Most Important Decision of Offseason Awaits

S Nick Collins (Andy Lyons/Getty)

Everything that's happened since the season ended will take a back seat to Nick Collins' life-altering decision. As coach Mike McCarthy said: "To have Nick Collins back on the practice field and playing games would be huge, but this is more than football."

In workmanlike fashion the last couple weeks, general manager Ted Thompson is patching what few holes formed after a mostly superior 2011 season.

Pro Bowl center Scott Wells leaves for the St. Louis Rams in free agency. Thompson counters by plugging in five-time Pro Bowl pick Jeff Saturday, an attractive free agent who previously was Peyton Manning's right-hand delivery man with the Indianapolis Colts.

No sooner does coach Mike McCarthy do some more lamenting about the league-worst defense, particularly the paltry pass rush, than Green Bay signs veteran defensive end Anthony Hargrove. That acquisition, which was finalized Thursday, came a week after the Packers added defensive tackle Daniel Muir, who started his career as an undrafted rookie in Green Bay.

Thompson might not be done in trying to resuscitate what up until last season had been a tantalizing defense under Dom Capers. Free-agent New York Giants defensive end Dave Tollefson, who also broke into the league with the Packers, visited Green Bay on Thursday.

Yet, all of the recent activity may soon be taking a backseat to potentially a sizable hole that won't be easy to fill.

At stake is the playing future of free safety Nick Collins.

The seven-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl honoree went to New York for further evaluation and consultation on his surgically repaired neck. Collins' spinal surgeon reportedly put the player through a battery of tests on Wednesday. By Monday, Collins was expected to get definitive word from his doctors whether attempting a comeback on the playing field will be advisable.

McCarthy has his doubts about seeing Collins in uniform ever again.

"If Nick was my son, I would not let him play," McCarthy told reporters March 25 at the start of the NFL meetings in Palm Beach, Fla.

Collins hasn't played since he sustained a herniated disc while trying to make an open-field tackle of and colliding with Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart in Week 2 of the 2011 season Sept. 18.

Collins had to be carted off the field and underwent a delicate cervical-fusion surgery less than two weeks later.

In this instance, amid the heightened call for player safety in the NFL, the risk of having Collins play football again and expose him to the threat of permanent damage for the rest of his life is palpable. Thompson and McCarthy recognize that, deferring to Collins' medical team and the Packers' medical staff but not removing themselves from the final decision that has to be made sooner than later.

"I anticipate that (the doctor) is going to say it's a very positive report because I know they felt good about the surgery," McCarthy said. "To me, that's really the first step. Then, our doctors have to get involved, and we'll all sit down and talk to Nick and see where Nick is. So, it will be a process that we'll go through.

"I think everybody needs to sit down and make sure we move forward together. To have Nick Collins back on the practice field and playing games would be huge, but this is more than football. Nick's a family man; he's a father. That's no fun standing over someone like that (after Collins was injured). I don't think any coach wants to see one of their players go through that."

Others share McCarthy's reluctance to have Collins play again.

"I think the most important thing is Nick's well-being," Alan Herman, Collins' agent, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I think if you polled those people closest to him, they don't want him to play, including his agents. But it's ultimately his call. It's the player's choice.

"I've told him, why come back? You've got more money than you can spend," Herman added. "But I don't think it's any different with Nick Collins than it is with (newly signed Denver Broncos quarterback) Peyton Manning. That's why Peyton Manning has come back from a neck injury. They like to compete. They're willing to accept the risk."

Losing the playmaking skills and heady leadership of Collins had an adverse effect on the Packers defense last season, when the unit crashed hard to the bottom of the league rankings. Green Bay allowed more than 410 total yards per game, including an average of nearly 300 passing yards.

McCarthy, through his after-season analysis with Capers, attributed the regression to deficiencies in pass rush, pass coverage and tackling. Personnel, the coaches felt, wasn't a glaring issue, though McCarthy alluded to not having another impactful pass rusher of the caliber of outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

"It's not just about one position," McCarthy told reporters at the league meetings. "You'd like to have two Clay Matthews. Hell, I'd take another one in a heartbeat. But we play with a lot of versatility and variety (on defense). I think you have playmakers, you have core players and then you have role players."

As the Packers discovered in 2011, Collins would be one of those key players who can't easily be replaced.


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