have a good motor or anything like that, they’ll be the same people that I’ll be thanking later on.”

The good thing for Worthy is that, unlike at Michigan State, he won’t initially be asked to be an every down player.  His main purpose will likely be as one of the two inside rushers that are charged with pushing the pocket back into the quarterback’s face and disrupt throwing lanes.  If he and nose tackle B.J. Raji can do that, it will mean quarterbacks won’t be able to step up and away from outside linebacker Clay Matthews, and the teams other big rookie addition, Nick Perry.

Though it wasn’t in pads, Friday’s practice revealed some of what the Packers liked about Worthy, including a first quick step.

“You could definitely see that,“ said head coach Mike McCarthy after practice. “I don't like to compare players, but he has a very explosive first step, even for a big guy. Whether he’s playing the 3-technique or even the shade, he’s definitely going to be a factor inside. That was evident through our drill work today. Very explosive for a big guy.” 

Today’s Schedule:

Green Bay is holding another practice this afternoon that is closed to the media.  McCarthy is slated to address the media tomorrow at the close of the camp.