Offseasons bring tough roster decisions. That’s life in the NFL.
Ted Thompson, the Green Bay Packers' general manager, faces a few now. His list of unrestricted free agents includes seven who were starters or rotational players in 2016. The hardest call will be guard T.J. Lang.
Along with that, Thompson has to decide what to do about linebacker Clay Matthews and receiver Randall Cobb.
Matthews ($11.1 million) and Cobb ($9.5 million) are paid like stars. They have the second- and third-highest salaries on the Packers’ roster in 2017, so they have to produce big. But after the last two seasons, there’s good reason to question whether they’ll provide enough bang for that buck.
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We’ll know Thompson’s thinking in the next six weeks. His actions, or non-actions, will tell all. But from where I sit, he needs to do something about Matthews and Cobb.
With Matthews, the solution is another position change. He wants to play outside linebacker, but he’ll be 31 in May. His injuries keep accumulating — he needs shoulder surgery this offseason — and his pass rush skills are starting to decline (11½ sacks in his last 28 games).
So move him back inside. That’s where he helps this team most at this point in his career. Then draft a pass rusher high.
With Cobb, the solution is a pay cut to free up money for other positions.
Cobb clearly is one of Mike McCarthy’s favorites. The Packers’ coach has publicly offered his admiration again and again. And why wouldn’t he? Cobb has proven to be as courageous as anyone on the roster while playing hurt. He’s a smart veteran and a good player.
But he signed his four-year, $40 million contract after a 91-catch, 12 touchdown season. In the two years and $21 million since, we’ve seen his limitations, too. He needs talent around him to put up big numbers. His small stature (5-10) makes it tough for him to get open downfield and also means he’s hurt a lot.
Though he can play any receiver position, he’s best in the slot. But as we saw this season, so is Jordy Nelson post-ACL surgery. And Nelson is better because he’s so much bigger (6-3).
So if I’m the Packers, I’m asking Cobb to cut his salary about in half, with the chance to earn back much of the money with a big season. To broach that, though, you have to be willing to cut him if he says no.
You’d rather have Cobb than not. He gets open when Aaron Rodgers scrambles. But with Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison, the Packers still would have a credible top three receivers. Trevor Davis, a fifth-round pick this year, has 4.42-second speed and flashed some skills to work with as well. Whether Jeff Janis is anything more than a special-teams player and deep backup, I don’t know.
If it came down to it, you could let Cobb go. But he’d have to decide whether he could do better on the open market. After the last two seasons, I don’t think he would. Plus he’d be giving up playing with a great quarterback and perennial Super Bowl contender to boot.
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Thompson has a few more weeks to determine his offseason plan. These things tend to be fluid, and you never know what a team might do, as we saw when Thompson cut Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton nearly five months ago.
Here’s a quick look at the Packers’ 11 unrestricted free agents, and what I think Thompson should do:
T.J. Lang, G: Toughest call of this group. A good player and leader, but a 29-year-old with a beaten-up body — he broke his foot again last week and will have hip surgery this week. Usually, this is where you should move on, especially at a lower-priority position. But occasionally you make exceptions, and I would here. The Packers have enough needs without adding starting guard to the list. The guess here is they can get him back at around the same price ($5.2 million average) as his last deal. If so, I’d do it.
Julius Peppers, OLB: The Packers owe him a huge thanks. He played better and longer than they could have expected. But he declined this season. He just turned 37, and it’s only going down from here. Time to move on and find younger, more explosive pass rushers.
Nick Perry, OLB: A core defensive player and priority to re-sign. He won’t be cheap — I’d guess $8 million a year, if not more — but he stops the run and pushes the pocket.
Jared Cook, TE: Another priority re-sign. The Packers’ offense took off late in the season after he returned from a high-ankle sprain. Have to think he’ll cost $5 million a year or so.
Eddie Lacy, RB: Ankle surgery and a battle with the scale will depress his market, so he might be had on a cheap, one-year deal. Otherwise, let his weight issues be somebody else’s problem.
Micah Hyde, S/CB: Should re-sign. Has some limitations in speed, but he’s a versatile backup and football player through and through. More valuable to the Packers than other teams because he knows the scheme, and they know him. Best guess, he can be had for about $3 million a year.
Datone Jones, OLB/DL: A rotational run defender better suited for a 4-3 scheme. Might be worth bringing back if he has a soft market, maybe at $2 million or so.
JC Tretter, OL: Corey Linsley still is on his rookie contract and is the Packers’ future at center. Some team will want Tretter as its starter, so he’ll be too expensive to keep.
Don Barclay, OL: Can play guard, center and right tackle in a pinch. Worth re-signing as an experienced, minimum-salary type backup.
Christine Michael, RB: Explosive runner but too erratic and undependable on the field. Move on.
Brett Goode, LS: Re-sign for NFL minimum.
PACKERS FREE AGENTS
Don Barclay, G
Jared Cook, TE
Brett Goode, LS
Micah Hyde, S
Datone Jones, OLB
Eddie Lacy, RB
T.J. Lang, G
Christine Michael, RB
Julius Peppers, OLB
Nick Perry, OLB
JC Tretter, C
Jayrone Elliott, OLB
Jordan Tripp, LB