Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Packers Shouldn't Be Tripping Over Themselves To Re-Sign Their Defensive Free Agents, Except...

The Packers have already re-signed and extended two potential free agent defensive lineman, but there are other defenders who played significant roles in 2015 that could become unrestricted free agents next month.
Player PositionAge PFF Grade 2015 Snaps
Casey Hayward CB 26 5.2 1020
Mike Neal LB 28 -12.7 822
Nick Perry LB 25 3.1 365
B.J. Raji NT 29 -4.6 472
Sean Richardson S 26 -0.8 98
And of those players, there's only one that'll draw significant attention in free agency.
I'm a fan of CB Casey Hayward. Looking only at conventional stats, he underwhelmed with no interceptions and only 7 pass defenses in 2015. But that's a sign that teams don't throw at him despite him being on the field all the time (see 1020 snaps in 2015 above), and the advance stats like him, having earned a grade of 5.2 from Pro Football Focus last season. Maybe he wasn't targeted because the Packers relied heavily on two rookie cornerbacks last season, and most teams went after the rookies instead, but this wasn't Hayward's first good season. He's been a reliable player ever since he was drafted in 2012, and other teams are going to notice. While teams are burned badly by free agent cornerbacks every year, they always seem to spend irrationally every March. I'm sure GM Ted Thompson will make Hayward an offer but I think Hayward will get more from another cornerback desperate team.

This is LB Mike Neal's second run through unrestricted free agency. He drew little interest back in 2014 and he hasn't done anything to improve his worth since then. But he shouldn't cost too much and the Packers might prefer the limited player they know (see Guion, Letroy) rather than the unknown player they'd have to find to replace him. It's not important to re-sign him but I won't be upset if they do.

While LB Nick Perry is the only defender other than Hayward listed here with a positive PFF grade, his positive grade was from his run support, not his pass rush. The irony is that Perry entered the NFL with a reputation as a great pass rusher at USC and a complete unknown as a run defender. He's obviously worked hard to improve the weakest part of his game. Unfortunately his best skill (pass rush) has either stalled or vanished last season. The Packers declined his fifth-year option last year and he didn't do much to prove them wrong. Whether it was due to injuries or a lack of trust, the former 1st round pick only logged 365 snaps at outside linebacker when there wasn't any serious competition blocking his path to more playing time. I would guess that the Packers might be willing to give him a one-year contract to provide depth, but maybe another team will be more aggressive on giving him a fresh start and seeing if they can find the talent that made him a top prospect.

Like Neal, this is not NT B.J. Raji's first go around as an unrestricted free agent, and he's drawn little interest from other teams in the past. He didn't do much to stand out last season, but if they don't re-sign him then they'll absolutely have to find someone else like him. With $23 million of room available under the cap, there's no reason to go cheap on the defensive line. While Raji could be replaced, his position needs to be filled, and only the Jets's NT Damon Harrison is clearly a better free agent who might be available. GM Ted Thompson will spend for a star player but Harrison doesn't look like that type of player. The Packers know what they've got with Raji as a run stuffer (even if he's becoming a bit injury prone) and that's probably better than spinning the draft roulette wheel.

Unfortunately this is probably the end of DB Sean Richardson's career.

In the end, other than Hayward (the Packers have depth at CB if he leaves) they should probably push to re-sign Neal, Perry and Raji because they should be affordable and they'd leave holes on the roster if they departed. And the Packers already need to add another inside linebacker (or two) and need more depth at every offensive skill position. This team is good enough now to win a championship and they should try and keep it all together, as best as they can.

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