The 2011 free agency period is finally winding down, but it’s never too early to look ahead to next season’s potential Packers free agents. Scanning through the list below, it’s clear that GM Ted Thompson and the Packers have some difficult decisions ahead of them next offseason.
Thompson has been active in locking up key players before they hit the free agent market, and I’d expect that trend to continue as this year unfolds. Remember, this free agency period could have been considerably more tricky if the Packers wouldn’t have re-signed guys like Desmond Bishop and Tramon Williams before their contracts ended. So, while this list looks daunting right now, that will likely change before next season’s free agency.
PACKERS 2012 FREE AGENT LIST (Type, 2011 salary)
Briggs, 25, was an adequate fill-in on special teams after a barrage of injuries hit the linebacking corps. He totaled two special teams tackles in five games during the regular season and two more in four playoffs. However, Briggs is a long shot to make the 2011 roster with so many players returning from IR and the drafting of Ricky Elmore and D.J. Smith.
There was backlash when the Packers matched the Titans offer sheet to Bush back in 2009, but he’s shed most of his negative labels with strong play on special teams and a surprising interception in the Super Bowl. After next season, Bush’s contract will once again be up, and there will be several factors that determine if he’s retained.
Does he continue to show his leadership on special teams? If that’s the case, Bush is more than worth bringing back. But if he slips in that area, or any of the other backups in the secondary show signs of life, Bush’s roster spot might not be as penciled in after 2011 as it is heading into it.
It’s going to be the elephant in the room in 2011. And really, the Packers are in a tough spot. Finley is one of those rare, unmistakeable talents that the Packers would be crazy to let go to another franchise without any compensation in return. But on the other hand, Finley has been hurt in each of the last two seasons, and that has to give management pause when thinking about the kind of money they’ll likely have to throw his way.
Ultimately, how much will Finley command? Vernon Davis—a comparable athlete and player at Finley’s position—signed a six-year, $42.7 million dollar extension with the 49ers last September. Arguably the best tight end in the game, Antonio Gates, is currently in the second year of a six-year, $39.8 million deal. If Finley stays healthy and puts up the kind of season most expect him to, is a $25-35 million dollar deal really that far-fetched? I don’t think so. And with all the other contracts that come up after the ’11 season, Packers management needs to be smart with their cap space. That kind of contract could hinder their ability to re-sign other players both from the 2012 free agent class and in 2013.
It’s widely assumed that Flynn will bolt Green Bay once his contract is up after the season. If that did unfold, it’d be hard to blame him. Nothing was guaranteed to the former seventh-round pick, and with his play in New England last season, a chance to start on another team seems like a real possibility. And if there was a team that wanted him to potentially start, the money would likely follow.
Those underlying factors equate to a lot of pressure on Flynn to perform if Aaron Rodgers misses any time in 2011. Some wanted the Packers to trade him this offseason, thinking that if Flynn was sure to leave, the Packers could get something for him before he left. Yet the Packers wisely decided that he’s more valuable to the franchise as a backup quarterback than a mid-round draft pick. Still, a lot in Flynn’s future could ride upon any of his potential performances next season.
I’m not sure anyone on this list will be as motivated to get paid as Grant will be. He is 28-years-old, coming off a season-ending injury and has two talented backs breathing down his neck as training camp starts. Age is a big factor, as his next contract could be his last chance for another big pay day and maybe his last NFL contract period.
Grant’s one-cut and go running style, which has made him successful in the Packers offense, makes the health of his ankle imperative. And with James Starks and Alex Green ready to take away carries, Grant’s spot atop the Packers depth chart is shaky at best. The NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” league, and I don’t think his back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons will sway the Packers from removing him if he isn’t effective. 2011 is a huge season for Grant’s future with the Packers and the NFL.
Green was just one of the many unheralded signings for the Packers during the middle of the 2010 season. After joining the team before their trip to New York, Green remained a key cog in the Packers defense and played his fair share of snaps in a variety of packages.
For a man his size, the lockout was a hinderance in keeping his weight down. But even if he has shown up to camp somewhat out of shape, Green should be a good bet to make the team. After 2011, however, Green’s status has to be considered up in the air. He’s played for six different teams in his career, having never lasted more than two years at any one stop. With the emergence of younger players along the defensive line, next season could be the last for Green in Green Bay.
Lee has been among Thompson’s most disappointing draft picks with the Packers, having intercepted zero passes and playing very little in his three seasons despite being a second-rounder in 2008. His roster spot is far from guaranteed, but the recent legal troubles of Brandon Underwood might make his situation with the Packers a tad more secure. Lee actually saw a good chunk of playing time against the Steelers in the Super Bowl and that might have saved him.
My best bet is that he’ll get one more shot, but it’s what he makes of it next year that decides his status moving forward. If he can finally show improvement and make some type of impact on special teams, Lee is a safe and cheap answer to the No. 5 cornerback slot. If another injury occurs or he shows any type of regression, Lee will leave Green Bay along the same disappointing trail that Justin Harrell is walked down before camp started.
If I had to guess, I’d bet that Nelson is one of the top candidates to be re-signed mid-season. But I also say that with the assumption that Nelson is going to have a breakout season and begin taking away looks from Donald Driver as the No. 2 receiver. There’s no reason to think that Nelson can’t build on his play during the postseason and transition it to a more expansive role in the Packers offense.
But let me also play devil’s advocate for a second. Let’s say Nelson has another ho-hum season in 2011, a year in which he catches maybe 40 or so passes for 500 yards and a few scores. Would Nelson be expendable? The Packers just re-signed James Jones to a three-year deal, and Randall Cobb looks like he could be a receiving threat in his rookie season. It’s a longshot, as I think Aaron Rodgers would again go to bat for one of his guys, but still a possibility if 2011 isn’t friendly to Nelson.
Sitton is far-and-away the most likely scheduled free agent to get an extension mid-season. While Thompson has been weary of giving guards big money (he has yet to do it in Green Bay), Sitton is one of the league’s emerging interior line talents and warrants the money needed to re-sign him.
If he stays healthy throughout the season, and continues to be the kind of mauler at right guard he’s been, Thompson will sign the check that keeps Sitton in Green Bay long term. I’d be shocked if Sitton gets to the next free agency period without a new contract from the Packers.
Walden burst onto the scene in Week 17 of last year, sacking Jay Cutler three times in the Packers playoff-clinching win over the Bears. He was named NFC defensive player of the week for his effort.
Now, a year later and back in Packers camp, Walden is right in the thick of the competition to start opposite of Clay Matthews. He’s the most gifted athletically of the Packers options, and his late-season play shows he can be a force if left unaccounted for. Even if he doesn’t beat out Frank Zombo or Brad Jones for the starting job, Walden figures to get looks in Dom Capers’ defense. While I think he will eventually impact the Packers defense in a positive way in 2011, he’ll need a big year to get a sizable contract on the free agent market. He likely won’t pull that off, meaning he should be a cheap and viable option for the Packers to bring back after the season.
Underrated and often unheralded, Wells has been a consistent presence at center for the Packers for most of the last six years. He’s only committed a handful of penalties over that time and is one of the brighter players on the team. Wells and Aaron Rodgers seem to always be on the same page, and you sense the trust he has in Wells to make the correct calls at the line of scrimmage. That kind of trust is invaluable.
With another solid season, Wells will earn himself another decent payday. It will likely come from the Packers, as the team doesn’t have an in-house option to replace him if he goes. Unless the Packers have other plans, I’d expect him to be back in 2012, with the possibility of Wells being locked up during the season to a two- or three-year deal.
All contract info from Rotoworld.
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2