With every new offseason, there is building anticipation that Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson will diverge from his hardened roster-building strategy and get active in unrestricted free agency.
Desire for this change of philosophy has hit a high point to start this offseason. The Packers are leaving behind a disappointing 8-8-1 season with 20 in-house free agents and a number of holes to fill, especially on defense. As the theory goes, Thompson will have too many roster requirements to satisfy through just the draft and college free agency.
Yet the splash signings some may want during March's NFL free agency remain as unlikely in 2014 as any other offseason.
Under Thompson, the Packers will always be a draft-and-develop football team, dependent on quality evaluation of college prospects and the development of those draft picks once in the NFL. The selections that perform are then retained with second contracts.
These guiding principles are very clear in Thompson's roster-building playbook. And while he didn't completely rule out using free agency this offseason, Thompson once again laid out his basic operating procedure to Vic Carucci and Adam Caplan of SiriusXM NFL Radio on Monday, via Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee:
We just think it’s a good model to use under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement and that sort of thing. We just feel like it’s … your best policy is to try the best you can – and it doesn’t always work out because sometimes you have to do different things – but you draft good people, you develop them, you get a good coaching staff who coaches them up, [and try to make sure] they like it there.
Thompson rarely panics or overreacts to a given situation. So why would a general manager who has signed a total of eight unrestricted free agents over his nine years on the job—including just three since 2010—suddenly deviate from his firmly established course?
It's true that the Packers just finished a season with their fewest amount of wins since 2008. And that there appears to be a talent gap between Green Bay and its NFC rivals in San Francisco and Seattle. The team has cap room to spend and holes to fill, most notably at safety, linebacker and along the defensive line.
But you'd have to be detached from reality to think Thompson can't see that the 2013 Packers were without Aaron Rodgers for seven games and Clay Matthews for another six, including the playoff loss to the 49ers.
With both healthy, the Packers started 5-2, held fourth-quarter leads in San Francisco and Cincinnati, and were generally considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
And despite this year's minor hiccup, when the team's annual litany of injuries finally took its toll, the Packers are 55-24-1 during the regular season since 2009. Only the New England Patriots have more wins.
Thompson won't view now as a time to stray from his ways.
"If an opportunity presents itself (in free agency) and it helps us be better, then yes," Thompson said, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "But I think doing it for the sake of doing it is a waste of time and energy."
Since 2010, Thompson has signed the following veteran free agents: Anthony Hargrove (2012), Phillip Merling ('12), Jeff Saturday ('12), Daniel Muir ('12) and Matthew Mulligan (2013). Hargrove, Saturday and Mulligan were the only unrestricted free agents of the bunch. Thompson avoided unrestricted free agency completely during the offseasons ahead of 2010 (won Super Bowl) and 2011 (went 15-1).
"We've done it in the past," Thompson said. "We try to do it selectively."
Thompson's biggest free-agent hits have been Charles Woodson, a cornerback no one wanted back in 2006 but who turned into a turnover machine for the Packers, and Ryan Pickett, a block-eating run-stuffer who has spent the last nine years in Green Bay. Other notable signings include safety Marquand Manuel (2006), linebacker Brandon Chillar (2008) and Saturday (2012).
|Packers Unrestricted FA Signings Under Ted Thompson|
|2006||CB Charles Woodson||OAK|
|2006||S Marquand Manuel||SEA|
|2006||DL Ryan Pickett*||STL|
|2007||CB Frank Walker||NYG|
|2008||LB Brandon Chillar||STL|
|2009||OL Duke Preston||BUF|
|2012||DE Anthony Hargrove||SEA|
|2012||C Jeff Saturday||IND|
|2013||TE Matthew Mulligan||STL|
|*Still on roster|
Last offseason, the Packers were one of just three teams that didn't sign a player in the first week of free agency. It took Green Bay until early April to acquire Mulligan, a cheap, bottom-tier free agent.
That'll once again be the expectation come March of this year. The Packers will cautiously wait out the process, pouncing on a player only if the fit is perfect and the price is ridiculously team-friendly.
More than likely, no player will fit the bill until late in the spring, when most of the teams have already signed the splashy players to big deals. Paying full retail price in Green Bay is out of the question.
The Thompson strategy is so sound that it's almost impossible to argue with, even if fans of the team loudly call for free-agent additions every offseason.
Almost never do real difference-making players get to free agency, and when they do, the cost is enormous. Below those top-tier players are a swell of middle-of-the-road patchwork options—all with flaws and reasons why they made it to free agency in the first place.
So instead of rolling the dice on expensive defective merchandise, the Packers forgo free agency and use the draft for cheap options.
Does Thompson's strategy leave Green Bay open to potential roster holes? Of course. Not every draft pick pans out. But free agents also bust, and those mistakes are far more costly in the long term.
There's really no perfect roster-building strategy in the NFL, only ones that work most of the time and others that don't. Thompson's has proven to work most of the time.
It's also impossible to know what Green Bay's eventual roster situation will look like come free agency.
Before March's player auction, Thompson first has to deal with the 20 free agents from his own club. Among those up for unrestricted free agency include cornerback Sam Shields, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Jermichael Finley, receiver James Jones, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, running back James Starks, quarterback Matt Flynn and Pickett.
Despite giving Rodgers and Matthews mega-deals last summer, the Packers will enter this offseason with over $26 million in cap room, thanks to the almost $10 million they'll carry over from 2013. The money will give Thompson the ammunition he needs to retain the most important players on his roster without deals.
It represents the final part of his roster strategy: Draft, develop and, finally, retain.
By the time March rolls around, Thompson may not have much wiggle room for a splash move in free agency. Shields, Raji and Dietrich-Smith could command premier salaries, and Finley, Jones, Starks, Flynn and Pickett are core players who may eat up additional cap space.
And as always with Thompson, the future of the franchise is just as important as the present.
|Packers' Major Free Agents: 2014 and 2015|
|CB Sam Shields||WR Randall Cobb|
|C Evan Dietrich-Smith||WR Jordy Nelson|
|TE Jermichael Finley||OT Bryan Bulaga|
|DT B.J. Raji||CB Tramon Williams|
|DL Ryan Pickett||CB Davon House|
|WR James Jones||WR Jarrett Boykin|
|RB James Starks||CB Jarrett Bush|
|QB Matt Flynn||RB DuJuan Harris|
|*All listed FAs in 2014 are unrestricted|
He certainly understands that Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga will be up for new contracts after next season. Nelson and Cobb are due for big raises, and Bulaga is a former first-round pick who will be penciled in as a starter at left or right tackle in 2014. Thompson will want to roll over as much cap room from next season as possible to help with those deals.
Improvement in 2014 will likely have to come from the continued development of the remaining roster and a fresh group of rookies. That's the status quo in Green Bay.
We discussed on Monday how the Packers need more from the 2012 draft class, which has just four holdovers in Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward and Mike Daniels. This past year's rookie class will expect jumps from first-round pick Datone Jones, fifth-round pick Josh Boyd and seventh-round pick Sam Barrington. Injuries to key contributors will heal.
And you can bet Thompson will add seven or more draft picks and double-digit undrafted free agents in May.
This is how the Packers have always operated under Thompson. The year and situation are different, but it shouldn't be expected that Thompson will deviate far from his inveterate way of building a roster.