Packers Free Agent Overview: Defense

Of the Packers' 19 free agents, nine play on defense. The list includes the four best run-stoppers on defense, versatile Mike Neal and ace cornerback Sam Shields.

The free-agent signing period begins on March 11, though negotiations can begin on March 8. The Green Bay Packers have 19 free agents. Here is a look at the nine who line up on defense.

Defensive line: B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson. What do the Packers do on the defensive line?

"They ought to blow the whole thing up," one AFC scout said.

In terms of salary cap dollars, Pickett and Raji ranked sixth and seventh on the team last season. Combined, they had zero sacks, zero forced fumbles, zero recovered fumbles and four quarterback hits.

Raji, Pickett, Jolly and Wilson are considered the best run defenders among the defensive linemen. And yet, the Packers ranked 29th in the league with 4.63 yards allowed per rush.

The Packers want to keep Raji but only on their terms. And that means a short-term deal — no more than two years — according to a source. Given Raji's rare combination of size and athletic ability and how well he played in 2010 and 2012, it's hard to believe Raji won't find a better offer elsewhere.

"I think B.J.'s played probably very similar to what he's played since he's been here," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said at the end of the season. "Those are things that certainly there'll be a lot of time invested and talking about those things. B.J.'s been one of the key parts of our defense when we've had an outstanding defense. We'll see how things play themselves out."

Pickett, who will turn 35 in October, could come back if the price is right. He had 47 tackles in 499 snaps compared to 36 for Raji in 618 snaps. "I think Pick can still play," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said at the end of the season.

Jolly, coming off a three-year absence, had 38 tackles and one sack in 294 snaps. Jolly turned 31 a couple weeks ago and is coming off a season-ending neck injury, two factors that will dampen interest in free agency. Wilson, who led the unit in tackles per snap in 2012, essentially lost his role to Jolly. He finished with 11 tackles in 108 snaps. Given his age and history of playing the run, the Packers would be wise to bring him back.

Outside linebacker: Mike Neal. Neal was supposed to be a hybrid defensive lineman/outside linebacker. Instead, with Clay Matthews and Nick Perry combining to miss 10 games, Neal played more snaps than any outside linebacker on the roster. He responded with five sacks (tied for third on the team), 16 quarterback hits (tied for second), one interception and a game-turning forced fumble against Atlanta.

"I think if people just step back and look at that, coming from a one- and three-technique — which is a guy lining up over the center and guard down in the trenches — and now standing up as an outside linebacker and seeing things, (he did) some positive things," former outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. "I have a couple clips where he's carrying wide receivers vertical in our split-safety concepts. He's done some really fine things. Just a remarkable transition."

Neal's versatility will make him an attractive option on the market. Remember, the Colts gave Erik Walden a four-year deal worth $16 million last offseason. If Walden is worth $4 million per season, how much is Neal worth? And would that hypothetical price be too rich for the Packers, even with in excess of $33 million of cap space?

Inside linebacker: Robert Francois and Jamari Lattimore (restricted). Lattimore started three consecutive games for injured Brad Jones, posting seven tackles against Baltimore, 14 with a sack against Cleveland and three with a sack against Minnesota. He played 107 snaps in those games but just 27 in the next five games before playing in 74 snaps in place of a hobbled Jones in the final two games. He ran hot and cold during his five games with extensive playing time. On special teams, he recorded five tackles, a blocked punt and a recovered onside kick. Francois' presence was missed on special teams when he sustained a torn Achilles against Detroit on Oct. 6.

"Nothing's holding Jamari back," linebackers coach Winston Moss said. "When Brad got hurt, he came in and was very effective and did a great job. Any time Brad went down and tweaked his ankle in the latter half of the season, I thought Jamari stepped in and made some plays."

Cornerback: Sam Shields. After agent Drew Rosenhaus pulled the plug on negotiations, the Packers will have to sweat through the opening days of free agency in hopes of retaining their standout young cornerback. The Packers' defensive problems are obvious, so losing a talented, up-and-coming defender would be a devastating blow.

At the end of the season, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt called Shields "one of our top one or two guys on defense."

Not only did Shields lead the team with four interceptions, but his 25 passes defensed were almost as many as Tramon Williams (14) and Davon House (13) combined. Only 50 percent of passes thrown his direction were completed, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and he excelled in one-on-one matchups against the likes of Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green.

"The ability to cover No. 1 receivers, the ability to challenge them, the ability to get the ball every time his hands touch it, he's just really come a long way," Whitt said. "And his best football's still in front of him. that's the encouraging thing. You haven't seen his best football yet."

With Shields, the Packers probably can focus on other positions in the draft. Without him, cornerback joins safety, defensive line and tight end on the list of priorities.

Safety: M.D. Jennings (restricted). Safety was an unmitigated disaster. Jennings was a starter by default and simply didn't improve upon his mundane 2012. Jerron McMillian, Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson all got their chances this past season. Jennings, however, kept playing because his mediocre play was still better than what the others had to offer. While he finished fifth on the team with 79 tackles, he had no forced fumbles, no interceptions and two passes defensed. Bringing him back would be cheap, though it hardly would be a surprise if he didn't receive a restricted tender.

"I don't know if I'd characterize it as struggles," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "I mean, we just have plays that we just got to make, and we can't have the missed tackles."


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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