Quarterback Brett Favre is keeping his options open but when the Packers peer ahead 4 1/2 months to the draft they do so with little urgency to replace No. 4 any time soon.
The Packers want to and almost certainly will draft a quarterback high, probably in the first three rounds. But hints about his future dropped by Favre in the last few months as well as the shortage of premium quarterbacks lead one to conclude that it will be another defensive draft in Green Bay April 24-25.
Several club sources said recently that their best guess is Favre will play two more seasons.
"I think he's pretty much said he's coming back," said one of the sources. "I think he will be back for two more years at least. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's my gut feeling."
Obviously, the scenario for a return by Favre could change by the end of the season. If, for example, the Packers go belly up and events occur that might lead Favre to doubt the team has a chance to win the Super Bowl next year, the odds of his returning could decrease.
He is 34, isn't interested in fronting a rebuilding project and not long ago expressed keen reservations about continuing to play if his skills deteriorate.
It is clear that he can't run like he could even three or four years ago. That has limited his ability to scramble, which in turn has kept him more in the pocket and reduced his number of long-ball strikes off broken plays that made him the NFL's greatest quarterback.
The coaches say Favre was throwing the ball fine before he suffered the broken right thumb Oct. 19 in St. Louis. Since then there have been ups and downs, but Favre has taken every snap in just another illustration of his uncompromising toughness.
"Way too competitive just to shut it down," another team source said. "He's too prideful. I'm not in a panic at all. I say two more years."
Unless the Packers trade up, they will have almost no chance to land one of the two top-rated quarterbacks. Mississippi's Eli Manning might be the first player selected. If, as expected, junior Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio) declares for the draft by the Jan. 2 deadline, scouts say he'll be gone by the 10th pick.
Tulane's J.P. Losman has the talent to interest a team later on in the first round but had a disappointing season and rubs a lot of people the wrong way with his cocksure attitude.
After that, there's a cluster of five to seven quarterbacks with second- and third-round skills that would have a chance to develop as Favre's successor.
As long as the Packers re-sign tackle Chad Clifton, they don't need much on offense.
Bubba Franks and David Martin both will be unrestricted free agents in March 2005, so if coach Mike Sherman can get past his affection for aging Wesley Walls there would be room for a young tight end.
Running back is the deepest position on the roster.
Bringing back Clifton will be costly but must be done unless the Packers really think Mark Tauscher or Brennan Curtin can start at left tackle next season. His signing bonus could be about $10 million, which is what the New York Giants paid Luke Petitgout and Dallas paid Flozell Adams on the eve of free agency last February.
The Packers' needs on defense are just as numerous as last year, when they used their top four picks on that side of the ball. They need defensive linemen, cornerbacks, linebackers and a safety.
As it stands now, Jamal Reynolds and Gilbert Brown in all likelihood will be gone. Joe Johnson looked all but finished before he suffered a torn thigh muscle in Week 6 and could retire. If not, maybe the Packers bring Johnson back to rotate if he agrees to slice his base salary of $4 million to the minimum of about $775,000. On the other hand, maybe they don't or maybe he won't.
Thus, Sherman takes the cap hit, admits he blew it and moves on.
It appears as though the Packers will try to re-sign Grady Jackson as their nose tackle before free agency March 3 as long as he doesn't want much more than the minimum. Either way it's a risk, given Jackson's age (31 in January), lazy streak and injury history plus the fact that James Lee and Rod Walker are all that's behind him.
Lee has responded to a structured regimen during his wasted season on injured reserve and gets another shot. Walker seems unlikely to receive a restricted tender in February.
The Packers appear satisfied with their starting corps of linebackers but they basically need a whole new crew of backups.
The safety position opposite Darren Sharper has been weak since LeRoy Butler went down 25 months ago and the Packers need to get it fixed one way or another. Antuan Edwards probably won't be back, Marques Anderson's career is on the line, Bryant Westbrook's career likely is over and Curtis Fuller is too small.
Al Harris, 29, is right on the margin as a starter. At least the former Eagle works cheap ($1.34 million cap salary in '04), so undoubtedly the Packers will try to get another year out of him.
However, if Harris loses even a half step of speed, he might not be able to play. With injured Chris Johnson, erratic Bhawoh Jue, high-maintenance Michael Hawthorne and green as grass Derek Combs in reserve, the need level is high.
The Packers are talking to punter Josh Bidwell about re-signing but would require another one if he leaves. They've still never replaced Allen Rossum as a two-way returner and will search again in the draft.