Hot Stove League Means Juicy Hors D'oeuvres

Did the Packers make the right decision in using the franchise tag on Ryan Pickett? Should they make a run at sackmaster Julius Peppers? Should they sign a thirtysomething running back like LaDainian Tomlinson or Brian Westbrook? We have the answers ...

This is the start of the most frenetic 10 days of the NFL offseason.

The NFL Scouting Combine began on Wednesday, though none of the "good" stuff happens until Friday, when the kickers show off their legs to scouts, coaches and general managers.

Thursday (3 p.m. Central) is the deadline for teams to use franchise and transition tags on their unrestricted free agents. The Combine hits full swing on Saturday. The deadline to make qualifying offers to restricted free agents is Thursday, March 4, and free agency kicks off on Friday, March 5. If this free agent period is anything like last year's, most of the good players will be signed by Saturday, March 6.

Football's version of baseball's Hot Stove League and racing's Silly Season has begun with several names of interest to Packers fans.

Ryan Pickett

The Packers placed the franchise tag on Pickett on Wednesday afternoon. The franchise price on a defensive tackle is $7.003 million, which seems like a lot of money for a player who averaged about 26 snaps per game this past season.

But the good-natured Pickett's role is a huge one. The Packers boasted the NFL's top-ranked run defense for the first time in franchise history this past season. The importance of the nose tackle is obvious in noting that San Francisco franchised Aubrayo Franklin, New England franchised Vince Wilfork and Pittsburgh is expected to franchise Casey Hampton. Hulking, unselfish defensive tackles don't grow on trees.

Pickett, who turned 30 in October, led the Packers' defensive linemen in tackles per snap. Compare Pickett's 47 tackles (by the Packers' count) in 368 snaps (7.8 snaps per tackle) to Cullen Jenkins' 50 in 844 snaps (16.9), Johnny Jolly's 75 in 858 snaps (11.4) and B.J. Raji's 36 in 380 snaps (10.6). With Jolly in free-agent and legal limbo, keeping Pickett allows the Packers to at least have three starting-caliber defensive linemen and hopefully maintain their quality four-man rotation.

As one source reminded us, the franchise tag isn't the end of the conversation. It merely buys time for both sides to work out a deal while ensuring (well, all but ensuring) that Pickett doesn't leave.

On the other hand, the Packers drafted Raji to be the nose tackle of the future, and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac believes that will be Raji's best position in the long run. Nonetheless, having too many good players at a position beats the alternative.

Julius Peppers

It's the question that won't die: Should the Packers make a run at Julius Peppers?

The Packers, a handful of sources have told us, are going to be a serious player in free agency for the first time since general manager Ted Thompson signed Charles Woodson and Pickett four years ago.

Peppers is the big fish in this woeful unrestricted free agent class. In eight seasons, he has 81 sacks. He's eclipsed 10 sacks six times in those eight seasons while reaching five Pro Bowls.

Julius Peppers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
But it's buyer beware. First of all, just because Peppers has said he wants to be a 3-4 outside linebacker — he's backed off that stance this year — that doesn't mean he'd be a good one. At 6-foot-7 and 283 pounds, Peppers remains a freakish athlete. But does he have the change-of-direction skills, quick-twitch attributes and instincts to play in space?

Who knows. Would you be willing to shell out $60 million (or, possibly, much more) to find out?

Another thing nobody knows is how Peppers will respond to a big payday. In 2007, he was under contract with a cap charge of $14.5 million. He tallied just 2.5 sacks. Playing for a new contract in 2008, he bounced back with 14.5 sacks. Playing under the franchise tag in 2009 — and, thus, playing for a contract again — he tallied 10.5 sacks. In both seasons, he forced five fumbles. His performance against Pro Bowler Bryant McKinnie in a late-season game against Minnesota was remarkable. On the other hand, he was held without so much as an assisted tackle in two games and had just one tackle in three other games.

Signing big-fish free agents just has not been a ticket to big-time success. Signing Albert Haynesworth didn't help the Redskins last year — and there were the same whispers about what Haynesworth would do once he got paid.

Verdict: If Thompson is going to spend money this offseason, get two players instead of one.

LaDainian Tomlinson or Brian Westbrook or Chester Taylor?

It's no mystery that the Packers could use an upgrade in the backfield, where neither Ryan Grant nor Brandon Jackson offer much of a threat in the passing game.

In the last couple days, the free-agent outlook in that regard has improved. Before, only the Vikings' Chester Taylor was a quality option on the unrestricted market. But with the Chargers releasing LaDainian Tomlinson and the Eagles parting ways with Brian Westbrook, there are multiple possibilities for the Packers to upgrade.

Taylor turns 31 early next season. In his last five seasons, he's topped 40 receptions four times. He's averaged 8.8, 8.9 and 9.7 yards per reception over the last three seasons. Unlike the others, he's used to playing second-fiddle to another back, and playing behind Adrian Peterson has led to less wear and tear on his body.

Tomlinson turns 31 in June. He averaged 3.3 yards per rush and caught only 20 passes in 2009, but averaged a whopping 64 receptions per season over his first eight years. The wear and tear is an issue but he wouldn't have to carry the load with Grant as the workhorse.

Westbrook turns 31 just before the season kicks off. He's had a remarkable career, but two concussions limited him to eight games in 2009, with his mere 86 touches including 25 receptions. In his previous four seasons, though, Westbrook averaged 70.5 receptions. The concussions are a huge concern, but Westbrook on Wednesday said he had no plans to retire. Having Grant to carry the load in theory would lessen the chances of Westbrook suffering another concussion.

Verdict: This one might be out of the Packers' hands. The Packers have their starter in Grant, while Taylor, Tomlinson and Westbrook could desire bigger roles elsewhere. Chances are, Tomlinson and Westbrook — and maybe even Taylor — will be available after the draft. It might be time to revisit them if the Packers don't draft their third-down back.

Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

Packer Report Top Stories