The next elephant in the room affects the two big talking points coming out of the NFL Combine for the Packers, specifically the questionable status of Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings. The main issue in question is the absolute mess the Packers face regarding their receiving contracts. This uncomfortable situation looks to force the Packers hand in dealing with Finley and Jennings and may cause the Packers to bite the bullet and over pay one or both of them for the 2013 season.
What Is The Problem?
I’ve ranted on this before so I’ll keep it brief. The Packers offense is pass heavy and needs a minimum of three legitimate receiving threats in order to operate. Mind you that is the absolute minimum; really this offense should have four or five legitimate receiving threats on the field at a time. These receiving threats can be any combination of wide receivers, running backs, or tight ends. Over the years Mike McCarthy has been here the Packers have had a deep enough core of wide receivers and variety of other players in order to do this effetely. However, the Packers have only two legitimate receiving threats signed past 2013, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
Two things add to this problem. First, it takes time to develop most receiving threats to the NFL game. While rookie tight ends and wide receivers can be effectively early, they tend acclimate to the NFL game a year or two into their NFL careers. This means that the Packers can’t fix this need with a high round draft pick next year and beyond if they want to maintain the depth and talent needed past this coming season. Second, while Cobb’s deal does go out a ways, it’s still going to be another significant contract to deal with as his star continues to be on the rise. The salary cap seems to be going up faster than expected, but the way it increased by leaps and bounds under the previous CBA seems to be a thing of the past….meaning there is only so cap space to deal with if that really big elephant in the room is dealt with in the near future.
How Did We Get Here?
This situation is primarily the result of the fortuitous contracts Greg Jennings and James Jones signed ending at similar times. The Jennings contract expiring was an excellent compromise in light of the Jennings career trajectory when his rookie deal was coming to an end, but still controlling the uncertainty around the CBA and new cap numbers. Remember Jennings signed his extension in 2009 and everything past 2010 in the NFL was a complete mystery. The shorter time frame of the Jennings deal was a way to allow both sides to reevaluate where things would be once that labor battle calmed down. Jones’ contract was similar. Jones hit the free agent market in the lockout shortened offseason of 2011. It was an unusually short free agent period and well after the draft. As a result of this odd timing, and too many other receivers hitting the market, Jones faced little to no demand for his services. As a result he came back to the Packers, signed a shortened deal as well, and focused on rehabilitating his stock.
At the same time Finley continued perfecting the art of teasing his potential at just the right times but never really delivering on it in full. As a result, the Packers signed him to a shorter contract that was back loaded. Smart to cover up a short term need and see if he can deliver, but now the big pay out is upon us and a serious debate is raging as to whether Finley’s cap hit this year is really worth what he can reasonably be expected to put on the field for this coming season.
Meanwhile other prospects that could have lessened this poor timing have not turned out. D.J. Williams has been a sore disappointment in the passing game. It is unclear what the status of Andrew Quarless is currently and how much his ACL injury has set back his development. Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel could never how enough to make an NFL roster let alone be the answer many Packer fans were hoping for a year ago at this time. Jarrett Boykin is interesting, but seems to have a low ceiling at this point. None of the running backs appear to be legitimate threats out of the backfield. The rest of the offensive skill players tend to shine more on special teams than in the passing attack (Tom Crabtree, Ryan Taylor, and Jeremy Ross).
How Are The Packers Reacting?
In short it looks like the Packers may take out an expensive insurance policy this year in the form of sticking by Finley or tagging Jennings. Neither was expected out of the Packers coming into the offseason and honestly neither seems like a great long term plan. Perhaps the great hope is that keeping at least one around initially can lead to a more affordable long term deal for that player. In the case of Finley, getting him at a contract that matches the inconsistent performance we’ve seen while keeping in mind the large potential he has to improve (aka a contract based on incentives rather than guarantees). For Jennings a franchise tag may be the means to get Jennings to the negotiating table while allowing him to save face by allowing him to enter a free agent market that could be much softer than he was expecting. Then again, the Packers may work a tag and trade deal to gain a pick in the third or fourth round. This could lead to the team finding another receiving threat and young, inexpensive legs no less. Stranger things have happened….they did get a second round pick for Corey Williams on a tag and trade after all.
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