With free agency in 2011 still a few days away (let’s hope), I hadn’t thought too much about free agency in 2012 until I read something in Pro Football Weekly. Dan Arkush wrote the following: “While Ted Thompson is no doubt having a difficult time these days deciding whether or not to re-sign free agents such as wide receiver James Jones, left guard Daryn Colledge and running back Brandon Jackson, among others, it could seem like a walk in the park compared to the challenging free-agent decisions the Packers’ general manager might be forced to consider next offseason. Heading the list of potential Packers free agents in 2012 are two key offensive weapons — tight end Jermichael Finley, who, by all accounts, is anticipating a sizable raise, and running back Ryan Grant, who suffered a season-ending right ankle injury in Week One last season.”
I started to do some digging after reading this blurb. Besides Finley and Grant, the other potential key free agents are quarterback Matt Flynn, wide receiver Jordy Nelson, guard Josh Sitton and center Scott Wells. Arkush labeled this a potential headache for Thompson. I can understand why he sees it that way, but I don’t agree. I think Thompson already has an idea of what he wants to do with each one of those players, and barring unforeseen circumstances, I think he’ll continue to follow the same blueprint that has served him so well since coming back to Green Bay six years ago. That means Grant, Flynn and Wells are probably on the way out, while Finley, Sitton and Nelson will likely be re-signed.
Grant turns 29 later this season in a league where very few running backs remain productive after the age of 30. That doesn’t bode well for his chances of receiving a long-term offer from the Packers. The odds will become even longer if James Starks picks up where he left off in the playoffs and third-round draft pick Alex Green flashes potential as a rookie. Flynn wants to be a starter, so he’ll almost certainly look to find a better situation. Thompson would obviously love to re-sign him, but that seems very unlikely. Wells has the best chance to return, but like Grant, his age is working against him. Thompson has extended only a handful of players (Donald Driver, Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher, Ryan Pickett and Charles Woodson) over 30 since taking over as GM in 2005. Plus, the coaching staff seems to really like Nick McDonald’s potential.
It’s easy to devalue Finley’s importance considering the Packers won the Super Bowl without him, but the 24-year-old is without question one of the most uniquely talented offensive players in the league. And while the Lombardi Trophy managed to come home with Andrew Quarless, Donald Lee and Tom Crabtree splitting time at tight end, the journey probably would’ve been a lot smoother with Finley in the lineup. For example, it’s hard to imagine the Bears’ Cover-2 defense holding the Green Bay offense to a combined 31 points in two January games if the former Texas star was creating matchup problems all over the field. And here’s one more reason I expect a healthy Finley to be re-signed – when’s the last time Thompson let one of his really good young players get away?
The answer to that question is Mike Wahle, a 28-year-old Pro Bowl caliber guard whom Thompson made only a tepid attempt to re-sign in 2005. Does that bode poorly for Sitton? Perhaps. I was told on the day Thompson was hired by the Packers that he didn’t place a particularly high value on offensive guards and safeties. That seemed true when he let Wahle and Darren Sharper go, but he went against that supposed philosophy by giving Nick Collins $23 million. Would he be willing to break the bank again for Sitton? I wouldn’t have thought so a few years ago, but that was before Aaron Rodgers suffered a pair of concussions and the likes of defensive tackle Ndamukong Sue and Nick Fairley moved into the division.
With James Jones likely to leave as a free agent in the next few weeks, Donald Driver nearing the end of a long and distinguished career and Greg Jennings’ under contract only through the 2012 season, the Packers are in no position to let Nelson get away. The former Kansas State star emerged as a legitimate No. 2 receiver late last season and he, along with Randall Cobb, will be part of the next generation of quality receivers in Green Bay. How much it will cost to re-sign Nelson will be determined by how well he plays in 2011, but it’s almost impossible to imagine him no being re-signed. In fact, look for him to get done sometime during the season. The fact that he’s formed a bond with Rodgers can’t be minimized either.