With more then $20 million under the salary cap, the Packers are in position to sign a free agent that could help the defense more than Manuel did in 2006. But the problem is that the upcoming free agent market will not feature any players who can make an immediate impact with a team at safety.
The best of the safeties bunch, if they are not re-signed by their own team prior to the March 2 start of free agency, include Seattle's Ken Hamlin, Jacksonville's Deon Grant, Philadelphia's Michael Lewis, and Carolina's Shaun Williams. All of the forementioned have their drawbacks and are probably not long-term answers for Green Bay. However, the Packers can benefit if they can sign one of them for the right price. Here's why:
Last training camp, second-year pro Marviel Underwood was on his way toward receiving significant playing time, or possibly starting at safety, when he went down with a season-ending knee injury during Green Bay's first preseason game. Underwood, the first of the team's two fourth-round draft picks in 2005, had shown great progress in training camp practices and was on the verge of possibly unseating Manuel or Nick Collins at one of the safety positions.
Without Underwood, the Packers turned to rookie Tyrone Culver, who was not ready to start, as a primary backup. General manager Ted Thompson also signed rookie Charlie Peprah and waited till Atari Bigby was ready to return from a broken hand that he sustained early in training camp.
Bottom line is nobody was ready to take over for Manuel or Collins when they struggled early in the season, and the Packers often were burned for big plays.
With the Packers in position to compete for a playoff berth in 2007, Thompson would be wise to sign a veteran at a reasonable price to create better competition at the position this off-season. Manuel, who got a five-year, $10 million deal last March, will be given every chance to prove that he is better than what he showed last year. But if he doesn't and if Underwood isn't the same due to his surgically repaired knee, the Packers can always lean on a proven veteran to team up with Collins.
The top veteran NFL safeties who may be available for the Packers to sign in March include:
Deon Grant, Jacksonville
Grant had 60 tackles, two interceptions, and no sacks in 2006 for the Jaguars. Though is he regarded as Jacksonville's best player whose contract is up, he probably will not be re-signed.
Gerald Sensabaugh, drafted in the fifth round by Jacksonville in 2005, finished last season starting at strong safety, and is a candidate to replace Grant, who is entering his eighth season and turns 28 on March 14.
Michael Lewis, Philadelphia
Lewis struggled last season and was benched, so it appears unlikely that the Eagles will try to re-sign him.
"What's funny is he turned down an extension a few years ago, he must feel bad now about that," said Adam Caplan of Scout.com.
Lewis just might be a prime candidate for the Packers to sign. He turns 27 on April 29 and will be entering his sixth NFL season. He still has the ability to start, and probably would welcome a chance with another team. Lewis' resume is quite impressive, including a spot on Howie Long's Tough Guys team in 2003, a spot in the Pro Bowl after the 2004 season when he led the Eagles in tackles. Plus, he finished 2005 as the team's second leading tackler.
But head coach Andy Reid wasn't impressed with Lewis at times in 2006 and benched him in favor of Sean Considine and Quintin Mikell. Lewis had to look for his spots to get on the field and play his way back into Reid's good graces, which he eventually did. By the end of the season he was playing in the dime package and was seeing a little more playing time, but that's not how Lewis views his role and it's not the role that the Eagles can see themselves paying him to play in, especially since he'll want a nice raise over his $795,000 deal that he played under last season.
While the Eagles like Lewis, they're more enamored with Mikell and Sean Considine, according to WarNest.com. So, look for the Packers to make an attempt to sign Lewis.
Shaun Williams, Carolina
Williams, the New York Giants' top pick in 1998, will be entering his 10th NFL season and turns 31 in October. He is not expected to be Carolina's strong safety in 2007 because the Panthers have Nate Salley waiting for a bigger role, and the Panthers are expected to select a safety high in the NFL draft.
Williams finished the 2006 season with 73 tackles, two interceptions and one forced fumble.
Ken Hamlin, Seattle
Will Ted Thompson sign another safety from Seattle? The Packers' GM certainly is familiar with Hamlin, but Thompson was supposedly familiar with Manuel as well.
Hamilin made a remarkable comeback in 2006 after sustaining a scary off-field head injury 2005. The Seahawks are expected to make every attempt to re-sign Hamlin, who had 96 tackles and three interceptions last season.
The Packers may opt out of trying to sign Hamlin, 26, to the big contract he will be seeking simply because they invested a lot in Manuel last season.
Hamlin, who is entering his fifth season after getting drafted in the second round by Seattle in 2003, was quoted after the 2006 season saying that he wanted to remain a Seahawk, according to Seahawks.NET. The team showed its loyalty by paying him his full salary in 2005 after his off-field injury, even though it wasn't a requirement of the Seahawks.
Other soon-to-be unrestricted or restricted NFL free agents:
Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.