Don't expect Ted Thompson to display his usual reticence to spend big in free agency in 2014.
It's likely that the Green Bay Packers make at least one big-name acquisition before the draft on May 8, if not more.
More importantly, the Packers' ability to spend this offseason, cap-wise, lines up with a need for veteran experience at multiple positions and a potential loss of up to 19 of their own free agents. (Restricted free agent safety Chris Banjo was re-signed on Wednesday.)
Rumblings of the Packers' plan to "spend big" in free agency began with Ian Rapoport's report on NFL Network on Feb. 12 that the Packers would take advantage of their abundant cap space to acquire as many as five players, which NFL.com's Dan Hanzus notes would be the most for Green Bay since 2006. (Thompson took over as general manager in 2005.)
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The table above outlines Thompson's most noteworthy free-agent signings during his tenure in Green Bay. Two interesting details stand out: Firstly, the majority of players Thompson has targeted have been defensive backs. Secondly, only one "big name" free agent still remains on the Packers.
Perhaps Thompson has been wary of free agency because, aside from Pickett and Woodson, he hasn't found prolonged success using it.
Signing five players in 2014 would be highly unusual, but that the Packers would at least target a couple big names seemed even more likely after ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on Feb. 20 that the NFL salary cap was expected to rise to $130 million in 2014, which would have given Green Bay more than $30 million in cap space.
However, with news on Feb. 22 from ESPN's John Clayton that the salary cap is now projected to be $132 million, and rumors reported by The Washington Post that it could be even higher "in a matter of days" before the final number is determined, it now would be crazier for Green Bay to bow out of the free-agency race rather than jump in with both feet.
While spending big seemed less likely at the beginning of February, these new estimates would give the Packers more than $34 million in cap space, the sixth-most among all teams.
Even if the Packers do end up with $34 million in cap room after final determinations are made, rather than go into a free-agent frenzy, snapping up expensive potential free agents like safety Jairus Byrd with reckless abandon, Thompson is more likely to target a few free agents with manageable salaries than spend it all in one place.
The Packers can use their current cap standing as an opportunity to be more active in free agency than usual—thus "spending big" by their usual standard—but they should, and will, also focus on re-signing some of their own veterans, such as Sam Shields, Evan Dietrich-Smith or Jermichael Finley, before they hit the open market.
To put their current cap standing in perspective, using estimates from OverTheCap.com, the 2013 base salaries of each of Green Bay's 20 free agents amounted to $32.102 million, without accounting for bumps that would be needed to retain even half of them in 2014—huge bumps for some.
For example, Sam Shields elected to receive a one-year restricted tender of $2.023 million per year in 2013 rather than take a multiyear deal at that time, indicating he expected to be paid well more than what Green Bay was willing to offer then in any new contract he would accept.
His decision to postpone his long-term payday may have been wise, as the Packers reportedly met with agent Drew Rosenhaus at the combine, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky, to talk about a deal.
With fellow corner Tramon Williams under a lucrative four-year, $33.074 million deal averaging $8.25 million per season, it's possible the Packers would have to pay Shields somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million per year to retain him—certainly possible with $34 million cap space, but it means to also spend big in free agency, they'd have to let the majority of their other free agents walk.
Still, there are multiple potential free agents Thompson could target if he wanted to spend even a third of his available cap space in that way—players who could satisfy glaring roster holes and leave the Packers with more flexibility in the draft.
If the Packers don't re-sign Finley, who had a prior amount per year (APY) of $7 million, they could look into Baltimore's Dennis Pitta, who made the one-year restricted tender of $2.023 million in 2013.
Pitta's importance to the Ravens' receiving corps was evident when he missed time in 2013, and the team's red-zone production fell as a result. The Packers were experiencing red-zone efficiency issues even before Finley's neck injury—they finished 2013 26th in the league with a conversion rate of 50.72 percent per TeamRankings.com—but the loss of a strong pass-catching tight end exacerbated the problem.
Pitta would help, but Green Bay might not get the chance to bid for him; according to reports from CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, the Ravens could reach a new deal with Pitta by Monday. If they can't, Thompson should absolutely target the tight end.
However, it's likely that Green Bay's biggest area of focus in free agency would be defense. At safety, re-signing Banjo suggests that the Packers must either draft a safety in the first or second round ready to start Week 1 or acquire a veteran free agent, rather than selecting one lower in the draft and developing him.
If Thompson wanted a veteran, San Francisco's Donte Whitner or Chris Clemons of the Miami Dolphins are potential fits. Unlike Byrd, who has a previous APY of $6.916 million and wants to be the highest-paid safety in the league, Whitner and Clemons each made less than $4 million in 2013 ($3.88 million and $2.75 million, respectively).
The 49ers are "optimistic" they can re-sign Whitner, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, but no details of potential offers have yet surfaced. Whitner is a hard-hitting safety who would potentially bring an increase in fines for his on-field aggressiveness—but so too would top safety prospect Calvin Pryor.
Whitner would help alleviate Green Bay's continued issues with missed tackles, while Clemons is a great cover safety who could protect against the deep ball.
Of course, neither is a true ball hawk, and if that's what Green Bay wants it may be better off either shelling out serious money for Byrd and ending any more free-agency involvement then and there, or putting itself in position to draft Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Of the notable free-agent safeties this offseason, most are strong safeties (Whitner, Clemons, Antoine Bethea Brandon Meriweather). Byrd is by far the best free safety available. Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark did have four interceptions in 2013, and with a $3.5 million prior APY, could be a cost-effective alternative to Byrd.
But the outspoken safety might not be viewed as a fit in the Packers organization and, more importantly at 34 years old, would merely be a short-term fix.
An area in which the Packers could potentially rebuild through both the draft and free agency is on the defensive line, with the team having four potential unrestricted free agents of its own in B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson. Pickett and Raji have each played at the nose position, and losing both would necessitate the Packers prioritizing the nose or defensive tackle positions in the draft.
There's always draft prospect Louis Nix, a promising nose tackle out of Notre Dame. But a potentially great free-agent acquisition could be the New York Giants' Linval Joseph, who made just over $1 million in 2013 and had an impressive contract year, posting 33 tackles, three sacks, six stuffs and a forced fumble.
Joseph is a two-gapper who can collapse the pocket and could go a long way toward making Green Bay's front stouter for a much smaller price tag than re-signing Raji or Pickett, who was once himself a free-agent acquisition.
Among the needs at safety, tight end and defensive line—combined with an abundance of talent at those positions set to be available on the market—now is the time for Thompson to make a splash in free agency.
Draft-and-develop will continue to be a useful strategy with the deep potential supposedly present in this year's draft class, but Thompson has the cap space and the opportunity to fill a couple of key positions with veteran experience, which could be the final push Green Bay needs to seriously contend for a title in 2014.
All salary information courtesy of OvertheCap.com unless otherwise specified.