Some tough breaks and the inability to hold a 16-point lead doomed the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship, leaving the organization and its fans to wonder "what could have been" as they watched the Seattle Seahawks fall to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
It was a particularly difficult loss to stomach for the team, but with a month before the start of free agency and several valuable prospects available in May’s NFL Draft, the Packers could be only a few moves away from a fifth Super Bowl title.
Green Bay finished 12-4 last season, No. 2 in the conference, and unlike most teams they already have the best quarterback in the league in two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers leading the offense.
Now Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson must protect Rodgers and one of his top targets, while making some tough decisions on the defensive side of the ball to remain among the NFC’s elite.
Specifically, the Packers need to address a lack of depth at linebacker, tight end, and maybe defensive tackle and cornerback. Thompson will be armed with $24.1 million in salary cap space, and the No. 30 overall pick in draft, both decent starting positions.
When free agency begins on Mar. 3, the Packers top priorities will likely be retaining wide receiver Randall Cobb, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and defensive tackle B.J. Raji. Holding onto cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Davon House may also be high on Thompson's list.
Cobb was second on the team with 91 receptions for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Bulaga was an integral cog in a Packers offensive line that let up only 30 sacks all season, and helped running back Eddie Lacy post his second-straight 1,000 yard season.
Thompson’s plan of attack presumably begins with Cobb and Bulaga. The Packers could place the franchise tag on both but that would soak up more than half of their salary cap space. Instead, signing both to long-term, back-loaded deals with minimal cap hits next season is Green Bay’s best bet to retain Cobb and Bulaga.
At tight end, the Packers might stick with the tandem of Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers, who accounted for a combined 49 receptions for 548 yards and five touchdowns last season and are scheduled to make a combined $2.4 million.
After Denver’s Julius Thomas, there are very few top tight ends worth an expensive, long-term deal, and the draft is devoid of a game-changing tight end, as well.
And saving money at tight end would allow Green Bay flexibility on defense. Raji, 28, missed all of last season after tearing a bicep during training camp, and he seemed to have little leverage for a lucrative new contract because of the injury. However, with reserve defensive tackle Letroy Guion facing felony drug and weapons charges, Raji could command a better deal.
McCarthy and Thompson might also toy with the idea of using either of their second-year defensive tackles in Khyri Thornton or Mike Pennel, rather than paying Raji. Together, Thornton and Pennel will account for a $1.1-million cap hit next season.
Letting Williams walk likely depends on the development of 25-year-old cornerback Demetri Goodson, and if McCarthy believes he can handle a bigger work load. House was third on the team with 10 passes defended, and at his age it makes more sense for Green Bay to offer him a longer term deal than Williams, who turns 32 in March. But much of that decision relies on McCarthy’s faith in Goodson, who appeared in only six games and made six combined tackles in his rookie year. Williams, who made the Pro Bowl in 2010, has stated that he wants to return to the Packers.
Depth behind Clay Matthews could also be an issue, unless free agent Jamari Lattimore is signed. Sam Barrington is ahead of Lattimore on the depth chart, but if Matthews goes down due to injury as he did in 2012 and 2013, the Packers have few choices behind Barrington.
At No. 30, the Packers might not be in the best position to address the problems at defensive tackle and linebacker with a highly touted prospect, but there are several options in the first round. USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams, considered the consensus top player at the position, won’t be around at No. 30, and neither will Washington’s Danny Shelton.
But the Packers could pluck Malcolm Brown out of Texas, or even Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips, should either drop that far.
There’s less room for error at outside linebacker this year, with Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr., Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Washington’s Shaq Thompson all projected to go in the first round, according to CBS Sports. Virginia’s Eli Harold could be an option at No. 30.
Whether a linebacker or defensive tackle is taken in the first round, either will be expected to help a Packers defense that was No. 23 in the league against the run last season.