Tough choices after 2009

With a bumper crop of younger free agents, will the Packers be in position to keep popular veterans Donald Driver and Chad Clifton after the 2009 season?

Some difficult and uncomfortable decisions loom for Packers general manager Ted Thompson.

After the 2009 season, 12 key veterans will hit free agency. Among them are two battle-tested and popular longtime Packers: left tackle Chad Clifton and wide receiver Donald Driver.

When Driver's contract expires, he'll be one month shy of 35 and almost certainly the team's career leader in receptions (his 503 trails Sterling Sharpe's 595). Clifton will be 33, and will have turned 34 if he's re-signed after that season.

Of course, their level of play will dictate whether Thompson will try to re-sign them. And, who knows, perhaps one or both will decide to retire after 2009.

Driver went to the Pro Bowl last season, but he also went about four months between touchdowns. His two touchdowns were his fewest since 2003, when he suffered a neck injury in the opener against Minnesota that slowed him throughout the season. Whether the lack of touchdowns is a matter of age starting to show a little or the Packers having so many other playmakers is a matter of debate.

What isn't a matter of debate is the likable Driver is perhaps the face of the franchise, with the retirement of Brett Favre. The NFL, however, is a cold business, and productivity almost always comes before popularity.

Clifton is coming off of his first Pro Bowl season, but who knows how good he'll be in two years. He's played through knee problems the last couple of seasons, and don't forget the lasting affects of the cheap-shot hit by Warren Sapp in 2002 that sent Clifton to the hospital with an injured pelvis.

The Packers are about $32 million under the salary cap, which is good news considering the players who will join Driver and Clifton in free agency after the 2009 season.

That list is headlined by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who either will receive a lucrative extension or will be looking for work. Receiver Greg Jennings seems to be on track for a big payday. Defensive linemen Ryan Pickett and Aaron Kampman will only be 30 and probably will be worthy of one more big contract. And you'd expect at least a few players from among a group that includes Will Blackmon, Nick Collins, Jason Spitz, Daryn Colledge and Johnny Jolly to develop into must-keep starters.

After 2009, will an aging Driver and/or Clifton be worth keeping over a young starter?

That's for Thompson to decide. Time is on his side, if not on Clifton's and Driver's.

Steve Lawrence is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com

Free agents after the 2009 season

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers

Cornerback Will Blackmon

Safety Nick Collins

Guard Jason Spitz

Guard Daryn Colledge

Defensive end Aaron Kampman

Offensive tackle Chad Clifton

Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett

Wide receiver Donald Driver

Wide receiver Greg Jennings

Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila

Defensive tackle Johnny Jolly


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