With Morgan Burnett Re-signed, Who’s Next for the Packers?


B.J. Raji reacts during the 2011 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field. Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Over the weekend, the Green Bay Packers locked up another young ascending player for the long-term when they re-signed safety Morgan Burnett to a contract extension.

Burnett was a high priority for Green Bay to re-sign before the 2013 season got under way, and considering his age – 24 – it was wise for them to get a deal done before Burnett hit the 2014 free agency market.

The Packers have now doled out contract extensions to Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and Morgan Burnett, and have re-signed 2013 free agent, Brad Jones. The Green Bay front office is making moves to keep the young nucleus of the team together for years to come.

Despite the Burnett re-signing, 18 players from the Packers’ current roster are still set to become free agents in 2014. That is a pretty high number. Letting some veterans walk may clear up some more cap space, but Green Bay won’t have the cap flexibility to re-sign all the potential free agents on their roster before next offseason.

Green Bay will be faced with some tough decisions. I don’t foresee the Packers offering any more contract extensions before the 2013 season begins. I’m guessing they’ll wait and see how those remaining players who are entering contract years perform this season.

To get a better idea on who Green Bay may keep and who they may let walk after the season, let’s take a look at the players in the final year of their contract and the major factors during the 2013 season that may determine their fate in Green Bay.

Morgan Burnett during the 2012 game against the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Here is a list of the potential 2014 Green Bay free agents and their 2013 base salaries provided by rotoworld.com: B.J. Raji ($4.49 million), James Jones ($3.15 million), Jermichael Finley ($8.5 million), Evan Dietrich-Smith ($1.323 million), Sam Shields ($2.023 million), Ryan Pickett ($5.9 million), Mike Neal ($630,000), Andrew Quarless ($1.323 million), C.J. Wilson ($630,000), Marshall Newhouse ($1.323 million), Robert Francois ($700,000), John Kuhn ($2.25 million), James Starks ($630,000), Matthew Mulligan ($770,000) Restricted Free Agents: Graham Harrell ($630,000), M.D. Jennings ($555,000), Jamari Lattimore ($555,000)

The base salaries just may give us a vague idea of what each player’s asking price will be in order to reach a contract extension, but other key factors will also play a major role in whether or not they will continue playing in Green Bay after the 2013 season.

I have identified Six Key Factors that may give us an indication on who will or will not be re-signed by next offseason. I posed them as questions as an easy tool to assess each player’s chances of continuing on with the team. We can keep these in mind as we watch these players perform this season.

 Factors for Being Re-Signed

1) Ascending or Descending Player?

Jermichael Finley rushes with the football after catching a pass during the 2012 game against the Tennessee Titans at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

The first thing to look at this season is if the player’s skills and performance on the field are ascending or descending from previous seasons. This often ties closely to the player’s age, but it doesn’t always. For example, Charles Woodson was a great playmaker for the Packers, but his coverage skills and speed on the field were noticeably declining the past few seasons. His performance on the field no longer justified the $11 million salary he was receiving, so Green Bay cut ties to save cap space.

Some have questioned whether or not B.J. Raji is improving as a player. He’s still young, entering only his fifth season in the NFL, but his best season as a pro was back in 2010. By not extending Raji’s contract this offseason, it seems the Packers are going to wait and see how the young defensive lineman performs during 2013.

Will they get the impact player of 2010 or the declining player of 2011? Raji improved to some degree last season, but was is it enough to convince Green Bay that Raji’s play is steadily improving? 2013 will be a make or break year for Raji. You could also throw Jermichael Finley in this boat. Will 2013 prove they are ascending or descending players?

2) Age of the Player?

The next thing to look at is the age of the player. For most positions, 30 is the age a player’s skills begin to decline. There are always exceptions, like Woodson or Donald Driver, and this rule doesn’t necessarily hold true with quarterbacks, but it’s definitely something teams keep in mind when doling out lucrative contracts to players in free agency. You rarely see players over 30 breaking the bank in free agency. For the most part, if a player is young he is more likely to be re-signed, and if a player is over the 30 threshold then their chances decrease.

James Jones during the 2012 NFC divisional round playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Players like Ryan Pickett and John Kuhn are susceptible to not being re-signed because they are both over 30, and wide receiver James Jones is 29. Now, other factors will play a role in determining these players’ fate in Green Bay, but it’s more likely that if they ask for big money contracts the Packers will let them walk regardless of their performance on the field. Pickett and Kuhn could return to Green Bay for the veteran minimum ($810,000) and still be effective role players next season.

Jones may be the exception here. He still has a lot of really good years ahead of him and doesn’t show any signs that his skills have diminished on the field. If Jones has a big year he may ask for more money than Green Bay is willing to pay him, but given his age, I’m guessing he’ll keep his asking price relatively modest. Jones currently earns $3.15 million per year in base salary, and he may could return to Green Bay for a similar price.

3) Depth at the Player’s Position?

The depth at the player’s position may be the most telling factor as to whether or not Green Bay will hold on to that player after the season. Look at last season, for example. Randall Cobb has a breakout year and Greg Jennings becomes expendable. Casey Hayward emerges as a playmaker on defense and Woodson is released. Brad Jones establishes himself as a reliable starter at inside linebacker and Desmond Bishop becomes an injury risk Green Bay doesn’t have to take. You get the point.

Evan Dietrich-Smith (62) blocks during the 2011 game against the Oakland Raiders at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Look for emerging young players this season and that will almost tell you who the Packers will keep from their list of free agents and who they can afford to let go. The Packers lacked depth at safety, so Burnett became an absolute priority to re-sign this offseason. This is also why center Evan Dietrich-Smith becomes high on the priority list for players to re-sign.

If another interior defensive lineman doesn’t emerge on the roster this season, then Raji becomes a necessity to re-sign and may even make Pickett a high priority to re-sign, as well. If a young player, like Don Barclay or David Bakhtiari, establishes himself as a reliable option for the right tackle position, then the writing may be on the wall for Marshall Newhouse.

The Sam Shields situation will be a close on to watch over the course of the season. As it stands, Green Bay seems to have the depth at cornerback to let Shields walk if his asking price is too high, but if Shields holds down the starting cornerback spot all season, then the Packers may feel they can’t let him go, not matter the asking price.

4) Player’s Position Priority?

Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji warms up before the 2012 game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Some positions hold more weight than others on the roster. The Packers already locked up the two most important positions, quarterback and pass rusher, to contract extensions. Next would be their left tackle, Bryan Bulaga, who isn’t set to become a free agent until the 2015 offseason. Granted, if Bulaga proves he’s a reliable left tackle in the NFL this season, then signing him to a contract extension beyond the 2014 season may become a higher priority than re-signing some of the 2014 free agents.

This factor is another reason why Raji has a good chance at being re-signed after the season. You just don’t find too many talented nose tackles these days. You have to have one to run the 3-4 defense effectively.

This may also be why it could be difficult to come to an agreement with Mike Neal. Is he a traditional 3-4 defensive end? A pass rush specialist? A defensive lineman/linebacker hybrid? An ill-defined position may cause some hiccups when it comes to negotiating numbers for a contract. At least all this moving around shows that the Packers value Neal’s skill set, which bodes well for him when it comes to a contract talks.

5) Player’s Asking Price?

Sam Shields returns an interception during the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Lambeau Field in 2011. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports photograph

Here’s where all the chips will fall. Depending on each player’s performance this season, their asking price may vary when Green Bay sits down to negotiate a contract. Players, like Jermichael Finley, just may play themselves out of Green Bay. If Finley has a great season, for example, and makes the Pro Bowl, his asking price will surely rise, making it difficult for the Packers to keep him in Green Bay and have the cap space to re-sign other key free agents. The same case goes for Shields, who will be looking for a big contract if he has a big 2013 season.

The one thing that works in Finley’s favor is that the Packers are already overpaying him, so if his production on the field improves, he may finally be worth the money invested in him. Finley definitely falls under a wait-and-see player, but I have the feeling Finley’s skillset is unique enough for the position that the Packers will pay him the money to stay in Green Bay.

Some young role players, like Jamari Lattimore, M.D. Jennings, and C.J. Wilson may return at bargain salaries.

6) Player’s Injury History?

Former Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop is carried off the field after being injured in the first quarter of the team’s first 2012 preseason against the San Diego Chargers. Jody Gomez-USA TODAY Sports photograph

If any of these potential free agents suffer any major injuries during the season, then that will significantly decrease their chances of being re-signed. Ted Thompson doesn’t like to take chances on player injuries. They let both Bishop and D.J. Smith go this offseason for that very reason.

Another thing to keep in mind is the injuries the player’s position suffers during the season. For example, cornerback is currently a deep position, but what if Tramon Williams suffers a major injury during the season and Green Bay won’t know if he’ll fully recover by next year? Suddenly, Shields becomes a high priority to re-sign.

By the end of the 2013 season, the Packers potential free agent picture will become much clearer. At this point, here is how I see Green Bay’s priority for re-signing players should rank based on the factors described above: 1) B.J. Raji, 2) James Jones 3) Jermichael Finley 4) Evan Dietrich-Smith 5) Sam Shields.

We’ll see how it turns out, and who will help their cause by their performance on the field during the season. One thing we do know is that Thompson likes to keep his own guys, but he’s also not afraid to cut ties when the situation is warranted.