Last year at this time, there really was only one way to assess Nick Perry and Datone Jones as back-to-back first-round draft picks: swing and a miss.
Perry (No. 28 overall in the 2012 draft) and Jones (No. 26 in ‘13) had multiple chances to prove themselves over the years, and neither had anything near the impact general manager Ted Thompson projected when he drafted them to upgrade the Green Bay Packers’ undermanned defensive front seven.
Perry through his first four years in the NFL had been either sidelined or diminished by injury so often that it was almost impossible to tell whether he was any good. He showed up big in two playoff games last January, which was a glimpse into his talent and won him a one-year, $5 million deal from the Packers. But it answered nothing about whether he actually could do it for even one full season.
Jones, in the meantime, had been a non-factor for most of his first three seasons as a miscast 3-4 defensive end. By late 2015 he’d finally found a niche as occasional early-down outside linebacker, but if you were betting on his future after the final year (2016) of his rookie contract, you’d have wagered it was as a rotational defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. In other words, not with the Packers.
Now here we are, three games into 2016, and it’s a whole new world. Perry and Jones are two of the Packers’ 10 impending free agents, and instead of looking to replace them in 2017, Thompson should be planning to pay to keep both around for a couple more seasons.
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Of course, circumstances can change quickly and dramatically in the NFL, and it’s a long way from here to March. But Thompson already has made one major judgment on his 2017 free-agent class by signing left tackle David Bakhtiari to a contract extension the night before the start of the regular season. So it’s not too early to begin assessing the rest of a group that includes several big names (Julius Peppers, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Lang) and eight starters or regular rotational players.
Here’s a thumbnail look at how, if I were Thompson, I’d view each. Keep in mind, according to Over The Cap, the Packers are about $10 million under this year's salary cap and about $25 million under a projected $166 million cap next year. They can carry over any leftover cap room from this year, so they in effect have approximately $35 million in cap room to work with between now and next season, depending on what the actual cap number is in 2017:
Perry: He has been a revelation so far, but because of his injury history the Packers shouldn’t talk contract extension. They have to see how he gets through 2016.
This year was Perry’s first offseason not spent recovering from a surgery. He also made it healthy through training camp. Before that he had a litany of injuries: wrist and knee as a rookie in 2012; foot in ’13; shoulder in ’14; and shoulder and hand last year.
Though it’s only three games, Perry ranks among the Packers’ best players this season. He leads their outside linebackers in snaps (76.8 percent), and his physical play has been one of the keys to a run defense that is No. 1 in both yards allowed and yards allowed per carry. He also leads the team with 3 ½ sacks, which ranks 13th in the NFL.
Yes, extending Perry’s contract during the season could save money in the long run if he stays healthy. But if it costs more to wait, so be it. His history demands it.
So what kind of money might Perry be looking at if he plays at a high level all season? Clay Matthews averages $13.2 million, which is a ceiling I can’t see Perry getting near because of the injury history. Julius Peppers is averaging $8.7 million. That could be more in Perry’s ballpark, depending on how the rest of his season goes.
Assuming he gets through the season healthy – a big if – the main issue will be guaranteed money. Perry is 26, so he’s not old, but he’s probably at his peak right now. And injuries – his susceptibility, the toll they’ll take on his remaining years – loom over everything.
Still, if he plays anything like this all season, he’ll have made them a better team. The Packers have too many other needs to let that walk.
Jones: He has found his role as a rotational outside linebacker and inside rusher. Dropping from about 295 pounds to the 275-pound range this year has helped, too.
Jones won’t cost big money, but his position versatility and ability to play the run at outside linebacker on early downs are worth retaining. I’d peg him in the range of $4 million a year on a two- or three-year deal.
Peppers: The Packers will have paid him $25.5 million over three years and gotten their money’s worth, but this should be it for the 36-year-old outside linebacker.
Capers has cut his playing time (44.4 percent) to keep him fresh for late in games and late in the season. Less is more. And Peppers’ 1 ½ sacks shows he still can summon some pass rush. But there have been a couple plays where he has looked a little lumbering, something I don’t recall seeing last year. So this probably is the end of the line for a rare talent.
Lacy: If I’m the Packers, I’m drafting a running back in the first three rounds in 2017. Lacy has been fine so far (5.0-yard average on 43 carries), and coach Mike McCarthy should ride him as much as Lacy can take. But after all the time the running back spent working out with P90X trainer Tony Horton in the offseason, he looks just as heavy as last year. Considering Lacy is in a contract season, you can only conclude this is who he is. He’s already 26, and overweight backs usually don’t last long in this league. So while I’d offer him a contract in the offseason, the price wouldn’t be high.
Lang: At 29, Lang is the grand old man on the offensive line. Thompson generally goes younger and cheaper with free agents closing in on 30, but he makes occasional exceptions, and I would here. Lang has missed only two games since becoming a starter in 2012, and he doesn’t have a chronic injury like former linemate Josh Sitton (back). Lang’s contract averages $5.2 million a year, and if he can be had at that range for a couple more years, I’d do it. Maybe even with an in-season extension.
JC Tretter: Tretter is a starting-caliber center in this league, he’s proven that filling in for injured Corey Linsley this year. But you can’t pay everybody, so I’d let him walk next spring. Linsley will be on the final year of his rookie deal in ’17, so he’s cheaper, and he’s also stouter. He’s the center of the Packers’ future. I’m not convinced Tretter is strong enough to play guard, so while he showed last year in Washington that he can be an emergency backup at left tackle, he’s a one-position starter. And some other team is going to pay him to be that in ’17.
Jared Cook: Not much to go on in his first year with the team – he missed most of the offseason (foot) and now is out again (ankle). He’s 29, so time is against him. But he still appears to run well. Even if the Packers select a tight end high in next year’s draft, rookies rarely play major roles at that position, so the Packers probably will need the help. Cook costs only $2.75 million this year, and the guess here is that he’ll be cheap enough to bring back in ’17.
Micah Hyde: Some moving parts here depending on what happens this season. Hyde has value as a safety and slot corner after four years in Capers’ defense, though much will depend on Morgan Burnett’s health and Kentrell Brice’s potential as an undrafted rookie.
Burnett’s return isn’t a given at this point. He turns 28 in January, had a calf injury that cost him five games last season, and back and groin injuries that have sidelined him this year. If those problems persist and saving money is an issue, Burnett’s $5.35 million in salary and bonuses in ’17 could be a place to start. Then Hyde or Brice would replace him in the starting lineup – Hyde with a new deal at presumably about half Burnett’s cost.
If Burnett stays healthy, Brice could make Hyde expendable. This is one you just have to let play out.
Don Barclay: In a pinch he can play anywhere but left tackle, so he’s worth bringing back on a minimum deal.
Brett Goode: The long snapper is coming off knee reconstruction surgery, so let the season decide this one, too.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.