Tuesday marks the official opening of the free agent signing period, and with the Packers recent contract moves, the list of possible free agent options has shrunk considerably. As you probably already know, the Packers resigned Sam Shields to four-year, $39 million contract, making him one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the league. While I think it was a good investment in the future, I'm not sure Shields has proven himself to be a Pro-Bowl talent just yet.
As Tex described in a recent article, the Shields contract is backloaded which takes some pressure off the cap hit, and makes it manageable for the team to dump the contract in two seasons if Shields doesn't reach his potential. B.J. Raji is also rumored to have a deal on the table (one-year, $4 million), but is testing the market first. If Raji doesn't resign, that would open up more cap space to possibly sign some free agents on the defensive side of the ball.
Let's take a look at some potential targets.
At 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, and only 26-years-old, Houston appears to just be entering his prime. He has shown the versatility to play three-technique defensive tackle, defensive end, and even outside linebacker in his time with the Raiders, which makes him an ideal fit if the Packers are unable to resign DE/OLB Mike Neal in the coming weeks. Houston finished with 69 tackles and six sacks in 2013, and is rumored to be on the Packers radar. However, Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette reports that no contact between the two parties has taken place yet.
The 27-year-old defensive lineman is rumored to be a top target for the Packers, according to Aaron Wilson of National Football Post. The athletic defensive lineman finished with 52 tackles and four sacks in 2013, and at 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, Jones would be a sizeable improvement to a defensive line that is aging rapidly and lacking in young, athletic bodies.
A big reason for the Chiefs resurgence this past season was due to its defense, and Jackson was a critical part of one of the league's best defenses. Jackson fits the bill of an athletic defensive lineman (6-foot-4, 296 pounds) and is just hitting his prime at 27 years old. The Chiefs are trying to re-sign Jackson, but it appears they may have started the negotiation process too late. If the Packers aren't able to sign Jones or Houston, Jackson would be a great option, depending on the price tag.
Soliai (6-foot-4, 340 pounds) was a key cog in the Dolphins run defense in 2013, and would be a great option to replace B.J. Raji if Raji decides to take a different offer in free agency. At 30 years old, Soliai appears to have 3 to 4 years left in his prime and could help be a space-eater in the 3-4 scheme for years to come.
This one is a bit of stretch, but at 31-years-old and a proven track record of being an impact pass rusher off the edge, Allen would fill a role that has been missing on the Packers defense for years. Allen isn't a great fit in a 3-4 scheme at only 270 pounds, and his price tag might end up being too lofty, but if Allen is still around in the second week of free agency, he might be worth a shot. Ted Thompson is known for taking the discount deal, and Allen has made it known he wants to play for a contender. It would take a domino-effect situation, but Allen still has some gas left in the tank.
The Broncos will likely try to resign Ayers (28 years old) before they resign fellow defensive lineman Shaun Phillips (33), but if Ayers hits the free agent market, who knows what will happen. Ayers finished with 5.5 sacks in 2013, and would be a welcomed pass-rush specialist if Ted Thompson can get him a discounted price.
The 26-year-old linebacker appears to be on his way out of New England, and should be a top option for the Packers this off-season. As I mentioned during our off-season review, I do not think Brad Jones is a long-term answer at inside linebacker, and the the upcoming draft class at inside linebacker lacks difference makers. If the Packers are going to seriously consider fixing its defensive deficiencies, they should start by signing a legitimate inside linebacker who is just entering his prime.
Woodley was officially notified today that he will be cut tomorrow by the Steelers, reports Adam Schefter of ESPN.
Steelers will release LB LaMarr Woodley at 4 ET Tuesday, designate him a post June 1 casualty, per source. He will be free to sign Tuesday.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 10, 2014
At 29 years old, Woodley still has plenty to give, and at 6-foot-2, 265 pounds. The big question is what Woodley will be looking to get in terms of contract numbers. His last contract is going to pin a lot of dead money to the Steelers salary cap, and the last thing Ted Thompson is going to do is overpay a free agent, so this may only happen if Woodley is still around in week 2 of free agency. That said, he would be a capable veteran presence with extensive experience in a 3-4, and he would significantly help with the rotation at outside linebacker.
Mike Neal (Packers)
The Packers have reportedly offered Neal a deal that wasn't enough to keep Neal from testing the free agent market. Neal is gathering interest from the Cardinals and Eagles thus far, and at only 26 years old and with quite a bit of versatility, Neal appears to be a hot-ticket item in this year's free agency. If Neal is looking for a top-dollar deal, don't expect him to be back in Green Bay in 2014.
Anyone expecting the Packers to sign one of the two big name safeties in free agency should probably let that dream go after the signing of Sam Shields. Despite having an estimated $29 million in cap space, the Packers simply won't have the room to dish out the kind of money that the two Pro Bowl-quality safeties will be demanding on the open market if they hope to extend players like Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. I fully expect the Packers to let M.D. Jennings walk in free agency, and draft a quality safety early in the draft.