2.11.2011

Tough decisions await Ted Thompson


Wasn't that fun?

Of course, as with all good things, the celebration is coming to a close. And as that buzzing feeling of post-Super Bowl elation wears down, you'll start to feel a bit empty. The question of "Where do I go from here?" will come up, or more specifically, "What will I do without Green Bay Packers football?"

The easy answers are Badgers and Bucks, but if you're like me, football doesn't go away that easily. And so, as you shift around on your futon while trying to pay attention to the Bucks game, you begin to wonder: what happens next year?

Obviously the CBD situation (Collective Bargaining Disagreement) muddles things a bit, but for the moment let's just throw a tablecloth on that elephant in the room. There are a number of difficult decisions Ted Thompson will face this off-season, and they're all interesting to ponder.

Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn are both slated to become free agents, and while both were valuable role players in 2010, the FA market will determine just how much they're actually worth. Safety Charlie Peprah is another contributor who may or may not be back depending on how Thompson feels about Morgan Burnett. Daryn "False Start" Colledge is also a FA to be, and with TJ Lang fighting for roster time, it might be easier to let him walk than he thinks. But these decisions pale in the face of the following three conundrums.

James Jones

When Jones was drafted by Green Bay he drew comparisons to Sterling Sharpe. Needless to say he hasn't lived up to those expectations, nor was it really fair to do to a 3rd round draft pick, but he has certainly shown flashes. He has made some amazing acrobatic catches in his four years as a Packer, and at 6'1" and over 200 lbs he would compliment the smaller, speedier Greg Jennings well as Donald Driver's age pushes him further down the depth chart.

But then there are the lapses in concentration for which he has become infamous, and they usually strike when he beats his man and has nothing but daylight ahead of him. He had a big drop in the Giants game, the embarrassing fumble vs. the Bears in week 3, and the whole nation saw his drop in the Super Bowl. His drop against the Eagles during the playoffs was so infuriating that Aaron Rodgers wasn't able to compose himself enough to get the next play off in time.

Still, he has that unrealized potential that lights up coaches eyes and drives fans crazy, and the hole he would leave behind can't be ignored. The Packers just do so much with their wide receivers that it would be a huge loss if he left. You can't count on a rookie to step in and contribute, and Brett Swain is definitely not an NFL wide receiver. There's always the chance of Ted Thompson bringing in a FA WR, but it would seem unlikely when he has Jones who already knows the system.

The Guess: He's back. His drops are frustrating, but he's just such a high character guy that I think he'll take a little less money to stick with a winning team. Also, the league tends to evolve with the Super Bowl teams, and with the Steelers and Packers both fielding largely homegrown squads this year, free agency may be in for a bit of a down year. This would hurt Jones's market value, thus making it easier for the Packers to sign him.

Cullen Jenkins

I think Jenkins' situation will give Thompson the most trouble. There's no denying the impact Jenkins makes on the field. He's such a disruptive force in the pass rush, and he's a solid run stopper. Complete defensive ends are a rarity in this league, and it would seem bringing him back is a no-brainer. But he has three things working against him: age, injuries, and personnel.

Jenkins is 30 years old and coming off a season in which he was both productive and unreliable. He played half of the season with a club for a hand, and missed significant time with a calf injury. Ted has made it clear through his actions that his purse strings get just a bit tighter when it comes to free agents aged 30+ years, which also works against him.

Then there's the personnel issue. Mike Neal and Johnny Jolly both return next year, while CJ Wilson and Jarius Wynn are steadily improving. This will be a group crowded with youth, and Ted Thompson loves his young players. Jenkins' saving grace could have been his status as veteran leader on the line, but Ryan Pickett serves in a similar role.

The Guess: Unfortunately, I think he's gone. Think about the Aaron Kampman scenario. Kampman was not only a fan favorite, but one of the team's best players. Then Green Bay opted to switch to the 3-4, which rendered him obsolete, and let him walk a year later as a free agent. Although the scheme didn't switch for Jenkins, his injury troubles and age have similarly rendered him obsolete in Thompson's eyes. Honestly, if Thompson wanted him back he probably would have already resigned him.

AJ Hawk/Nick Barnett

Nick Barnett may have made this decision a bit easier in the down time leading up to the Super Bowl, and if you haven't heard about the team picture fiasco I envy you.

Although he's an emotional leader, Barnett has always had a bit of a me-streak in him. His refusal to consider a move to outside linebacker when AJ Hawk arrived, a move he felt would hurt his stats, was a very clear indicator of what kind of a person Barnett is. Such selfishness is often dismissed as immaturity in younger players, but Barnett turns 30 in May, and he continues to behave like a kid.

With a team like the Packers, where youth rules, you need your veterans to be strong role models for the up and comers (see Charles Woodson, Donald Driver). So when your elder statesman in the linebacking corps is whining on Twitter about not being included in the Super Bowl picture rather than dealing with the issue professionally (ie-internally), you might lean in the other direction.

In this case, the other direction is AJ Hawk, who also poses a problem for Ted Thompson in that there's no way he's worth the $10 million he's owed in 2011. The Packers have an opt-out clause, and it will be exercised.

The plus side is that it's unlikely that any other team feels he is worth that much, meaning Hawk faces a reality of a significantly lower contract no matter where he goes. Because he knows the system and players in Green Bay, the Packers likely have an edge on other teams. But if Hawk gets the itch to go back to Ohio, I'm sure Mike Holmgren wouldn't mind putting him in a Browns uniform.

And let us not forget the third party: Brandon Chillar, who just signed a 4 year deal last season. He could help shape this.

The Guess: This will get ugly. I think Hawk restructures and returns as a starter, but Barnett will find himself sharing time with Desmond Bishop. Barnett won't be able to complain his way back into the starting line-up this time around--the chemistry between Bishop and Hawk was too good to ignore.

The easy solution would be to cut Barnett, but Thompson doesn't just let players who are under contract go when they put up a stink. You may be thinking Brett Favre here, but Javon Walker may be a better example of how this will go. Barnett will begrudgingly play after an uncomfortable holdout filled with vague, passive-aggressive tweets, and with any luck be traded before the deadline.

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