No one who has followed Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers for even one offseason since 2005 should be that surprised by the team's moves thus far in free agency.
While the Packers turned heads with their signing of Julius Peppers away from the Chicago Bears, for the most part Thompson has followed his usual method in free agency: re-signing the Packers' own players who have been developed in the scheme and have proven their worth, and obtaining veteran free agents only when the price is right.
The Packers' free agency moves, outlined in the table below, give us a much clearer sense of how their draft might shape up than we had prior to March 8.
|Packers' Free-Agent Signings|
|Signings Since March 7, 2014|
|Re-signed CB Sam Shields|
|Re-signed LB/DE Mike Neal and TE Andrew Quarless|
|Re-signed DT B.J. Raji|
|Signed DE Julius Peppers (Bears)|
|Signed DT Letroy Guion (Vikings)|
|Re-signed RB James Starks|
After re-signing B.J. Raji and Mike Neal and acquiring Peppers and Letroy Guion, it's seeming less likely that the Packers will target a defensive end or defensive tackle in the first round.
Raji, on a one-year prove-it deal, will be moved back to nose tackle to replace unrestricted free agent Ryan Pickett. The move frees up the 3-technique spot, in which the Packers could slot in Jerel Worthy or possibly Johnny Jolly, if he's re-signed, with Mike Daniels brought in to rush the passer in sub-packages.
At 5-technique, it's time for Datone Jones to prove himself worthy of the starting role there. Josh Boyd can continue to develop and spell the starters.
If Green Bay begins to utilize the elephant 7-technique position Mike McCarthy has detailed this offseason, Nick Perry and Peppers are potential candidates for that spot. The Packers haven't yet detailed their plans for Peppers, who is currently listed as a defensive end. It's possible they plan to line him up either opposite or on the same side as Clay Matthews at outside linebacker.
With those moves, it doesn't seem likely the Packers will go after nose tackle Louis Nix, defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman or defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan in Round 1. Thompson does draft for value above all, so it wouldn't be impossible, but the Packers have other needs to fill in the early rounds.
One of those needs, of course, is safety. With the re-signing of cornerback Sam Shields, bold mock drafters who had the Packers selecting a cornerback in the first round rather than a safety are probably not predicting anything.
Safety is still the glaring need on defense, and while there's a slim possibility that Green Bay moves Micah Hyde to safety and replaces him with a cornerback in the draft, if Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor are available in Round 1—or even Deone Bucannon in Round 2—Thompson couldn't do better to satisfy value and need in a pick.
Running back was never going to be a position the Packers targeted in the early rounds of the draft, if at all, but that certainly would have been more likely if they had let James Starks walk.
With the re-signing of Starks to continue to provide a one-two punch in the backfield with Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin looking to develop more in 2014 and the added depth of DuJuan Harris, don't expect the Packers to use a draft pick on a running back.
Chris Harper, acquired from the 49ers in October, was a fourth-round pick in 2013, but the Packers' system works best when Rodgers' multiple targets can elude double coverage, and Thompson will likely address the need for a receiver before the sixth round.
Similarly, the Packers' receiving corps needs a red-zone threat, pass-catching tight end, and though Green Bay re-signed Andrew Quarless, it's uncertain he's the Jermichael Finley replacement they're looking for. Despite that move in free agency, don't be surprised to see Thompson pick up a mid-round tight end, like Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Between the flexible Neal and Peppers and the returning Perry and Matthews, the Packers may not look for an outside linebacker in the early rounds, as they might have before free agency—perhaps with BYU's Kyle Van Noy. But inside linebacker is still a top need, and the Packers potentially taking C.J. Mosley in the first round can't be ruled out yet.
Chris Borland, Shayne Skov, Yawin Smallwood and Christian Jones are additional 'backers who might catch Thompson's eye in Rounds 2-4.
Despite signing a key group of their own free agents, many of the players connected with the Packers in early draft coverage—particularly the safeties, inside linebackers and tight ends—could still be in play. Free agency affected the needs at defensive lineman and wide receiver most notably, but Thompson's 'best player on the board' draft style always ensures an unpredictable draft board for Green Bay.
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