NFC North: Billy Devaney

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Of the 17 Green Bay Packers players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next month, only two might demand what would be considered blockbuster contracts.

If general manager Ted Thompson can keep only one of them, should he re-sign defensive tackle B.J. Raji or cornerback Sam Shields?

Shields
Raji
Raji reportedly turned down an $8 million per year offer last season. Shields likely is looking for something similar.

On Tuesday's edition of NFL Insiders on ESPN, former St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney offered his opinion on which one he would re-sign.

“I'm sure Green Bay's working hard trying to figure out a way to keep both of these guys, but to me, keeping the corner that has speed and can cover over a defensive tackle that is pretty much just a guy, that's a no-brainer,” Devaney said. “You've got to keep the corner.”

Three years ago, no one would have called Raji “just a guy.” He was coming off a 2010 season in which he posted 6.5 sacks in the regular season plus one more in the playoffs. He also returned an interception for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game.

But since then, he has recorded just three sacks (all in 2011).

“Green Bay does have problems along the defensive line,” Devaney added. “Raji is a free agent. Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. [Wilson] are all free agents, so they need to do something to address that defensive line.”

Meanwhile, Shields is coming off his best season, and at age 26 he is still improving.

In an ESPN Insider post Insider, Mike Kurtz of Football Outsiders agreed with Devaney. He wrote that Shields is likely to be “the beneficiary of [coach Mike] McCarthy's organization first-spending strategy.”

Kurtz added that “regardless of whether Raji stays, the defensive line is thin and likely to be thinner.”

The Packers have other issues to deal with before free agency. Veteran receiver James Jones also is scheduled to become a free agent. So is Evan Dietrich-Smith, who is coming off his first full season as the starting center. On the defensive side, Mike Neal is at the end of his contract and had his best NFL season after moving to outside linebacker from defensive end.

But the biggest -- and most expensive -- decisions are on Raji and Shields.
Ted ThompsonKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTed Thompson's team-building philosophy will likely be popular around the league this offseason.
The Green Bay Packers ended the 2009 season with short- and long-term needs at both offensive tackle positions. Their ensuing plan was never in doubt. The Packers re-signed both incumbents, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, and then sat tight until the April draft -- where they patiently waited for Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga to fall to them at No. 23 overall.

Clifton started all 20 games of the Packers' run to the Super Bowl XLV championship, while Bulaga replaced an injured Tauscher for the final 16. It was a routine example of the Packers' team-building philosophy: Develop your own depth, promote from within and spend free-agent money to retain your own players.

Around here, we've gone around and around on the Packers' recent unwillingness to supplement their roster with veteran free agents. It's hard to argue with the results this season, and now it's time to find out how -- and if -- the rest of the NFL implements "The Packer Way."

The methods of all Super Bowl champions are scrutinized and often copied the following offseason. But this year, the Packers' competitors aren't likely to have a choice. The impending lockout will wipe out free agency, at least for now. Although the market will eventually open when a collective bargaining agreement is reached, it's quite possible the timing will be reversed.

The draft will come first, followed by free agency, rather than the other way around. Teams will not have the luxury of making draft decisions based on the results of free agency. Without a hard plan in place, they must, in the words of Arizona general manager Rod Graves, "approach the draft as if that's the only thing we have to focus on."

We needn't waste much time on the background. You know it well. Of all the players currently on the Packers' roster, only three -- cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive end Ryan Pickett and linebacker Brandon Chillar -- were signed as veteran free agents. Three more were acquired via trade: running back Ryan Grant, along with safeties safety Derrick Martin and Anthony Smith. The rest were either drafted by the Packers, signed as undrafted rookies, claimed on waivers or signed off another team's practice squad.

The intriguing issue is whether the Packers are uniquely equipped to navigate the offseason as it crystallizes for all NFL teams. From the outside, it sure seems that way.

[+] EnlargeBryan Bulaga
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonThe Packers waited for Bryan Bulaga to fall to them in last year's draft, and the offensive tackle was a starter most of the season.
"I'd say that our football team represents what you can accomplish building through the draft," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's a credit to [general manager] Ted Thompson and our personnel staff. We're a draft-and-develop program, we have been for the last five years, we'll continue to do so, and this is a very important draft class for our football team to keep the competition at a high level in the locker room, to keep the depth of our football team as deep as possible. The lesson we learned going through this past season is a very good experience to draw from, so we believe in the draft. That's important to us."

As he has in past years at the scouting combine, Thompson found himself answering questions last week about his approach to free agency and the draft. This year, however, there was no tinge of derision. Instead, Thompson was asked to explain how he stocked his team so well while largely eschewing a primary source of talent.

Thompson credited former Packers general manager Ron Wolf for being a "strong believer that you build the core of your team around the draft" but otherwise said: "Our guys do a lot of work."

Thompson said: "Most of our entire staff and personnel was trained by Ron Wolf and he believed very strongly in scouting and going to see players and doing due diligence and working just as hard on the seventh-round guys and the free agents as we do on the first-round guys. That's just the way we do business."

It's not as if other teams don't try their best to draft good players. But the Packers have two factors working in their favor that some others do not:

  1. A proven system for scouting, evaluating and valuing potential draft picks
  2. A single-mindedness about the draft that, without the crutch of free agency, forces them to keep looking until they find what they want

It was interesting last week listening to the disparate viewpoints of NFL general managers. Some were clearly relived to see two draft-first teams, the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, advance to the Super Bowl.

"Oh man, I love it," said Billy Devaney of the St. Louis Rams. "Isn't that awesome? I think both teams combined maybe had four starters that they got through free agency. The vast majority were draft picks, a couple of street free agents here and there, but those two organizations -- they've done it the way that everybody else aspires to do it. Putting it together with the foundation of hitting on their draft picks, and doing a great job keeping their guys."

The truth is, not everyone does aspire to it. Two disciples of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick suggested it's wrong to ignore any avenue for improving their team.

"I think you truly believe that you need to compare both sides going into every year and decide where the strengths are and where the weaknesses are and if you can fix them in the draft or in free agency," said the Atlanta Falcons' Thomas Dimitroff. " I know that was something that I was very particular about coming into Atlanta to make sure that I didn't get pigeon-holed as one type of team builder."

GM Scott Pioli of the Kansas City Chiefs suggested that patience will allow teams to stay true to their core values, whatever they may be.

"Everybody is going to build their team the same way that they believe," Pioli said. "You're going to have the draft. You're going to have free agency. None of this is going to go away. At some point everything is going to be done."

But if nothing else, the uncertainty about the timing and nature of this year's free-agent market seems likely to make the draft each team's first stop for offseason upgrades. You don't have to look any further than the NFC North to find recent examples where teams were able to focus their attention elsewhere in the draft after making inroads in free agency six weeks earlier.

The Chicago Bears, for example, signed free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers in March and then focused on safeties at the top of the April draft, eventually landing expected 2011 starter Major Wright. The Detroit Lions signed receiver Nate Burleson in free agency, relieving a primary roster need and freeing them to pursue running back Jahvid Best and safety Amari Spievey in the draft. Both players are likely 2011 starters.

This spring will be a guessing game -- for most teams. For the Packers, it will be business as usual.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The future of the St. Louis Rams' head-coaching position -- and thus, that of Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier -- remained clouded in intrigue Saturday morning. But there were indications things could clear up as soon as Saturday afternoon and certainly by Monday.

Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and his wife were set to spend Friday night in St. Louis but both Garrett and general manager Billy Devaney said no offer has been made. Here's a link to the story from Jim Thomas and Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It's hard to imagine that Garrett isn't the top choice at this point, considering he already had his finalist interview with owner Chip Rosenbloom. But there has been no official announcement.

Here's one oddity to keep in mind if Garrett gets the Rams job: Frazier would become the first Vikings defensive coordinator to return for a third consecutive season since Foge Fazio in 1998.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • New Detroit coach Jim Schwartz met with the Lions' 13 assistant coaches who remain under contract, according to Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com. Schwartz did not release them from their contracts but said they were free to interview for other positions.
  • The Lions' next order of business is to hire a personnel executive to assist general manager Martin Mayhew, according to David Birkett of the Oakland Press. The executive is expected to be a talent evaluator and could be a big name. Possibilities include former Cleveland general manager Phil Savage, former Denver general manager Ted Sundquist and former Jacksonville vice president James Harris.
  • Green Bay is expected to interview longtime NFL assistant Dom Capers sometime this weekend for its open defensive coordinator job, according to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Capers' name first surfaced as a candidate Friday.
  • New Chicago defensive line coach Rod Marinelli gave an interview to Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com. His assessment of the Bears' talent level: "There's very good talent. Tommie [Harris] is special. That's what you've got to have at the 'under tackle,' and you've got good ends here and a couple guys that can go in and play that nose position."
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Is Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier the leading candidate for the St. Louis Rams' head-coaching job? Multiple media outlets are reporting that information, including Adam Schefter of NFL.com.

Rams general manager Billy Devaney told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that five candidates remain in the running, including Frazier. But the Post-Dispatch also reported that Frazier has emerged as the front-runner. If that's true, it's likely an offer could be extended Friday and negotiations on a contract would conclude by the weekend.

If Frazier departs, the Vikings would be searching for their eighth new defensive coordinator in the past 11 seasons. We'll bring you a post later Friday speculating on possible replacements.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Former Rams coach Jim Haslett would seem to be the leading candidate for the Packers' defensive coordinator job. But Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports there are indications that Packers coach Mike McCarthy wants to interview at least three more candidates before making a final decision.
  • Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette also suggests McCarthy has more candidates in mind.
  • In a mailbag edition of his column, David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune addresses whether the Bears should pursue receiver Terrell Owens if he is released by Dallas.
  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times speculates on the Bears' possible loot in the NFL's compensatory draft pick program after losing wide receiver Bernard Berrian, tight end John Gilmore and special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo last offseason.
  • Former Detroit defensive coordinator Joe Barry will join Tampa Bay's coaching staff as linebackers coach, according to ESPN.com.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Things are starting to get interesting for Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who reportedly is a finalist for St. Louis' open head coaching job even though he has yet to interview formally.

Frazier is scheduled to meet with the Rams' ownership group Tuesday in St. Louis, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That means Frazier has bypassed the first round of interviews and has joined interim head coach Jim Haslett as one of two known finalists for the job.

The move makes sense, considering Rams general manager Billy Devaney interviewed Frazier last year when he was a member of the Atlanta's front-office staff. Frazier was reportedly the runner-up to Mike Smith for the Falcons job.

Considering that Devaney only recently took control of the Rams' front office, it's reasonable to assume Frazier is his top candidate. Haslett was promoted by owner Chip Rosenbloom during the season after the departure of coach Scott Linehan.

Frazier already has interviewed with Denver and Detroit and is believed to be well-regarded by both teams. The Broncos are said to be favoring New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, with Frazier running a close second.

If Frazier gets one of those jobs, the Vikings will be searching for their eighth new defensive coordinator in the past 11 seasons.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune lay out Minnesota's options for upgrading its quarterback situation.
  • Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson on his approach: "I would like most of the people to understand that we're trying to do the right thing." Thompson gave a lengthy interview to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which published the Q&A on Sunday.
  • Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal also spoke with Thompson at length. Here's one interesting sound bite from Thompson: "We don't hate free agency." Hmmmmm.
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette lights up Thompson for a series of mistakes that led to the Packers' 6-10 season: "Nearly everything Thompson touched in 2008 turned to stone. It's imperative that Thompson shake out of his slump if the Packers want to return to prosperity."
  • Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press points out the Lions' only shot at interviewing Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is Sunday. Otherwise, they will have to wait until after the Ravens' season is over. Ryan already has interviews scheduled with St. Louis and the New York Jets on Sunday.
  • David Birkett of the Oakland Press details a lawsuit against one of the Lions' coaching candidates. According to the story, Washington secondary coach Jerry Gray and two financial advisors are being sued by former Buffalo player Terrence McGee because of what he alleges is an improper investment.
  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times has this interesting nugget: New assistant head coach/defensive line Rod Marinelli is the highest-paid assistant on the Bears' staff. That's another example of the authority questions that defensive coordinator Bob Babich will face.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune on Marinelli's arrival: "Go ahead and question whether [coach Lovie] Smith's allegiance to defensive coordinator Bob Babich affected the decision to fire three defensive assistants but spare his old pal Babich. Every day that Babich retains his title after a second straight disappointing season on defense will be another day Smith's judgment deserves scrutiny. But it would be ignoring Marinelli's established reputation as a motivator and technician in 10 seasons as an NFL assistant coach in Tampa Bay to chalk up Saturday's hire to cronyism."

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