Ted Thompson already made his big free-agent decision for this offseason.
In early December, the Green Bay Packers general manager ponied up $41 million on a four-year contract extension to keep Mike Daniels off the free-agent market.
Thompson had to do it. Daniels was his best defensive player last season, and had the GM waited the price would have been even higher.
With that must-do deal, Thompson’s heavy lifting for his 2016 free-agent class is done. His next highest priorities figure to be kicker Mason Crosby and defensive lineman B.J. Raji, though neither is likely to cost much more than one-third of Daniels’ deal.
And by the NFL draft, Thompson probably will have re-signed only a handful of players from his list of 14 remaining unrestricted free agents.
Thompson is working from a relatively healthy salary cap. The NFL hasn’t set the 2016 cap limit but projects it to fall anywhere from $150 million to $154 million. Combined with the approximately $7 million the Packers will carry over from 2015, they have in the neighborhood of $25 million in cap room.
This year’s draft class will take up around $5 million, and another $1.5 million or so will go for offensive lineman Lane Taylor’s restricted free-agent tender. Thompson also has to keep in mind his big financial decisions on his offensive line over the next year with left tackle David Bakhtiari and guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang set to hit free agency in 2017.
But Thompson’s remaining re-signings this year probably won’t be many and shouldn’t cost much. Following is the list of the Packers’ unrestricted free agents, and a prediction on whether each will be back with the Packers in 2016:
K Mason Crosby: Crosby has proven reliable in the unfriendly Green Bay climate. Add in his perfect 36-for-36 conversion on the 33-yard extra point this season and he’s worth the going rate at age 31. Last summer, New England’s Stephen Gostkowski became the league’s highest-paid kicker ($4.3 million average for four years, $10.1 million guaranteed). Crosby won’t get that, but it’s a fairly safe bet he’ll end up in the $3.5 million range. Prediction: Re-signs.
DT B.J. Raji: If I’m the Packers, I’m convinced Raji wants to earn NFL paychecks for as long as he can and is committed to taking good care of his body. He’s primarily a run-stopper, so you don’t want to get into a bidding war, but as long as the price stays in the range of $3 million a year or so on a multi-year deal, he’s definitely worth re-signing at age 29. Prediction: Re-signs.
DL Letroy Guion: Raji has to be the priority, but if the cost gets too high then the 28-year-old Guion is a viable fallback. He made $2.75 million during the 2015 season and probably will make about that, or a little less, next season. With Mike Pennel ready to take on a bigger role on the defensive line, re-signing Raji and Guion probably is too much a luxury. Prediction: Departs.
OLB Nick Perry: Even if Clay Matthews moves back to outside linebacker, the Packers probably should re-sign either Perry or Mike Neal. Perry is the better player, but his history of injuries, especially to his shoulder, raises a red flag. Also, he’s better suited for a 4-3 scheme, so the guess here is that a team looking for a 4-3 left end makes the better offer. Prediction: Departs.
OLB/DL Mike Neal: He hasn’t missed a game in three seasons, so his durability issues have waned. He’s not as powerful as Perry and is only an OK rusher (four sacks in 2015) but at age 28 would be a rotational player assuming Perry moves on. He averaged $4 million his last deal but will come in at less on his next. Prediction: Re-signs.
RB James Starks: There isn’t much of a market for 30-year-old running backs in the NFL — Starks turns 30 next month — so he probably can be re-signed for the minimum or not much more. Doesn’t have a lot of miles on him for his age. Prediction: Re-signs.
FB John Kuhn: The local cult hero will be 34 by the start of next season, so time is running out fast. Sixth-round pick Aaron Ripkowski’s blocking showed the body snap of a much younger player in his limited time, and the Packers need to get him on the field. You can’t rule out Kuhn’s return at the minimum salary, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Prediction: Departs.
CB Casey Hayward: A good enough nickel cover man but his return is a non-starter. The Packers have three cornerbacks from their 2015 class who need to join Sam Shields on the field — Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter — and Hayward will get a good payday elsewhere. Prediction: Departs.
WR James Jones: His return would hold back Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis. With the chance of a draft pick, too, there’s no room on the roster for a receiver who turns 32 in March. Prediction: Departs.
OL Don Barclay: His issues as backup left tackle weren’t all his fault — the Packers took too long to recognize they had a better alternative in JC Tretter and also didn’t give Barclay the help he needed. But ACL surgery diminished his already-modest talent, and he probably is only a backup guard in the NFL. With Lane Taylor likely back as a restricted free agent, Matt Rotheram on the practice squad and a draft pick forthcoming, it’s probably time for the Packers to move on. Prediction: Departs.
QB Scott Tolzien: A luxury the Packers probably can’t afford. Fifth-round pick Brett Hundley showed real promise and needs snaps. Also, Tolzien made $1.35 million last season and should fetch at least that on the open market. Thompson needs to save his money for greater needs. Prediction: Departs.
TE Andrew Quarless: The Packers need to upgrade at tight end. Time to look elsewhere, including with a high pick in this year’s draft. Prediction: Departs.
Brett Goode: Gave the Packers eight solid seasons but sustained a torn ACL in December. The Packers can’t wait, so unless his replacement falters, this probably is it for him in Green Bay. Prediction: Departs.
S Sean Richardson: There has been no announcement, but his career almost certainly is over after a second neck injury. Prediction: Retires.