One of the pillars of Ted Thompson's management of the Packers roster has been his ability to extend players well before they hit the open market. This serves the duel purpose of retaining Green Bay's best talent and reducing the team's cost for those players. For years, the Packers received superstar production from Aaron Rodgers despite paying him under $10 million a season, well below the market price.
Thompson deviated from that plan this past season, as six starters (and several more significant contributors) were not signed to extensions prior to unrestricted free agency. The list of potential departures includes the Packers' entire starting defensive line, their best cover corner, and a starting offensive lineman.
Will Sam Shields be re-signed?
Season Review: For the second consecutive season, Sam Shields played the role of top cover corner for the Green Bay Packers. Against a schedule that saw Shields matched up with A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, and Calvin Johnson (among others), the fourth-year corner performed more than admirably. Since bursting onto the NFL scene as an undrafted rookie in 2010, Shields has refined his coverage technique while improving his playmaking skills. Despite opponents targeting Shields the fewest times per game of his entire career, Shields matched a career-high in interceptions while setting a new personal mark for passes defensed.
Why they should keep him: Shields' age (26) and rare combination of good size (5-11, 184) and world-class speed make him a difficult player to replace. None of Green Bay's other corners are equipped to match up with the elite receivers found in the NFC North. Worse still, the upcoming draft features few corners with both comparable size and athleticism. Given that the Packers' defense is already filled with holes, it makes little sense to add another.
Why they should let him go: The only plausible explanation for Shields departing would be price. With a dearth of viable corners set to hit free agency this year, the cost to retain Shields could be enormous.
Prediction: The Packers will do just about everything they can to re-sign Shields, including restructuring or releasing their other starting outside corner Tramon Williams.
Can the Packers afford to retain B.J. Raji?
Season Review: Once utilized on over 80% of Green Bay's defensive snaps, B.J. Raji's role continued to diminish in 2013. The Packers still heavily featured Raji on first and second down, but provided him few snaps in passing situations. Unsurprisingly, Raji graded out as one of the Packers' best run defenders while rarely flashing in pass rush. The Packers reportedly offered Raji an extension this past offseason that would pay around $8 million annually. He and his agent turned down the offer, and now it's unclear whether Raji will see a comparable offer this year.
Why they should keep him: What remains true of Raji is he's one of the most agile and athletic men at his size. As one scout put it, "there's a 100% chance that if Raji leaves, whoever takes his plays will be a significantly worse player." For a team that already struggles to defend the run, losing Raji may be a fatal blow.
Why they should let him go: Perhaps the money Raji will command on the open market could be better used elsewhere. While it seems probable that like Greg Jennings, Raji erred in not accepting an early extension with the Packers, he could still earn as much as $7 million on his next deal. Famously, Packers GM Ted Thompson does not go over his number for a player. It's unclear what that price might be, but it's probably lower than what Raji will earn on the open market.
Prediction: Not only is another team likely to pay Raji more than the Packers, but Raji has expressed a desire for more "Jet" opportunities on defense. Those won't come in Green Bay, as Raji would be used almost exclusively as a nose tackle or at least to occupy multiple gaps. While it's far from a guarantee, it appears Raji will depart this offseason.
What to do with Evan Dietrich-Smith?
Season Review: In his first full season as the Packers' starting center, the man they call "EDS" was a mixed bag. During the first quarter of the season, Dietrich-Smith was the weak link in pass protection. That did improve over the course of the year, however. For an undersized lineman (6-2, 300), he provided excellent run blocking, contributing to the Packers' first individual 1,000-yard rushing season since 2009. In an offense that Mike McCarthy described as being as difficult mentally for the center as it is for the quarterback, Dietrich-Smith proved more than capable of making the line calls and aiding Aaron Rodgers in the no-huddle offense.
Why they should keep him: As the Packers found out upon losing Scott Wells in 2012, stability at the center position has a dramatic effect on offensive efficiency. Prior to Rodgers' collarbone injury, Green Bay was on pace to exceed several of the records it set during the historic 2011 campaign. Should he walk, the presumptive replacement would be J.C. Tretter, a 2013 draft pick who has yet to take a live snap in the NFL.
Why they should let him go: While Dietrich-Smith received little attention in free agency a year ago despite receiving the lowest level of tender from the Packers, starting quality offensive linemen always garner attention (and money) in free agency. While he's capable, EDS isn't worth a huge contract, especially with so many more important Packers set to hit free agency a year from now.
Prediction: Dietrich-Smith is comfortable in Green Bay's offense and the Packers prefer to minimize turnover along the offensive line. There should be a price that both sides are comfortable with, leading to Dietrich-Smith's return in 2014.
Has James Jones played his last down for the Packers?
Season Review: Following his breakout season, James Jones continued to set new personal records in 2013. Despite missing two games and most of a third, Jones eclipsed 800 yards for the first time in his career. The Packers also targeted him more on a per game basis (6.64) than in any previous season. Jones did this while playing through a badly sprained PCL for the majority of the year and a set of broken ribs during the final three weeks of the season.
Why they should keep him: Even when injuries hit, Jones proved capable of handling an increased workload without a significant drop off in efficiency. His end zone acrobatics are unmatched on the team, and without him their red zone efficiency would likely falter.
Why they should let him go: Youngster Jarrett Boykin appeared capable of handling Jones' workload of quick hitches, bubble screens, and runs after the catch. The diference in cost between the two receivers in 2014 projects around $4 million per year.
Prediction: With Boykin's ascendance and both Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb requiring new contracts before 2015, it seems unlikely that the Packers will spend meaningful money on Jones. While he has said that he doesn't expect a become a "$30-40 million player," Jones probably will want to be paid north of $5 million annually. Don't expect the Packers to bring him back at that price.