Green Bay Packers Offseason: Another Veteran Purge Could Be Coming

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Packers WR Donald Driver
Packers WR Donald Driver might be a cut Ted Thompson makes this offseason. (Photo: Getty images)

It didn’t take long into Ted Thompson’s reign as Green Bay Packers GM for the unwavering 52-year-old to firmly establish that football moves under his direction would be made without the cling of emotion, void of any sentimental feelings that could effect a given decision one way or the other.

Among Thompson’s first moves as GM in 2005 were the releasing of guard Mike Wahle and safety Darren Sharper and declining to re-sign guard Marco Rivera, three players that were stalwarts for Packers teams that had won consecutive NFC North titles from 2002-04. Despite their undisputed contributions, each was shown the door both because of age and Thompson’s need to manage the Packers’ out of control salary cap.

Wahle was 28 years old and had played in 103 straight games when Thompson released him, but the move saved over $11 million in cap space. Axing Sharper, a 29-year-old All-Pro safety, saved another $4.3 million. Rivera went on to sign a five-year, $20 million contract with the Cowboys after Thompson let him walk at the age of 32.

All three of the moves were spurred by the Packers’ cap situation as he entered the job. No matter how unpopular, each needed to be made to get Thompson back into his salary cap comfort zone.

And while a drastic makeover like 2005 hasn’t been seen since, similar decisions to the ones Thompson made in that offseason have. In the end, making those tough decisions are a big reason why the Packers’ salary cap has never again reached 2005 levels.

Over subsequent years, Thompson released veterans Na’il Diggs (80 career starts, saved $2.9 million) and Bubba Franks (Three-time Pro Bowler, saved over $4 million), traded away an unretired Brett Favre, and let Ahman Green (the Packers franchise leader in rushing yards) and Aaron Kampman (owner of 54 career sacks in Green Bay) walk in free agency.

In 2010, Thompson released cornerback Al Harris, who started seven straight seasons for the Packers but was 36 years old and struggling to come back from a catastrophic knee injury in ’09.

Starting to sound like a broken record?  There was still more roster reshaping to do even after Thompson’s 2010-11 Packers reached the top of the NFL mountain.

In the offseason following last year’s win in Super Bowl XLV, Thompson cut linebackers Nick Barnett, Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar, gave 11-year veteran Mark Tauscher his first career pink slip and let free agents Daryn Colledge and Cullen Jenkins walk away in free agency without as much as the thought of a counter offer.

The three linebackers he cut combined for 163 starts during their careers in Green Bay, and Barnett finished his eight-year stint in Green Bay as the franchise’s second-leading tackler. Tauscher became a franchise pillar at right tackle after the Packers drafted him in the seventh round of the 2000 draft out of the University of Wisconsin. He was universally liked by fans, coaches and players. Colledge started 76 games along the offensive line over five seasons, and Jenkins was a home-grown, undrafted talent who had blossomed into a great player in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses.

Again, age and money came into play.

Cutting Barnett (30 years old, $5.9 million), Poppinga (31, $2.1 million), Chillar (28, $2.6 million) and Tauscher (33, $5.6 million) saved Thompson almost $18 million in cap room. Colledge, 30, went on to sign a five-year, $27 million deal with the Cardinals, and Jenkins, 30, signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Eagles. The Packers never made a serious attempt to re-sign either player.

Given Thompson’s history with these kind of players, there wasn’t a decision made last offseason that seemed like a difficult decision for the Packers GM.

So when we look ahead to the Packers’ roster in 2012 and attempt to pick out players who may end up being similar cap casualties, there’s no better place to start than the profile Thompson has so clearly given over his seven years.

The names are easy to find.

Donald Driver, 35, couldn’t have been more direct about his interest in continuing to play, but his $5 million salary for 2012 needs to be trimmed down considerably or he could be playing else where next season. Driver is the Packers’ all-time receptions and receiving yards leader and should be a shoo-in for the Packers Hall of Fame.

That said, no one should have reservations in saying that Thompson would cut Driver without thinking twice if Driver’s salary didn’t fit into Thompson’s salary cap plans for next year and years after.

Chad Clifton, who has anchored the left side of the Packers’ offensive line since 2000, suffered through an injury-plagued season and will soon turn 36 years old. While Clifton rehabbed his torn hamstring, second-year tackle Marshall Newhouse showed that the Packers offense can function without him. But the smoking gun here is that Thompson would save almost $6 million in releasing Clifton, which makes it a near certainty that he isn’t in Green Bay next season.

Veteran running back Ryan Grant has over 4,000 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns since Thompson traded for him before the 2007 season, but he’s a free agent. Howard Green, who’s hit on Ben Roethlisberger last February powered the Packers to a 14-0 lead, also fits Thompson’s mold of a free agent player who wouldn’t get much consideration for a return contract.

Thompson’s style certainly seems like a cruel way to go about your business, but in the brutal world of the NFL, there’s no room for sentimentals. Tough decisions are made daily. Bill Belichick released a player a night before the Super Bowl. It’s really quite simple: Feelings are for fans, not NFL decision-makers. Hold on to a veteran guy a year too long, and maybe you don’t have the cap available to re-sign one of your up-and-coming players.

That last scenario is a reality Thompson is looking to avoid right now.

Center Scott Wells, a veteran that Thompson will actually attempt to bring back, is a free agent. So is potential-filled Jermichael Finley and special teams captain Jarrett Bush. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and receiver Greg Jennings are each looking at expensive extensions in the near future.

Money for the salary cap doesn’t grow on trees. It takes a smart planner and even better manager to keep it under wraps. It also needs a leader that is willing to make decisions that go against conventional and sentimental thinking.

Thompson doesn’t always make the moves that fans want to see, and I’m sure cutting both Driver and Clifton would raise eyebrows. But it would absolutely follow Thompson’s way—a way that has been witnessed over and over during his time and Green Bay—and it has paid off more times than not.

Given that process, expect another veteran purge sometime this offseason. The names Driver, Clifton and Grant could very well be among those you do not see in Green Bay next season. Tough decisions to be sure, but not ones that Thompson hasn’t made before as general manager of the Green Bay Packers.

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Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.

You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.

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  • David Davis

    I love Driver and in a perfect work I would like him to remain a Packer forever. Unfortunately we live in an imperfect world and I think to retain Driver would slow down the development of your younger receivers, Randall Cobb in particular. The best scenario would be for Driver to retire but he has stated he has no plans to do that. It will be tough to see Driver in a different uniform next year but that looks like what may come about.

  • ScottS

    Looking at the names of veterans cut by TT, I see Sharper and Barnett and maybe Jenkins as the only ones who didn’t turn out to be a big hit AGAINST the salary cap for the teams that ended up signing them. TT brilliance or lucky coincidence?

  • Bearmeat

    1. Driver is gone.

    2. Cliffy is gone.

    3. Wells will take a below market contract, or he’s gone.

    4. Finley will be franchised as a TE, or will take a below market long term contract.

    5. If Finley takes a below market contract, TT Franchises/Trades Flynn as fast as possible.

    6. Walden/Green/Jones/Wynn are gone.

    7. Here’s the shocker: If Collins doesn’t come back, Wood will be moved to safety and will be forced to take a pay cut.

    • WIM

      Woodson will have to take a pay cut in any event; he makes more than 11 mil next year. will he play for 3 mil?

    • Bubbaloo

      I disagree on Wells, good centers are hard to find and he should have a few years left, he’s seldom injured. When you say Jones, which one? I’m still thinking James Jones is trade bait. And yes, I think Woodson would take a paycut, but not by 70%.

      • Kevin

        I’m assuming he means Brad Jones

        • Bearmeat

          I meant Brad Jones. James might be trade bait – but I doubt TT would get enough in the draft for him.

          Regarding Wells: I want to see him back – much like I wanted to see Jenkins back. I just don’t know if TT will do it at Wells’ (probably deserved) asking price.

          • http://yardbarker nick perry

            Why does everyone want to trade Jones. I don’t think he’s going anywhere. 2010 he had the drops. Last year I think he did a great job. I know he wasn’t on the field as much but still. I for one love James Jones. If we let Jones go then what. Are we that sure the two guys on the practice squad (sorry I forget their names)can step in. After all they were undrafted. I for one favor T.T. cutting ties with Driver. This is a business. We brought him back for one to many years already. I love the idea of Jennings, Nelson, Jones and Cobb. I’ll say this too. I for one would rather see Thompson go after Mario Williams or that huge D-End from the Chiefs in free agency than sign Finley. Is Finley’s potential to much to pass on? Or is he the guy you pay and the drops get worse. The comments in the media are more often and what ever made him special is gone because he got the money?

            • CJ in Guatemala

              Well Victor Cruz was an undrafted receiver. The Giants don’t get anywhere without him this year Period. He became elite in like 3 weeks… I’m not saying Gurley or Borel are at the same level or that clearly have the same potential, but there are always hungry players out there in Practice Squads of teams.

  • Ron LC

    Zach, you put the TT dilema in to sharp focus. In the NFL as well as any other business, job one is to be financially responsible. DD has acknowledged that issue already. He wants to play. Preferably with the Packers, but if not…..

    The only thing I’d ask for is that DD deserves to be treated with respect no matter what.

    The others, it’s business and what ever happens there is a reason. GB has no sugar daddy owner who is willing back bad decisions. The Packers depend on their operational revenue to survive. So the team not only worries about the “Cap” it worries about profit to do things like improve the stadium. TT has a topugh job and he has proved he can make the though decisions. Let’s all hope that he makes the right ones.

    • Bubbaloo

      I like this Ron, and I agree, make sure Driver walks away happy, he understands it’s a business. The Al Harris exit was much better than the way HeWhoShallNotBeMentioned departed.

  • BubbaOne

    …but in the brutal world of the NFL, there’s no room for sentimentals…

    Yup…and if the opposition isn’t game planning for you then you’re a J.A.G…just a guy. Also, the notion a team needs to move on was reinforced yesterday when they said how few players were carryovers from their SB matchup 4 yrs ago.

  • Lucas

    Hmmm…would Kampman have done better opposite CMII? Also, TT does do free agency. He’s a wise spender. However, I just don’t see anybody worth getting. Anybody know of a UFA worth the $? Maybe Arizona’s DE Campbell…but it sounds like they can’t afford to lose him.
    Finley should only get paid like he’s about the 10th best…that’s all he’s proven. I’d be okay if they paid him in the 5th-10th range.

    • BubbaOne

      The team may not want Woodson to play safety. The bigger Q that fits your article is does TT want him at all. He’ll be 36 this fall and has lost a step. Four of his INT’s were against rookie QB’s and he was taken advantage of by better WR’s and QB’s. He’s to be paid $11.5M this year w/ $4M due in April. Even if he takes a pay cut how much less is he willing to take.

      If Collins doesn’t return and Woodson isn’t the answer there are 3 safeties in FA that may be looked at; Michael Griffin age 27, Tyvon Branch 25, and LaRon Landry 27. I read Branch and Landry may take one year contracts to prove they’re healthy. I’m no expert as to if they fit Capers scheme but they could be a nice stop gap while MD Jennings or another S is developed. If TT doesn’t sign Wells and his replacement isn’t on the team an option may be FA Chris Myers. He would command similar money to Wells but is also his equal talent-wise.

      • Mojo

        Bubba, there’s no way TT out-and-out cuts CWood. My guess is they ask to restructure his contract and possibly move to saftey, but at this juncture CWood is on the team unless Charles gets upset about the any changes and asks to play elsewhere or doesn’t show-up. I don’t see that happening either.

        • BubbaOne

          I was using Zach’s premise that TT is a cold harded assassin when it comes to loyalty. Look at it this way, if TT signed a soon-to-be 36 yr old CB w/ declining and pay him let’s say $4M/yr

          • BubbaOne

            oops, my response posted before I was finished.

            …soon-to-be 36 yr old CB w/ declining skills and pay him let’s say $4M/yr what would you and others say?

            • Mojo

              Agree, if CWood were on the market today based on what you say about his abilities and contract there’s no way TT signs him. But for some reason TT is much less likely to get rid of “his” guys who have contributed in the past. It is kind of interesting that the three guys to be considered the most likely gone (Wells, Clifton, Driver) were all pre-TT.

              • Oppy

                It’s not as interesting as it seems.

                Those three “Not TT’s guys” are “Not TT’s Guys” because they predate TT (by definition). That makes them old in football terms.

                Football is a young man’s game. 31, 35, 36 are not spring chickens in this league.

  • Mojo

    Let’s face it, just about every competent GM in the salary-cap era is going to have to let some of the older fan favorites go. Often those players are paid the highest team salaries at a time when their abilities are in decline. TT is no different. I just hope the fan base realizes TT is not trying to stick-it to their favorites and is doing what he was hired to do, work in the best interests of the Pack.

    So DD fans give TT a pass on what he must do(don’t go into the primitive Favre supporter mode). Although you and I have enjoyed DD & Cliffy on the team these many years, you may not be so thrilled to have those two playing if it means the Pack are losing.

  • JeffN

    Remember TT also cut William Henderson.

    Also don’t forget that Thompson very selectively extends the contracts of players over 30. He did it with Woodson and Driver. Now Driver is on the older end of that 30. I think Wells falls into the category that Woodson and Driver were in when their contracts were extended. We can’t afford to lose Wells even if he is over 30. I bet he plays at a high level for 4 to 5 years yet. So sign him to a 5 year deal.

    I Also don’t see Driver, Grant, Clifton, Howard Green, being on the team next season.

  • Tarynfor 12

    I not only don’t see them on the team,I’m hoping to not see them on the team.

  • Zack

    As much as we all love driver, he didn’t/ won’t produce proportional to his salary. He won’t be a packer next year. If he is then I think that most people will be angry with TT unless he takes a SIGNIFICANT pay cut. even though DD is very loved and revered, anyone who knows anything about football can recognize that he isn’t worth anywhere near that number. He’ll have to take a significant pay cut to play in the NFL anywhere he goes so I hope he decides to take the pay cut and stay in Green Bay.

    BRING BACK SCOTT WELLS! Really good center and isn’t injury prone. He has at least 3 good years left, maybe up to 6.

    Woodson needs to take a pay cut but he has a bit of an ego. I don’t know how he’ll respond to it. We need to find that sweet balance and pay him slightly more than any other team in the NFL would be willing to pay him in order to keep him in Green Bay but not anywhere near where he’s getting paid now. For those of you saying he isn’t worth restructuring his contract you are missing so much. woodson is THE leader of our defense. He inspires and plays with passion and vigor and a great will to win. He is a great talent and still has about 2 years of great play making ability left. It is absolutely worth restructuring his contract…

    Thanks for many outstanding years as a Packer Chad Clifton. It’s been fun watching you play and I think you were under rated for a large portion of your career. That being said, easiest decision to make of the players mentioned in this article is to release chad clifton. I don’t think he would come back even if the packers made him an offer. he’s ready to retire.

    don’t break the bank for Ryan Grant but he’s still worth bringing back. people say that the packers didn’t run the ball well this year but that’s not true. We just didn’t run the ball OFTEN. Ryan Grant and Starks both averaged about 4 yards/ carry which isn’t great but it’s good. When you have Aaron Rodgers playing the way he did this year you’re not going to get much of an opportunity to run but that doesn’t mean take it out on your very good running backs. BTW we should have run more often in against the giants early in the game before it got out of hand.

    Also I would like to mention that people give management too much credit for not allowing Favre to return. If you remember back Favre had been stale and over the hill for many years before he tried to pull that crap with returning from retirement. He was given MORE than a fair shot to prove himself and it was very obvious he had reached a point in his career where he wasn’t going to win a championship. It seemed like he was only playing to get more records at that point. I don’t want to sound unappreciative of the many fun years of watching him play but when you think objectively about what was happenning at the time anyone can see it wasn’t that hard of a decision.

    Finally I would like to take this opportunity to say that for the stone cold character and tough decision maker that TT is painted in this article, it seems that you sure let your emotions come into play with AJ Hawk last year TT. His contract really needs to be restructured if not flat out cutting him. 6MIL/ YR for that guy. Does that sound right to anyone???? Read AJ Hawks player eval for my full rant on this subject but seems to apply to this too.

    (Disclaimer: I’m not the same Zach that wrote this article)

  • Mel Raid

    Cut AJ Hawk? I love unknowledgeable experts like yourself, who don’t even know that we’d take nearly the same cap hit if we cut Hawk then if we keep him at $6 mil.

    • Zack

      unnkowledgable experts? LOL! Where did I imply that I didn’t know that we would take the cap hit? Even if we take the cap hit this upcoming year it would be better than comitting to another year. We take the hit this upcoming year then next year we have the cap room. It needs to happen sooner or later and I personally would prefer sooner rather than later. AND that is not the prefered choice in the statement I made. I would prefer his contract be restructured but if he refuses to restructure his contract it would be better to cut him then keep this TERRIBLE decision haunting us any longer than necessary. It was a stupid move to sign a mediocre/ below average player to a contract deserved only by the best 2 or 3 ILB’S in the league now it’s all about admitting mistakes and doing damage control. Think about what you say before putting words into my mouth.

      • Zack

        Not too mention you missed the meat of what I said and just clung to a minor detail rather than addressing the major issue. Cutting AJ was just a sidenote of what I said. The important part of what I was saying is that TT screwed up in the first place… and not just a screw up in a way where he gambled and had as much chance of being right as he did of being wrong. He made an obvious terrible decision. I’m saying that something needs to be done to fix the situation. Lame brained wannabe know it alls try to invalidate the importance of big picture items by knit picking statements like you do. You should consider a career in politics you’d fit right in with the 3 ring circus we call the American political system.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      You know, you could just choose to say what you have to say without purposely insulting the other commenter. just a thought…

      • Zack

        Agreed, I did get a little carried away with that statement and I apologize. wish you guys would let me delete posts. I just don’t respond well to being patronized especially with a passive agressive undertone.

  • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

    I believe TT will offer Wells a 3-yr contract (ala Clifton and Tausch) and then draft his replacement, figuring on never having to pay year three…

    • Ron LC

      Peter Konz – UW Center, Guard and even some tackle.

  • JeffN

    I say sign Wells to a 5 year deal. He easily has 4 years left in him. Then make a decison in year 5 whether you want him or not. Or if you have his replacement in the 4th year let him go then.