The free agency negotiating period in the NFL kicked off on March 8th. The Green Bay Packers must be feeling mighty confident about their ability to draft and develop because they have done almost nothing to date as the bidding starts league-wide for new talent.
Since getting ousted from the playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card round of the 2013 playoffs, things had been eerily quiet for the Packers in terms of new contracts for existing players on the squad.
Out of their 20 or so free agents, the Packers have to date have re-signed only cornerback Sam Shields (as reported yesterday by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and safety Chris Banjo. The team also added a fullback and a tight end, but neither of them are considered anywhere near top-tier talent.
Meanwhile, the team's head coach has spoken confidently about how the team's defense will improve in the forthcoming season. According to ESPN, Mike McCarthy said, "We obviously need to get better on defense, and I think these moves that we’ve made on defense will definitely put us on that path."
McCarthy is obviously privy to most or all of the organization's proprietary plans for next season. However, the notion that the Packers will be getting a lot better while at the same time potentially losing some of their better free agents is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Hopefully the team has an ace up its sleeve in terms of some tangible ways to turn around one of the league's weakest defenses before the 2014 season kicks off.
One would expect that upgrades will have to occur through improved player talent, because the Packers are sticking to their guns in terms of their defensive coaches from last season. After another pedestrian year on the defensive side of the ball, the team made the somewhat surprising decision to retain embattled defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
In terms of free agency, the Packers are now set to let the dice roll as some of their better young talent begins fielding calls from other teams.
You can bet that a lot of the early phone calls will be directed toward center Evan Dietrich-Smith, wide receiver James Jones and defensive end B.J. Raji. Additionally, there will certainly be a market for tight end Jermichael Finley and linebacker Mike Neal, among others
While the degree of depth varies by position on the Packers, one could argue that the Packers aren't exactly stacked at any of the positions listed above.
Cornerback, Shields' position, may actually be the one position where the Packers have successfully added talent in the last couple drafts. But if safeties are included in the equation, then the Packers are by no means sitting pretty at defensive back either.
Maintaining a competitive advantage in the NFL is extremely difficult and it's possible that general manager Ted Thompson's strategy may be starting to fall behind some of the better innovators in the game today.
The team has virtually become synonymous with the phrase "draft and develop," and while that usually produces positive connotations, the fact is that such a narrow approach bears a great deal of risk as well.
In essence, the draft and develop approach under Thompson has translated to a youth movement as well as extending the contracts of mainly top-tier talent. For the balance of the team, especially middle-tier quality veterans, life in a draft and develop program probably isn't that favorable.
Tying up a fortune in a small number of players means the Packers need to be extremely thrifty with their remaining financial resources. With that strategy dominating life in Green Bay, younger veterans on the bubble in Titletown are probably realizing their best chance to receive a competitive offer is to enter free agency.
If a team is known for strictly drafting and developing young players while rewarding only their biggest stars with mega-deals, or second-tier players with team-friendly deals, then one probably doesn't need a doctorate in negotiations to realize that the middle-tier group probably feels like they dwell in no man's land.
This is an uncomfortable place where relations between the player and the team are characterized by uncertainty and possibly even alienation.
For their part, the Packers likely try and project how easily a middle-tier player can be replaced in their draft and develop program. And whether such a tactic will require renting a short-term veteran replacement until the "develop" process is completed.
A good example of this reality materialized after the 2011 season when veteran Scott Wells opted to test free agency as opposed to signing an offer from the Packers. Wells apparently received a much higher bid from the St. Louis Rams and quickly signed on the dotted line.
With Dietrich-Smith at that time still "developing," the Packers went out and rented the aging Jeff Saturday for a couple years. Fortunately, Dietrich-Smith was able to take the field more quickly than anticipated, saving the Packers from any further blow-back from the failed Saturday experiment.
Now, just a couple years later, the Packers find themselves once again behind the eight ball at center. Likely realizing that he fell in that no man's land between draft and develop and blockbuster star, Dietrich-Smith is now set to test free agency and will likely receive the same type of offer as Wells—that is, an offer sweet enough to compel him to leave the team.
At this stage, the Packers do not have an anointed heir to the throne at center and would have to scramble to plug the gap with a serviceable veteran or a high draft pick. That's not exactly an ideal scenario for a team with Super Bowl aspirations and plenty of other holes to fill.
One reason professional football is so competitive is because teams face the difficult task of managing a limited amount of resources across a large group of players. When teams do find success, as the Packers did in 2010, this process becomes even more challenging because the rest of the league is willing to pay top dollar for your personnel and coaches.
While Thompson has found success in Green Bay leveraging a strategy that emphasizes younger talent constantly moving through a revolving door, such a strategy may not actually be conducive to sustained excellence.
For one, the Packers are completely reliant on having a successful draft year in and year out. A single poor draft, as the Packers seem to have had at least once in the last few years, has an immediate impact on the team's ability to produce high-level results. This problem is compounded when a team simultaneously resists adding free agents from other teams.
A clear risk in this methodology is that middle-tier talent starts feeling they are undervalued in the system which can then lead to disenfranchisement with their situation. That feeling can domino into poor play on the field and a quick move out the door at the first available opportunity.
In 2013, all of the Packers' unrestricted free agents decided to test the market over signing with the team during the exclusive negotiating period.
Had the Packers truly wanted to maintain their competitive edge for many years to come, they might have convinced their star players to accept more team-friendly deals. That would have left more meat on the bone for the Packers to retain second-tier talent such as Dietrich-Smith in a situation where they don't have a clear replacement available.
In all likelihood, the Packers will watch Dietrich-Smith walk out the door in the footsteps of Scott Wells and the ensuing season will be filled with commentary that is puzzled by the lack of production at that particular position.
This wheel will go round and round until Thompson finally realizes he probably needs to adjust his strategy because isolating the middle-tier group is neither advisable nor necessary.
The Packers arguably have one of the best quarterbacks in the league on their roster. However, unless the team makes some shrewd adjustments in the near future, they may once again find themselves looking back on only a single title during the career of a truly exceptional player.