The Green Bay Packers never planned for Letroy Guion to start all 16 regular-season games at nose tackle.
When general manager Ted Thompson signed the seventh-year veteran in March, the purpose was to add a strong rotational lineman and insurance policy for starter B.J. Raji, who re-signed three days before Guion's arrival.
Guion's one-year deal worth a modest million proved to be money well spent after Raji's season ended when he tore his right biceps in the third preseason game. Guion was immediately thrust into the starting lineup.
While he missed nearly all of training camp with a hamstring injury, Guion made it through the season unscathed to finish with 32 tackles and 31/2 sacks, second on the line only to budding rusher Mike Daniels (41-51/2).
The Packers had their eye on the 6-foot-4, 315-pound lineman for years, targeting him as a possible late-round prospect during the 2008 NFL draft before the Minnesota Vikings snatched him in the fifth round.
When the Vikings cut Guion on March 6, the Packers quickly picked up the phone.
"Letroy, playing against him in the division and at his age, we really felt like we were fortunate to be in a position to sign him and what he could bring and his personality and his energy," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. "I've always felt he was a heck of a football player. I thought that was an excellent addition."
The production was made possible by Thompson agreeing to dip into free agency to augment a defense that lacked playmakers. When starters wore down in 2013, the Packers often were left to replace them with first- and second-year players lacking experience.
Thompson won't forsake his draft-and-develop principles, but satisfied the plea from veterans like Tramon Williams for more experience on the defense. Along with Guion, Thompson made his biggest splash in free agency in nearly a decade by signing Julius Peppers.
The genius was that Thompson did it without compromising future draft picks. Guion and Peppers had been released from their contracts, so their status as street free agents doesn't factor into the compensatory process.
Meanwhile, the Packers lost four veterans to unrestricted free agency in center Evan Dietrich-Smith, receiver James Jones, defensive lineman C.J. Wilson and tackle Marshall Newhouse, a quartet that could elicit an extra pair of draft picks in this year's NFL draft.
"I thought Julius Peppers and Letroy were impactful for our football team, especially on defense," McCarthy said. "Julius Peppers, I thought from a leadership standpoint, knocked it out of the park. You talk about what Charles Woodson and his impact that he made as a free agent in his time as a Green Bay Packer was unique and special. I think Julius in his first year did a great job."
Even at 34 years old, Peppers remained a factor on defense with 44 tackles, seven sacks and a career-high 11 pass deflections. He forced six fumbles (including playoffs) and returned two interceptions for a touchdown.
That was the expectation when the Packers signed the eight-time Pro Bowler to a three-year, $26 million on March 14. What they weren't counting on was how quickly the soft-spoken pass rusher became a leader in Green Bay's locker room.
His wisdom and words sparked others to follow his lead and was a contributing factor to this year's team being among the tightest groups in Williams' eight years in Green Bay.
"It was one of them, especially to have a mixture of young and older guys," Williams said. "The way guys got along. The way guys communicated. You can tell guys were having fun out there. That's what it takes to get to this point in seasons. That's what makes teams — just the bond between guys and trusting guys."
Thompson tends to remain on the sidelines in free agency, especially when it comes to signing other team's unrestricted free agents. The last time the Packers went that route was in 2012 with the signing of center Jeff Saturday and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
The package of Peppers and Guion produced better returns at a lower cost. Their successes could send the Packers back to dumpster diving through other team's cap casualties, but a lot of it will depend on how Green Bay handles its own affairs.
The Packers have enough flexibility under the cap to go in a number of different directions. For starters, they'll need to address their 11 unrestricted free agents, including receiver Randall Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Guion is among them, but his camp already has been in talks with the Packers regarding a possible return.
Thompson also faces a difficult decision with Peppers, who carries a $12 million cap figure with an $8.5 million base salary for 2015. The Packers would save $7 million if he's released or the two sides also could restructure.
After struggling to cultivate pass-rushers other than Clay Matthews, it's hard to imagine the Packers tossing Peppers back into the discard pile.
"I've been here nine years now, and we were so close to getting back to the big game. I want another shot," said veteran cornerback Jarrett Bush, who's also a free agent. "Hopefully, we can rally up some of the guys: Julius Peppers, myself, Tramon, those who are free agents and take another run at it. We have the group, the veterans, the leadership and the playmakers, as well, to get back to the big game."
The Packers extended Thompson's contract through the 2019 NFL draft, so the "Draft. Develop. Repeat" mantra will reign in Green Bay for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the performance of Guion and Peppers could serve as an eye-opener for the organization.
It's not a given teams always find success in free agency, but it might be worth the Packers taking another shot again this spring if the right player should appear.
"I think you look at the whole picture," McCarthy said. "Every season's its own opportunity, every roster that you build is its own unique opportunity. Nothing ever stays the same, that's for sure. We'll look at it like we always do. It was kind of nice to add a couple free agents last year."
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