Players under contract
Unrestricted free agents
San Jose State
The good news: While Nelson may not spring to mind for many NFL observers as one of the league's elite pass-catchers, he should. Despite playing with four quarterbacks last season – Aaron Rodgers, Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn – he was the picture of consistency, catching 85 passes for 1,314 yards (both career bests) with eight touchdowns. He finished the year ranked 10th in the NFL in receiving yards and tied for 14th in receptions, and despite missing four games (and parts of two others) in 2012 with a hamstring injury, he's caught 202 passes for 3,322 yards and 30 touchdowns over the past three seasons. With a franchise record 19 receptions of 25 yards or more last season, his 16.4-yard average per reception over the past three seasons ranks fifth in the NFL among receivers with at least 125 catches over that time frame.
In short, he might be the only receiver the Packers simply couldn't live without. Of his 85 receptions, 35 came from the replacement QBs, and when the Packers won in Minnesota on Oct. 27 in Rodgers' final start before his injury, Nelson caught seven passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns – when Cobb (leg), Jones (leg) and tight end Jermichael Finley (neck) were all sidelined with injuries.
"It's been great to be on the field every game after what happened last season. That's No. 1," Nelson said late in the season. "If you go through any year being healthy, you're going to have a good year and everything else will take care of itself. It's been interesting obviously with the quarterback situation. And not just being without Aaron but going through so many of them. So it's been different."
The bad news: While the Packers currently have nearly $30 million in salary-cap room – having carried over almost $10 million from last season – to give them spending flexibility, they do have 17 unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market on March 11, including Jones, one of the locker room's most important veteran voices. While Jones missed two games with a knee injury, was hampered by the injury even after he returned from the injury (which happened at Baltimore on Oct. 20) and played the final few weeks with broken ribs, he still managed to produce 59 receptions for 817 yards and three touchdowns.
But while Jones' value to the team would seem to indicate he'd be a priority to re-sign, the Packers' greater issue at the position is that Nelson and Cobb are each entering the final year of their deals. Nelson, perhaps the most underpaid player in the league for the three-year extension he signed in October 2011. That deal added three years onto the final year of his existing deal, making it a four-year, $13.989 million contract that contained only $5 million in guaranteed money. His base salary this season is a borderline insulting $2.55 million.
Cobb, meanwhile, is still on his rookie deal as a 2011 second-round pick, so he's set to make a base salary of $812,648 this year as part of his four-year, $3.209 million deal. Having let Greg Jennings walk as a free agent a year ago, keeping that threesome – along with the emerging Boykin – together would make sense given the elite QB they play with.
The big question: Jones' first bite at the free-agency apple in 2011 was a small one. Thanks to the lockout, free agency started just before training camps opened, and all Jones got was a small nibble from the Minnesota Vikings. This time around, it's hard to predict what his market might be. Although he had three productive seasons – 38 receptions for 636 yards and a career-best 16.7-yard average in 2011; a career-high 64 catches for 784 yards and an NFL-high 14 touchdowns in 2012 and 59 catches for a career-best 817 yards last year – he'll also turn 30 on March 31. Whatever happens, though, Jones accomplished what he wanted to last season regarding his contract situation: He just played and didn't let it weigh on him the way his friend Jennings had the year before.
"During the season last year? Oh yeah. Especially when he got hurt. You could see that," Jones said when asked if Jennings thought about or worried about his next contract. "Even, he talked to me about it. And who wouldn't? When you get hurt, you're not able to go out there and produce, or really show what you've got. That hurts. It's going to show in your face.
"But I just took the mindset from Day 1 in the offseason when I was training, I'm not caring about money. Whether they talk to be before the season, during the season, in free agency, it doesn't matter. I'm just going out, having fun and playing football."
"You're just relaxed out there. You understand, you're not playing for the money. Whatever happens, happens. Make the most of your opportunities, and if at the end of the year or during the year they talk to you, they do. If they don't, they don't."
The Packers ended up not signing anyone to an extension before season's end, but even with Boykin elevating his game, Jones still has value. Whether another team swoops in and pays him more than the Packers are willing to is the issue.
"Anything can happen in free agency. Certainly would like to get James back, considering everything he's done and still can do. He's a phenomenal player," wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "Just his overall toughness and needing that, I think James by far stands out."
Offseason outlook: Coaches love buzzwords and catchphrases, and many times they are simply empty clichés. But one that isn't – and is vital given the Packers' draft-and-develop philosophy to roster building – is the idea that players make their biggest improvements from Year 1 to Year 2. That's what the organization expects from all of its former rookies, and if the Packers could get all their second-year players to deliver the way Boykin did in 2013, they'd be in business.
As a rookie in 2012, Boykin caught just five passes for 27 yards. While those numbers weren't significant, the fact that he made the team – after being signed and cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars and coming to the Packers' post-draft rookie orientation camp as a tryout player – was. He made such a strong impression in training camp that the team kept him as the No. 6 receiver, even though the Packers had never kept six receivers coming out of camp under general manager Ted Thompson. He ended the season with a clutch fourth-down catch at Minnesota in the regular-season finale, a play on which he suffered a serious ankle injury.
Then, to open the 2013 season, he played just 10 snaps in the first four games and didn't have a reception. But when injuries hit, he took off, finishing the season with 49 receptions for 681 yards and three TDs.
"It goes back to preparation. That's really the starting point," Bennett said. "But then also the man [Boykin is] – you look at his character, his approach. It matters to him. Regardless of what was said in some areas [about Boykin not being fast enough], you can't really measure the heart of the man and his passion and his desire, along with his skill-set. I think he's done a phenomenal job. He has to continue to get better. None of our guys are finished products."
Beyond Boykin, the Packers have White, Harper, Dorsey and Gillett as young players ripe for developing. White saw the most action on offense of the four – 125 snaps – he ended the year on injured reserve with a knee injury. Dorsey, a seventh-round pick from Maryland, spent all season on IR after barely practicing during the offseason and training camp due to knee and toe injuries. He might make things interesting after basically taking a medical redshirt. And Harper, picked up on waivers from San Francisco when the receiver injuries were at their worst, was a fourth-round pick by Seattle who was cut after a disappointing training camp. Perhaps with an offseason program in the offense, he can rediscover the talent that made him a fourth-round pick in the first place.
Next: Tight ends.
– Jason Wilde