As of the now, at the end of their 2016 NFL season, the Green Bay Packers have 60 players on their active roster and injured reserve, 20 of whom are on contracts that are going to expire on March 9, when the 2017 league year officially starts and free agency begins.
That’s right, fully one-third of the Packers are about to become free agents, whether of the unrestricted, restricted or exclusive-rights variety. Yikes! Those players range in impact and notoriety from the likes of T.J. Lang and Eddie Lacy to Jordan Tripp and Joe Kerridge. And while all 20 won’t be back, several of them will, especially the ones that trend toward young, cheap and promising, which is Ted Thompson’s preference when it comes to keeping his own guys.
Unrestricted free agents are players that have accrued at least four seasons of NFL experience and whose contracts have expired. Until March 7, they can only negotiate with their own franchise, but, after that date, they can discuss contract terms with other teams and are allowed to sign with anyone when free agency begins on March 9. Restricted free agents, as the name suggests, have more limitations, and their teams can match any contract offers they receive. Exclusive-rights can only sign with another team if their franchise doesn’t extend a tender.
Among the Packers’ 20 free agents, 11 of them are unrestricted, seven are exclusive-rights and two are restricted. Here we focus on the more important unrestricted players, in alphabetical order, including notes and a prediction about which ones will be back.
Don Barclay: The offensive line utility man, Barclay has stuck around Green Bay for four years because of his versatility and dependability. He can play tackle or guard, knows his role and does his job serviceably, if not remarkably. The 27-year-old has only missed two of 64 games due to injury, starting 24 as a replacement.
Back? Yes. Barclay made $700,000 last year, and unless a team throws starter money at him, the bet is he’ll be in Green Bay again in 2017.
Jared Cook: Aaron Rodgers spoke often and extensively about his trust and chemistry with Cook, whom he publicly campaigned for the Packers to re-sign. A 6-foot-5, 250-pounder who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, the tight end is a matchup nightmare for opponents and opens up space in the defense even when the ball doesn’t come his way.
Back? Yes. His 30 catches, 377 yards and one touchdown were basically all career lows in an injury-plagued season, but Cook showed how valuable he can be in the playoffs, and Green Bay needs a playmaking at the position. Cook, 29, made $2.75 million last year and has said he wants to return; and it never hurts to have No. 12 championing your cause.
Brett Goode: The veteran long-snapper underwent knee surgery late last year but recovered well and won his job back before this season. He has great camaraderie with kicker Mason Crosby and Rodgers, one of his close friends and prank buddies.
Back? Probably. Goode, 32, didn’t do anything to ruin his chances this year, avoiding major snapping mistakes. It's an inexpensive position (Goode made $885,000 in 2016) where tenure, trust and experience makes a big difference.
Micah Hyde: The versatile defensive back proved invaluable this season, playing safety, nickel back, outside cornerback and even a little linebacker. Hyde had 58 tackles and three interceptions, plus a sack and crucial pick in the Packers’ Divisional Round playoff win over the Cowboys. Smart and consistent, the 26-year-old is considered a leader of the defense.
Back? Definitely. It’s a bit of a surprise Thompson didn’t make re-sign him during the season – he doesn’t usually let players like Hyde, who made $584,527 last year, get to free agency – but the guy has to be a priority now.
Datone Jones: The 2013 first-round pick just has not developed the way the Packers hoped he would. Jones moved to a new position this season, a linebacker-defensive end hybrid, but it did nothing for his production. The 26-year-old had a career-low one sack in 2016. Still on his rookie deal, Jones made $1.9 million last season and might not even get that amount in his next salary.
Back? Doubtful. It’s possible Green Bay gives him the same one-year, prove-yourself deal it extended last year to Nick Perry, who certainly took advantage of the opportunity, but Jones has never shown the same glimpses of potential that Perry did.
Eddie Lacy: When healthy and in shape, Lacy is one of the NFL’s best running backs, a much-needed bit of balance for the Packers’ pass-heavy offense. But the past two seasons, Lacy has been neither. Injured, overweight, ineffective and unproductive in 2015, the 26-year-old got in great shape this past offseason but then severely hurt his ankle in Week 6. Is he worth the hassle and unpredictability?
Back? Only on a cheap, short-term contract. His rookie deal paid him $848,103 last year, and it would take more than that to keep him. Never a fan favorite in blue-collar Wisconsin, a change of scenery might be best for Lacy, as well as Green Bay.
T.J. Lang: The longest-tenured offensive lineman and one of Rodgers’ closest friends and trusted teammates, Lang earned his first Pro Bowl nod this season. At 29, the right guard is not too old, and he’s been extremely durable, missing just two games from 2011-2015 before sitting out three contests this year.
Back? Lang played through a broken foot and a hip injury this season – the latter requires surgery – and while that raises eyebrows, it might lower his price enough to keep him in Green Bay, where he’s said he wants to stay. He made $5.2 million last year, and is worth the money.
Christine Michael: Claimed off waivers after being cut by Seattle midseason, there was some hope that the speedy Michael would bolster Green Bay’s depleted backfield. That never happened. Save for a 42-yard touchdown run, the 26-year-old hardly made an impact.
Back? No. Even with all the question marks for the Packers at running back, a 3.7-yard average doesn’t do it. After earning $725,000 last season, Michael will almost certainly hit the open market.
Julius Peppers: At 37, the veteran pass rusher who is fifth all-time in the NFL in career sacks showed he can still play. He had 7.5 sacks for the Packers in 2016, the last year of a three-year deal that many thought would only last one season. In comments to the media, Peppers himself doesn’t sound like he knows whether he wants to play another year, despite earning $8.7 million last season.
Back? Probably not. Thompson is not the nostalgic type, and getting three years and 25 sacks from the outside linebacker was more than anyone could have hoped for. It feels like Peppers is going to retire.
Nick Perry: Signed to a one-year, $5.1 million contract last offseason because the Packers didn’t want to commit significantly to the injury-prone Perry, nor quite move on yet from him, the gamble paid off for both sides. The 26-year-old led the team with 11 sacks, played the run well and earned himself a big pay raise.
Back? The Packers have been searching for a bookend outside linebacker to pair with Clay Matthews for years, and even though Thompson probably doesn’t want to lose Peppers and Perry in that role, the latter might have priced himself out of Green Bay.
JC Tretter: Like Barclay, Tretter is another versatile utility offensive lineman. Unlike Barclay, Tretter has had a lot of trouble staying healthy. The 25-year-old guard/center has played in just 31 of a possible 64 regular-season games in his four years, missing nine contests in 2016.
Back? Doubtful. Despite being smart, strong and a good fit in Green Bay, the injuries seem like too much of a risk for Thompson, who likes to draft offensive linemen anyway. After making $643,977 last year, the prediction here is that Tretter hits the open market.
The Packers also have two restricted free agents, outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott and inside linebacker Jordan Tripp; because of his special teams ability, it’s more likely Elliott would return. Green Bay has seven exclusive-rights free agents: wide receiver Geronimo Allison, running backs John Crockett and Don Jackson, fullback Joe Kerridge, defensive end Christian Ringo, punter Jacob Schum and inside linebacker Joe Thomas. Among them, the best bets to be back are Allison, Thomas, Schum and perhaps Ringo.
What do you think the Packers will do in free agency? What do you think they should do? Let us know in the comments!
Want more Packers' year-in-review content? See how we graded Green Bay’s position groups for 2016 and who we named the award-winners. If you can bear to revisit it, read the rambling, non-recap game review of that painful NFC Championship loss in Atlanta. You can also listen to this week’s episode of OnMilwaukee’s podcast, The Postgame Tailgate, on which we do a full Packers autopsy. And read about 12 fun things to do in Milwaukee over the next couple weeks to distract you from the fact that Green Bay isn’t playing in the Super Bowl.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.