Updating the free-agent countdown: Nos. 1-10

Apr. 5, 2014
Tight end Jermichael Finley is the Packers' highest-profile free agent remaining on the market. File/Press-Gazette Media
Tight end Jermichael Finley is the Packers' highest-profile free agent remaining on the market. File/Press-Gazette Media

The re-signing of fullback John Kuhn on Thursday leaves tight end Jermichael Finley and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett as the two most prominent Packers' free agents still on the market.

While it remains to be seen if either will be re-signed, we revisit the top 10 Packers on Press-Gazette Media’s free-agent countdown from earlier this offseason, including the financial numbers for those who were retained or departed.

10. Andrew Quarless, tight end (Re-signed March 13)
The Packers took out a small insurance policy on their tight-end situation in re-signing Quarless to a two-year $3 million contract. Quarless still has some holes in his game. His production faded when Aaron Rodgers was under center and his blocking wasn’t as stout as it was before he blew out his knee in 2011.

That being said, he’s the most complete tight end the Packers have signed for 2014. There is still hope Jermichael Finley could be cleared from neck fusion surgery and eventually re-signed, but the organization might have strongly consider moving on if it’s not sorted out before next month’s NFL draft.

Quarless came in at a reasonable cost for an ascending player who missed all of the 2012 season to injury. He also could be a serviceable stopgap to a mid-round draft prospect similar to what the Packers did when they drafted Finley in the third round of the 2008 draft.

9. James Starks, running back (Re-signed March 18)
Starks’ signing made sense on multiple fronts. First, his 93 carries last season seemed to keep him fresh the entire season and was the perfect complement to the bruising style of Eddie Lacy.

Two other backs, DuJuan Harris and Johnathan Franklin, are both coming off season-ending injuries, so there were questions about the backfield’s depth prior to Starks being brought back on a two-year, $3.1 million contract.

Starks still managed to partially tear his MCL and missed a month of the season, but ran hard in the 13 games he was active. His 5.3-yards per carry last season were the best of his four-year career. He was scheduled to have a visit in Pittsburgh, but ultimately decided Green Bay was his surest bet.

8. Ryan Pickett, defensive line (Free agent)
Pickett had a great run in Green Bay, but the forecast is hazy for the soon-to-be 35-year-old defensive lineman. He battled through a knee injury in all 17 games the Packers played, but his production dipped sharply – falling from 51 tackles in 2013 to only 19.

He played better in the Packers’ wild-card loss to San Francisco, but B.J. Raji’s move back to nose tackle could spell the end for Pickett, who spent seven years with the Packers after signing as an unrestricted free agent in 2006.

Pickett said he still intends to play next season, but even if a team comes calling it likely will be closer to the 2014 veteran minimum for a player with more than 10 years of experience (slightly less than $1 million) than the $6.2 million he made last season.

7. Jermichael Finley, tight end (Free agent)
Finley’s football future remains uncertain despite Packers coach Mike McCarthy sounding optimistic at February’s scouting combine that team doctors would clear him from neck surgery.

The 6-foot-5 tight end took a visit to the Seattle Seahawks, but a league source indicated the Seahawks failed him on his physical. There’s been no indication if Finley’s doctors have cleared him yet.

Finley stands to be one of the top free agents on the market if an NFL team feels comfortable with his prognosis, but team doctors have varying opinions on clearing players who have undergone neck fusions of the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae.

6. Mike Neal, outside linebacker/defensive line (Re-signed March 12)
The Packers want to bring more variety to their defense and it starts with being more multiple. That’s where the signing of eight-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers and the re-signing of Neal to a two-year, $8 million contract come into play.

Neal had his most productive NFL season playing most as at outside linebacker in 2013. Although defensive coordinator Dom Capers hoped to split Neal’s snaps evenly between defensive line and outside linebacker, injuries to both Clay Matthews and Nick Perry required him to play almost exclusively in the two-point stance.

Neal, Perry and Peppers will all play a role in the defense’s hopes to incorporate a pass-rusher who can lineup anywhere from a one- to seven-technique position. Assuming Neal can stay healthy, another year standing up should keep him on an incline.

5. John Kuhn, fullback (Re-signed April 4)
Kuhn, who’ll turn 32 in September, took a pay cut to return for an eighth season with the Packers. His $100,000 signing bonus on top of an $855,000 base salary doesn’t guarantee his place on the 53-man roster, but the team still seems geared toward carrying a fullback.

The veteran brings a lot of elements to the table for a $1 million paycheck and the team’s recent turnover on special teams should only help his chances.
Kuhn has played in all but five games for the Packers in the last seven years.

4. James Jones, wide receiver (Signed with Oakland March 17)
James Jones received a similar three-year, $10 million contract with the Raiders that he received in 2011 with Green Bay. The only difference being he was 27 years old then and 30 now.

So why did the Packers allow one of their most dependable offensive weapons to bolt? Upcoming extensions for Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb probably didn’t help matters, but the maturation of Jarrett Boykin likely played a part, as well.

Jones came into his own during his most recent deal, finishing with 310 receptions for 4,305 yards and 37 touchdowns. Now, he'll look to continue that back in his home state.

3. Evan Dietrich-Smith, center (Signed with Tampa Bay March 14)
The departure of Dietrich-Smith leaves a gaping hole in the Packers’ offensive line and means Rodgers will be working with his fourth different starting center in as many years.

It appears to be JC Tretter’s job to lose. The Packers don’t have another naturally trained center on the roster and it seems unlikely they’ll convert two well-compensated guards, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, to a new position.

Dietrich-Smith’s four-year, $14.25 million deal with the Bucs doesn’t break the bank, but you can see why the Packers were hesitant to dish out that kind of cash with tackle Bryan Bulaga bound for free agency next year, and both Sitton and Lang signed to lengthy deals.

Tretter could be the answer, but the fact he didn’t dress for a game last season after breaking his ankle on the first day of organized team activities leaves the position in a precarious spot.

2. B.J. Raji, defensive lineman (Re-signed March 14)
Raji’s flopped in his contract season, resulting in a lukewarm market and an eventual one-year, $4 million deal to return to Green Bay.

It’s a boom-or-bust year for Raji, who’ll get what he wants in a switch back to nose tackle in the Packers’ 3-4 defense. His 6-foot-2, 337-pound body was ill-suited for playing end, but questions about his motor not always running hot didn’t help matters.

Coming off the worst season in his five-year career, the soon-to-be 28-year-old Raji will need to perform back at the spot he had his most disruptive season in during the 2010 season. It’s been two years since his last sack.

1. Sam Shields, cornerback (Re-signed March 8)
The decision to bring back Shields was a no-brainer, but the Packers will be banking on his potential after giving the former undrafted free agent a four-year, $39 million contract.

Shields, 26, still has his best years ahead of him. He notched new career-highs last season with 61 tackles, 16 pass deflections and four interceptions. The deal makes sense for the Packers, who will shed veteran Tramon Williams’ $8 million salary when his contract runs out after 2014.

However, the approach the Packers have taken to their salary cap allows them to carry both for 2014, making cornerback the team’s deepest position for at least one more season.

About this blog

Get Green Bay Packers updates as they happen from our reporting team: (from left) Mike Vandermause, Wes Hodkiewicz and Pete Dougherty.

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