Someone pointed out to me in the Is Clay Matthews Over Rated thread that it was "stupid season" until the draft, and I figured why not join in? People have been calling for the Packers to wade into free agency for years. I certainly have been. With Ted Thompson at the reins, that seems highly unlikely.... but not impossible. Way back in 2005 he actually made not one, but two brilliant free agent acquisitions that became significant cogs in the top rated defensive unit that helped the Packers bring home a title in 2010. Since then? Pretty much nothing. Yeah, there's been a signing or two that I think Ted hoped would help, but they've almost universally bombed, and the last couple of years there hasn't been much more than token entries into Free Agency.
So what happened? Anyone's guess, really. Ted hinted over the years that he's actually gotten in on a couple of players and it just didn't work out. I was never certain how much credence to put to that claim. It fits, to a degree, with the Packers rigorous effort to keep the salary structure of their locker room in line (and really, they pay as much or more attention to that than any team in the league) so that they don't have players making little $ outproducing those who make a lot, except of course for the guys who are in their first contract and whose earning capacity is artificially limited. And in free agency, all too often, if you don't overpay, you don't get the guy you're after. Pickett and Woodson were exceptions to that. I'm not sure why PIckett was available as reasonably as he was, but Woodson was coming out of Oakland, where he had some injury problems, some attitude problems, and some questioning whether he was done. In the end, Woodson came to GB reluctantly, because no one else would have him. It seems almost inexplicable in retrospect.
That's not likely to happen again, which means GB would have to seriously disrupt its graduated pay structure to land much help in free agency. With as much as they have committed to Rodgers, Matthews, and a couple of other guys, and with their own impressive batch of guys hitting free agency, the reality is that they aren't going to add much before the draft. I know this.
And I hate it. And hating it, for another in a long line of years hating the Packers complete inactivity in March and early April, I find myself wondering what I'd do differently. So here's who I'd go after (assuming we're staying with Capers and his 3-4) (*Please note that I'm not paying any attention whatsoever to the cap, so if you say in the comments "you'll never fit that under the cap" you're both right, pedantic, missing the point, and being sort of a dick):
I'd let Raji walk. Let someone else pay him 6-9 million a year to play pattycake on the line and make 20 tackles a year. Maybe he can revive his career if he signs with a 4-3 team, but he might have to sign a short, relatively cheap deal to make that change. We'll see. But someone's going to pay him and it shouldn't be GB. If he resurfaces as an effective NFL player elsewhere, good for him. I'd offer Pickett the minimum, with another 100k incentive for playing 12 games or more. My guess is he'd take that. Then I'd go after Arthur Jones as a 3-4 DE. At 6-3 and 315lbs he's got near prototype size, had 53 tackles, 5 for loss, 15 QB hurries and 4 sacks, all of which would have made him the best DL not named Daniels in GB had he played there in 2013. Jones is 27, and probably the best 3-4 DE on the market, so he's not going to be cheap. I'd give Boyd and Daniels a shot to beat out Pickett for the other spot, although ideally I'd like to rotate Daniels in to keep him fresh rushing the QB.
At defensive tackle there aren't a lot of guys out there I like. I'd probably talk to Paul Soliai, but at 30 years of age and with some injury history, I'm probably not going to pay what he wants. Adding a DT in the draft is pretty crucial to the Packers 2014 hopes because I don't see much more than rotation guys available elsewhere.
Inside, Jones is due 2.5 million in 2014. No way am I paying him that. I might as Hawk to renegotiate again, but that's probably not likely given the fact that he made more turnover plays this year than he has in the past 3 years. Most likely I'd cut both Jones and Hawk in late February or early March. If Hawk didn't draw a ton of interest I'd try to bring him back, but that seems unlikely to me. I think Hawk needs to find a 4-3 defense to play in. Neither Hawk nor Jones have the speed necessary to do what needs to be done in Capers scheme in my opinion.
Outside, I'd let Neal walk. I'll give the guy points for being game for the switch to OLB, but it was an awkward transition and I'm not sure how much he would have played if it weren't for injuries to Matthews and Perry. I'd be more likely to bring Neal back if I could get him cheap and tell him to put the weight back on and go back to playing 3-4DE as rotational depth. Injuries aside, I think the Packers are fine with Matthews and Perry. I know some have their doubts about Perry, but I like him. And I think Mulumba will take a step forward after his baptism by fire in 2013. Given all that, adding an OLB isn't a priority from my perspective.
But obviously, given the opinions above, replacing the ILBs is. I like Lattimore, but I doubt he's ready. So in free agency I'd look at Darryl Smith and Brandon Spikes. Spikes won't come cheap, but he's a rugged run defender who seems to have fallen into Belichick's doghouse before hitting IR with a relatively minor ligament injury (i.e., not an ACL tear). Smith is 31, but the guy can run and he can cover. He had 3 picks and 19 (!) passes defensed in 2013. The Packers haven't had an LB that could cover like Smith in like forever, and he's sharp enough he can likely make the calls that Hawk is making now. He'll be cheaper than Spikes too.
Corners: You have to sign Shields, as up and down as he's been. His pure cover skills are too great to let him go, and if you do, you're probably going to have to take a CB in the 1st or 2nd round because while House played well against the Niners, he's not ready to start. If you sign Shields, then you go into the year with him and Williams on the outside, and Hyde and Heyward vying for the slot corner spot (assuming Hyde doesn't get moved to safety, which I think is a real possibility). Williams was probably looking like a waiver wire possibility in October, but his 2nd half of the season, while not brilliant, was close enough to merit bringing him back for his last year of his relatively pricey contract. If Shields is back, then you don't have to look for CBs in free agency.
SAFETY: I think the Packers are going to move Hyde to safety this offseason. Time will tell. I like the kid, and I like the way he's thinking about that dropped pick against the Niners ("... the last ball I'll ever drop"), and I think it's significant that his position coach talked openly about Hyde being able to play Safety during the season this year. I don't think you can cut Burnett for another year, and much as I like Hyde, a productive veteran in the defensive backfield would go a long way towards improving communication and production in the back 4. Jarius Byrd would be awesome, obviously. More realistic choices might be Stevie Brown, who had a great year in NYG in 2012 but who missed the entire 2013 season.
Yeah, I know none of this is going to happen, but those are the guys I'd look at. Making at least one move on the defensive side in free agency could go a long way toward fixing the problems that exist on that side of the ball. There are too many holes to hope to fix them all in the draft. As a complete aside, I wonder how long Eliot Wolf stays in GB working for a GM who refuses to employ all of the avenues for team improvement that are available? I think Wolf's going to get a chance to be a GM somewhere eventually, particularly with the success of other Packers front office guys in other organizations (except for Oakland, where Reggie McKenzie probably has 12 months to show significant progress before he gets canned. At most. I'm a Ted fan, even an apologist, but I guess McGinn's article today saying the Packers were losing ground in part because Thompson refuses to do anything but draft and sign UDFAs got me wondering what life would be like with a more aggressive front office.