To be clear from the start, I am a Ted Thompson apologist. He inherited a team rife with aging and overpaid veterans, along with a cap figure that left little wiggle room. He tore it down before rebuilding it into one of the best teams in the league on an annual basis. And to top it off, Thompson used his first ever draft pick on Aaron Rodgers – mind you, Favre was still a near-elite QB that wanted more weapons to make one final push for a SB. Instead, Thompson trusted his board and his philosophy, and took the best player available. It proved to be the best selection he ever will make. But, making that selection was gutsy for a new GM. So, yes, I’m an apologist and will always respect and trust Ted.
But, that trust is being pushed.
The Packers are in a precarious position in that there are 2 looming contracts that are about to set new benchmarks. Rodgers will sign the most expensive contract in league history, and he deserves it. Rumors have Rodgers set to make 1/6 of the Packers total cap figure. And the Claymaker may well approach the most expensive defensive contract in league history; he, too, deserves it (Don’t buy into the theory that his nagging hamstring warrants a reduced wage. He’d get a near max deal on the open market if he ever were to hit it. He’s not named the Claymaker without a reason.) The Packers could be having nearly a quarter of their cap devoted to two players in the near future – potentially as soon as the beginning of this coming season. (And this also explains why the likes of SF and Seattle are able to be such players in free agency – $700K salary to Kaepernick and $600K to Wilson. Makes a difference.)
Then, the Packers need to continue to retain its core players, many of whom have expiring contracts in the near future: B.J. Raji, Sam Shields, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, JerMichael Finley, Morgan Burnett, and Desmond Bishop. It’s a daunting task to figure out how to get all or most of these players retained in order to keep the critical core of this team together.
Of course, Thompson planned for this, which explains the nearly $20M in cap room currently available – likely ready to be shipped to Rodgers and/or Clay. This also explains why Thompson has yielded the free agency spotlight to others – again.
So, Thompson cannot be a major player in free agency. But, the Packers are not completely hamstrung by the cap either. They just have to spend their money wisely. And this is where I’m losing faith in Thompson, for two reasons.
First, Thompson does not dabble in free agency, at all. Teams in the Packers’ position – i.e. one of the SB favorites every year – has only a few holes that need to be shored up to solidify its chances at the SB. Filling these holes can be accomplished by adding a veteran – at the right price – via free agency.
For instance, the Packers run game has been nonexistent for years. Combinations of Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson, James Starks, Alex Green, and Cedric Benson have been unable to take advantage of one of the most lethal passing attacks in the league, which should open up plenty of space for the run game. This offseason, Stephen Jackson signed a 3-year, $12M deal with Atlanta. Yes, he’s old. But’s a rare breed of running back that inflicts the punishment rather than taking it. Plus, even if his play is on the decline, it’s still a step-up from what our running game has been. A thunder-lightning combo of S. Jax and DuJuan Harris could have finally ignited the running game. At $4M a year, it was an affordable deal that would have paid huge dividends.
Similarly, the Packers defensive line needs immediate upgrades, especially with Jerel Worthy’s late season injury making his return this season doubtful. The Packers have been unable to find Jenkins’ replacement since his departure. And, predictably, the defense has struggled mightily with the lack of pressure being a major reason why. This offseason, both Chris Canty and Cullen Jenkins signed team-friendly deals. Either would have improved our line play.
Thompson rarely takes this approach. And, I believe, failing to will prove costly come playoffs.
Second, Thompson has developed a nasty propensity to resign his own players at inflated values. A.J. Hawk was inexplicably signed to a huge contract extension following the 2010 Super Bowl run. Hawk proved to be reliable, but reliability doesn’t justify the amount of money Thompson gave him. Eventually, he became the 5th highest paid player on the team. Hawk rewarded the Packers with two consecutive seasons without a turnover and being the definition of an average starter. Thankfully, he took a big pay cut this offseason, but such a contract certainly limited the Packers’ maneuverability.
Unfortunately, Thompson didn’t learn his lesson. Just recently, the Packers resigned Brad Jones – the former special-teams, third-string LB – to a 3-year, $11.25M deal, $3M guaranteed. He is now the 10th highest paid player on the team. To put this deal into perspective, Jones is making just under what S. Jackson will make. Who’d you rather have? A bruising running back that routinely accumulated 1,300 total yards for one of the worst offenses or Brad Jones, a special-teamer and backup LB?
And in case you think this overvaluation is strictly limited to linebackers, John Kuhn is scheduled to make $2.35M next season.
There is simply no excuse for these types of deals. Thompson, always the penny-pincher when evaluating outside talent, needs to be consistent and evaluate his own players in the same fashion. Hawk, Jones, and Kuhn – though valuable players to a 53-man roster – can be replaced without a drop-off in production at a much lower cost, clearing up room that could be better spent to fill in the holes on the roster.
Thompson’s draft-and-develop philosophy allows for sustained success. But, drafting-and-developing – especially when you continually draft in the lower part of each round – rarely yields the type of immediate impact players needed for Super Bowl contenders. Thompson must invoke a better balance of drafting-and-developing combined with dabbling in free agency.
With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers will always be one of the best teams in the conference, routinely challenging for a Super Bowl. But, the window of opportunity continues to shrink with each passing year. Do we trust Ted to put the Packers in the best position possible to succeed in January and February?