First in a series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ unrestricted, restricted and exclusive-rights free agents in advance of the start of the 2017 league year and NFL free agency March 9.
GREEN BAY - General manager Ted Thompson faces some big decisions on whether to re-sign Green Bay Packers unrestricted free agents such as guard T.J. Lang and outside linebacker Nick Perry.
Thompson also must decide how to proceed with his team’s controlled free agents. The Packers have nine of them entering the spring, more than double the four they had last year. Most of them will be easy calls, but these can become important decisions.
A year ago, the Packers offered a two-year deal to restricted free-agent guard Lane Taylor. He became important security for the Packers, allowing them to jettison All-Pro left guard Josh Sitton in training camp’s final cuts. In Sitton’s absence, Taylor started all 16 games and led the Packers’ offensive line in snaps last fall.
So one of Thompson’s first orders of free agency will be evaluating receiver Geronimo Allison (exclusive rights), running back John Crockett (exclusive rights), outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott (restricted), running back Don Jackson (exclusive rights), fullback Joe Kerridge (exclusive rights), defensive tackle Christian Ringo (exclusive rights), punter Jacob Schum (exclusive rights), inside linebacker Joe Thomas (exclusive rights) and outside linebacker Jordan Tripp (restricted).
Each player will be on the Packers’ 90-man offseason roster, if Thompson chooses. An influx of exclusive rights free agents in the 2017 class should make things more affordable. Exclusive rights free agents have fewer than three accrued NFL seasons and must accept a one-year, minimum contract.
Restricted free agents have three accrued NFL seasons and must be tendered a first-round, second-round or right-of-first-refusal offer sheet, allowing teams to match any outside offers. A team could choose to not provide an offer sheet in hopes of signing a player for less than this spring’s projected $1.8 million low tender, in which case a player becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Otherwise, a player reaches unrestricted status after four accrued NFL seasons.
The most notable of this year’s controlled free agents are Allison, Thomas and Elliott. For Allison and Thomas, Thompson’s decision is a no-brainer. Both will be back on one-year, minimum deals in 2017.
Allison was a gem in the Packers’ most recent undrafted rookie class, catching 12 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns after being called up from the practice squad before the Packers’ trip to Atlanta on Oct. 30. He quickly earned quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ trust as the team’s fourth receiver behind Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb.
Perhaps most impressive, Allison proved the stage wasn’t too big for him. With an NFC North title on the line in the Packers’ regular-season finale at Detroit, Allison led the team with four catches for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Thomas started the season as the Packers’ dime linebacker, a part-time role that grew with injuries to Jake Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez. By the end, Thomas led the Packers’ inside linebacker group with 634 defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders. Though he struggled with missed tackles, Thomas was fourth on the team — and second among inside linebackers — with 70 tackles.
Elliott hasn’t reached Thomas’ status on the Packers’ defense, despite showing flashes as an edge rusher. His value comes on special teams, where he is a core contributor.
Because Elliott has little production on defense and is coming off a third season in which he missed five games with a broken finger and strained hamstring, the Packers could forgo their low-tender offer sheet and try to re-sign Elliott at the league minimum, a difference of about $1.1 million.
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The Packers could use the same approach with Tripp, whom they signed in December after the Seattle Seahawks released him with an injury settlement. The minimum salary for a player with three accrued seasons is projected to be $690,000 in 2017, according to Spotrac.
Most — if not all — of the Packers’ remaining exclusive-rights free agents should be with the team this offseason.
It would cost $3.8 million for the Packers to retain each of their seven exclusive-rights free agents. If the Packers re-signed Elliott and Tripp for the minimum salaries, their pool for controlled free agents would increase to $5.2 million. Only $4.2 million would count against the cap.