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If you like them, set them free

by Mark Daniels

Large boxes in the middle of the Green Bay Packers locker room were filling with shoes and gloves. Plastic garbage bags were getting stuffed with personal effects.  Family photos were being pulled off the shelved cupboard doors and being tucked away.  A few of the guys were carrying boxed footballs with a sharpie in one hand, seeking signatures from their mates.  As expected, there weren't many smiles.

Less than 15 hours earlier, the season ended at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, 23-20 in a hard fought, NFC Wild Card game just down the hall, around the corner and outside the tunnel of Lambeau Field.  Yup, the Niners again.

Monday was moving day for the players.  Time to clean up and clear out their lockers, their sanctuary for the past 7 months.  For many, moving back in won't be an option.

There are 20 free agents on the Packer roster heading in to what's sure to be a turbulent and trying off-season for General Manager Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy.  Who should stay? And at what cost?  Who should go?

Here's the list:

17 Unrestricted Free Agents (players that have expiring contracts)

Victor Aiyewa, Khalil Bell, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Jermichael Finley, Rob Francois, Johnny Jolly, James Jones, John Kuhn, Mike Neal, Marshall Newhouse, Ryan Pickett, Andrew Quarless, B.J. Raji, Sam Shields, James Starks, Seneca Wallace, C.J. Wilson.

2 Restriced Free Agents (players that can be retained with qualifying offer, compensation if signed elsewhere).

M.D. Jennings, Jamari Lattimore.

1 Exclusive Rights Free Agent (can only re-sign with existing team)

Chris Banjo.

Nine off those players were starters for the majority of the 2013 season.  Based on this past year's base salary, here were the 10 most expense:  Pickett (5;4 million base salary), Raji (4.49), Finley (4.45), Jones (2.95), Shields (2.023), Kuhn (1.8), Dietrich-Smith (1.323), Newhouse (1.323), Quarless (1.323) and Wallace (840,000).

The defensive line could have a decidedly different look.  At 34, Pickett, signed as a free agent in 2006 from St. Louis, might be put out to pasture.  He said after the game he feels he still has plenty to give and to be sure, he's given plenty to the organization, but this is a young man's game.  Jolly couldn't finish a remarkable comeback season because of a late season neck injury.  Signed for the veteran's minumum, he might be willing to return at the same pay scale, he needs football in his life. Raji will be the tough nut.  He's a one time Pro Bowler who was credited with 32 tackles during the regular season and no sacks.  Doesn't sound like a lot of production but his job really allows others to do theirs, by tying up blockers and letting linebackers flow to the ball.  He's just 27 and the Packers must decide if he's worth between 6 and 7 million dollars a year which is what he might command on the open market.  Wilson all but vanished this year, playing in only 8 games.  He was inactive for several more and now looks very replaceable.

At linebacker, Mike Neal made the transition from defensive end quite nicely.  60 tackles and five sacks which tied for third best on the team.  Powerful at the point of attack and strong off the edge are positives, dropping in coverage or chasing down plays are negatives.  He's worth bringing back.  Lattimore can be kept with with low to mid-round tender.  He showed some promise inside when Brad Jones was injured and was a key special teams player. Francois was a free agent last year but was enticed to return on a one year deal with the promise he'd compete for a starting job.  He competed, but didn't win one and then got injured early in the season. He's another core special teamer but at 28, they could find a younger, and cheaper version. Aiyewa was a late addition and did little to distinguish himself other than a couple of special teams penalties.

Sam Shields should be the one player on the list that shouldn't be allowed to get away. An extension wasn't reached during the season and will be more difficult to negotiate now.  He's almost certain to hit the open market and that will drive his price up.  A team high 4 interceptions, easily the fastest of the defensive backs, Shields has become the primary playmaker in the back end of the Pack's defense.  The only other defensive back on the list in Jennings.  He outlasted Jerron McMillian, a former 4th round pick eventually cut, and started all 16 games, but I felt almost by default.  This is a position that must be upgraded in the off-season.  Banjo was a bit of a surprise coming in late during camp and a full off-season might help him along.

The offensive free agents are interesting.  Finley has a desire to return but the team will proceed very cautiously considering his neck fusion surgery.  They wouldn't pass Nick Collins on his physical and it will take an extraordinary recovery for Finley to be cleared.  Investing a chunk of cap space on a player with a questionable future will make for a delicate deliberation.  Jones hit the open market three years ago but found no takers.  He returned and blended right back in to the receiver's room, leading the league with 14 touchdowns two years ago, and setting a personal best in receiving yards with 817 this year.  In this offense, there's still a place for him.  Both Kuhn and Starks have proven value.  If the Packers believe the young backs in the stable, DuJuan Harris and Jonathan Franklin, have a better upside, Starks might be given a run for running money and be left out.  Bell was a late addition and probably won't figure in their plans.  Quarless seemed to get better with each game after the Finley injury.  The position is dangerously thin however with Rhyan Taylor, rookie free agent Jake Stoneburner and Brandon Bostick on IR.  Ted will have tight end on his draft board to do list, bet on it.   Evan Dietrich-Smith took over the starting center job late last year when the team realized free agent Jeff Saturday had lost it.   Even though he seemed to stabilize the line, the Packers are already having youngsters like J.C. Tretter work on snapping just in case.  If EDS commands a big price, the Packers might balk.  Marshall Newhouse entered the season as the starting right tackle but Don Barclay beat him out.  I'm not sold Barclay is the answer and with Bryan Bulaga coming back next year, Newhouse may not be able to stick as a swing tackle in 2014.  Finally, Wallace was brought here as veteran insurance behind Aaron Rodgers when the brass became convinced Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman weren't good enough.  At 33, Wallace proved to be a very short term policy for he made it through less than one full game over two Sunday's before his season ended with injury.  Thanks for the help Seneca, happy trails.

I didn't get much into the financial ramifications of those free agent contracts but keep in mind, players like Randall Cobb and Mike Daniels will be coming due down the road.  Juggling the salary cap will be tricky as the team identifies core players they want to keep.  Again, I don't envy the Thompson task.

And what are some of the guys saying when it comes to their uncertain future in Green Bay? On moving day, I talked with a few of the free agents to be and here's what they said about the process.  On the clip in order you'll hear Mike Neal, John Kuhn, Evan Dietrich-Smith, James Jones and Ryan Pickett.

Audio:  Packers potential free agents.