GREEN BAY – Outside, the temperature was minus-15 degrees. But it was inside the Green Bay Packers’ locker room Monday where the cold reality of another season-ending disappointment – and that the makeup of next year’s roster could be vastly different – was setting in.
“We're sitting here talking about free agency,” veteran wide receiver James Jones, one of 17 unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market in spring, said as he and his teammates cleaned out their lockers Monday morning after Sunday’s season-ending 23-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs. “I could be going to Canada, you never know. So we'll see what happens.”
Jones should find NFL employment, whether it’s with the Packers or another team, but the uncertainty surrounding this team feels greater than in years past. Change is part of every offseason, but the Packers, who will carry about $10 million in unused cap room from this year into their 2014 cap, have so many players to consider and some glaring holes to fill.
“You know, I don’t have a crystal ball. We’ll just have to wait and see,” said starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith, another unrestricted free agent. “Obviously I have a lot of fun playing with these guys, I’m very fond of them. But the game is the game, and the business side also happens, too. So, we’ll see what happens.”
Unlike past years, when the Packers managed to get contract extensions done with a key player or two before season’s end, they weren’t able to reach accords with any of their would-be free agents this year. They reportedly were rebuffed by defensive tackle B.J. Raji on an $8 million per year offer earlier in the fall, and they couldn’t reach a deal with cornerback Sam Shields, either.
Now, they’ll have until mid-March to re-sign their own guys before they hit the open market and competition for their services begins.
“It’s hard to keep a core group of good players,” said backup offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, another unrestricted free agent. “You try to keep it in perspective and let that not be in your thinking after a loss. That’ll happen days, weeks, months down the road.
“Right now, we feel like we were just a play away from being right there. Gosh, you go to Carolina (for an NFC Divisional Playoff game), you throw the ball on the field and see what happens. But players, they come and go. It’s part of this business.”
With that in mind, here’s a look at the Packers’ 17 unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents:
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (17)
1. Sam Shields, CB: Became the team’s top cover man and led the team in interceptions with four. Tried to get a long-term deal done and didn’t start participating in offseason work until June hoping for a deal. Settled for the $2.023 million restricted free-agent tender but will likely get a huge offer.
2. B.J. Raji, DT: Team’s top pick in the 2009 NFL Draft (No. 9 overall) saw his snap count drop and was a non-factor when it came to being a playmaker. Figures to be looking to move to a 4-3 defense where he might be able to recapture 2010 form, when he had 6.5 sacks and a huge interception in the NFC Championship Game.
3. James Jones, WR: Missed out on his first bite at the unrestricted free-agent apple in 2011, when the lockout and an uneven season for the Super Bowl champs limited outside interest. Now 29, he might not draw as much interest as he might want again. With Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb entering the last years of their deals, Jones’ production (59 receptions, 817 yards) creates an interesting conundrum for the Packers.
4. Evan Dietrich-Smith, C: Former undrafted free agent took over for Jeff Saturday as the starter late last season and started all 17 games this year despite a troublesome knee injury. Smart, tough player who has the confidence of his fellow linemen and his quarterback. No clear-cut replacement on the roster is also a factor.
5. Jermichael Finley, TE: Was finally realizing his vast potential when a career-threatening neck injury ended his season on Oct. 20 and put his football future in doubt. Intends to continue his career after single spinal fusion surgery for the C3-C4 vertebrae. The 2008 third-round pick signed a two-year, $14 million deal after the 2011 season betting on a big payday now. The injury likely has cost him that opportunity.
6. Ryan Pickett, DT: The veteran presence in a perennially young locker room, the 34-year-old Pickeyt played in every game and said after Sunday’s loss that he still has football left in him. Age may limit free-agent interest and could be back at reasonable price.
7. John Kuhn, FB: The only player on the roster who may know the offense better than quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Kuhn is more than just the fan favorite whose last name is fun to howl at games. Scored a touchdown in Sunday’s playoff loss, but his most critical play came the week before, when he got just enough of an onrushing Julius Peppers to give Rodgers the chance to launch the game-winning, fourth-down touchdown pass that sent them to the playoffs.
8. Mike Neal, OLB: Intriguing 2010 second-round pick who found a home at outside linebacker after three injury-plagued seasons at defensive end. May just be scratching the surface as an edge pass rusher with his five sacks this season and a team may be willing to bet on him on the come. But history of injuries, despite playing in all 17 games this season, could also scare off suitors.
9. Johnny Jolly, DT: Reinstated after a three-year drug suspension, he not only earned a starting job but became a key cog in the run defense. The unit’s spiral coincided with a groin injury he suffered. Then, he suffered a neck injury that landed him on injured reserve and cast doubt on his future. Repeatedly refused to answer questions about the neck injury. If he can play again, Packers probably are interested in signing him to a low-money, low-risk deal.
10. James Starks, RB: The 2010 sixth-round pick whose late-season emergence as a rookie keyed the team’s Super Bowl XLV run by giving it a run game, his star-crossed career has been up-and-down. This season was an up, as he provided a solid second option as rookie Eddie Lacy broke out. Has starter’s talent but has never shown he can stay healthy in that role. Could be back as a backup.
11. Andrew Quarless, TE: Stepped in after Finley’s injury and set career highs in receptions (32), receiving yards (312) and touchdown catches (two). Took over for Finley as a rookie fourth-round pick in 2010, too, but hasn’t been the same player since a late 2011 knee injury. Will be interesting to see if there is much of a market for him.
12. Marshall Newhouse, T: Former starting left tackle who lost that starting job during the offseason line shakeup, then was beaten out in training camp for the right tackle job by Don Barclay. Pressed into action during Sunday’s playoff loss after rookie David Bakhtiari’s concussion. Team professed confidence in him as a swing tackle but with 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod finally healthy, Bryan Bulaga coming back, Bakhtiari’s strong rookie year and Barclay in the mix, Newhouse is likely gone.
13. C.J. Wilson, DE: Part-time starter saw his role gradually decrease as injuries hampered him and Jolly emerged. Was a contributor to the Super Bowl XLV team as a rookie seventh-round pick in 2010 and still has value as a big-bodied run-stuffer at end. Wouldn’t cost much to bring back.
14. Matt Flynn, QB: Saved the team’s woebegone season when he came in and ignited a fourth-quarter rally in a Nov. 24 tie with Minnesota. He would lead three more fourth-quarter comebacks, including two that led to one-point victories over Dallas and Atlanta. Still believes he has starter's talent but admits backing up his pal Rodgers appeals to him. Packers also like third-stringer Scott Tolzien but might want both back.
15. Robert Francois, ILB: Ruptured Achilles’ tendon against Detroit on Oct. 6 and has played almost exclusively on special teams during his time in Green Bay. Remains the answer to a great trivia question: The player the Minnesota Vikings released in 2009 to make room for ex-Packers QB Brett Favre.
16. Kahlil Bell, RB: Chipped in on special teams after being signed off the street Dec. 3 after rookie running back Johnathan Franklin’s season-ending neck injury. Unlikely to be re-signed.
17. Seneca Wallace, QB: Suffered a torn groin muscle that required surgery in his first start in place of Rodgers and was placed on injured reserve. Played poorly in place of Rodgers after Rodgers broke his collarbone against Chicago on Nov. 4, then was injured on his first series the next week against Philadelphia. Signed the week of the season-opener and the team has better backup options now.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (2)
1. M.D. Jennings, S: Started all 17 games at free safety but almost by default after the team failed to address the position during the offseason and his primary competition for the starting job, 2012 fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian, played poorly and was eventually released. Started ceding playing time to Sean Richardson late in the year. Will receive lowest tender at best.
2. Jamari Lattimore, ILB: Started to take snaps away from starter Brad Jones late in the year and also is a key special teams contributor. Will probably be given lowest tender so the team can match an offer if it so chooses.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.