The Green Bay Packers’ 2018 season starts now.
With the playoffs out of the picture for the first time since 2008, the Packers have two games left to evaluate their players solely with an eye toward building a 2018 roster that can win the Super Bowl.
The highest levels of the organization also have to take a hard look within: President and CEO Mark Murphy evaluating general manager Ted Thompson’s performance; Thompson evaluating coach Mike McCarthy; and McCarthy evaluating his defensive coordinator, Dom Capers.
But with two more games to appraise players, let’s focus today on the roster. Here are some of the big questions the Packers have to address in the next 2½ months:
Randall Cobb or Jordy Nelson?
Let’s just assume the Packers re-sign Davante Adams. Yes, a second concussion this season (and third in the last 14 months) raises a red flag for Adams’ future. But he didn’t miss a game after either of the first two, and most importantly, he has become one of their best players. Not incidentally, they should sit him the final two games and not risk another concussion. But unless something that’s not known publicly comes up, he’s a must re-sign.
He won’t come cheap. Alshon Jeffery just signed a contract extension with the Philadelphia Eagles that averages $13 million and includes $26 million fully guaranteed if he’s on the roster in early March, which he surely will be. Jeffery has 56 catches, a 13.9-yard average and nine touchdowns, and played most of the season with Carson Wentz, an MVP candidate before his season-ending ACL injury, as his quarterback. Adams has 74, 12.0 and 10, and he played half the season with backup Brett Hundley at quarterback.
Look for Adams to top Jeffery’s deal.
In the meantime, Nelson is scheduled to make $10.25 million in salary and bonuses next year, and Cobb $9.5 million. The Packers can’t put $35 million a year into three receivers. One of them has to go.
I lean toward keeping Nelson and playing him mostly in the slot in ’18, but let’s see how the final two games go. Cobb is faster and younger (27 to Nelson’s 32). Nelson is bigger (6-feet-3 to Cobb’s 5-10), which matters when working the middle of the field. Cobb’s chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers is good, whereas Nelson’s is exceptional.
It’s mainly a matter of whether Nelson has lost too much speed.
You also can’t rule out the Packers moving on from both. Change happens that fast in the NFL. More likely, they’ll keep one, and probably even re-work his contract to lower his 2018 pay. They can do that with a contract extension that includes guaranteed money in exchange for a much lower salary.
The re-sign list
Besides Adams, the Packers' other priority re-sign has to be center Corey Linsley. He has been a solid performer who has answered durability questions by not missing an offensive snap this season. The Packers don’t have a backup near his caliber, and with all their draft and free-agent needs, including on the offensive line (right tackle and right guard), they can’t add another at center.
The hardest free-agent call is Morgan Burnett. He’s a smart veteran who plays safety, nitro linebacker and, for much of this season, slot cornerback. He has played a lot of capable football. But he also turns 29 in January, an age when players at his position can decline quickly.
The Packers are in position to move on. They drafted a replacement, Josh Jones, in the second round last spring. Jones and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be the starters, with Kentrell Brice (ankle) returning from injured reserve to be the No. 3 safety. But Jones hasn’t been the playmaker I thought he would be in his rookie season. They would have to project that he’ll be a different player next year.
Right guard Jahri Evans and cornerback Davon House, stopgap help for this season, also will be free agents.
At age 34, the former All-Pro Evans has delivered a credible season at low cost ($2.5 million). But his play has slipped as of late, so you have to wonder if the big drop is coming next year. I could see bringing him back for a look in training camp for minimal guaranteed money, but the Packers can’t assume he has another season as a starter in him.
House, 28, was a value signing ($2.8 million) for an undermanned cornerback group that's had injury issues. He's a natural re-sign because the cost won't be high. But the Packers badly need reinforcements.
What about Clay Matthews?
Matthews, 31, obviously isn’t the pass rusher he once was. His $11.4 million pay in ’18 is too high for a guy who’s no longer routinely winning one-on-one pass-rushing battles. That doesn’t mean it’s time to part ways.
The Packers can lower his ’18 pay in the face-saving way described earlier — offer a decent guarantee, add a year or two on the deal and cut his salary.
But just as important is where to play him. I’d move him back inside. He’s their most athletic inside linebacker and can still rush on passing downs, as he did when he played there a couple years ago.
The Packers need to get younger and more explosive at outside rusher, that’s what this next draft should be about. Moving Matthews inside opens that door and addresses another weak spot in the defense.
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Is Bulaga back?
Bryan Bulaga’s torn ACL in early November is a problem. There’s a decent chance he’ll open next season on the physically unable to perform list, which would mean he’d effectively miss the first half of the season. He has been a good player, but at age 28 has had three major injuries (two ACLs and a hip) in the last five years.
On the other hand, the Packers don’t have a replacement in waiting. Second-year pro Kyle Murphy (foot) has been on IR since Week 4, and whether he’s a starter is very much an open question. Jason Spriggs has two more weeks to make his argument for the job, but based on his body of work so far there’s no reason to think he’s the answer.
Bulaga’s future with the Packers could depend on what happens in the offseason. If the Packers can find a free-agent stopgap, like they did at guard with Evans this year, or draft a possible starter, then they move on. If not, Bulaga, presumably at a reduced salary from the $6.75 million he’s scheduled to make this year, might be their fallback for the second half of ‘18.
These aren’t the Packers’ only roster decisions for the offseason – there’s an entire draft, among other things. But they’re the ones the team’s scouting and coaching staffs need to ponder while watching the final two games.
With no playoff chase to occupy the here and now, next season has begun.