Green Bay Packers' offseason underway

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Tyler Dunne and Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, January 7, 2014

GREEN BAY—And with that, the offseason begins.

This might be Ted Thompson's most eventful offseason since taking over as the Green Bay Packers' general manager in 2005. Questions abound on both sides of the ball. Last year, he ironed out long-term deals with his two best players—Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. This spring, he'll need to identify which starters are worth keeping.

Among the unrestricted free agents in March are Sam Shields, B.J. Raji, Jermichael Finley, James Jones, John Kuhn, Ryan Pickett, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Mike Neal, James Starks and Andrew Quarless.

Here's an early look at the questions Thompson must ponder:

Should the Packers start over on the defensive line?

Any 3-4 defense is rooted in wide bodies up front. Four of the Packers wide bodies—B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson—are free agents. Green Bay could easily start over up front.

Raji wasn't around Monday when the locker room was open to reporters but has said he enjoys Green Bay. Snaps reduced, he had a career-low 17 tackles in 2013 and recorded zero sacks the last two seasons. While he has been accountable for his gap, according to coaches, it might be difficult for the Packers to justify a bank-busting contract on someone who wasn't a true impact player this season.

Age might be a factor with Pickett (34). He has now played in 199 career games, not easy for any 338-pound man. After Green Bay's loss to San Francisco, Pickett said he wants to stay in Green Bay.

And he also said he has a lot of game left.

“I have a lot. I have a lot to give,” Pickett said. “I feel great. This is probably the healthiest I've been all year tonight. So I feel pretty good. I can still play.”

Jolly's career was resurrected this season. After three years away from the game, Jolly overcame his addiction problems, got himself in shape to make the team and then, remarkably, was a factor against the run with 21 tackles. Jolly wasn't the same player in December he was in September, though.

Green Bay might want to get 2013 rookies Datone Jones and Josh Boyd involved more, and that'd need to come at the expense of these free agents. When organized team activities begin in May, don't be surprised if this defensive line looks much different.

Can the Packers made due without Jermichael Finley at tight end?

The loss of Jermichael Finley stung most with the Packers' season on the line. The last time the Packers' offense touched the ball this season, they couldn't punch the ball into the end zone with first and goal from the 49ers' 9-yard line. And this is where a 6-foot-5, 250-pound pass catcher is most valuable.

One reason Green Bay finished 26th in red-zone offense was the absence of a tight end who demands attention inside the 20. Against the 49ers on Sunday, the offense went out like a lamb.

Should the Packers bring Finley back? First, there's the medical concerns. Finley is coming off spinal fusion surgery, and this is a conservative medical staff. Secondly, Finley might be too pricey for the Packers. He'll want to capitalize on free agency after signing a two-year deal after the 2011 season.

Green Bay has had no problem growing wide receivers. With or without James Jones, the offense should be OK at wide receiver. But against San Francisco—and other defenses that sit back with two safeties—the Packers need an athletic tight end.

Andrew Quarless might return at a decent price. But, for whatever reason, he hasn't had much chemistry with Aaron Rodgers. Brandon Bostick has been groomed as a Finley Lite of sorts. He's still raw. Quite possibly, this is a position the Packers address in the draft. Green Bay hasn't selected a tight end higher than the fifth round since Finley six years ago.

Is Evan Dietrich-Smith the center of the future?

At the very least, this worked out better than Jeff Saturday.

Evan Dietrich-Smith proved much stronger than the aging veteran and helped the offense move at a faster clip. The running game took steps forward, too. As a team, the Packers rushed for 133.5 yards per game this season, seventh-best in the NFL. Having a center capable of fortifying the middle and getting to the second level helped.

So now, after tendering Dietrich-Smith last offseason, the Packers must decide if he is their long-term answer. They have J.C. Tretter, too. The fourth-rounder spent most of his season on the physically unable to perform list, but the team likes his potential at center. For now, he's an unknown.

By the sounds of it, Dietrich-Smith will test his worth in free agency. Asked Monday if he'd return to Green Bay if it were up to him, the center said he wouldn't “make any predictions.”

“I don't know,” he said. “I feel good about the year I put together. Obviously I have a lot of fun playing with these guys, I'm very fond of them, but the game is the game, and the business side also happens, too. So, we'll see what happens.”

He's still young at 27 years old. But unlike Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, Dietrich-Smith was not extended before his contract was up, hinting at doubt from the Packers.

Should the Packers re-sign cornerback Sam Shields?

If the Packers pay Shields top dollar, they would have roughly $25 million of salary cap room wrapped up in three defensive players—Clay Matthews ($11.1 million), Tramon Williams ($9.5 million) and Shields (approximately $5 million). Since Williams will be in the last year of his contract, the timing might be such that it all fits together.

Shields, who was knocked out of the 49er game with a bone bruise, took his lumps, but he also tied Williams for the team lead in interceptions (four) and broke up nearly twice as many passes (24) as anybody else on the team. He needs to be committed to tackling, but the Packers might go more than a decade before finding someone with his speed and cover ability.

Let Shields go and the Packers would be almost starting over at corner. Davon House isn't the answer and Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward need to play in the slot, so if Shields leaves, they'll be back to training a young guy. Bringing Shields back would allow Thompson to focus on rebuilding the safety position without having to worry about corner.

“He's almost a starter since he's been here,” Williams said of Shields' knowledge and experience. “He started nickel from day one. So, he's got a lot of football he's played. I'm pretty sure the game has slowed down a lot for him.”

One question that has to be answered is whether the money would spoil Shields. He has worked his tail off to go from long-shot, undrafted free agent to starter but will he be satisfied once he gets the money?

How do the Packers proceed at backup quarterback?

Matt Flynn is an unrestricted free agent and while he did a yeoman's job in Aaron Rodgers' absence, going 2-2 in starts, the Packers can do better.

Scott Tolzien is bigger and stronger and has a better arm than Flynn. He'll have a chance to go through McCarthy's quarterback school for the first time and, if he continues to grow, would be a solid No. 2.

It might be worth bringing Flynn back if there was a medical issue with his arm that can be fixed in the offseason. If he proves he can throw the ball better than he did this year, it might be worth signing him to a minimum deal and letting him compete for a job.

One thing is for sure: Thompson has to address the position in the draft.

What should the Packers do with James Jones, John Kuhn and James Starks?

Jones wants to come back and he should be re-signed. He was never the same after suffering a knee injury against Baltimore, but he toughed it out and raised his level of play greatly when Flynn was playing. At some point next year, Randall Cobb is going to warrant an extension, so paying a lot for Jones isn't in the cards.

But he's good in the locker room and a pro on the field.

“I'm not one of those guys who goes home and says I'm worth 30, 40 million,” Jones said. “We'll see what happens when the market comes and guys start making offers. If they start making offers, we don't even know. We're sitting here talking about free agency and I could be going to Canada. You never know.”

Kuhn made $1.8 million in 2013 and might get it again this year. At 31, he still has some years left and he's more valuable to McCarthy than he is to another team because of his knowledge of the offense.

Starks is going to get a good offer somewhere, and the Packers aren't going to be able to match it. He was on a mission this year and while he didn't get a lot of carries, he stayed mostly healthy and ran like a brute when he did get the ball.

Eddie Lacy is the future and with DuJuan Harris returning and Johnathan Franklin in the wings, Starks will most likely be making his mark somewhere else.

“I'll leave that to my agent,” Starks said. “That's out of my control.”

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