With almost a week to digest the ending to the NFC title game, it's time to shift focus to the oncoming offseason. While the Packers should return in 2015 with a similar roster and coaching staff, there are several important decisions the team faces in the coming months, not least of which are the pending free agencies for two impact players on the offense.
Before diving into the relevant players, let's briefly discuss the Packers' salary cap situation entering the offseason. Before making any moves, Green Bay currently projects to have about $25.5 million in cap space per Over the Cap. That figure includes the remaining cap space from 2014 that the team can roll over into the next season. As such, they can afford to re-sign or add any player they desire. That doesn't necessarily mean they will, however, as Ted Thompson is loathe to bid above the price he thinks a player is worth.
Now, onto the players:
After three years of steady performance, Randall Cobb finally broke out in 2014. The versatile but diminutive receiver had seen his previous two seasons cut short by injury, but managed to play in all 18 games including a the NFC Championship despite spending the previous night in the hospital.
Cobb's toughness and team-first attitude were on display throughout the season. Unlike many in his position, he did not let the lack of contractual security dictate his play. Cobb regularly ran suicide routes over the middle and worked out of the backfield despite the increased wear on his body. Most importantly, he didn't wear down near the end of the season. Along with tight end Richard Rodgers, Cobb became a heavily targeted pass catcher on third down and other key situations.
For his efforts, Cobb enjoyed a career year. His 91 catches, 1,287 yards, and 12 touchdowns were all personal bests.
Gauging the market
Since the salary cap broke away from stagnant growth that characterized the first few years after the new CBA, free agency has once again become the rising tide that lifts all boats. Mediocre talents receive contracts consummate with good players, good talents earn deals fitting great players, and so on. With the Packers unlikely to use the franchise tag on Cobb, he enters a player-friendly market with no commitments to any team.
However, unlike wideouts Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas (both fellow members of the 2015 free agent class), Cobb spends the vast majority of his snaps in the slot. That's no insignificant factor, as the league doesn't value slot receivers as it does boundary wideouts. Accordingly, it's difficult to project any slot receiver breaking the bank in free agency.
At the same time, Cobb doesn't turn 25 for another seven months, an obscenely young age for a player heading to free agency. Age certainly helps his case, though it probably matters less than his slot usage.
Still, there will certainly be suitors for the multi-talented Cobb, and the Packers could realistically see the young star depart.
It would take a team offering an eight-figure annual salary to make the Packers back off of Cobb. Though anything can happen in free agency, that doesn't seem likely given how the market has operated previously. In that scenario, Green Bay can offer Cobb a deal in the range of what Victor Cruz received in 2013. That would allow the team to keep its top two receivers for a combined cap number below Calvin Johnson will count against the Lions' cap in 2015.
The question facing Bryan Bulaga each of the last two seasons concerned his health. The Packers' right tackle missed roughly half of the 2012 season to a fractured hip and promptly tore his ACL during training camp the following year. Few players miss that much consecutive time and return the same player, and Bulaga was no exception.
Though he played well overall, Bulaga struggled against speed rushers during the first half of the season. In particular, the Seahawks and Saints gave him issues in pass protection playing on a fast track.
However, like his linemates, Bulaga picked up his play after the Week 9 bye. He began to move better laterally and had fewer issues with athletic edge rushers. From Week 10 and on, he gave up just one sack according to Pro Football Focus and never allowed more than two combined quarterback hits and hurries in a game during that span.
Just as significantly, Bulaga missed just one start to injury, a knee sprain suffered during the season opener that he played through after a one-week hiatus.
Gauging the market
While the difference between right and left tackles has been reexamined in recent years, the NFL still only treats the blindside as a premium position. Though Bulaga played left tackle at Iowa and briefly returned to that role during training camp in 2013, most teams will view him exclusively as a right bookend.
That distinction significantly decreases his value on the open market. In terms of average salary, the highest paid right tackle is the Lions' Gosder Cherilus at $7 million, a replacement-level starter the team added in 2013. The 49ers' Anthony Davis provides a better comp, but he averages about $6.6 million a season. The Packers may have some concerns about Bulaga's health, but if he requires less than $7 million in average annual compensation they'll likely bite.
The complicating factor is the dearth of alternatives for other teams looking to add a tackle in free agency. Michael Roos and Doug Free offer a ton of starting experience, but both are north of 30 and have injury concerns greater than Bulaga's. Preferred backups compose the rest of the class, though Tyler Polumbus was an effective starter in 2013. If a team is desperate enough to overlook Bulaga's health issues, it could offer a market-setting contract the Packers won't match.
As mentioned earlier, Thompson rarely goes over the price he thinks a player is worth. Bulaga, who's only 25 and could get another shot at free agency before his 30th birthday, may consider a deal along the lines of three years, $20 million and give himself the chance to prove his health woes were mere fluke occurrences.
Still, it's not hard to imagine a team like the Carolina Panthers or Chicago Bears throwing crazy money at Bulaga to settle their struggling offensive lines. If that happens, Thompson probably lets him walk and turns to the draft (where good offensive tackle prospects are in abundance this year) as well as restricted free agent Don Barclay and utility lineman JC Tretter.
If pressed for a prediction, it seems more likely Bulaga leaves than re-signs. However, the situation borders on a coin flip.
Tramon Williams and Davon House
No position group on the Packers had greater depth in 2014 than cornerback. The group legitimately ran five deep counting Micah Hyde, and even when multiple injuries struck it never seemed taxed.
Along with Sam Shields, Tramon Williams served as one of the team's fixtures in the base defense as well as nickel and sub packages. Williams tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and led the cornerbacks in tackles (71). He also split time with Shields covering the opponent's No. 1 receiver.
Once the team's top cover corner, Williams regressed following a shoulder injury suffered early in 2011. The nerve damage from the injury took over two years to properly heal, though his shoulder likely won't ever be 100 percent again. However, despite nearing his 32nd birthday, Williams has lost little of his speed and should remain a viable corner for another few years.
What Williams experienced over the last few years is remarkably similar to the plight of former fourth-round pick Davon House. House at times has been the Packers' best corner on the outside with his long frame (6-foot, 195 pounds) and brute strength. Though he lacks the speed of Shields or Williams, House can match physical receivers like Dez Bryant in one-on-one situations.
Unfortunately, injuries have derailed House's promising career. After nearly securing a starting job in 2012, House strained his shoulder in the preseason and didn't fully recover until the following offseason. Shoulder issues returned this season when House fractured his right scapula against the Atlanta Falcons. He would not return until the playoffs at which point the layoff rendered him a nonfactor.
Gauging the market
Quality cornerbacks are always in demand, but both Williams and House have significant red flags attached to them. Many teams won't consider Williams at his age, a factor that could play to Green Bay's advantage. As for House, the injury concerns are serious enough to warrant heavy scrutiny, but tall corners with upside (he won't turn 26 until July) tend to get paid in free agency.
For teams looking to add a corner, there are actually a fair amount of options. Darrelle Revis becomes a free agent barring an 11th hour extension with the Patriots. Brandon Flowers put together a nice season when healthy, though he's not a fit for every defense. Former Seahawk Walter Thurmond played in only two games, but he's only a year removed from played significant snaps for a Super Bowl champion and is only 27.
However, after Revis both Williams and House could conceivably be viewed as the top options in the free agent class. The Packers will have to bargain against someone if they wish to keep either.
The Packers already spent big money on a corner recently, a four-year, $39 million extension signed by Sam Shields last offseason. While neither Williams nor House should net that kind of deal, the team will want to keep cost down as much as possible as Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde hit free agency in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
House's size and age make him a more attractive option for teams, and he'll get paid accordingly, likely in the $5-7 million per year range. Williams should come in at a lower price, and though Thompson tends to steer away from older players the veteran corner has proven himself a great fit for Dom Capers' defense. Though both could depart in free agency, expect Williams to stay at a greatly reduced rate.
Letroy Guion and B.J. Raji
Little was expected of Letroy Guion when the Packers signed him for a scant $1 million last offseason. The team hoped to receive a dozen or so snaps per game from Guion in relief of starting nose tackle B.J. Raji, and perhaps shift him out to end on occasion. That plan changed when Raji tore his biceps late in the preseason, forcing Guion (who had not practiced due to a hamstring injury) into the starting lineup.
Unsurprisingly, Guion struggled early. The Seahawks put him on skates throughout the season opener, and he looked little better in the team's following games against the Jets and Lions. It wasn't until Guion played his former team in Week 5 that he started to settle into the role. It wasn't always pretty, but Guion settled the nose tackle position for the rest of the season.
As for Raji, his injury continued what has been a downwards spiral for the defensive lineman's career. The Pro Bowl-caliber player that emerged in 2010 hasn't been seen much since. Though his career is far from finished, it's looking increasingly as though he may never quite live up to his status as a former top 10 pick.
Gauging the market
Neither Guion nor Raji should be expected to walk away with a Brinks truck this offseason. Guion has one quality year to his resume and several disappointing ones from his time with the Vikings. Raji on the other hand couldn't top the Packers' "prove it" one-year, $4 million offer last year, and won't see even that much this time around.
The Packers and Guion have already made their intensions clear. Both sides could even agree on terms before free agency even begins. As for Raji, his best bet may be to return for one more year and split snaps at nose tackle. If that happens, it's perhaps the perfect storm for Green Bay which would suddenly have uncommon depth at a crucial position in its defense.