Things are looking a bit grim for the Green Bay Packers as of late. They are currently 5-5-1, second in the NFC North, and enter week thirteen in a must-win situation against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving.
One more loss may put the Packers officially out of the NFC playoff race.
But even if the Packers can’t pull off the upset in Detroit on Thursday and are pushed out of the playoff picture, there is still plenty to play for in December.
The Packers currently have 18 players on their roster set to be free agents after this season, and regardless if Green Bay is out of the playoff picture or not heading into December, many players will be playing for their future in Green Bay during the final four games of the season.
The Packers will lose approximately $10 million more in cap space in 2014 under the new Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews‘ deals. This means there will be even less wiggle room for the Packers to re-sign players.
I don’t expect Green Bay to dish out major money to any players not producing on the field, so these last five games of the season will be vital to players, like Sam Shields and B.J. Raji, who are looking for big-money contracts from Green Bay.
Shields has clearly been the Packers best cover corner this season, and if this year has proven anything it’s that the Packers secondary isn’t as deep as it appeared heading into this season.
You could argue Shields has been the only bright spot at a position that has struggled throughout the year for Green Bay.
Casey Hayward has been hurt, only played in three games, and is now on injured reserve. Davon House has been inconsistent. Micah Hyde is limited to the slot and may be better suited at safety. Tramon Williams has made some plays the past few weeks and is still reliable, but may not be a top-tier cover corner anymore.
At this point, Shields seems to be a top priority for the Packers to re-sign, but coming off a hamstring injury, Shields could secure his future in Green Bay with a strong performance over these final five games. And that starts with containing Calvin Johnson in Detroit on Thanksgiving. Shields could earn himself a lot of money this week.
Williams remains one of the highest paid players on the team and is set to make a base salary of $7.2 million in 2014. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers restructure Williams’ contract after this season to make room for Shields.
Center Evan Dietrich-Smith may be the only other player on the Packers 2014 free agent list that is a good bet to return next year. Dietrich-Smith has been a consistent presence at center, and I would be shocked if he did not earn himself a longterm contract with Green Bay after this season.
His $1.32 million base salary will certainly go up, but with no clear center prospects on the horizon, it will be a price worth paying for the Packers.
Where the Packers will have to make some tough decisions is at defensive line. Starters B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, and Johnny Jolly are all set to hit the 2014 free agent market. Not to mention reserve C.J. Wilson and defensive end/linebacker hybrid Mike Neal.
There is no way the Packers will have enough money to pay all of these players. The Packers may be able to get Wilson and Jolly to resign close to their 2013 salaries (Wilson – $642,000; Jolly – $715,000). Jolly has definitely shown his worth to the team this year. The Packers would be smart to bring him back after this season.
Wilson on the other hand, hasn’t seen a lot of playing time lately because of Jolly’s ascension. Wilson still has five weeks left to make his mark on the team, but his return will most likely depend on whether or not Green Bay can bring back Raji or Pickett.
According to reports from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Packers offered Raji a contract extension a few weeks ago worth $8 million a year, but the Packers defensive lineman turned it down.
Perhaps, Raji thinks he can get more money if he hits the free agent market. Still, $8 million a year is a steep price to pay a run stuffer, especially one that has struggled the past few weeks.
With Jolly out of the lineup both Raji and Pickett have struggled to hold their ground and stop the run. Now, I know it’s not all on these two players, but clogging the running lanes is a big defensive lineman’s number one job in a 3-4 defense. And neither Raji or Pickett have performed well the past few weeks.
If Raji wants a lucrative deal after this season, he’s going to have to play better in these final five games than he has during the Packers’ winless streak.
Having said this, Raji would be a tough player to replace on the Packers defensive line if the team decides his asking price is just too high and they let him walk. Potentially losing Pickett after this season also makes Raji that much more valuable to the Packers going forward.
It’s possible the Packers will bring back the 33-year old Picket for a few more seasons at the veteran’s minimum ($810,000). This would give them a lot of salary cap space. Pickett currently counts $6.7 million against the team’s cap.
Green Bay could use that extra money to work out a better deal with Raji. But they have to be careful not to overpay for a defensive lineman that only plays on first and second down.
Raji has five games left this season to prove to the team he’s worth a major financial investment. First, he needs to lead the charge in shoring up the Packers run defense.
To further complicate things on defense, the Packers need to find a way to re-sign Neal and make a decision on starting safety M.D. Jennings.
Neal has really come on strong the past few weeks. He’s had two sacks in the past two games and is getting better at pressuring the quarterback standing upright from the outside linebacker position.
If he finishes the season strong and continues to show he can be the Packers’ second best pass rusher, then Green Bay may not have a choice but to re-sign him.
The problem is the asking price for gifted pass rushers in this league is high, so will Green Bay pay Neal as a 3-4 pass rusher or as a role player who roams between being a linebacker and defensive lineman?
Likewise, Jennings could secure his position on the team by having a strong last month of the season. The safety position has been subpar at best this year, and Jennings has been just okay. He’s given up a few big touchdowns and hasn’t made very many impact plays.
Jennings could return next season for a minimum base salary, similar to what he’s currently making ($555,000), and still have a spot on this team as a reserve if the Packers decide to go in another direction at safety.
The Packers will already have to make a tough decision on Jermichael Finley, who counted $8.75 million against this year’s cap. The athletic tight end is in his final year of his contract and is currently on IR after sustaining a bruised spinal cord.
But the tough decisions don’t end there. If veteran wide receiver James Jones finishes the season strong after coming back from a knee injury, he may ask for more than the $3.10 million base salary he’s earning this year.
Can the Packers afford to lose both Finley and Jones after this season?
Jones may return to the team at a similar base salary he’s currently earning. After all, his numbers are a bit down this season after missing a few weeks because of injury. But Jones is 29 and this offseason may be his last opportunity to seek a big-time contract. The Packers may have to let him walk if his asking price is too high.
Role players, like Andrew Quarless, James Starks, John Kuhn, and Marshall Newhouse, are also in jeopardy of not returning after this year, so these players need to have strong finishes to this season to show they still have something to offer in Green Bay.
With just five games remaining in the 2013 season, the window for many of these players to show their worth to the team is rapidly closing. Who remains in Green Bay and who departs after this year has yet to be determined.
The players who play well in these final five games will do a lot to help their cause in trying to secure their future in Green Bay.