This post is a summary of the upcoming Unrestricted Free Agents for Green Bay heading into the 2016 season, and who they should re-sign. Fortunately, GB was able to lock up Mike Daniels mid-season, so they do not have any star positional players scheduled to hit the market this season as they did last year with Bulaga and Cobb.
Note: All salary cap figures per http://www.Overthecap.com
The Priority Re-Signings:
Mason Crosby, Kicker (2015 cap figure: $3.5M)
A no-brainer. Further solidified his standing as one of the best kickers in the NFL in 2015, kicking 24-28 (85.7%), including 4-5 from 50+, and a perfect 36-36 on extra points. Maintaining his 2015 figure of 3.5M on an average annual basis in an extension would place him in the top 5 in the NFL, which is fair compensation for one of the NFL’s elite.
James Starks, RB (2015: $1.8M)
Starks has expressed a desire to be a starting RB in the NFL, but it remains to be seen if any teams actually view him as such. He was never able to truly establish himself as a starter in Green Bay, even when they were starved for such a player prior to Lacy’s arrival. Durability, fumbling, and consistency issues throughout his career will likely prevent a team from offering him “starter” money, in which case he should continue his role as the perfect complement to Lacy’s bruising style. Lacy has no shortage of issues himself going into 2016 (re: conditioning), making it all the more important for GB to have a reliable back-up. If things truly break terribly for Lacy again next season, Starks could ultimately end up with the role he covets any way.
John Kuhn, FB (2015: $635K)
A mainstay in Green Bay for years, it is unlikely any other team will make a competitive offer, which should allow GB to bring him back at their price. The return on investment with Kuhn is always tremendous, given his continued value as a pass-blocker and lead run-blocker in key situations. Aaron Ripkowski should remain primarily a core special teamer for at least one more season.
The “Flip a Coin” bracket:
For the following pairs of players, my guess is the team will ultimately choose to re-sign one (or perhaps neither), but not both.
Letroy Guion, NT (2015: $2.5M) vs. BJ Raji, NT (2015: $2.8M)
Two very different but equally valuable players, Guion and Raji each had seasons that trended in completely opposite directions. Raji came out of the gate on fire, flashing dominance in week 2 vs. Seattle we haven’t seen since his best season in 2010. Guion, on the other hand, struggled at the DE position after returning from a suspension in week 4. As the season wore on however, Raji once again seemed to get de-railed by injury; he never looked the same after suffering a groin injury in the middle of the year. Injuries have truly been the story of his career. Down the stretch in 2015 it was Guion who was the more impactful player, making some tremendous plays at NT in short-yardage situations (huge stops at the goal-line in the Wild Card game vs Washington after Djax ran out at the 1 immediately come to mind).
Raji has the draft pedigree (something Ted clearly values almost to a fault) and arguably has more raw talent and higher ceiling potential than Guion. However, unless he is willing to accept a cheap, incentive-laden deal, I think it is time to move on. It has become a virtual guarantee that Raji will get injured every season, and his development time in OTAs and camp would be better served going to young kids waiting to emerge (i.e. Mike Pennel). Still, there is too much uncertainty at the position to let both players walk, and Guion is a steady, valuable veteran presence who should be brought back at his 2015 rate. We will discuss the overall health of this position group in a future post, but FWIW I do think the team will (and should) add another big body via the draft as well.
Mike Neal, OLB (2015: $4.2M) vs. Nick Perry, OLB (2015: $2.4M)
To me, this is the toughest and perhaps most critical question facing Green Bay this off-season. Neither Perry nor Neal is a “star”, but they both played significant snaps in 2015 and were effective in their roles. Though the plan is for Clay to return to OLB next season, one would expect Peppers’ snaps to also continue to reduce. With only Jayrone Elliot and Andy Mulumba behind these two, the team certainly can’t afford to let both players walk. In a perfect world, I would like to see both return, but if I had to choose one I would choose Perry.
While Perry has battled injuries throughout his career as much as Raji has (and that continued in 2015), I also don’t think we have seen the best of what Perry has to offer. In a small sample size in what was also perhaps “garbage time”, Perry finally flashed what he is truly capable of by beating All-Pro LT Trent Williams in the WC Round vs. Washington multiple times. If he is truly ready to turn the corner, I would hate to see that happen for him on another team. Neal has also developed into a steady, reliable player which definitely has value; but if I have to choose, I want the player who has the upside to be a true difference maker at OLB for a 3-4 defense.
If the Price is Right:
James Jones, WR (2015: $585K)
Wide Receiver is a bit of an odd position group for Green Bay. No one would argue that this team could use an infusion of talent next season, however it is also very crowded. Jordy, Cobb, Adams, and Montgomery are guaranteed roster spots (Adams being a 2nd round pick only two years ago, Montgomery a 3rd last season). Janis likely is as well due to his emergence as a core special teamer (both as a returner and a gunner on punt coverage), on top of his obvious potential as a WR. That’s already 5 spots locked up, with Abbrederis also competing for a spot. My guess/suggestion: invite Jones to camp on a veteran’s minimum deal and see how the group unfolds, health and development wise.
Scott Tolzien, QB (2015: $1.4M)
We already learned the hard way what happens if this team doesn’t have a reliable back-up behind Rodgers. Unless a team pays Tolzien with the mind-set of having him compete as a starter, GB should be able to bring him back on another cheap one-year deal while Brett Hundley continues to develop.
Andrew Quarless, TE (2015: $1.8M)
I’d consider bringing him back on a veteran’s minimum deal only. His off-field issues and on-field performance barely even warrant that, but Green Bay has a glaring lack of depth at this position.
Let Them Walk:
Casey Hayward, CB (2015: $1M)
Corner is a premium position, and Hayward will get paid big bucks by someone (he should arguably get more than Davon House did last season). Will be an easy decision not to match, given the obvious potential of Randall and Rollins.
Don Barclay, T (2015: $1.5M)
Once considered a valuable backup swing tackle on this team, he clearly does not have it any more. Easy decision.
BONUS: Proposed Cuts/Salary Cap Casualties:
Tim Masthay, Punter (2015: $1.3M)
When Mason Crosby went into a deep slump several years ago, Green Bay showed incredible patience and it was rewarded when Crosby immediately bounced back the following season. Masthay deserved the same level of patience, however after two seasons he simply cannot be given another chance. He continually crippled the defense in 2015 with shanks that gave the opposition great field position, and in a season where we truly could not afford poor punting given the struggles of the offense. Should be an easy position to upgrade.