Wednesday, February 16, 2011

...And now...the reality of the offseason sets in

So, we're now about a week-and-a-half out from the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl XLV win. And the reality of the offseason is setting in. While that would normally mean focusing on free agent signings or losses, OTAs, and possible draft picks, this offseason we also have the specter of no football at all next season. A lockout by the owners is on the horizon, and they have already filed suit agains the NFL Players Association. The prospect of getting a new collective bargaining agreement done before the March 4 deadline is slim and none. Not looking good. The draft will still take place no matter what, so at least we'll have that to keep our juices flowing. But everything else will pretty much be in limbo.

Still, it might be worthwhile to start kicking around some of those current players who may not be on the squad next season...whenever that actually is.

Keep in mind that 15 players -- some of whom were starters -- are going to be coming back off the injured reserve list. Having said that...

What will the Packers do with Nick Barnett and A. J. Hawk? Barnett has been injured two of the last three seasons and was also a bit of an irritant in the "photogate" episode around the Super Bowl. Hawk is scheduled to get $10 million next season, his final contract year; that's not going to happen. Given the depth at linebacker, and especially the emergence of Desmond Bishop as a bona fide starter and the return of Brandon Chillar, Brady Poppinga and Brad Jones, it wouldn't be surprising if the Pack cut ties with Barnett and attempt to renegotiate Hawk's deal. While going into last season, linebacker seemed to be extremely deep we found out just how quickly injuries can hit one unit. Frank Zombo and Erik Walden became diamonds in the rough that literally came out of nowhere to help the Packers make their Super Bowl run. But don't be surprised if GM Ted Thompson picks up a linebacker in the draft.

The players' names that seem to continually pop up on lists of those sure to be gone next season are OG Daryn Colledge and C/OG Jason Spitz. Colledge has been nothing if not durable, seemingly starting or playing in nearly every game since being a Packer. But the Packers are high on soon-to-be third-year player T. J. Lang and would likely insert him in the lineup in place of Colledge. Lang didn't get much playing time this year, but showed well in his rookie season when injuries really took their toll on the offensive line and he was thrust into action nearly from the get-go. He should be hungry and ready to start. Spitz has gone from a position of being the starting center to really falling off the map. For whatever reasons, it's clear the Packers will be moving in a different direction. Reportedly, the Packers are high on this year's rookice C/G Nick McDonald. They also have rookie G/T Marshall Newhouse and C/G Even Dietrich-Smith in the mix. Several early mock drafts also project the Packers to go after offensive line help in early rounds not only to fill guard slots, but also to help find a successor to LT Chad Clifton. Clifton will undoubtedly be back. And after finishing strong, he will likely be the starter again. But Cliffie is on borrowed time at this point in his career. Thompson has stocked up the middle of the line but will now try to find a replacement for Clifton. That was the idea in drafting Bryan Bulaga last season. But veteran RT Mark Tauscher's untimely departure forced a change in plans. Perhaps the Pack would move Bulaga to LT if they found a player who was solid on the right side. The moves regarding the offensive line will be interesting to watch in the offseason.

As for the wide receivers and running backs...hmmm...well, WR James Jones wants to be a starter. He had the best run-after-catch yards of any of the receivers. The problem was his drops, which always seemed to come in big moments. He obviously is a physically gifted athlete. But he hasn't yet developed the concentration necessary to be a primary go-to guy. Not to say he won't. Just not there yet. It's possible the Packers let him walk in free agency. But I'd like to see them keep him and have a new wide receivers coach help him with his focus. FB Korey Hall will likely not return this season. Other than special teams, he really fell out of the running game with the emergence of John Kuhn's versatility and Quinn Johnson's blocking. Brandon Jackson, while a valuable third down back from both a receiving and blocking standpoint, also will likely not return. The coaches did everything possible over the last couple years to help him become the breakout player they thought he could become...didn't really happen. With Ryan Grant returning, and James Starks emerging, Jackson looks to be the odd man out. And don't be surprised if the Packers pick up a running back in the draft's later rounds. Don't forget that Starks was a sixth rounder. Still need to see what he can do in a full season, but Thompson seems to have found yet another gem in the rough...a real theme for him this past season, and no reason to expect that won't continue going forward. Thompson seems to have finally made a believer even out of the haters out there after duct-taping together a Super Bowl winning squad.

On the defensive line, the consensus seems to be that DE Cullen Jenkins is as good as gone. He's also getting up there in years, at least by lineman age, and has been prone to injury of late, with this season being a primary example. He's been a dominating pass rusher when available. Look to the Packers to give the younger Mike Neal -- unproven and with a bit of an injury history of his own -- a shot. C. J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn could also step up their play. But, again, Ted Thompson will undoubtedly be looking for a dominant pass rusher in the draft to complement LB Clay Matthews. The Pack will be drafting last in each round unless they wheel and deal to move up for a player they want. That's not typically been Thompson's M.O., but he did it to get Clay Matthews. How'd that work out? Maybe Thompson will do that again.

As to the remaining unrestricted free agents, here's who we're looking at: K Mason Crosby, S Atari Bigby, S Charlie Peprah, LB Matt Wilhelm, and S Anthony Smith. Exclusive rights free agents are WR Brett Swain and TE Spencer Havner.

Crosby wants to remain a Packer. He's improved his leg strength over the last few years, but he still gives Packer fans the heebie-jeebies when the game is on the line. We've seen field goal attempts go wide or ding off the upright on more than one game-winning occasion. Still, Crosby doesn't seem to lose confidence which counts for a lot in a kicker. He may not be great, but you know that more often than not he's consistent. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if the Packers let Crosby test the market. Bigby will be allowed to walk, as will Wilhelm and Smith. Peprah will be re-signed; he stepped up big time when needed with injuries in the defensive backfield.

So, that's just a not-so-quick overview of what may happen when free agency and the draft finally kick in.