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Packers face offseason uncertainty

Marques Eversoll, Assistant Sports Editor
February 13, 2013
Filed under Sports

When the Green Bay Packers lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, they closed the book on the 2012 season and began looking ahead to 2013.

While exhibition games won’t resume until August, the Packers must make several key decisions in the coming months.

Core players Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji are in line for massive contract extensions. And with limited cap space, several veteran players could be let go.

Veteran defensive back Charles Woodson is scheduled to count $10 million against the salary cap in 2013. Woodson, 37, is no longer the athlete he was when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.

Prior to the 2012 season, head coach Mike McCarthy made it clear that Woodson’s role within the defense would change.

“I don’t think it’s feasible to move Charles around as much as we have in the past,” McCarthy said. “Charles is clearly a playmaker. He’s played nickel, dime, corner, safety for us. He’ll continue to do those things.”

Green Bay got a glimpse of life after Woodson this past season after the veteran broke his collarbone in week seven. With Woodson out of the lineup, cornerback Casey Hayward handled the team’s nickel back responsibilities, while safeties Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings picked up the slack at safety.

The Packers must decide whether or not Woodson’s veteran leadership is worth $10 million. It’s highly unlikely he’d receive anywhere near $10 million from on the open market if the Packers were to release him.

A more likely scenario would be for the Packers to restructure Woodson’s deal. There are two years remaining on the contract Woodson signed in 2010, but restructuring his contract would give the Packers some financial flexibility.

The team faces another key question with veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk. After seven seasons with the Packers, Hawk has yet to live up to his draft selection at No. 5 overall in the 2006 draft.

Hawk, 29, is routinely taken off the field on passing downs, so the Packers must decide whether the two-down linebacker is worth keeping around.

The Packers were short-handed at the position in 2012, losing starter Desmond Bishop in the preseason opener and his replacement, second-year pro D.J. Smith, in week six. Hawk enjoyed perhaps his best season as a professional last year, but the team could free up $2.25 million by letting him walk.

Hawk would give the Packers depth at the position, but if the team is content with Bishop and Smith as the starters, with Brad Jones as their top backup, Hawk becomes expendable.

Then comes the uncertain future of 25-year-old tight end Jermichael Finley.

After signing a two-year, $14 million deal last offseason, the Packers can either cut him and keep $8.25 million against the salary cap or keep him another year and hope he maximizes his potential.

Longtime beat writer Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel wrote in December that the team was prepared to cut ties with the tight end.

“Finley hasn’t performed anywhere near the sixth-best tight end in the National Football League, which is where he ranks in average salary per year at $7 million, ” McGinn said.

But after the article Finley turned things around. In the Packers’ final three regular season games, Finley averaged six catches and 67 yards per game. In the 13 games before McGinn’s article, Finley averaged three catches for 36 yards.

After the season, Coach McCarthy acknowledged Finley’s improvement.

“I really felt Jermichael Finley was a different man and a different player from the bye week on,” McCarthy said. “I feel very good about the way he finished the year. There was a change in that young man.”

If the Packers release Finley, Hawk and Woodson before the 15th day of the league year in mid-March, they will free up a grand total of $20.5 million. But each player has unique value to the Packers.

The start of the season is six months away, but the Packers are already fully engaged in preparing for 2013.