As I’m working on my holiday shopping list and for whatever reason, I started to wonder how Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson does his holiday shopping. As fans of the Packers, we know how Thompson shops for players. He is your regular coupon hound. Always looking for the best bargain and rarely ever paying retail.
It’s smart to look for the best value for the least amount of expenditure. With that, I can’t argue. Anytime you can receive more than you pay, it’s a good thing and just makes good sense from a business perspective.
I can’t fault Thompson for wanting to be responsible that way in his role as GM. After all, we can look at some teams who are often in salary cap hell and are unable to make many of the transactions they would like because they mortgage the future on a previously bad choice. The Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Diego Chargers come to mind most readily, although there are others.
In taking a look at how this season has unfolded and in light of the injury to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the topics that has become popular is the depth behind the Packers starters. As I have said before, there is always going to be drop-off from a starter to a backup. That’s why backups aren’t starters.
It’s easy to simply say that this team doesn’t have enough good players and pile on what has already been a horrible showing by a team that previously was expected to contend for another Super Bowl. Since Rodgers went down in early November, the Packers are winless and have fallen below .500. With just four games left, the team’s chances of winning the NFC North are waning and if you ask some, they’ll tell you that that ship sailed long ago.
But let’s examine how this roster was formulated a bit. As many of you know, I’m not a big charts, graphs and stats guy. I try as much as I can, but I try to stay away from an overly analytical argument and speak more to the general happenings of the team.
Have you ever wanted the hottest gift of the season or a specific brand name item and when you opened the gift box, you got the generic brand or an imitation brand? And have you ever heard the buyer of the gift tell you that they know you wanted “X” brand, but their choice was “close enough”? I have and even though the product does essentially the same thing that the one you really wanted does, it’s not always the same. Whether it was saving money or they simply couldn’t find the one you wanted, the reasons just don’t always make it any better.
Thompson has long been known for using undrafted free agency to fill the Packers roster during his tenure as GM. Many of those finds have even panned out well for the team and in the process, also brought about very salary cap-friendly contracts that allowed the team to retain its current stars as well. A few examples of current starters found via UDFA over the past few years are Sam Shields, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Jarrett Boykin and Tramon Williams.
When a player works out that way, it’s hard to argue that the undrafted free agent avenue is one to avoid. It can certainly help a team build depth and allow them to develop the player into a more solid contributor. But when these players are thrust into action sooner than later, it doesn’t always work out so well. See M.D. Jennings, Scott Tolzien, Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Jeremy Ross.
The latter grouping are guys who are either average, at best, or who are no longer on the Packers roster. They never made an impact or they made a negative impact to the point where they were sent packing. In Ross’ case, he had a good game last week for the Detroit Lions and unfortunately it came at the Packers’ expense. But overall, the odds that these undrafted guys are going to become regular contributors is low. I think we can all agree on that.
In Jennings’ case, he’s still in a starting role for the second year in a row. He hasn’t made any type of impact at the safety position, which is key in today’s NFL. That average play is part of the reason why the Packers currently rank 22nd in pass defense and why the secondary struggled last season as well.
It was no secret that Jennings was not starter material and yet, Thompson chose to go with Jennings and second-year man Jerron McMillian to battle it out in training camp for the starting spot opposite Morgan Burnett. Jennings won the job, but when it’s him vs. a guy like McMillian (who was just cut earlier this week), does anyone really win? The Packers and Thompson clearly overestimated what they had at safety heading into 2013.
So what could Thompson have done differently? While I don’t necessarily endorse any of these as a better or “right” answer, he could have brought back Charles Woodson. Woodson is aging, not as fast and his savvy isn’t enough to make up for what time has taken away. There was also Bernard Pollard, who was let go by the Baltimore Ravens before he was snatched up, almost immediately, by the Tennessee Titans. Kerry Rhodes is another veteran safety who is still on the market now and a guy who many Packers fans have clamored for, claiming that he can’t be any worse than either Jennings or McMillian.
All of those are interesting scenarios and each has its flaws, but the point is that Thompson seemingly never looked in any of those directions. Veteran free agents have become very high-priced commodities in the NFL. Teams pay for talent and it’s not cheap to go that route versus giving an unproven young guy a shot. But consider what the typical path has been for backup players and those added to the team during the season the past few years.
With the injury issues the Packers have endured (totally separate topic), it stands to reason that the second and third string guys are going to play in a meaningful situation at some point during the season. That’s just a reality as of late. So why would Thompson continue to hedge his bet on his starters staying healthy and remaining productive? Does he not watch games each week?
I don’t have the exact answer, but it has reached the point where those are the types of questions being asked. Of course Thompson watches the team. He’s also very set in his ways. We don’t hear much from TT during the season and when we do, the sound bites are very short and not so sweet. To expect a major about-face from Thompson is foolish on our part.
However, that lack of change could lead to continued decline and squander some of the best years of the nucleus of this team. Namely Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews, both of whom were handsomely rewarded with contract extensions this offseason. Neither will play forever and eventually, the Packers will have to replace them too.
Thompson drafted both Rodgers and Matthews and among the various stories, there seemed to be many bugs in his ears to take each player on draft day. Rodgers fell to the Packers and it seemed a no-brainer. Thompson traded back into the first round, something he rarely does, to get Matthews. So why doesn’t Ted see that acting outside of the usual box can work?
Again, I don’t have the answer there, but during this next offseason, I urge Thompson to consider some more certain avenues to fill needs. Earlier this season just before the trade deadline, the New York Giants traded for former Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason. Beason was dealing with some injuries and was a financial burden on Carolina’s books. Since coming to the Giants, Beason has amassed 41 tackles and an interception in eight games with the Giants. Beason is 28 years old and despite some major injuries, has been solid for the Giants.
I’m not suggesting that the Packers run out and grab a bunch of one-hit wonders and continually plug holes that way, but having a guy like Beason on the sidelines and if needed would be a better option than someone none of the other 31 teams want on their roster.
By adding veteran depth and continuing to play their steady young players, the Packers might stand to weather a storm like this last month’s a bit better than they have. Now in the case of Scott Tolzien, he is a quarterback and that is a horse of an entirely different color. Thompson decided to go with veteran back up Seneca Wallace and was forced to play Tolzien when Wallace suffered a groin injury. Still, was Wallace the best option to back up the franchise? Would Matt Flynn be in Green Bay now if he weren’t released and having cleared waivers?
As a writer, I am coming from a somewhat selfish standpoint with this next point, but it does get a bit tiring to have to dig and dig and dig into the background of the latest guy signed to the Packers roster or practice squad because more often than not, the first thing I find myself saying is “who?”. And “where did they find that guy?” If they will eventually turn into regular contributors, I would gladly spend hours and give up night’s sleep to learn more. The problem is, that is not happening over the past few years.
With the release of McMillian, the Packers have now seen 12 drafted players, over the past three years, leave the team. At that rate of attrition, Thompson has to replace that talent and investment. Continuing to gamble and do so with guys who couldn’t outdo “Mr. Irrelevant” no longer seems to be the way to go.
I don’t scout for an NFL team and I couldn’t tell you what scouts really look for but I know an average or bad player when I see one on the field. The Packers have too many of those guys currently trying to play important roles. Injuries are a big reason why and those can be tough to prevent, but by now, we know guys are going to get hurt, so why pretend it will suddenly improve and change? I suppose to do so would mean Thompson is conceding that something is wrong in Green Bay and that these injury issues are a huge problem (and they are but again, completely separate topic).
Ted, when you get to shopping this winter, consider some name brands to go along with the generics we know you’re going to bring in and think outside of the usual gift box, OK?
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: