5 Mistakes the Green Bay Packers Can't Afford to Make This Offseason
With an unusually high 20 players set to become free agents—17 of them unrestricted—and a talented draft class with potential Week 1 contributors to evaluate, Thompson's personnel decisions will be under the microscope this year.
While the Packers could address both their positions of need and those simply in need of depth, there are a few key moves the team could make that would be unhealthy for next season and beyond.
The following five mistakes Thompson and the Packers need to avoid this offseason were chosen due to each outcome's potential severity on the team's health, while still having a plausible chance of occurring.
Failing to Draft a Week 1 Impact Player in the First Round
In fairness to Ted Thompson, since he became the Packers' general manager in 2005, his track record with first-round picks has been resoundingly successful.
Among the nine players Thompson has selected in the first round are Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk and Bryan Bulaga.
Yet, Thompson hasn't always struck gold with the team's first overall pick.
Justin Harrell, selected with the 16th-overall pick in 2007 as the second defensive tackle taken that year, was a promising pick with whom no one could argue at the time. Thompson never could have predicted Harrell would suffer a litany of injuries to his back and knee that would end with him being placed on injured reserve in 2010 and being released in July 2011 after playing in just 14 regular-season games.
Still, it was the third-highest draft position in the first round in Thompson's tenure at GM, and Harrell is the only first-round pick no longer with the team since 2005. The whole situation was disappointing.
The jury is still out on Thompson's last two selections: Datone Jones in 2013 and Nick Perry in 2012. However, it's safe to say that one season later for Jones, and two for Perry, neither has met expectations.
There are some outstanding talents at multiple positions projected to go in the first round, including some that map with Green Bay's positions of need (namely, safety and defensive line). A trade in the draft isn't out of the question, either; after all, that's how Thompson ended up snagging Matthews.
No matter which position Thompson chooses to address in the first round, it's imperative that he select a player with Week 1 starting potential who will only improve in Green Bay's scheme, not a player who will need several years of development.
Letting Evan Dietrich-Smith Walk
Of the 17 players set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, Evan Dietrich-Smith is a re-signing priority.
After finishing the season ranked No. 8 overall among centers and No. 4 in pass-blocking per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Dietrich-Smith will be looking for a generous contract—and if the Packers can't offer one, they'll likely lose him.
"You know, it's one of those things that could or couldn't happen," Dietrich-Smith said earlier this month, per Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "I've had a lot of fun with the guys playing. I hope we can continue it, but at the same time I think everybody understands the business side of the game and we'll just have to wait and see."
What Dietrich-Smith will likely be waiting to see is if the Packers feel that he's worth re-signing when he's up against 16 other guys, and also whether he's essential enough that they need to retain him rather than promote someone like offensive lineman J.C. Tretter to the starting center position.
The short answer is, he is that essential. Aaron Rodgers has made his desire to have consistency at the center position clear, ever since the failed Jeff Saturday experiment ultimately led to Dietrich-Smith getting the opportunity to start.
And having a veteran center in a fast-paced offense that runs the no-huddle and includes as many audibles as the Packers' is nothing short of a boon.
"It would be fun to go on a run with a guy for five, six, seven years years because that quarterback-center relationship is very important," Rodgers, who has taken snaps from four different centers, told Hodkiewicz in November (subscription required).
"I think you see that with Evan and I. The opportunity to play together for an extended period of time, that would be kind of a quarterback's dream right there."
Few positions directly affect the quarterback on every single play in the NFL. Left tackle is certainly among them, as is center. To elect not to re-sign Dietrich-Smith after the season he just had, in which he more than proved he's worthy of a deal, could prove to be a costly mistake for Thompson and the Packers.
Not Drafting a Defensive Lineman in the Early Rounds
While the defensive lineman position is deep in this year's draft, there's no denying that the talent level drops off after the third round. And despite the hand-wringing about the state of Green Bay's safety group, defensive line is another gaping need in this draft with the way things currently stand.
The Packers have four defensive linemen potentially on their way out the door: B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson. The former two are veteran leaders on the line; the latter two are up-and-coming talents, and it's a virtual lock that all four will not return for the 2014 season.
Thompson would be well-served to address this need through the draft, where the talent is rich.
It could mean passing up the ability to select a safety in the first round—a possibility made much easier if Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is already off the board by pick No. 21—but walking away from the first round with a defensive tackle like Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, Notre Dame's Louis Nix or Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman would help shore up the line for years to come.
Moreover, as the Packers have to face each of Reggie Bush, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte twice a year, the addition of one of these outstanding wide bodies to a run defense that showed a glimmer of promise early in 2013 could firmly cement the unit as a stout one.
If circumstance prevents Thompson from targeting a defensive lineman in the first round—be that the availability of Clinton-Dix, a trade or something else altogether—he can still find star value in the second round. Stephon Tuitt out of Notre Dame or Will Sutton out of Arizona State could both have a huge impact as members of Green Bay's front seven.
Waiting any later to address this need, however, could prove risky for Thompson.
Spending Too Much in Free Agency...Or Passing It Up Altogether
To find success in free agency is to walk a narrow line, with which Ted Thompson has had mixed results.
For the wildly successful acquisition of Charles Woodson in 2006, there was the disappointing signing of Jeff Saturday in 2012, who was benched before the season even ended.
For the most part, Thompson has avoided the two potential pitfalls of free agency: getting caught in a spending trap for a player who doesn't perform at the level he's paid to, or avoiding free agency altogether and placing 100 percent emphasis on the draft. Yes, Thompson's ratio is skewed, and his strategy is by and large that of draft-and-develop.
Thompson chooses to place an emphasis on paying and locking down his own top-tier players, rather than other teams' lesser-tier ones. Then, young home-grown players fill in the rest of the holes. Sure, some don't pan out, but that's a safer strategy than a multimillion-dollar free agent who similarly doesn't pan out.
In that sense, spending Jairus Byrd money this offseason—a deal that would amount to upwards of $7 million or even $8 million per year—seems out of the question for Thompson and the Packers, especially when he has 17 of his own to pay or let walk.
But if an intriguing prospect presents himself who won't break the bank, Thompson should be willing to take a closer look.
From what Thompson told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that's not impossible. "If an opportunity presents itself and it helps us be better, then yes," Thompson said. "But I think doing it for the sake of doing it is a waste of time and energy."
When a team ties up a large percentage of its cap space on its marquee players, money is at a premium. But Thompson owes it to this team—which is in dire need of a veteran presence at so many positions, including safety and, depending on what happens in free agency, offensive line—to take a serious look at who's out there.
Letting Sam Shields Walk
When a position group is held together by the glue of just one player, it's an issue. And that's exactly Green Bay's situation with Sam Shields at cornerback. Arguably the most essential re-sign priority this offseason, letting Shields walk would be a gigantic mistake for the team.
The Packers cornerbacks, as a whole, had a forgettable season, but Shields was the lone bright spot. He held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 72.7 on average for the season; the next-lowest quarterback rating, by Tramon Williams, was 88.1, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
And Shields' four interceptions, which led the team, were good for sixth-highest among all cornerbacks.
The secondary needs a lot of help, but at safety more so than cornerback. It's not wise or cost-effective to rebuild both units simultaneously; instead, Thompson should re-sign Shields (and possibly restructure Williams' deal while he's at it) and focus his attention on personnel changes in the safety group.
Shields earned his tender of $2.023 million in 2013; a new deal for him would be much easier to work out than for many of Green Bay's 16 other unrestricted free agents, based on estimated returns. He's proven he is a solid cover corner who can match up to Calvin Johnson, Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall twice a year.
Especially given that one of the Packers' biggest issues in 2013 was creating turnovers, it would be incredibly foolish to let the player who led the team in interceptions walk.