GREEN BAY – It takes a lot to offend Ted Thompson when it comes to his job as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager.
Remember a few years ago, when he was booed at the team’s official NFL Draft party? It actually happened twice: Once, in 2007, for taking Tennessee defensive end Justin Harrell (boos that, it turned out, he deserved) and in 2008, after trading out of the first round and picking a little-known college safety-turned-wide receiver from Kansas State. Farm boy by the name of Jordy Nelson. Keep in mind, folks had paid $25 a pop to come to those events, which were held in the Lambeau Field atrium.
Or how about those first few years when Thompson’s team-building approach hadn’t yielded a winning season – 4-12 in 2005 in ex-GM Mike Sherman’s final year as coach, and 8-8 in 2006, when Mike McCarthy was a rookie head coach who’d been picked from obscurity and the NFL’s worst-ranked offense the year before – and amateur webmasters were starting sites like FireTedThompson.com? (If you’re interested, that domain name is available again, for the low, low bargain price of $2,195.00.)
And, lest we forget, he was at the epicenter of Packers’ fans summer of discontent in 2008, when the organization and legendary quarterback Brett Favre parted ways on less-than-amicable terms – and, 2 1/2 years later, Favre’s replacement led the team to its first Super Bowl championship since 1996.
So it’s fair to say that Thompson, now in his 10th offseason as the man calling the Packers’ personnel shots, has developed a thick skin.
But one thing has long bothered Thompson, something he sees as a mischaracterization of his approach: The claim that he hates free agency. He has taken issue with that claim before, and he did so again at the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last month. Contrary to popular belief, Thompson insisted, he doesn’t tell his pro personnel guys to take the month off or have them pitch in on draft prep rather than concentrating on the free-agent market.
“We’ve been working on [free agency] for quite some time,” Thompson explained as he spoke with a handful of Wisconsin reporters in the hallway of Lucas Oil Stadium after one of his typical close-to-the-vest press conferences. “This goes back to when the final rosters are set in September [throughout the league]. That’s when our guys kind of start working on prospective free agency. They’re always doing it.
“We don’t dabble in it too much, but we take it seriously and if we find a way to make our team better, we’re going to get into it and do it.”
As the free-agent market is set to officially open on Tuesday at 3 p.m. Wisconsin time, there appears to be a good chance the Packers will indeed get into it. Whether that yields any outside unrestricted free-agent signings remains to be seen, but after the preliminary negotiation window opened on Saturday, the Packers did reportedly reach out to a few free-agent players, including Baltimore Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones, according to the Baltimore Sun, and Oakland Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Jones reportedly has drawn interest from the New York Giants and Washington as well. Multiple reports last week had the Packers expressing an interest in Houston Texans tight end Garrett Graham, a former University of Wisconsin player, as well.
Meanwhile, after coming to terms with cornerback Sam Shields on a four-year, $39 million contract on Saturday – the club has yet to officially announce the deal – the Packers still have 16 of their own unrestricted free agents getting set to hit the open market. According to league sources, the Packers have a one-year, $4 million offer on the table to defensive lineman B.J. Raji, who is mulling the offer and waiting to see if something happens for him on the market.
They’ve reportedly also kept in touch with center Evan Dietrich-Smith, veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, fullback John Kuhn and tight end Andrew Quarless, who has drawn interest from more than a half dozen teams, including the Giants.
With an estimated $28 million remaining in salary-cap space after Shields’ deal becomes official, Thompson still has the financial wherewithal to re-sign some of his own guys while adding outside players. Not surprisingly, there have been no indications that the Packers are targeting any big-name players like safety Jairus Byrd or tight end Jimmy Graham, but the Packers could be more active than they’ve been since 2006, the year they added Pickett and Charles Woodson, two defensive veterans who helped the team to the Super Bowl XLV title.
That said, don’t expect Thompson to change drastically overnight. ESPN analyst Bill Polian, the former Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills GM, said he would “highly endorse” Thompson’s approach because he followed a similar path during his time running teams.
“Free agency is not free. It costs two things that you never get back. Time and money,” Polian said last week in a conference call with reporters. “When you have a good team – and the Green Bay Packers have a good team – and when you have a good personnel department that drafts well – and the Green Bay Packers have that – then it behooves you to be restrained in free agency, because you need the money A) to sign your own [players] and B) to be in a position where you make very, very good judgments on a few players in free agency.
“If those judgments come up that you are not interested, so be it. No problem. You will fill in the needs with your terrific scouting staff and your terrific scouting system. That’s what the Packers have done traditionally over the years, made wise decisions.
“They do all the right things. Fans want you to go out and play fantasy football now. But that’s the last thing you should be doing. That money, if you miss, is gone and never comes back.”
Polian went on to call free agency “an overpayment situation" where there are considerably more misses than hits.
“If your own players are quality players and you believe they can help you win, then it’s better to pay them, I have always believed,” Polian said. “They are probably as good or as better as you can find in the market. [And] you know them better than you know a player from another team. You are paying a premium, but you are putting it into a person who you know, that you believe in and has no adjustment coming into your system. There is no system adjustment. There is no technique adjustment. There is no city adjustment. There is no culture adjustment. It’s pretty seamless.
“Football is not a seamless transition. Basketball is. Baseball is. Hockey to some degree is. Football is not. Systems change. People have a difficult time enough to begin with and then if you have a system change or a technique change it’s even worse. So you can find that typically a player does not play to his maximum in his first year in a new free agent situation. It may take him a year to get adjusted. That’s a year you have lost, but you have paid pretty big money for. So that’s another danger.”
A danger that the Packers have largely avoided – but may be willing to risk this year, if on the right players. During his tenure, Thompson has signed a total of 12 unrestricted free agents, three of whom didn’t make the roster coming out of training camp. He signed only one player each in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and in three of the past four offseasons, he didn’t sign a single unrestricted free agent. The exception was in 2012, when he signed veteran center Jeff Saturday and defensive end Anthony Hargrove, who was cut in the wake of the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal.
But maybe this year will be different.
“Well, who knows?” Thompson said. “Like I said, we like to have our own guys back. And if we can find value in the free agent market to help us we’ll do that, too. We’ll do whatever, as will the 31 other teams. They’re all going to go about this the same way.”
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.