Keeping Shields, Jones should be Packers’ first focus

On March 11, the NFL’s free agency period will officially begin, ushering in the start of the new league year. For many teams, this is a time to address needs and find the pieces that can make immediate contributions when the season starts in September. But for some teams, such as the Packers in recent years, free agency often comes and goes without a major signing taking place.

Green Bay instead relies on the draft to build its team and has recently opted not to spend big in free agency. Most of the Packers’ current players have only ever worn the green and gold, and the team has been successful even without extensive free agent signings.

This year has potential to be different for Green Bay. The team is in a position where winning now is essential. Aaron Rodgers is in the middle of his prime and leads a potent offense that can compete with any team. But recently the defense has not been on par with the offense’s performance and has rarely been able to bail out the team if the offense stalls.

For this reason, the Packers may elect to pursue veteran help on defense and make an impact signing in free agency. The Bills’ Jairus Byrd or the Browns’ TJ Ward would provide immediate help at safety (where the Packers could use an upgrade), but the price tag on these players will likely be too costly.

Some argue that Green Bay should seek help in other teams’ free agents — and certain players could definitely make significant contributions to the team — the Packers should make resigning some of their own players a priority. The team has 17 players who will become free agents, and Green Bay should give priority to keeping Sam Shields, James Jones and Jermichael Finley.

Shields was a significant postseason contributor when the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010. He also showed dynamic play-making ability in the later stages of this season, racking up four interceptions in just 14 games. His speed alone makes him valuable, especially because the Packers face Calvin Johnson, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Greg Jennings twice a year. As long as the price tag remains reasonable, resigning Shields should be a priority for the Packers.

Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin together make up one of the deepest receiving corps in the NFL. While Green Bay has depth at wide receiver, keeping Jones and Finley would give Green Bay five legitimate receiving threats and would make the Packers a true offensive juggernaut. In the 2011 season, the Packers exemplified explosiveness, as they set many offensive records, had the league’s best record at 15-1 and saw Aaron Rodgers win MVP. That year they had six receiving threats in  Nelson, Cobb, Jones, Finley, Donald Driver and Greg Jennings.

Admittedly, Jones and Finley had problems with drops in past seasons, but both were on pace for career years this season. Jones set a career best in receiving yards in just 14 games, while Finley was on pace for career bests in receptions, yards and touchdowns before his injury. Keeping these two would ensure that Green Bay’s offense remains one of the NFL’s best units.

All of Green Bay’s problems cannot be solved by simply resigning their own free agents. Signing Sam Shields helps the defense, but further help would have to come from drafting, developing younger players or adding veteran free agents. The Packers would still be a strong offensive team without Jones or Finley, but retaining them allows for consistency and the potential to have the most threatening offense in the NFL.

With free agency just a week away, Green Bay has a lot of options as to how to improve their roster to be able to compete with teams such as San Francisco and Seattle. Though the current roster brought a third straight division title, the Packers know they are only a few pieces away from a fifth Super Bowl title.

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