GREEN BAY – Jordy Nelson, Josh Sitton and Jermichael Finley are smart guys. While all three vowed not to let it affect their play, the Green Bay Packers soon-to-be free agents also all confessed that it’s impossible to completely block out the reality that they are playing for their financial futures in 2011.
“Obviously you know it’s there,” Nelson said before Wednesday night’s training-camp practice. “And in the back of your mind, you want to have the best year you can possibly have because you know what’s going to happen in the end.”
And while general manager Ted Thompson was his typical mum self on the subject – “As you guys know, I never talk about contract discussions or the like,” he said, “but as a rule, we like to keep all our players" – there’s no question that Finley, Sitton and Nelson are three players the Packers would like to keep long-term.
The Packers’ other free agents after this season are running back Ryan Grant, center Scott Wells, backup quarterback Matt Flynn, cornerback Jarrett Bush, defensive end Howard Green, outside linebacker Erik Walden and cornerback Pat Lee.
All three players are in the final years of their rookie deals – Nelson (second round), Finley (third) and Sitton (fourth) were all part of the 2008 draft class – and said that contract talks between the team and their agents had yet to begin. But now that the new league year is underway and teams are able to sign veteran players to extensions, those conversations figure to start soon.
“I wouldn’t say there’s talks at all. If they want me, then they’ll get me, you know what I mean?” Sitton said. “And whenever that happens, it’ll be a process.”
All three players said what they are supposed to say about free agency, too: That all things considered, they would prefer to stay in Green Bay long-term. And with a reported $11 million left in salary-cap room after the mass exodus of free agents and released veterans following the re-signings of Mason Crosby, James Jones and John Kuhn, the team has the funds to move on one or two of them.
Sitton would seem to be the logical first player in line, although the six-year deal signed by New England’s Logan Mankins Wednesday – making him the highest-paid interior offensive lineman in the league – may raise the market price.
While Mankins has been selected to three Pro Bowls and Sitton has yet to be picked for one, Sitton is widely considered one of the league’s top guards and figures to get a bigger deal than the five-year, $27.5 million deal ex-teammate Daryn Colledge received from the Arizona Cardinals. Sitton, who is set to make $1.2 million this year, said he’d like to get an extension done before hitting the open market.
“It’s one of those things you don’t want to have to worry about. Because it is an issue. It just is,” Sitton said. “It’s part of the business. So whenever it gets done, it gets done. If it happens, it happens. If not, then we’ll play the field and see what happens.”
Nelson’s situation perhaps became a little more complicated when the Packers were able to re-sign fellow receiver James Jones to a three-year, relatively inexpensive $9.5 million deal. After a breakout game in the Super Bowl (nine receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown) and career-high totals in receptions (45) and yards (582) in the regular season, Nelson appears on the cusp of a breakout year.
“You can only control what you can control – and for me, that’s run a route, get open, catch the ball,” Nelson said Wednesday. “What the Packers decide to do, what other teams decide to do when I hit free agency, it is what it is. It’s just all about playing football.”
Asked if what happened on Feb. 6 can carry over to the Sept. 8 season opener and beyond, Nelson replied, “It can. I think it’s confidence. Obviously there’s not a bigger stage. To be able to perform that way and make plays, obviously there are some I wish I could have back, but you know you can do it. You just have to continue to do it.”
The four-year, $3.71 million deal Nelson got as the team’s top pick in 2008 included a signing bonus of $1.7 million and calls for a base salary of $565,000 this season. For his part, Nelson said he didn’t think Jones’ deal would have a major impact on what the team thinks of him.
“With James, I was happy to have him back in a selfish way, because we know what we can do as a receiving corps,” Nelson said. “But for him, I was disappointed that the lockout kind of screwed him. He wasn’t able to get the free agency that he wanted, he was pushed to make a decision, So I wish he’d have had a normal year to get what he wanted. But we’re glad to have him back. We’re not worried about balls. We know what we can do.”
And then, there’s Finley, who could be the toughest of the bunch to sign. When he visited ESPNMilwaukee.com and ESPNMadison.com’s Green and Gold Today during the 2010 offseason, Finley said one of his goals was to be the league’s highest-paid tight end. That would mean getting a deal that surpasses those of San Francisco's Vernon Davis (six years, $42.705 million, $23 million guaranteed) and San Diego’s Antonio Gates (five years, $36.175 million, $20.4 million guaranteed).
Finley insisted this week that he’s not focused on a new deal – saying “I’m all about rings” and “Individual, I couldn’t care less” – and said his focus instead is on playing a full 16-game season, which he has yet to do. Finley played in 14 games as a rookie in 2008 (six catches, 74 yards, one touchdown) and 13 games in 2009 (55 catches, 676 yards, five TDs, plus a franchise-record 159-yard playoff performance) and was on pace for an 84-catch, 1,204-yard season last year when he went down with a knee injury on the opening series of the team’s Week 5 loss at Washington.
If Finley stays healthy and plays at the level he’s capable of – “If I get 16 games, I think I can do some damage to a stat sheet, I guarantee you that," he said – his price tag figures to go up weekly. But, he said he was open to signing a long-term extension before getting to free agency in the spring.
"It's a business. If they come at me with a long-term (contract), of course I'll take it,” Finley said. “But if they don't, I'm going to still play ball to my best."
The Packers did draft a pair of tight ends this spring – Arkansas’ D.J. Williams in the fifth round and North Carolina’s Ryan Taylor in the seventh – as insurance, but Thompson seems to like Finley, having brushed off his loquacious ways.
"J-Mike is a very competitive guy on the field and he's very outgoing in the way he talks and things like that. I don't mind that,” Thompson said. “I think you can cross the line sometimes, but I have not seen where J-Mike has crossed the line. I think his competitive spirit and his desire to be really good, and that's what he really wants to be, is what drives him. And I think that's OK."
And make no mistake, a big payday also drives Finley.
“But this year, I’ve set myself up (for a payday). So it’s a huge year,” he confessed. “(But) I don't think about it daily or anything like that. It's just something that's here and I've got to deal with."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.