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Packers don't tag Shields, Raji

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By Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 3, 2014

GREEN BAY--Unwilling to use $10 million or more of valuable salary cap space to protect an asset, the Green Bay Packers face the likelihood that they'll no longer have the services of both cornerback Sam Shields and defensive tackle B.J. Raji, young defensive starters who played vital roles on their Super Bowl XLV-winning team.

The deadline to place a franchise or transition tag on a free agent passed Monday and the Packers went a fourth straight season without using one, leaving themselves vulnerable to the parasitic appetite of some free-spending teams come the start of free agency next week.

Barring any last-minute negotiations between the team and the players' representatives, both Shields and Raji will be free to negotiate with any team in the league starting at 3 p.m. Saturday and sign with one 24 hours later.

The Packers have exclusive negotiating rights until Saturday, but this past Sunday Shields' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, let it be known his client was going to test the market. On Monday, an NFL source said Raji was set to do the same because of lack of progress in talks.

Given the cost of using one of the tags, it's not a complete surprise that the Packers did not exercise their right to do so.

The franchise designation, which allows a team to match an offer the player receives or let him go in exchange for two first-round draft picks, comes with a huge cost. The team must make a one-year offer based on the top salary-cap numbers of those at the free agent's position, which in the case of Shields is $11.834 million and Raji is $9.654 million this year.

The transition designation guarantees a team only that it can match an offer and in the case of Shields requires a one-year offer worth $10.081 million and Raji $8.061 million this year.

The downside of those offers for the Packers is that the player signs it right away and $10 million of cap space gets eaten up just like that. If the two sides can't reach a cap-friendly, long-term deal, the Packers have to carry that cap number all year.

The Packers are almost $35 million under the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson almost always sets a rigid value on his free agents. If he has been unable to sign them to an extension by now, he has pretty much decided to let the market determine the player's value.

Last year, for example, Thompson did not meet receiver Greg Jennings' demands during the season, but when Jennings hit the open market he made a solid bid for him based on the interest he was receiving. Thompson bowed out when the Minnesota Vikings reached a number he deemed too high.

In the case of Shields, Thompson knows there is a team or two who might overpay the 26-year-old speedster in order to lure him to town. Rosenhaus has indicated he would continue negotiating with the Packers throughout the process, which means if the numbers don't go as high as Shields expects, the Packers could wind up back in the picture.

Shields' worth became a little clearer Monday when Miami cornerback Brent Grimes agreed to a four-year deal that ESPN.com reported was worth $28 million, including $14 million guaranteed. Like Shields, Grimes was set to hit the market next week.

Grimes, despite turning 31 in July, is probably the best corner on the market. Other corners who will be competing for free-agent money are: Tennessee's Alterraun Verner, New England's Aqib Talib, Indianapolis' Vontae Davis and Denver's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

If the Packers lose Shields, they might be able to turn to one of the other free agents for help, but given Thompson's history, they will try to make do with what they have and add a cornerback prospect in the draft. The draft is fairly deep at cornerback, and the Packers might have a shot at one of the top three when they pick 21st overall.

Raji is arguably one of the top two defensive tackles in this year's free-agent class and could conceivably pull in a deal worth $9 million a year. But after a subpar season, he might find the market drier than he expected and wind up negotiating again with the Packers once his worth is more clearly defined.

The Packers probably would have paid a pretty penny for the 2010 Raji, but either because he was afraid of getting hurt during a contract year or is just no longer the same player, he was a huge disappointment last season. The Packers' decision not to tag him speaks volumes about what they think he's worth.

Three years ago, the Packers let receiver James Jones test the free-agent market after a down year and it worked in their favor. Jones received a cool reception in free agency and returned to the Packers at a reasonably priced three-year contract.

He went on to lead the NFL in touchdown receptions in 2012 and will get another crack at the market this off-season.

Among the defensive tackles with whom Raji will compete for free-agent money are: the New York Giants' Linval Joseph, Dallas' Jason Hatcher, Chicago's Henry Melton, Miami's Randy Starks and Paul Soliai and Minnesota's Kevin Williams.

The Packers have some talent on the defensive line with Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd, Jerel Worthy and Datone Jones coming back, but their bulkiest players—Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson—are all free agents.

If both Shields and Raji leave, Thompson would have to fill two starting positions on a defense that wasn't very good last year. Unless he takes part in free agency this year, he'll have a very young defense once again.



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