Packers have lengthy to-do list with free agency looming
GREEN BAY - The short period of time between now and 3 p.m. Wednesday is when a cardiologist would be most likely to worry about Russ Ball, the executive vice president and director of football operations for the Green Bay Packers. Broad as Ball’s job description may be, his focus at the moment is narrow: All of his energy is dedicated to negotiating contracts, a job for which he is well-known.
When the buzzer sounds on Wednesday afternoon, a new league year begins for the National Football League. Old contracts expire, free agency ignites like wildfire and general managers across the country start shaping their rosters in pursuit of a Super Bowl.
In the interim, Ball’s to-do list includes the following:
» Submit qualifying offers for any restricted free agents the Packers wish to re-sign.
» Submit minimum salary tenders to retain any exclusive rights free agents the Packers would like back next season.
» Stay in contact with agents representing Packers players in line to receive extensions or new deals.
» Jockey with 31 other teams to make verbal agreements with unrestricted free agents during the NFL’s legal tampering period from Monday into Wednesday.
The Packers’ roster includes nine players who will become unrestricted free agents, two restricted free agents and 11 exclusive rights free agents. Here’s a breakdown of the players Ball and the Packers will be considering in the next few days:
Unrestricted free agents
These are players with four or more accrued seasons whose contracts expire Wednesday. They can negotiate with any team once the legal tampering period begins Monday.
Ahmad Brooks, outside linebacker, age 33: Brooks was signed off the street by former general manager Ted Thompson after the San Francisco 49ers released him near the end of training camp. When healthy, Brooks played with a sense of toughness and aggression the defense desperately needed; the only problem was a lack of availability. An early concussion followed by chronic back problems limited Brooks to 346 snaps (32.9 percent) in 12 games, and his practice time dwindled as the season continued. He finished with 19 tackles and 5 ½ quarterback hits (1 ½ sacks, 4 additional hits). Given his age, Brooks won’t be signed in the first wave of free agency by the Packers or any other team. Instead, he will likely be in a holding pattern until teams get through March and April to see how their depth charts come together. Brooks could return to the Packers toward the start of the regular season if they need another body in the rotation. Otherwise, his time in Green Bay is probably over.
Morgan Burnett, safety, 29: Burnett is the rare player with an opportunity to earn a third contract from the Packers. A third-round pick in 2010, Burnett played out his rookie deal before signing a four-year, $24.75 million extension that carried him through last season. Injuries to his hamstring and groin cost Burnett four games in 2017 and call into question his durability after consecutive seasons crashing into offensive linemen as a hybrid linebacker for former defensive coordinator Dom Capers. His speed and range are on a downward trajectory. However, Burnett is still the most assignment-conscious member of the secondary and wears the communication helmet when healthy. Chances are another team will offer Burnett more money than the Packers are willing to spend, especially with Josh Jones and Kentrell Brice already on the roster. It won't be a surprise if Burnett departs.
Quinton Dial, defensive tackle, 27: Dial was another 49ers castaway plucked off the street by Thompson in early September. With former backups Brian Price and Letroy Guion gone, Dial played an important role as the biggest body off the bench. At 6-5 ½ and 318 pounds, Dial proved to be strong at the point and was difficult to move in the running game. He played 309 snaps (29.4 percent) in 13 games and performed well for a reserve player on an affordable contract. His only glaring weakness is pass rushing, where he generated just one quarterback hit. Nonetheless, the Packers were pleased with Dial’s offerings and will likely try to re-sign him for at least another season. He is the type of role player winning teams need.
Jahri Evans, guard, 34: The Packers signed Evans, a six-time Pro Bowler, to a team-friendly contract shortly before the draft last spring. Evans was a terrific locker room presence, both in terms of mentorship for younger players and through his actions as a hard-working veteran. He played 912 snaps (87.1 percent) at right guard for an offensive line that was a revolving door most of the year. The only games he missed were Weeks 15 and 16 after the Packers had been eliminated from playoff contention. By his own admission, Evans has lost athleticism relative to his prime, especially in the screen game and getting to the second level. But he was a serviceable player who made a positive influence on the team. The Packers could bring him back in August on an inexpensive contract, but the long-term answer at guard will likely come through the draft.
Brett Goode, long snapper, 33: For the last few years, the Packers have tried and failed to get younger and more athletic at the long snapper position. Each winter they sign an undrafted free agent or two whose coverage abilities exceed those of Goode, and each summer they realize few snappers can match Goode’s accuracy and precision, which are more important than making tackles downfield. Along those lines, Goode will be in a holding pattern through the draft, OTAs, minicamp and possibly training camp as teams around the league search for younger options. But don’t be surprised if September rolls around and Goode winds up on an NFL roster. If the Packers can’t find someone they like, Goode will be the first person they call.
Davon House, cornerback, 28: The Packers reinvested in an old friend when they were in desperate need of a cornerback last spring. House would be the calming, veteran presence who could tutor the likes of Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Josh Hawkins and Kevin King, while also having enough skill to be a partial starter on the field. The first part of the plan unfolded swimmingly, with House becoming particularly close to King as the season progressed. The second part was more of a stretch as injuries and inconsistent play rendered House average at best. He missed four games with injuries to his quad, shoulder and back and played 62.5 percent of snaps overall. House deflected six passes, had one interception and notched one sack. The Packers would probably like him back on an inexpensive contract, but he shouldn’t be a starting corner in 2018.
Jeff Janis, wide receiver, 26: Ever since Janis entered the league as a seventh-round pick in 2014, Packers fans have clung to the idea that his height, weight, speed and athleticism would somehow coalesce into a quality wide receiver. It’s probably time to relinquish those hopes, at least within the confines of Lambeau Field. Janis played just eight snaps from scrimmage in the first 14 weeks of the season, and most of them came on kneel downs at the end of the game. Instead, Janis’ role was on special teams, where he remains one of the best gunners in the league but lost his job as a kick returner to fellow wideout Trevor Davis. The NFL’s top special teamers command well over $1 million in salary, sometimes $2 million, but nearly all of them contribute at least something from scrimmage. With Janis, that just isn’t the case in Green Bay. The presence of other strong special teamers such as Davis, Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans, Jermaine Whitehead and Demetri Goodson means the Packers can afford to move on from Janis and save some money in the process.
Ulrick John, tackle, 25: Thompson snagged John from the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad in late September as injuries shredded the offensive line. John played 32 unsightly snaps against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6, but aside from that, the coaches kept him on the bench in favor of Justin McCray. He finished with 40 total snaps and was a healthy scratch three times. John is unlikely to receive anything above the league minimum on the open market, and the Packers could bring him back for training camp to see if things click after a full offseason in the system.
Richard Rodgers, tight end, 26: Three years ago, Rodgers was the starting tight end in front of veteran Andrew Quarless. Two years ago, Rodgers watched the Packers sign Jared Cook and plant him at the top of the depth chart. Then, last year, Rodgers saw the Packers sign two new players — Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks — who knocked him down to third. While all players understand the business aspect of football, Rodgers handled the series of demotions with incredible grace. He continued to work hard, he never pouted to reporters and he understood his limitations as a player — namely, blocking and a lack of speed. Rodgers played 306 snaps last season (29.2 percent) with his workload increasing as the year progressed. When Bennett was cut, Rodgers jumped to second on the depth chart. When Kendricks underachieved and dropped passes, Rodgers surpassed him in playing time late in the year. He finished with 12 receptions for 160 yards and one touchdown. The Packers can probably re-sign him for the league minimum.
Restricted free agents
These are players with expiring contracts who have exactly three accrued seasons. Teams have four types of qualifying offers they can extend to restricted free agents, all with different terms and dollar amounts attached. By extending a qualifying offer, the original team has the option to match any new contract offers from other teams before the player can sign elsewhere.
Jacob Schum, punter, 29: After serving as the Packers' punter in 2016, Schum was waived injured in June with a bulging disc in his back. He went unclaimed on waivers and reverted to IR, where he spent the entire year. Schum opted not to have surgery on his back and instead chose months of rest and recovery. He was nearing full health in mid-January and hopes to play next season. The Packers will not extend a qualifying offer to Schum, according to a source, and he will become an unrestricted free agent capable of signing with another team. His career in Green Bay is over.
Joe Thomas, inside linebacker, 26: The diminutive Thomas had served as the Packers' coverage linebacker each of the last two seasons and played mostly on passing downs. His role was always going to decrease in 2017 as heavy doses of the nitro package placed either Morgan Burnett or Josh Jones in Thomas’ spot. An ankle injury cost Thomas four games in the middle of the season, and when he returned the Packers hardly used him on defense. He finished with 107 snaps from scrimmage and 211 on special teams. Thomas made 12 tackles on the year, including a half a sack and 2 tackles for loss. The Packers shouldn't give Thomas the low tender of $1.907 million — that's far too high — but he could re-sign for a lesser amount this spring. Former outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott took that route in 2017 after the Packers did not extend a qualifying offer.
Exclusive rights free agents
These are players with one or two accrued seasons. Players who receive tenders from their original team are unable to negotiate with other clubs. Players who don’t receive tenders become unrestricted free agents and can hit the open market.
The Packers are expected to tender all of their exclusive rights free agents, which include the following players:
» Geronimo Allison, WR, 24
» Donatello Brown, CB, 26
» Joe Callahan, QB, 24
» Michael Clark, WR, 22
» Joe Kerridge, FB, 25
» Justin McCray, G/C, 25
» Adam Pankey, OL, 24
» Lucas Patrick, G/C, 24
» Taybor Pepper, LS, 23
» Herb Waters, CB, 25
» Jermaine Whitehead, S, 24