Call it the “shotgun approach.” Ted Thompson added his twelfth defensive lineman to the roster on Wednesday with his signing of DE Phillip Merling, who spent the last four years with the Miami Dolphins. Of the four (non-Packer) veteran free agent signings by Thompson this offseason, three have been defensive lineman: Daniel Muir, Tony Hargrove, and now Merling.
There’s obviously been some emphasis by the Packers on bolstering the talent and depth across the unit. The drafting of Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels take the total number of new linemen up to five, meaning almost half of the group will be new faces in training camp.
Is this a case of desperation in response to the horrible performances of last season? No, that’s taking it a bit far. Ted Thompson is not spending beaucoup money on these free agent players, which one would tend to do when desperate.
But he is stockpiling the talent pool in a variety of ways, and hoping a good number of them stick.
The three free agent signings are not superstars. Tony Hargrove is the most well known of the group, but he’s probably not going to be a game-changer. His career has been up and down, playing with four different teams over eight years and racking up just 19.5 sacks and 16 run stuffs in the process. Hargrove hasn’t started a game in two seasons, and he only has 25 starts to his name across his entire career. Those numbers aren’t meant to discourage anyone – they’re certainly not the whole story – but they’re not indicators of a guy who’s going to “tilt the field.”
Then there’s Daniel Muir, whose career contrasts with Hargrove’s. Both are 28 years old, but Muir has 3 years less experience in the league and a slightly less impressive resume. Unlike the travelling Hargrove, he spent most of his years with the Indianapolis Colts after his rookie stint with the Packers. Muir’s numbers aren’t as flashy (just a half a sack in his career), but he is also an inside tackle player rather than a defensive end, so his role is considerably different.
Finally we have Phillip Merling, who seems to have the least potential of the three. He was a second round draft pick for the Miami Dolphins in 2008 and played in all 16 games in each of his first two years, though he only started four of them. He showed improvement from his rookie to his sophomore year, but a torn Achilles tendon derailed his career in 2010. He hasn’t played the same since.
While it’s doubtful any of these free agents will bring a lot of “star power” with them, they are still risks that the Green Bay Packers can take with minimal concern.
Hargrove’s one-year, “veteran minimum” contract has been well documented by the media, especially in light of his 8-game suspension currently under appeal. Muir was also signed for a similar one-year contract for the veteran minimum, and though Merling’s contract has been undisclosed, bets are he settled for about the same.
These guys are all going to be competing for spots on the roster, with none of them being a sure bet. But the hope for Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy, and Dom Capers is that at least one will prove to be an upgrade over some of their current players.
Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji are the two key players on the line. Beyond that, there’s not that much to get excited about. Mike Neal was supposed to be part of that group, but has fallen flat on his face with injuries and underperformance. In the words of McCarthy, his “availability and accountability” are less than desirable.
C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn make up the next tier of talent, being decent players but not shining stars. At the bottom sit the unproven Lawrence Guy and Johnny Jones, who are still in the early stages of blazing their career trails.
In short, there are some expendable players in this group – players who are solid backups, but who don’t quite have the skills to be full-blown starters. Whether it’s the free agents or bottom-tier linemen, a couple of these guys will need to step in and show they’re capable of improving the unit beyond what it was last season.
Draft picks Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, on the other hand, will probably hold a slight advantage in making the roster. Their expectations will be high, but they will be granted more time to develop in the system. More often than not, Ted Thompson keeps the young rookie with room to grow over the veteran who’s already hit his apex as a player.
As a second round pick, Worthy will be their biggest hope for an immediate upgrade, though I’m sure they’d also like to be pleasantly surprised by Daniels, who will probably be backing up the tackle positions.
All of this, however, boils down to the “shotgun approach” mentioned at the start of this post. More players competing for spots in camp means a higher chance of nailing some difference-makers. The NFL’s increase in the offseason roster limit from 80 to 90 players has helped make this all the more possible for Thompson and the Packers, but we’d probably be seeing the same approach regardless.
As a point of reference, Thompson only brought in three rookie defensive linemen last year (Lawrence Guy, Chris Donaldson, and Eli Joseph), all while releasing Justin Harrell and letting Cullen Jenkins walk in free agency. Donaldson and Joseph were cut from the final roster, while Guy spent the season on injured reserve. Perhaps too much stock was being put into the prospect of Mike Neal, or perhaps being the league’s number two ranked scoring defense the year before gave everyone a false sense of security.
Either way, Thompson has changed his strategy this offseason. He has acquired a number of veteran free agents and notable draft selections to ramp up the competition and increase the team’s chances of landing the right players for the job.
Only time will tell if any of those shots hit their mark, but as of right now, the Packers have a lot of bullets to shoot with.——————Follow @ChadToporski