In the week ahead, the NFL’s landscape will change. Teams will look different in 2016. Players will call new cities home. In some corners of the league, the balance of power will shift.
The NFL’s annual free-agency bonanza is here. The carnival is sure to be eventful. Much of the action already has happened. When Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy spoke with media at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, he mentioned the deep pool of talented players who had already been cut this offseason. But the next week or two will present the bulk of offseason transactions.
Teams can start negotiating with unrestricted free agents Monday. They can start signing their targets when the new league year begins at 3 p.m. Wednesday. For contenders like the Packers, there should be plenty of available talent to plug roster holes. Of course, the balance is making sure they also re-sign their own free agents.
Here’s a five-step road map for the Packers as they embark on free agency. To be sure, general manager Ted Thompson has more than five decisions to make, but these are critical mile markers that could help guide the Packers to a successful offseason.
1. Do re-sign B.J. Raji
It already has been a busy offseason for the Packers. Thompson started before 2015 even ended, re-signing Mike Daniels to a four-year contract in the season’s final month. In February, Thompson re-signed defensive line mate Letroy Guion.
That leaves defensive tackle Raji, whose future with the Packers is uncertain by his own admission. Guion makes the most sense lining up as a defensive tackle, where he was especially productive rushing the passer in 2014. Raji, too, plays defensive tackle. So there is some overlap, but they are two different players: Raji stout against the run, Guion pressuring the quarterback from the interior.
Re-signing Daniels and Guion help solidify the defensive line, but the Packers should consider re-signing Raji at the right price. With Mike Pennel starting the 2016 season with a four-game suspension, Guion likely will have to stay at defensive end to start the season. Even if Guion is able to stick at defensive tackle, he and Raji would make a good rotation on the interior. It wouldn’t be surprising for the Packers to draft a defensive lineman this spring, but bringing back Raji lessens the urgency.
2. Do not re-sign Casey Hayward
Nothing against Hayward: His value to the Packers last season was clear. Hayward’s 933 snaps were third-most on the Packers' defense, and he led the team’s cornerbacks in playing time. While he had no interceptions, his plus-6 coverage grade was highest on the team, according to Pro Football Focus.
Hayward, a second-round pick in 2012, has developed into one of the NFL’s good slot cornerbacks. His ability to lock down receivers in the middle of the field never has been more valuable, but that likely will push him out of Green Bay. Free agency is about supply and demand. The Packers' depth chart is stocked with young talent at cornerback, so their demand will be low.
Thompson has done a remarkable job rebuilding the Packers' secondary in just two years. The Packers have second-year corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins to go with top cover man Sam Shields. LaDarius Gunter is an unproven but promising prospect, and safety Micah Hyde provides depth in the slot. Their presence means there’s no room for Hayward, who is set to find a lucrative deal elsewhere.
3. Do pursue a free-agent coverage linebacker
Of all the players potentially about to hit the open market, none make more sense than Denver Broncos inside linebacker Danny Trevathan. Playing in Denver’s championship 3-4 defense, Trevathan was one of the NFL’s 10 best coverage linebackers last season. His plus-6 coverage grade not only tied Hayward, according to Pro Football Focus, but it also ranked sixth among all NFL linebackers.
Trevathan, a sixth-round pick in 2012, likely will draw a lucrative contract because of his youth (he turns 26 this month) and ability to cover in the middle of the field. Jerrell Freeman is a good coverage linebacker who might not be retained in Indianapolis, but he’ll turn 30 before the start of next season. Rolando McClain turns 27 in July and is another productive coverage linebacker, but it appears the Dallas Cowboys have a good chance of re-signing him.
The Packers also can hope to fill their void in the draft with Ohio State’s Darron Lee or Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, but it’s risky to expect either will be available when they pick at No. 27 overall. However they find a coverage linebacker to fill their vacancy in nickel and dime packages, it’s critical if they want to move Clay Matthews to outside linebacker. If the price is right, Trevathan would be a perfect fit.
4. Do not sign Matt Forte
Yes, it’s an enticing possibility: a Bears great in the Packers' backfield. A dual-threat running back lining up with Aaron Rodgers. Forte would give the Packers another receiving threat, something they could certainly use in light of last season’s dismal passing attack.
There’s no question Forte could provide an immediate boost to the offense, but the Packers need more than a complementary tailback. They need an insurance policy, a running back who could fill the starting role next season if Eddie Lacy isn’t able to get his career back on track. Forte turns 31 near the end of the 2016 season. He’s on the declining end of his career, with his best football behind him.
When the Bears released Julius Peppers two years ago, the Packers executed a coup against their chief rival. Peppers has been the Packers' most productive pass rusher. So, yes, it’s tempting to see if history can repeat itself with Forte. But there should be cheaper, younger, fresher options in the draft.
5. Do sign a free-agent tight end
Signing a coverage linebacker would be nice, but it’s not absolutely necessary. The Packers' defense played well enough with Clay Matthews at inside linebacker to be patient with his return to the edge. Matthews provides a safety net if the Packers don’t find a coverage linebacker, something the team lacks at the tight end position.
The Packers have no choice but to drastically upgrade their tight end production. It isn’t so much starter Richard Rodgers’ lack of speed, though the inability to generate big plays down the middle of the field was a central problem with the offense in 2015. The Packers are void of depth at tight end, even if they re-sign free agent Andrew Quarless.
With college football’s spread offenses, tight ends face a steep transition when they enter the NFL. While the Packers still should target the position in the draft, their best chance to immediately upgrade tight end production is signing a free agent. Whether it’s San Diego’s Ladarius Green, Indianapolis’ Dwayne Allen or a short-term solution like Denver’s Vernon Davis, this is one area that must be addressed in free agency.
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UPCOMING NFL DATES
Monday-Wednesday: Teams are permitted to negotiate with unrestricted free agents.
Wednesday: New league year/opening of free agency. Teams can sign free agents.
March 20-23: Annual league meeting, Boca Raton, Fla.
April 18: Teams with returning head coaches can begin offseason workout programs.
April 28-30: NFL draft, Chicago.