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Mike Vandermause column: Thompson's free-agent philosophy not likely to change

Feb. 14, 2014
 
ES_GPG_Packers vs. Cardinals_8.9.13
pHOTO: Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson looks on during Friday night's preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

Ted Thompsonís unrestricted free-agent signings

2005: G Adrian Klemm, G Matt OíDwyer
2006: WR Marc Boerigter, S Marquand Manuel, DT Ryan Pickett, LB Ben Taylor, CB Charles Woodson
2007: CB Frank Walker
2008: LB Brandon Chillar
2009: C/G Duke Preston
2010: None
2011: None
2012: DE Anthony Hargrove, C Jeff Saturday
2013: None

More

An NFL Network report earlier this week proclaimed the Green Bay Packers are going to be major players in unrestricted free agency this offseason.

In other similarly outlandish news, our Wisconsin winter will end in late February, pigs can fly and the Packers will put a dome on Lambeau Field.

The NFL Network report stated that according to ďsources informed of the teamís thinking,Ē the Packers will use some of their nearly $30 million in salary cap space to sign as many as five players from other teams.

Unless one of those sources was Packers General Manager Ted Thompson, which is highly doubtful, donít put much stock in the report.

Two things are certain about Thompson: He never gives inside information to the media about the Packersí plans, either on or off the record; and he doesnít invest heavily in free agency.

No one should expect the Packers to make a big splash this offseason, because that would mean Thompson has suddenly turned over a new leaf and will fundamentally change his approach to building a team.

Anything is possible, but Thompson is about as consistent as they come, so for him to reinvent himself as a free-agent high roller seems unthinkable.

Itís true Thompson signed five unrestricted free agents in 2006, including cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett. But the Packers were coming off a 4-12 season, Mike McCarthy was beginning his first season as head coach, and Thompson was desperate to shore up some gaping holes in his roster.

Since then Thompson has signed just five unrestricted free agents in the last seven years and only one ó center Jeff Saturday ó became an every-down starter. Thompson signed no unrestricted free agents in three of the past four years.

Thompson has been criticized for being too passive in free agency and placing too much emphasis on his draft-and-develop philosophy. But he firmly opposes overpaying for talent, a mistake many teams make during the first week of free agency when the bidding gets crazy and stupid money is flying everywhere.

That sensible approach has enabled Thompson to re-sign some of his own key players without a second thought. The Packers locked up quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews last year to lucrative long-term deals and thanks to Thompsonís prudence, barely felt the effects on their salary cap.

That same stance will likely allow the Packers to offer contract extensions to receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson in the coming year and not feel any long-term impact on their cap.

Thatís the benefit to Thompsonís conservative way of doing business, and some donít give him enough credit for taking a measured approach in constructing his roster. The Packers arenít forced to push money into later seasons and mortgage their future, and they donít run the risk of letting their salary structure get out of whack.

Too many teams have gotten burned by signing expensive free agents that donít pan out.

But thereís also a down side to Thompsonís methods. His emphasis on the draft makes it imperative that the Packers continually develop their younger players. When too many of Thompsonís draft choices bomb out, the Packers are left without an adequate backup plan.

Overall Thompson has drafted successfully during his nine-year tenure in Green Bay, which is the main reason the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010 and qualified for the playoffs six of the past seven years.

But the Packers havenít advanced past the divisional round of the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, primarily because of their defense. And the blame for that largely falls on Thompsonís inability to keep the talent pipeline flowing.

Thompson hasnít drafted a single Pro Bowl defensive player in the last four years. He found an average starting safety in Morgan Burnett, and so-so linebackers Mike Neal and Nick Perry, who have been plagued by injuries and inconsistency.

Defensive lineman Mike Daniels and defensive backs Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde look like keepers. But the jury is still out on defensive linemen Datone Jones and Jerel Worthy and cornerback Davon House.

There will always be hits and misses in the draft, but lately Thompson has missed on too many defensive players, and there is no fallback because he isnít very active in free agency.

Thompson has insisted that he considers every option, including unrestricted free agency, to improve his roster, but his actions say otherwise. What he needs to do is strike a better balance.

Thompson shouldnít go against his better judgment and spend wildly and carelessly on free agents that other teams have chosen not to keep. But in assessing his roster, Thompson has to know the Packers defense needs a shot in the arm. So using some cap space on a reasonably priced safety or defensive lineman, for instance, wouldnít be a bad play.

Thompson proved he was capable of building a champion without being overly aggressive in free agency, and at this stage in his career it would be shocking if he changed his core beliefs.

But the Packers need a better defense to win another title, and the draft alone wonít fill that void. No one should expect Thompson to sign five unrestricted free agents this offseason, but one or two could go a long way to shore up a beleaguered defense.

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause

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