The Green Bay Packers under general manager Ted Thompson have been a draft-and-develop franchise, using free agency only in rare instances to supplement cheaper, homegrown talent.
Thompson's roster-building strategies are backed up by wins, division titles and a Super Bowl Championship. Since arriving in Green Bay in 2005, Thompson has constructed teams that have won 86 regular-season games (fifth most in the NFL), four NFC North titles and Super Bowl XLV.
Yet ahead of the 2014 season, the possibility exists that Thompson's tried-and-true philosophies will be put to the test, as recent misses in the draft and struggles to develop those picks could force the Packers general manager to get uncharacteristically active in the unrestricted free-agent market.
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, the Packers are preparing to use their $28 million in cap room to pursue and sign free agents, with as many as five potentially coming to Green Bay this offseason.
There are many teams that sign five free agents every offseason. But in Green Bay, such a haul would be a seismic shift in acquisition policy.
Over Thompson's nine seasons on the job, the Packers have signed a grand total of nine unrestricted free agents. Here's the full list: Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett and Marquand Manuel in 2006, Frank Walker in 2007, Brandon Chillar in 2008, Duke Preston in 2009, Anthony Hargrove and Jeff Saturday in 2012 and Matthew Mulligan in 2013.
One player a year is well below the league average, and it helps illustrate Thompson's view of unrestricted free agency. Players getting to the open market are usually flawed in some way, and once in free agency, the auction-style bidding process serves to drive up player prices above market value.
There's also the risk of missing on a free agent, which comes with a much greater cost—usually in the form of dead money against the salary cap—than striking out on a draft pick.
Thompson has instead relied on his ability to draft good players and his coaching staff's ability to develop those picks. When a Packers draft pick prospers, Thompson makes sure he stays in Green Bay with a second contract.
This strategy works wonders when all of the pieces are operating harmoniously. Throughout his time with the Packers, Thompson has been able to win while also staying well under the league-mandated salary cap and still keeping major players in Green Bay.
But when cogs in the machine start to lag behind, the process can start malfunctioning.
That's not to say the Packers have struggled to stay competitive in recent years. Green Bay has won three straight division titles since capturing Super Bowl XLV. In 2011, the team won a franchise record 15 games, and a fifth-straight double-digit win season was on the horizon in 2013 before Aaron Rodgers suffered a fractured collarbone.
Yet the Packers of the last few seasons have felt somewhat like a second-tier club, still plenty capable of piling up wins but also a fraction off from the NFL's top teams. Green Bay is just 1-3 in the postseason since winning the Super Bowl, thanks in large part to a defense that has struggled for long stretches of the last three seasons.
Thompson has certainly tried to fix the problems on his defense.
Since 2011, the Packers have drafted seven defensive players in the first four rounds of the NFL draft. Among those are first-rounders Nick Perry and Datone Jones and second-rounders Casey Hayward and Jerel Worthy.
Seven high draft picks over just three years represents a significant investment on one side of the football. And when investment of such volume is made, results are expected to follow.
Thompson hasn't seen the progression.
Perry has struggled to both stay healthy and transition to outside linebacker, Jones was nothing more than a rotational player as a rookie, Hayward missed almost all of 2013 with recurring hamstring problems and Worthy spent the majority of last season recovering from ACL surgery.
Davon House, a fourth-round pick in 2011, ranks either fourth or fifth on the Packers cornerback depth chart. Jerron McMillian, a fourth-rounder in 2012, was sent packing in early December of last year.
Only Mike Daniels, another fourth-round selection in '12, has given the Packers consistent, injury-free play from the group of seven picked by Thompson.
Part of the problem has clearly been injuries, a commonplace in the game but an especially devastating factor for Green Bay recently. The team's top-four picks from 2012 have missed a combined 46 games over two seasons. Yet availability has to rank high on any evaluation of a football player, and the Packers simply haven't gotten enough games from top picks in recent years.
The injuries do make it difficult to consider Thompson's picks true "misses," which is a term better served for a selection who simply can't play. But it's clear the draft additions haven't reshaped a defense that has ranked no higher than 11th in points or yards the last three seasons.
This failure of the Thompson roster-building machine might be what tempts him into becoming active in free agency.
The Packers defense is currently lacking at every level but especially at defensive line, inside linebacker and safety. It seems highly unlikely Thompson can find new starters at all three positions in one draft.
According to Rapoport, the Packers want to get "more athletic" along the defensive line, which likely means the departure of free agent B.J. Raji. Added athleticism would certainly help provide more attacking power for defensive coordinator Dom Capers. In recent years, Raji and Ryan Pickett have served as block-eaters instead of pocket-collapsers.
If the Packers get smaller on the defensive line, it stands to reason that the inside linebacker position would need an upgrade, as neither Brad Jones nor A.J. Hawk is especially effective when asked to continually shed blocks. The pair might drown behind a thinner front. But even if the Packers don't make drastic changes along the line, the defense's inside linebackers still need to get bigger, faster and stronger.
And there's no question Green Bay requires upgrades at safety, where the Packers received zero turnover plays and a season's worth of blown coverages and missed tackles from starters Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings. Thompson is financially invested in Burnett, but Jennings needs to be replaced.
These holes, combined with three straight disappointing trips to the postseason and the fact that the Packers are still well within the prime years of Rodgers, open up the possibility that Thompson will more actively pursue outside help.
Even so, the chances of Thompson ponying up big bucks for one of the big names on the market—say, safety Jairus Byrd, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo or pass rusher Greg Hardy—remain relatively low. Their prices will naturally rise out of Green Bay's comfortable range, where talent and value meet.
Thompson also has a number of his own free agents to deal with, the most important of which include cornerback Sam Shields, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and receiver James Jones. New contracts for those players will cut into Green Bay's salary cap.
And looking ahead, Thompson knows that new deals are coming for players like Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Bryan Bulaga and Mike Daniels. Always a forward thinker and planner, Thompson wouldn't do anything drastic now that would sacrifice his ability to keep homegrown players in Green Bay.
The Packers have always worked this way under Thompson, but the urgency to fix holes after a few drafting misses has opened up the possibility for a slight change in strategy. We'll know more in less than a month, when unrestricted free agency official begins.
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