The Green Bay Packers have 11 free agents — six of whom are unrestricted and five of whom may or may not be restricted, depending on the verbiage of the NFL's 2011 rules.
In this series, we will look at those players and tell you who should stay and who should go.
The last of the six true unrestricted free agents is standout defensive end Cullen Jenkins. Let's just cut to the chase. In a perfect world, of course the Packers should try to retain Jenkins. His seven sacks and 21 quarterback hits in 2010 ranked second on the team behind Clay Matthews' team-high figures of 13.5 sacks and 40 quarterback hits. B.J. Raji ranked third in both categories, right on Jenkins' heels with 6.5 sacks but a distant third with 13 quarterback hits. Nobody else had more than four sacks or seven hits for a defense that recorded 47 sacks — one off Pittsburgh's NFL-leading mark.
Pass-rushers don't grow on trees — which is why the Packers have made little more than a cursory attempt to retain Jenkins.
If Chris Canty — with 12 sacks in six seasons — is worth $42 million over six seasons, how much will Jenkins receive with 14 sacks over his last three seasons? He had more sacks last year than the combined defensive end rotations in Dallas and Washington, both of which run 3-4 schemes.
Remember, the Packers have $129.8 million in contracts on the roster. That's the second-highest figure in the league and more than the 2009 salary cap of $127 million — and that's before dealing with their 10 draft picks and other free agents. And even if there is no salary cap again, the Packers have seen their profits slide in recent years and have a big free agent class to contend with next offseason: including Jermichael Finley, Josh Sitton and Jordy Nelson. Simply put, for as good as Jenkins is, he's played his way out of town because the Packers can't afford him.
So, what happens without Jenkins?
The common perception is that without him, the Packers won't have a the counter puncher to make offenses pay for scheming to stop Matthews.
It's a perception that doesn't hold water, not with Dom Capers running the show and some young talent ready to take the next step.
Raji recorded four sacks in his final five regular-season games as he finished his second NFL season in dominating fashion. The outside linebacker platoon of Frank Zombo (four sacks) and Erik Walden (three) combined for seven sacks during the regular season — despite starting just 10 games. Only seven teams had a No. 2 sacker with more than Zombo and Walden's combined figure. Plus, they each had a sack in the playoffs. Raji, Zombo and Walden all figure to be better in 2011 — as should second-year players Mike Neal, who showed promise as a rusher before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, and C.J. Wilson, who was a productive rusher at East Carolina.
To be sure, Jenkins was a force and has to be accounted for on every snap but he battled injuries at midseason and simply wasn't a major impact player down the stretch. Of Jenkins' seven sacks, four came with a sack apiece in each of the first four games. He recorded two sacks on Dec. 5 against San Francisco but injured his calf in the final moments of that game. He missed the final four games of the regular season, then recorded one-half sack and two quarterback hits while playing as a reserve in the four playoff games.
injuries are a theme for the 30-year-old Jenkins, who has missed 17 games over his last three seasons. Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac meant it as a compliment for a high-effort player, but he said Jenkins' "reckless" style lent itself to injuries.
How good the Packers feel about their defensive line is evident when looking back at the draft, where only a seventh-round pick was used on Arizona State's Lawrence Guy. Howard Green, who started in place of Jenkins down the stretch and in the playoffs, figures to start at end with Ryan Pickett. On passing downs, when the Packers need only two linemen, Raji, Neal, Wilson and Jarius Wynn will be the players in the mix.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.