GREEN BAY – Although the market remains open, and the Green Bay Packers have some very recognizable names who are still out there, free agency is more or less over.
So while tight end Jermichael Finley and defensive linemen Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett are still unsigned – and still are on the Packers’ radar – the Packers’ free-agency scorecard as of now shows they kept their top priority free agent (cornerback Sam Shields), signed a huge-name player who may or may not have a huge impact on their defense (ex-Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers), and allowed a pair of starters (center Evan Dietrich-Smith and wide receiver James Jones) to depart in part because they are confident in the young players they have behind them on the depth chart.
Nevertheless, the next few weeks and months could see further action for the Packers, at least as far as bringing back a few of their own.
Speaking at the NFC Coaches Breakfast at last month’s NFL Meetings, Packers coach Mike McCarthy expressed some hope that the team could bring back Finley and Jolly, while saying that he would take a wait-and-see approach with the 34-year-old Pickett.
An NFL source said that while Finley is working out almost non-stop and looking great, he still could be awhile from getting full medical clearance. Finley visited the Seattle Seahawks in free agency but they did not pass him on his physical. ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported Tuesday that Finley will have an x-ray on his neck this Thursday and an MRI in two weeks in hopes of being cleared.
Finley, who underwent single-fusion cervical spine surgery after suffering a bruised spinal cord Oct. 20, has made it clear that he intends to resume his career despite an insurance policy that would pay him $10 million tax-free if he never played again. Jolly, whose return after a three-year NFL substance-abuse suspension was a feel-good story until suffering a neck injury of his own in December, also underwent fusion surgery on his C5/C6 vertebrae. His agent, Jack Bechta, said last month that his client’s neck is healed.
In the Packers’ case, they have five spine specialists – including Dr. Frank Cammisa, who did safety Nick Collins’ C3/C4 fusion surgery, and Dr. Robert Watkins, who performed Denver quarterback Peyton Manning’s neck surgery – whom team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie surveys before clearing any player with a neck injury.
Those doctors cleared safety Sean Richardson last year – Richardson underwent C5/C6 fusion in January 2013 with Watkins – but the Packers had Richardson start the season on the physically unable to perform list to buy him a few more months for the fusion to be fully healed before putting him back on the field. Richardson had felt ready to play when training camp opened but the team insisted that the likelihood of reinjuring his neck would be lessened with more time.
So while the Packers would be interested in bringing back both Jolly and Finley if they gain clearance, it’s hard to predict exactly when each player would be cleared.
“If it definitely works out,” McCarthy said of Jolly returning. “We're monitoring that. I think Johnny did a nice job last year. You have to be very pleased for where he started and where he finished. I think he gave us every inch of what he had and then some. I was very pleased with Johnny's contribution last year.”
McCarthy said he “absolutely” wants Finley back but his future remains uncertain as well.
“To be medically cleared is something he'll go through with the doctors,” McCarthy said. “And that hasn't happened yet.”
Meanwhile, McCarthy suggested that the personnel staff and coaches’ confidence in JC Tretter at center, Jarrett Boykin at wide receiver and Micah Hyde at safety were factors in allowing starters at those positions to depart. Dietrich-Smith signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Jones signed with the Oakland Raiders.
At safety, the Packers opted not to extend a qualifying offer to restricted free agent M.D. Jennings, a 17-game starter at safety who then signed a one-year deal with Chicago.
“When you move on from any veteran core productive football player, there's always going to be a void. And with that void comes opportunities for other players,” McCarthy said. “I fully expect our younger players to step up.
“It's the business part of it. There's going to be one or two individuals every year if you're doing your job right, your roster is built the right way, you're bringing a young class in, there are players that are going to move on. Unfortunately, Evan and James were the two this year.”
Here’s a look at the Packers’ 17 unrestricted free agents and where they are now:
Sam Shields, CB: Shields, who had a team-leading four interceptions last season, signed a four-year, $39 million deal on March 8. The deal included a $12.5 million signing bonus.
Mike Neal, OLB: Emerging pass-rusher who’ll play a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker role in 2014 signed a two-year, $8 million deal ($2.5 million signing bonus) on March 12 to return.
Andrew Quarless, TE: Fill-in starter following Jermichael Finley’s season-ending neck injury last year returned when he inked a two-year, $3 million contract ($350,000 signing bonus) on March 13.
B.J. Raji, DT: Raji, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, hasn’t had a sack since November 2011, but he’ll have a chance to re-prove himself back at nose tackle after signing a one-year, $4 million deal ($500,000 signing bonus) on March 14.
James Starks, RB: Solid No. 2 running back behind NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy re-upped with a two-year deal worth $3.166 million ($725,000 signing bonus) on March 17.
John Kuhn, FB: The cult hero and fan favorite returned on a one-year deal worth $1.03 million ($100,000 signing bonus) on April 3.
SIGNED WITH ANOTHER TEAM (4)
James Jones, WR: Steady veteran wideout returned to his home state of California by signing a three-year, $10 million contract ($3.65 million guaranteed) with the Oakland Raiders on March 17.
Evan Dietrich-Smith, C: The four-year, $14.25 million contract ($7.25 million guaranteed) he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on March 14 means the Packers will have a new starter at center on opening day for the fourth straight year.
Marshall Newhouse, T: Former starting left tackle took a one-year, $805,000 deal ($50,000 signing bonus) with the Cincinnati Bengals on March 21.
C.J. Wilson, DE: Part-time starter departed for a one-year, $795,000 deal ($65,000 signing bonus) with Oakland on March 28.
STILL UNSIGNED (7)
Jermichael Finley, TE: The 2008 third-round pick signed a two-year, $14 million deal after the 2011 season betting on a big payday this time around. The injury likely has cost him that opportunity.
Ryan Pickett, DT: Packers coach Mike McCarthy said team “will watch what’s going on with Ryan” and consider bringing back veteran run-stuffer if need arises.
Johnny Jolly, DT: If he can play again, Packers probably are interested in signing him to a low-money, low-risk deal.
Matt Flynn, QB: Still believes he has starter's talent but admits backing up his pal Aaron Rodgers appeals to him. Packers also like third-stringer Scott Tolzien but McCarthy says he wants both back.
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. Does not appear to have garnered much open-market interest.
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.
Seneca Wallace, QB: Veteran backup started one game and in only offensive series suffered a groin injury that would require surgery.
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.