Super Bowl 50 is over. The Road to Super Bowl LI begins soon. Clubs can begin using the franchise and transition tags on their free agents on Feb. 22, with the deadline on March 7. Starting March 12, other teams can enter into contract negotiations with free agents, with the signing period beginning on March 15.
The Green Bay Packers’ list of 14 undrafted free agents is led by kicker Mason Crosby, cornerback Casey Hayward and defensive tackle B.J. Raji. It also includes offensive tackle Don Barclay, long snapper Brett Goode, defensive tackle Letroy Guion, receiver James Jones, fullback John Kuhn, outside linebackers Mike Neal and Nick Perry, tight end Andrew Quarless, safety Sean Richardson, running back James Starks and quarterback Scott Tolzien.
Here's the free-agent outlook for …
CB CASEY HAYWARD
Hayward, the second of the Packers’ two second-round picks in 2012, set the bar high – maybe impossibly high – with six interceptions and 21 passes defensed as a rookie. After missing most of the 2013 season with nagging hamstring problems, Hayward played in every game the past two seasons. He’s been solid. He just hasn’t been the dynamic game-changer he was as a rookie.
According to league stats, Hayward had three interceptions and seven passes defensed in 2014 and no interceptions and seven passes defensed in 2015. While he started 11 games this season, his performance on the outside vs. Denver at midseason pushed the Packers to go with veteran Sam Shields and first-round rookie Damarious Randall on the outside with Hayward in the slot. Hayward played about 88 percent of the snaps, by far the highest rate of his career, but his zero interceptions – fairly or unfairly – took some of the glow off of his season.
“I’m pretty happy with it,” Hayward said of his season. “Sometimes the ball doesn’t come to you like that. Sometimes I was in great position and the ball gets tipped or something like that, or they throw it wide and I think, ‘Ah, man, I would have had it.’ The only thing I can control is my play and the things that I can control. I was doing that. I was playing at a high level. It might get overlooked because you don’t the interceptions, but if people throw on the film, they can see me out there playing at a high level, not giving up many passes. I think I was right at like 50 percent (completion rate against), which I think is a good percentage for balls thrown at you.”
So, the million-dollar question – or the multimillion-dollar question – is whether the Packers will make a competitive offer to bring back a proven commodity at a key position.
The Broncos won the Super Bowl on Sunday in large part because their defensive backs smothered the Panthers’ receivers. With Denver winning one-on-one in the secondary, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was free to blitz Carolina quarterback Cam Newton again and again and again. It’s hard to argue that the Packers’ secondary will be better without Hayward.
But the Packers used their first-round pick on Randall and their second-round pick on Quinten Rollins. With Randall and Rollins showing such promise, the Packers could move forward with younger (and cheaper) options. Remember last offseason: Cleveland signed Tramon Williams to a three-year deal worth $7 million per season and Jacksonville signed Davon House to a four-year deal worth $6.125 million per season. Hayward is younger than Williams and more accomplished than House. He’s not going to be cheap. So, the Packers might decide to move forward with the young guys and invest their salary-cap dollars elsewhere.
“That’s possible, but you just never know. You just never really know,” Hayward said. “Those young guys are going to be pretty good. Once they detail some of the little things, those young guys are going to be pretty well off. Like I said, that could be the case, but you just never know. I’ll take it day by day and when the time comes and they offer me, me and my agent will look at it and say yay or nay.”
Hayward said he’d like to return to Green Bay, but money and role will be factors on where he decides to call home for 2016 and beyond. While he struggled against the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas, Hayward believes he’s not merely a slot cornerback.
“I still want my opportunity to play outside,” he said. “I played well outside when I’ve been outside. I started all year outside and played 75 percent of the game in nickel. When you’re the best nickel on the team, you’re going to play your nickel, regardless of the case. I wouldn’t mind going somewhere and playing a similar role. But I definitely still want to play outside. You get more opportunities to get the ball when you’re outside. People come back and they’re like, ‘But you had so many picks your rookie year.’ But I had four while I was outside and two while I was inside. Hopefully, I can get an opportunity where I can play either/or. If teams want me to play inside and outside, I can do that. If people just want me to play outside, I can do that. But I think I’ll even be better next year. I didn’t even have an offseason this past year because of my foot. Everything I was doing earlier was off my God-given ability. My foot and my injury got better as the season went on, and that’s why you could see my play spike up.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.