INDIANAPOLIS – Ted Thompson had been on the job for just over a year. It was March 2006, and his track record as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager was still being established.
But he would foreshadow future veteran player acquisitions – or lack thereof – as he stood in a hallway at the Hyatt Grand Cypress resort outside Orlando, Fla., at the annual NFL Meetings and spoke with a small group of reporters.
“Big splashes in March don't mean much,” Thompson said matter-of-factly. “It doesn't make sense to spend money if you don't think you're helping your team. It doesn't make any sense. I could have made two or three big splashes and had everybody say, ‘Oooh, look how good he's doing.' But it wouldn't have improved our team, in my opinion.
“It's not fantasy football. When you go into free agency, you're making a commitment to a player and oftentimes you don't have enough information to justify that. That's why I think (teams) do (make mistakes in free agency), because you don't know as much about these players as you do your own players.
“Every time you think you can help your team, you do your best to help your team. We evaluate every player. Just because one team might rate a player as an elite player (and pay him a lot of money) and we don't, that doesn't make us right and them wrong or vice versa. This is just the way we go about it.”
At the time, the Packers had signed four outside free agents during the first 2 1/2 weeks of free agency: Ex-St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (four years, $14 million); ex-Seattle Seahawks safety Marquand Manuel (five years, $10 million), ex-Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Marc Boerigter (one year, $782,000) and ex-Cleveland Browns linebacker Ben Taylor (one year, $635,000).
They’d also re-signed their own highest priority free agent, veteran defensive end Aaron Kampman (four years, $21 million) and No. 2 running back Najeh Davenport (one year, $665,000).
And, shortly thereafter, they would sign the biggest free agent they’ve ever signed on Thompson’s watch: Ex-Oakland Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson (seven years, $39 million).
Since then, however, the Packers have been largely inactive in unrestricted free agency, espousing Thompson’s draft-and-develop philosophy and winning Super Bowl XLV following the 2010 season using that approach.
“People take what I say (about), ‘The best route to building a team is through the draft,' as me not wanting to be involved in free agency. We spend an inordinate amount of time studying it and trying to figure out what to do in free agency,” Thompson explained a few years later when asked about his anti-free agency reputation. “I just think sometimes we can all have the attitude that the grass is greener, when in fact it might just be painted grass.
“You have to decide if a player is going to help your team and if he's going to fit into your locker room. It doesn't do you any good to spend money for the sake of spending money.”
As the unofficial kickoff to the 2014 offseason began Wednesday with the NFL Scouting Combine, the Packers are in position again to spend money – and do so to fill clear needs, not just for the sake of spending money.
Once again, they are nearly $30 million under the projected salary cap of $126.3 million – despite inking quarterback Aaron Rodgers and outside linebacker Clay Matthews to lucrative long-term extensions last year – and with needs on the defensive line, at linebacker and at safety as the March 11 opening of free agency approaches.
At the same time, the Packers have a whopping 17 unrestricted free agents, including eight starters, of their own to consider: Cornerback Sam Shields, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, wide receiver James Jones, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Jermichael Finley, Pickett, fullback John Kuhn, outside linebacker Mike Neal, defensive tackle Johnny Jolly, running back James Starks, tight end Andrew Quarless, offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, defensive end C.J. Wilson, backup quarterback Matt Flynn, inside linebacker Robert Francois, running back Kahlil Bell, and backup quarterback Seneca Wallace: Shields, Raji, Dietrich-Smith and Jones would seem to be the highest priorities.
Although teams are forbidden from negotiating with outside free agents until March 8, the Packers do figure to talk with the agents for Shields (Drew Rosenhaus), Raji (David Dunn), Dietrich-Smith (Brian Parker), Jones (Frank Bauer) and Finley (Blake Baratz), among others, in the next few days.
Last week, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Packers do plan on being spenders in unrestricted free agency this year, citing an anonymous source familiar with the Packers’ thinking as saying that they could sign as many as five unrestricted free agents. That would match the 2006 signing class.
Thompson is slated to speak to reporters at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday morning, although he’s unlikely to divulge anything about his offseason plans.
“Historically speaking, we like to, as best we can, keep our own players,” Thompson said last year. “This thing is a big, giant puzzle, and the pieces all have to fit. At some point, things get out of whack a little bit and all the pieces don’t fit anymore. But our policy in drafting and developing is a conservative but solid way of building your team.
“The end result of that is that, historically speaking, you’re going to get to the end of contract lives where people have outplayed their rookie deals and if you’ve done a good enough job of drafting and developing, you’re going to have more of those at that stage than you can keep. But that’s, relatively speaking, a good problem to have. You have to try to make good decisions in every deal that you do. It’s not a question of being tight or anything like that. It’s a question of being pragmatic and saying, ‘How do we do this, given the budget?’”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.