I was hoping this article wouldn’t have to be written for a few more weeks, but here we are after the Green Bay Packers‘ divisional round loss. A multitude of major personnel decisions loom on the horizon, any of which could be the difference for the Packers in 2013.
Let’s quickly dispense with Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. I’ve seen any number of tweets, comments, and emails about how Green Bay “needs to find the money to pay Jennings” and “Driver needs another season to shore up his hall of fame credentials.”
In regards to Jennings, paying him would put Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji, and/or Aaron Rodgers in jeopardy of not re-signing. All of those are more integral to Green Bay’s future success than Jennings, especially with Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones under contract. As for Driver, it became evident very early on this season that he could no longer separate from defenders. It would be coaching malpractice to have him on the field next year.
Finally, as much as Driver is loved and cherished by Packer fans such as our fearless leader, Ray, he will be in the Packers’ Hall of Fame, but not the one in Canton.
The following are the big decisions the Packers will be pondering as they enter the offseason.
Can the Packers afford to keep Sam Shields?
Season Review: Sam Shields completed the final year of his three-year rookie deal in fine fashion. After becoming the starter in week 2, Shields proved reliable as the wide corner in all the defensive formations. He also demonstrated the ability to make plays on the ball, as evidenced by his three interceptions. Really, the only black mark against Shields this year was penalty count, and much of that came during the reign of the replacement refs, thus skewing results.
Why they should keep him: Shields is the fastest player in the secondary. No other corner can handle the speed matchups nearly as well, and it’s unlikely to find another corner that can reproduce that ability.
Why they should let him go: One of the great discoveries of the 2012 season was that Green Bay is stacked at corner. In addition to pro-bowler Tramon Williams, Davon House and rookie Casey Hayward demonstrated starting ability. Hayward in particular was the Packers’ best corner this year. While none have the foot speed of Shields, the Packers have the replacement already in the building. The funds Shields would require could be reallocated to another position.
Prediction: As of right now I think Shields is re-signed. He’s a restricted free agent which should somewhat deflate his salary, and after a lousy 2011 season, Shields looks like a rising star again.
Is there a place for Brad Jones at inside linebacker?
Season Review: After the preseason claimed Desmond Bishop, the regular season took his backup D.J. Smith. At that point it was Brad Jones’s turn, and after a shaky start Jones became a pillar of the pass defense. Jones covers slot receivers and especially tight ends better than any of the other linebackers can. While inside linebackers Bishop, A.J. Hawk, and even Smith are all comparable to superior players, they cannot be relied on in the nickel and dime packages to stop passes to the middle of the field. Jones was also passable in run defense, allowing him to play on all downs.
Why they should keep him: Coverage linebackers are hard to find, and generally speaking those players are awful against the run. Jones provides some semblance of balance in these regards, and in the modern NFL where athletic tight ends and read-option quarterbacks are commonplace, players like Jones are only going to become more difficult to find.
Why they should let him go: Jones won’t start over Bishop or Hawk, and unless one of them gets hurt the Packers would be paying Jones for three downs when they’re probably only getting one or two out of him.
Prediction: Brad Jones has probably played his last down as a Packer. There’s just too many good players at his position and as an unrestricted free agent Jones’s price tag is too high to justify retention.
Will Charles Woodson take a pay cut? Will he be cut if he doesn’t?
Season Review: 2012 proved a challenging year for Charles Woodson. The coaches determined in the preseason that he was no longer capable of covering as a wide corner, only allowing him to play the slot corner in the nickel. Complicating matters, we don’t truly know what kind of safety he is. For the first seven games he was adjusting to a new position. Before he could complete the transition, a collarbone injury knocked him out. Woodson never got a chance to shake off the rust once he returned in the playoffs. What Woodson’s exact role will be in 2013 remains shrouded in mystery.
Why they should keep him: Woodson is the most versatile player the Packers have at safety. Woodson has enough speed left to play deep and enough pass rushing ability to play around the line of scrimmage. Woodson was used mostly as a pseudo-linebacker when he came back from injury, a fine usage of his size and coverage ability. His ability to play this role will become even more vital if Brad Jones departs this offseason.
Why they should let him go: M.D. Jennings proved a more than capable option at safety, improving steadily after a poor showing against the 49ers in week 1. More impressive still was Jerron McMillian. McMillian is by far the most physical presence in the secondary, which when coupled with his 4.42 speed allows the Packers to do get very creative. Both Jennings and McMillian would benefit greatly from a full-time role which can only happen if Woodson is out of the picture.
Prediction: The Packers will probably ask Woodson to restructure his deal and I expect him to oblige. No team is going to offer Woodson more money or a greater opportunity for football success, and Jennings and McMillian could benefit from another year of coaching before either takes on the job full-time.
What to do with Jermichael Finley?
Season Review: No player on Green Bay’s roster is more polarizing than Jermichael Finley. No other tight end or wide receiver on the team is as talented a pass catcher, but Finley has not lived up to his potential. While many fans can’t see past his shortcomings, Finley has quietly been setting team records for the position. It’s been rumored for some time now that the Packers plan to cut the tight end this offseason. Finley is entering the second year of a lucrative two-year deal. If he remains under contract, Finley will count $8.75 million against the cap. However, if he’s cut before the fifteenth day of the league year, Finley will only count $500,000 against the cap for a net savings of $8.25 million.
Why they should keep him: Finley’s been a record-setter for the Packers. In 2011, he produced the most receiving yards for a tight end in team history. This season, Finley set the team mark for most receptions by a tight end. Anyone the Packers replace him with will be a step down, and with Greg Jennings departing the Packers shouldn’t be looking to give away talented pass catchers. Even if Finley doesn’t have a breakthrough season in 2013, the Packers will have a year to develop replacements for him and Jennings. Finley could either be re-signed or he could walk next offseason.
Why they should let him go: While cutting Finley won’t provide enough savings to keep Greg Jennings, he could allow the team to keep other would-be cap casualties. Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji’s extensions can’t wait any longer, and both players are more valuable than Finley.
Prediction: Given how strong Finley finished the year, and how well the quarterback spoke of him, I think Finley comes back for 2013.
Has A.J. Hawk played his last down for the Packers?
Season Review: 2012 was probably A.J. Hawk’s best year as a Packer. He tied his career best for total tackles, nearly matched his season record for sacks, and had over double his previous best for tackles for loss. However, Hawk still doesn’t play well in coverage and will return to a reduced role when Desmond Bishop returns in 2013. Hawk’s contract lasts through 2015, and cutting him now would incur a $4.8 million cap hit immediately while saving $17.85 million over the next three seasons.
Why they should keep him: Hawk is a steady producer who handles the play calls. Being able to communicate the calls is a skill, one that others in the past (Nick Barnett) have struggled with. If Hawk goes, this duty probably falls on Desmond Bishop who’s never had that responsibility at any time during his career.
Why they should let him go: The savings from Hawk’s contract would be like Finley’s contract on steroids. It would guarantee both Raji and Matthews are fit comfortably under the salary cap while also provided tons of breathing room for Rodgers’ deal. There are tangential benefits too. Brad Jones suddenly looks very affordable, and between him, Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith, the Packers would have a very versatile inside linebacker group.
Prediction: I’m taking a bold stance here and predicting Hawk goes this offseason. I haven’t heard any talk of Hawk being a cut candidate, but the benefits of such a move are obvious and overwhelming. Furthermore, Hawk turns 30 next season, and Ted Thompson tends to veer away from those types of players. While Hawk could offer to restructure his deal, that wouldn’t change the fact Hawk isn’t a strong coverage linebacker or that Jones is probably more useful for the team at this point.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Lombardi Ave. He has previously written for Hail to the Orange, College Hoops Net, Mocking the Draft, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JBHirschhorn.