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Offseason Checklist: Who Should Get Paid?

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*All Salary Cap data per Spotrac.com

Green Bay’s dream run officially came to a jarring end in Atlanta, where they suffered their second loss in the NFC Championship game in three years. Before the front office can heed Aaron Rodgers’ request to “reload,” they will first need to address their own long list of free agents.

As per usual with Ted Thompson running the show, the Packers will be rolling over a comfortable $8M in salary cap space from the 2016 season (10th-most in the NFL). It’s been reported that the salary cap will rise another $11-15M at least in 2017, and with $140M in committed salary next year, the conservative end of that estimate brings Green Bay up to $34M in total cap space.

The Packers could save another $12M off the 2017 cap by releasing the ineffective Starks and Sam Shields, if they choose to move on given his concussion concerns. Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb are also candidates to have their contracts re-structured, but that remains to be seen.

So with at least $34M to spend for now, Ted Thompson will have the freedom to re-sign whoever he deems necessary. Green Bay has 11 unrestricted free agents to address, thanks to the prudent decision to lock up LT David Bakhtiari (who would’ve easily been offseason priority #1) earlier this year.

Here is my view on who should be back for the Packers in 2017 (and beyond).

Tier 1: The Teddy KGB Group

These are the priority players Thompson and the Packers cannot afford to lose. In other words: Pay that man his maaaaney.

#1 – OLB Nick Perry (Age 26; 2016 cap hit: $4.9M)

perry

The case for re-signing Nick Perry is easy, and it goes like this: Brady Poppinga, Mike Neal, Nate Palmer, Erik Walden, Datone Jones. These are all the OLB’s Ted has drafted or signed to play alongside Clay Matthews throughout the years. None of them developed into even average pass rushers. It may have taken Perry until his fifth season, but he finally lived up to his draft pedigree in 2016 with a team-leading 11 sacks, and even graded out as PFF’s 5th-best 3-4 OLB against the run.

Of course, the risks are also obvious. Perry has never been able to stay healthy in any season in his career, and even finished his breakout season with a club on his hand. Some critics will argue his success was a product of the attention Matthews & Peppers drew from defenses, but regardless, even complementary pass rushers don’t grow on trees (and certainly haven’t been easy for Ted to find late in drafts).

With Matthews seemingly slipping into the twilight of his career and Peppers possibly retiring, the team cannot afford to lose Perry.

Estimated Average Annual Value of next contract: $8.5M

#2 – TE Jared Cook (Age 29; 2016 cap hit: $2.8M)

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys

This could really have been priority 1A, but I listed Cook second only because of the dire situation the defense would be in without Perry. As for the other side of the ball, Cook transformed the offense for Aaron Rodgers in the second half of the season and was a big reason why they were able to run the table. His regular season stats weren’t spectacular after missing time with an ankle injury, but he averaged 6 catches for 76 yards in three playoff games and should be willing to remain in Green Bay for a relative bargain.

Estimated AAV of next contract: $3.5M

#3 – RG TJ Lang (Age 29; 2016 cap hit: $6.2M)

lang

Lang is a tricky case. On one hand, he solidified himself as one of the elite guards in the NFL this season, is a veteran in McCarthy’s offense, and a warrior who played well through countless injuries. Ironically, his strongest attribute also brings to light his most troubling issue; Lang has sustained numerous significant injuries throughout his career, and will need both hip and foot surgeries this offseason.

It isn’t difficult to envision Thompson opting to let him walk in favor of a younger, healthier option, given his likely price tag on the open market. The only issue is that the best in-house replacement, Lane Taylor, just spent 2016 filling the shoes of Green Bay’s other ex-Pro Bowl guard, Josh Sitton. As such, I don’t think the Packers can afford losing two of Rodgers’ most trusted pass protectors in consecutive seasons.

Estimated AAV of next contract: $7.5M

#4 – DB Micah Hyde (Age 26; 2016 cap hit: $1.7M)

hyde

Hyde is the personification of “Jack of all trades, master of none.” This past season he was asked to play nickel, dime, and outside corner, return punts, and can play both safety positions if needed. The reality with Hyde is that he isn’t very good, and gets exposed often by bigger and faster players. But he’s a savvy vet and easily the most experienced corner left on a team that may be losing Shields permanently. McCarthy and the coaching staff love him, and given his value is more or less intrinsic with the Packers, he can likely be retained for cheap.

Estimated AAV of next contract: $3.5M

Tier 2: The Bob Barker Group

Solid players who should only be re-signed if the Price is Right (I’ll be here all offseason, folks).

#1 – RB Eddie Lacy (Age 26; 2016 cap hit: $1.1M)

Let me preface this by saying that Eddie Lacy is my favorite player on the team. He’s an absolute joy to watch on Sundays, and added a dimension to this offense Aaron Rodgers has never had. But the brutal reality in today’s NFL is that running backs are replaceable, and Lacy could be particularly difficult to pay given his conditioning concerns.

If a team is willing to give him a deal similar to what Doug Martin or Lamar Miller got last year, he’s as good as gone. If not, I think Green Bay happily retains him on a short term “prove-it” deal similar to what Perry received last year.

#2 – OLB Datone Jones (Age 26; 2016 cap hit: $2.5M)

The two best things you can say about Jones have nothing to do with his play on the field: he’s young, and he’s a former first-round pick. Beyond that, he is a solid rotational player that hasn’t shown he has what it takes to be a quality starter. The Packers are admittedly thin at the position, but shouldn’t overpay Jones for production he can’t provide. If he’s willing to accept “backup” money, he should stay. Otherwise, move on.

#3 – C/G JC Tretter (Age 25; 2016 cap hit: $0.8M)

Tretter is an extremely valuable bench player who proved to be an above average Center when Linsley was injured. Given his age and talent, he will likely receive big money on the open market. Given the Packers currently have no room for him in the starting lineup, it wouldn’t make sense to pay him to sit on the bench. If for some reason his market is cold due to his inexperience, I’m sure the Packers would happily bring him back on a team-friendly deal.

#4 – LS Brett Goode (Age 32; 2016 cap hit: $0.6M)

Someone has to snap the ball, and I’ve never seen him screw it up, so sure. Bring him back.

Tier 3: Bye Felicia

Hopefully you haven’t recently bought one of these jerseys.

#1 – OLB Julius Peppers (Age 37; 2016 cap hit: $10.5M)

Peppers is a damn fine player and was worth every penny the Packers paid him, but is most likely headed for retirement. Age catches up with everyone in this league, even a freak like Peppers, and he simply didn’t have much left in the tank towards the end of last season.

#2 – RB Christine Michael (Age 26; 2016 cap hit: $0.3M)

Michael provided invaluable depth down the stretch and was an explosive runner whenever he touched the ball, but he’s an absolute mess in pass protection and as a receiver. He should be easy to replace in the draft, which is said to be very deep at the position.

#3 – G Don Barclay (Age 27; 2016 cap hit: $0.7M)

Luckily he didn’t have to play much last season, and didn’t look too awful when he did. Still, should be easy to replace with a younger player.

So based on my (extremely rough) estimations, the Tier 1 group will cost Green Bay $23M in ’17 cap space, leaving them $11M (plus another potential $12M for Shields and Starks) to potentially re-sign any one from Tier 2, sign the new incoming rookie class, and acquire potential free agents from other teams. As such, Thompson has very little excuse for not significantly upgrading the roster in 2017.

Follow Faris on Twitter @Chef_BoyarG!

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