Packers' Thompson will likely turn to unrestricted free-agent market
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY--Don’t be surprised if Ted Thompson, the draft-and-develop impresario of the Green Bay Packers, adds some players of substance in unrestricted free agency come March.
Thompson has seen how a team such as the Seattle Seahawks utilized free agency in the last few years to leapfrog the Packers as the power team in the NFC.
Then, during the Packers’ intensive draft preparation in February, it’s possible that the class of safeties and wide-bodied defensive linemen won’t look any more appealing than they do now, 4½ months before the May draft.
It’s time for Thompson to expand his personnel horizons. The hunch here is that he will.
All the injuries this season has made for a glut of players on the Green Bay roster. The Packers have 75 players currently under contract, which at the start of last week tied them for the second-most in the National Football League behind Tampa Bay.
Of the 75 players, 51 are on the active roster, 16 are on injured reserve and eight are on the practice squad.
The Packers’ flood of players is residue of another horrendous year on the injury front.
It was beneficial in that it enabled interesting prospects such as cornerback James Nixon and wide receivers Kevin Dorsey and Myles White to remain property of the Packers and return in 2014 for a full off-season.
It also will make for an offseason of bloodletting for Thompson, coach Mike McCarthy and their top aides.
In a normal year, the Packers would open training camp with a 90-man roster consisting of 10 draft choices, 12 college free agents, 10 “street” free agents and 58 holdovers.
As we speak, there are 67 veterans on the roster.
Although the Packers appear to have handled their salary-cap future well even with the cap salaries for Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews increasing by $10.3 million next year, they’re in no position to re-sign players just because they’ve been their own for several years.
Take a long look at the current team as it fights for a precious NFC North championship because there’s bound to be even more turnover than normal in 2014.
On the defensive line, B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson are among 17 players with contracts expiring after the season.
Earlier in the year, the Packers offered Raji $8 million per year. He turned it down.
At midweek, Raji said his representative talked to management a few weeks ago but nothing was resolved. He didn’t say what was discussed, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Packers removed that offer and restarted talks in the $4 million to $5 million range.
Of the seven defensive linemen with more than 60 snaps, Raji ranks last in tackles per snap with one every 18.07. He hasn’t had a sack in 35 games and his pressure numbers have been disappointing.
From 2010-’12, the Packers would never think about playing a critical snap without Raji on the field. Now it happens all the time.
Look for Raji to test the market. If it’s tepid, he might return at or close to the Packers’ number.
Jolly will be 31 in February, has a cervical neck injury and probably is finished in Green Bay. The Packers also will think long and hard about bringing back Pickett. The older players get, the more they get hurt.
Assuming the Packers stick with their two-gapping system of 3-4 defense, who would eat up blocks if Raji, Jolly and Pickett depart?
Rookie Josh Boyd would become a key figure. So would Datone Jones, who has to bulk up and toughen up to become the starting five-technique end that Thompson envisioned in April.
Other than Notre Dame’s Louis Nix, this is a thin draft for capable wide bodies. It’s the position where Thompson likely will go back to unrestricted free agency, the avenue that saw the shrewd signing of Pickett in 2006.
Barring a reversal of form, it’s unlikely the Packers would even tender M.D. Jennings as a restricted free agent. Chris Banjo could be back in camp, and Sean Richardson has time left on his contract, but Green Bay needs at least two safeties besides Morgan Burnett.
Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is rated as the finest safety in the draft, and that’s assuming he declares.
Scouts, however, aren’t convinced he’s even a first-round pick. After that, it’s a crapshoot at safety involving marginal talents.
The situation cries out for a veteran signing. Expect Thompson to figure that out and help the defense in free agency.
Green Bay also must get faster and better at inside linebacker. It has really become a game of speed nowadays, and the Packers surely wouldn’t want to enter another season with A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones in the middle of their defense.
Each player has two years remaining on his contract. They’ll probably be back, but the Packers also will give Sam Barrington a chance to start in 2014.
Should the Packers have a shot at Alabama’s outstanding C.J. Mosley in the draft, they’d gladly take the subsequent “dead money” cap hits and install him as an instant starter. It seems doubtful Mosley would drop to Green Bay’s first-round selection.
Many more veterans from the current cast will be released or allowed to walk away as unrestricted free agents.
Thompson will need space to extend Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, whose contracts expire after next season. It’ll be a matter of priorities to make it work, but with Jarrett Boykin working cheaply for another two seasons and the desire to provide targets for Aaron Rodgers the Packers might well attempt to make room for both Nelson and Cobb.
As it stands, the Packers have 47 players under contract for 2014 at a total cap charge of $103.422 million. Assuming the Packers don’t re-sign anyone before the Dec. 28 deadline, they’ll be able to carry over $9.8 million onto their 2014 cap.
Russ Ball’s pay-as-you-go financial practices have been effective. The Packers can operate freely and in every avenue to replenish a roster ravaged by injuries for another year.
Thompson has given short shrift to unrestricted free agency for too long. He’ll play it within reason next year, and the Packers will be the better for it.