While Green Bay will undoubtedly get under the wire in time for the start of free agency, they will do so by the slimmest of margins. So forget that free-agent safety or defensive lineman you hoped they'd go shopping for. The cap room for that won‘t exist until they settle up with the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Clifton. And recent history tells us that once the franchise tag has been placed, neither player nor agent are in a big hurry to hammer out a deal much sooner than August. How many potential contributors to the Packers defense will slip away between now and then? We're about to find out.
While losing Clifton, 27, would have hurt, the offensive line is not only the strongest, but the deepest unit on the team. And several options to replace him existed. The team could have moved Tauscher to the left tackle position and plugged the right side with 6-foot-4, 330-pound Kevin Barry. A valuable extra blocker in the Packers ‘U-Bacon' formation who lined up roughly 15 snaps per game. Offensive Line Coach Larry Beightol has called Barry a "future starter, no doubt about it." The future could have been now.
Other options included Barry or the towering 6-foot-9 Brennan Curtain, who's bulked up for a stint in NFL Europe, battling it out on the left side. The team also signed Steve Morley, a 6-foot-7, 336-pounder who was the Canadian Football League's No. 1 pick in 2003 and started nine games at left tackle for the Calgary Stampeders.
Had the Packers allowed Clifton to test the market, they may have found that their earlier offer of a $10 million signing bonus was enough to lure him back, and in the meantime, they'd be free to seek help where they need it most. Of course the risk is that a tackle-needy team like Tampa Bay, Chicago or Cleveland would have gladly paid a higher amount for his services. But are you better off protecting an area of strength or shoring up a weakness that could take you back to the championship game? The Packers chose the former, but it wasn't Clifton letting Donovan McNabb find a wide open Freddie Mitchell on 4th and 26 and it wasn't Beightol who lost his job at the end of the year because his unit underachieved.
In retaining Clifton, the Packers hang on to a player that could be a cornerstone on their offensive line for years to come. A player who surrendered just 1.5 sacks last year while matching up against the games' top pass rushers. Green Bay would maintain a consistency and cohesiveness by keeping together the same starting unit since 2000. But keep in mind that while the Packers had two offensive lineman play in the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1967, Clifton was not one of them. Those honors went to right guard Marco Rivera and center Mike Flanagan.
That's not to say that Clifton doesn't have Pro Bowl potential, but among the current starters, Clifton is probably the fourth best of the five behind Rivera, Flanagan and Wahle. Rivera and Wahle, coincidentally, have contracts that expire after the 2004 season and will be watching Clifton's situation closely. Signing him to a long-term deal would mean paying him in the neighborhood of $5.5 million a year for six years and swallowing hard on the $12.5 million signing bonus agent Jimmy Sexton is demanding. And though Clifton is ‘Joe Millionaire' as a pass blocker, he's closer to ‘Average Joe' in the running game.
Those numbers would also put Clifton in shouting range of the elite tackles of the league in pay despite not yet measuring up to the Orlando Pace's, Walter Jones' and Jonathan Ogden's in terms of performance. Might he be mentioned in the same breath with those tackles one day? It‘s possible. But unless he can rush the passer and cover the middle of the field on defense, the Packers' money and cap space could be put to better use.
(W. Keith Roerdink is a freelance writer from Wausau, Wis. and longtime contributor to Packer Report. Check back in March for the next "Hot Read."