Ted Thompson has always been a little ahead of the curve. Look no further than his moves since becoming GM of the Green Bay Packers. He traded down in the draft to build depth, all while more-or-less eschewing free agency. He signed a relative unknown to the head coaching position, and stuck with him through some tough growing pains. He showed a Hall of Fame quarterback the door and handed the keys to the Packermobile to a young kid amidst perhaps the most polarized climate Packer Nation has ever known.
But if you think Thompson’s job is done, or that his biggest challenges are behind him, you’re wrong. This offseason will mark the beginning of Thompson’s efforts to stay on top, playing against a system designed to weaken the mighty and replenish the losers. Thompson had to allow for some attrition this past August, watching longtime veterans Brandon Jackson, Cullen Jenkins, Daryn Colledge, Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar, and Brady Poppinga depart for other teams. While we can all sit and analyze the impact each of those losses have had on the team (ranging from “significant” to “nothing at all”), you can’t deny that, despite the exodus, all the Packers have done since then is go 14-1 and clinch the #1 seed in the playoffs.
Not too shabby.
But the system is designed to chip away at teams that are successful, and as the Packers continue their epic run, another slough of veterans are due for free agency. Some of them are critical pieces to the puzzle, like Scott Wells, Erik Walden, or Jermichael Finley. Other players are key contributors, like Matt Flynn, Howard Green, and Ryan Grant.
And, don’t forget the uncertainty of a couple of other players, like Derrick Sherrod’s broken leg and Nick Collins’ potentially career-threatening neck injury. Thompson has a lot of people to pay (and replace), and realistically, not enough cap space to do it with. Such is the price of success.
But, while much of our anguish this season has been over the pros and cons of re-signing Jermichael Finley to a megawatt contract, Thompson has got to be more concerned with the $90,000,000 gorilla in the room, that being one Aaron Charles Rodgers. While his contract is not up yet, the general consensus is that Rodgers is going to get locked up this offseason to a new deal worthy of his stature. Suddenly, all of our “greatest quarterback in the NFL” and “MVP” chants have a double–edged sword.
Rodgers has to now be viewed in the same vein as the other superstar quarterbacks of the NFL, like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. All have won a Super Bowl in recent years. All have had record-breaking seasons in the past few years. And all belong to the “new breed” of NFL quarterbacks, a combination of willingness to throw the ball all over the field, but with unwavering accuracy and a penchant for avoiding the turnover.
Oh, and Brady and Manning recently signed new contracts estimated at about $90M. The places their annual average cap figure at around $18M, and you have to guess that with the rookie salary caps in place, that number could go up for Rodgers.
Talking with the NFL Network’s Albert Breer on last week’s Cheesehead Radio, Breer opined that the Packers will be watching the contract negotiations of Drew Brees this offseason, another MVP candidate who is ripping it up this year. What happens with Brees will set the new bar in the new CBA. It will then be up to Thompson and Rodgers’ agent to decide whether that bar is enough, or if a young kid with plenty of years in front of him yet will demand just a little bit more.
But no matter how you cut it, the contract Rodgers signed in 2008 (which expires in 2014) isn’t going to be enough for much longer. Rodgers' base salary for this season was $7.25 million. He is due to earn $8 million in 2012, $9.25 million in 2013 and $10.5 million in 2014. Rodgers is saying the right things (well-trained from the year of Favregate), but this kind of thing is inevitable. Rodgers was Ted Thompson’s first home run, and his production the past few years have turned that into a grand slam. Rodgers isn’t going anywhere, and that will come with a Tom Brady-like price tag.
My point? Rodgers’ potential new contract has to be a factor in any negotiations with other players this year. Even if Thompson elects to let Rodgers play another season on his old contract in 2012, he can't just act on a simple snapshot of how the cap picture looks today. He’s already offered contract extensions to two other free agents this upcoming offseason, locking in Josh Sitton and Jordy Nelson as part of his core group of players for the indefinite future. Where does that leave the rest?
It certainly redrafts the picture on Jermichael Finley, the wildly talented, yet occasionally troubled tight end who wants Antonio Gates money, and whose agent has threatened to grieve any franchise tag that isn’t at a WR level. It’s possible that Thompson could place a tag on Finley this year, while pushing Rodgers’ extension back another year. This might be an efficient use of the colloquialism “kicking the can down the road”.
But, the chances are with Rodgers getting a more prohibitive contract sooner or later, Thompson can’t break the bank on the whole FA class, meaning that several of those players, including some starters, will likely be playing under a different helmet in 2012. When you think about how the losses of Cullen Jenkins and Nick Collins have affected the defense this year, it is going to be imperative for Thompson to fill the holes that are already there, much less the new ones that will form between now and next July.
If you don’t have the money to afford your own free agents, you don’t have money to afford someone else’s, and eschewing the free agent bidding wars has been a mantra of Thompson since he started in Green Bay. It’s unlikely that we’ll be making any major runs at any free agents.
Which leaves one area for the Packers to reload, and that is the draft. Luckily, we have perhaps one of the most astute GMs in that regard, but more importantly, Thompson has been ahead of the curve. The new rookie salary cap makes even first-round picks more affordable, instead of becoming instantly the highest-paid player on a team without even playing a down.
Conventional wisdom states that you don’t draft for need, but that you take the best player available. Yet Thompson has already been compromising that logic, taking two running backs in the draft after suffering through a season depleted at the position. Mark Tauscher’s career ended? Draft Derek Sherrod first overall. Thompson’s strategy may be “draft the best available player at a position of need” in the next couple of years.
This is the guy who saw the NFL rule changes far in advance, and built a team that depended purely on the pass, surrounding Rodgers with plentiful weapons and gradually strengthening the offensive line. With team president Mark Murphy taking a leadership role in the contract negotiations with the NFLPA, you know that he’s been feeding Thompson the information well in advance. Thompson knew what the changes were going to be and is formulating the most efficient way to use them.
So, what will Thompson surprise us with as he looks to reload this team? Will he return to his days of trading down and bringing home 12 draftees? Perhaps we'll see another draft-day home run as we say in 2009, when Thompson did the unthinkable to nab two first-round picks in BJ Raji and Clay Matthews.
Or, Thompson may actually start looking at his roster and making some trades for draft picks. There's very little in his resume that would suggest that would be a strategy he would use, but on the other hand, this is a new set of rules with the new CBA. Trading away players that will be asking for huge contracts in exchange for inexpensive draft picks is a huge risk to take, but if anyone can be trusted with his scouting, it's Thompson.
No matter the strategy he takes, the future success of the Packers under Thompson will depend on the draft, just as it was when he started in 2005.
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