Win now while planning for the future. That’s the goal and the challenge facing the Green Bay Packers and general manager Ted Thompson.
Throughout the rest of this season, some of Thompson’s most difficult upcoming decisions may answer themselves with the team’s play on the field. Others will likely require him to make a judgment call.
As coach Mike McCarthy tries to lead the Packers to a second Super Bowl title in three years, Thompson will have to evaluate several key areas of the roster that he’s been assembling since 2005.
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The biggest decision that Thompson faces is what to do with soon-to-be free agent Greg Jennings. It’s been an injury-plagued 11 months for the the 29-year-old wide receiver, with Jennings playing only three games so far this season. First it was a knee injury at the end of last season, then a severe concussion in training camp, followed soon after by a groin injury that eventually resulted in Jennings needing mid-season surgery.
That’s not the way Jennings wanted to begin his final year under contract with the Packers. If he returns at some point during the regular season as expected, Jennings may prove he hasn’t lost a step and play like the star receiver who had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and was selected to the Pro Bowl each of the past two years. If he does that, Thompson will have to determine whether he believes Jennings can continue to perform at an elite level, and if so, what that’s worth to the Packers.
One option is to give Jennings the franchise tag for next season, which would give him a one-year contract at a salary of around $10 million. That’s what the New England Patriots did with 31-year-old receiver Wes Welker this past offseason for $9.5 million. Under this scenario, Green Bay will have Jennings until he’s almost 31 years old. At that point of his career, Jennings’ lack of size at 5-foot-11 may start to slow his production.
That’s the safest call with Jennings. Even if he doesn’t perform well this season after returning from injury, franchise-tagging him would be Thompson’s way of safeguarding against the possibility that Jennings uses the offseason to get healthy and once again become a star.
But even if the Packers elect to go that route with Jennings, signing him for one year at about $10 million will likely force other decisions to be made. Jennings is making $7.5 million this season, so the additional $2.5 million needs to be accounted for elsewhere, especially as other current players’ salaries increase in 2013.
That is where the contract of tight end Jermichael Finley comes into play. The two-year deal he signed prior to this season will pay him $8 million next year, including roster bonuses.
Finley’s numbers are down this season, averaging just over three catches and 30 yards per game. At his current rate of production, Finley would finish well below his statistical output from last season.
Finley’s only 25 and still has plenty of potential to be a breakout star, but Thompson could choose to spend that $8 million elsewhere next season, perhaps on Jennings.
The play of Green Bay’s other young tight ends could also play a role in Finley’s future. If Andrew Quarless — who was just activated off the Physically Unable to Perform list — can start to show flashes of the player he was prior to his devastating knee injury, perhaps he assumes the starting tight end job next season. Quarless, at 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds, has the same big frame to throw to like Finley. Second-year tight end D.J. Williams doesn’t have the height of those two, but he’s an emerging talent who is dependable.
The chances of Jennings ($10 million) and Finley ($8 million) both being back next season seems unlikely, considering what they’d be owed.
Thompson also will have to decide what the team’s plan is at running back. The Packers drafted Alex Green in the third round in 2011, but he’s yet to show that he’s an every-down running back. McCarthy seems to really believe in Green and wants to give him every chance to be the future at running back, but there hasn’t been enough evidence yet that it can happen.
James Starks was going to be the starting running back this season, but his latest injury — suffering turf toe in the first preseason game — derailed that idea. Cedric Benson could re-sign, especially if he returns later this season with the same level of play he had to begin the year. But that would be another one-year type of contract without much vision for the future. Bringing back Benson for 2013 while Green and Starks are both on the roster would send a fairly strong signal that neither of them will ever be long-term starters.
At outside linebacker, first-round pick Nick Perry didn’t have a very successful rookie season. His conversion from defensive end in college to outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 defense had a few bumps along the way, but a wrist injury that eventually became a season-ender hampered Thompson’s ability to determine if Perry can work well in that spot. Having Erik Walden as a fallback option worked well this season, and undrafted rookie Dezman Moses has been very good in his somewhat limited opportunities, but Green Bay drafted Perry with the idea that he would be Clay Matthews’ running mate for a long time.
Thompson, without much work on the field in which to assist his evaluation, will have decide whether he needs to invest another top pick in an outside linebacker, because Matthews still needs a partner in which to help him get after quarterbacks.
Thompson has his work cut out for him, but it will likely come down to the Packers’ play the rest of this season that will ultimately shape the future of the team.