BOCA RATON, Fla. – Mark Murphy knows the questions are coming.
As soon as the calendar flips to March, the first thing on the mind and out of the mouths of every Green Bay Packers fan is whether this is the year their team does the unthinkable and finally dips into free agency.
Rampant speculation fills the pages of message boards, litters Twitter timelines and keeps going until it gets the attention of the Packers president and CEO. It often makes for good offseason fodder, but rarely has it equated to a high-profile acquisition outside of Julius Peppers in 2014.
There were thoughts that could change this year, but rumors of Matt Forte or Danny Trevathan being possible targets went nowhere. So far, Green Bay’s only outside acquisitions have been undrafted free agents Ryan Williams and Ray Drew.
General manager Ted Thompson and chief negotiator Russ Ball might not score points for free-agent flare, but Murphy remains confident in the direction they’re driving the organization in pointing to the recent extensions of defensive lineman Mike Daniels, kicker Mason Crosby and other key contributors.
“(I'm) pleased with some of the players we’ve been able to retain, starting with Mike Daniels. It was important to get him,” said Murphy at Sunday’s NFL owners meetings. “This is the time of year that fans ask a lot of questions, ‘How come you’re not doing this, how come you’re not doing that?’ Ted and Russ and Mike (McCarthy) know what they’re doing.”
McCarthy said at the NFL scouting combine that the Packers may shock people in free agency, but so far that hasn't been the case. Murphy says the lack of activity in free agency is a byproduct of the recent salary-cap hikes flooding under-spending teams with space. In the past few years, several teams barely have reached the minimum spending limit.
Three teams – Jacksonville ($32.8 million), Tennessee ($20.8 million) and Cleveland ($20.7 million) – carried over more than $20 million in unused cap space from 2015. Comparatively, the Packers entered free agency with roughly $20 million in total cap space after Daniels and Crosby’s deals.
Since the new league year started, the Packers have concentrated as in previous years on retaining their own free agents. It has resulted in short-term agreements with outside linebacker Nick Perry (one year, $5 million), running back James Starks (two years, $6 million) and guard Lane Taylor (two years, $4.15 million).
With the team looking for help at tight end, Murphy confirmed the Packers recently brought in former Tennessee and St. Louis tight end Jared Cook for a visit, though there’s been no indication whether Thompson will further pursue the eighth-year veteran.
“The other thing is that some of the minimum spending rules have kicked in, so you’ve seen some teams spend a lot of money that you haven’t seen spend in the past and I feel confident in our strategy that we’re not going to overspend for players," Murphy said. “The main focus is on keeping our own. But I know if we can help ourselves we’re looking at it. We brought Jared Cook in for a visit, and we’re going to continue to look at different ways we can build the team.”
To his credit, the one thing Thompson doesn’t do is lose players at positions of need. On the rare occasions someone has left in free agency, the Packers always have had a Plan B, whether it’s T.J. Lang replacing Daryn Colledge, Randall Cobb taking over for Greg Jennings or Damarious Randall stepping in for Tramon Williams.
Thompson’s best offseason move came three months before free agency even began when he signed Daniels to a four-year extension worth $41 million. The $10.25 million average salary may have seemed a tad high at the time, but now looks like a bargain compared to what free agency might have paid him.
In the days before the start of the new league year, the Packers also took care of Crosby with a four-year, $16.1 million contract, locking up a 32-year-old kicker in his prime rather than rolling the dice on an unproven rookie or aging veteran.
Even Thompson's decision to bring back Letroy Guion on a three-year, $11.25 million deal in February paid dividends when B.J. Raji unexpectedly announced his retirement last Monday. After factoring in Starks’ $3 million cap number for next season, the Packers still have roughly $12.5 million left in cap space.
That cash could be used to either secure a few bargains in the weeks and months ahead or carried over to address next year’s free-agent class of running back Eddie Lacy, left tackle David Bakhtiari, guards Lang and Josh Sitton and defensive back Micah Hyde.
So far, Thompson has used the offseason to give the team flexibility in reaching short-term deals with Perry, Taylor and Starks over the past two weeks. All three could be potential starters or stopgaps in case others aren’t re-signed.
Taylor gives the Packers insurance in case Sitton or Lang aren’t retained after next season. Instead of issuing him a non-guaranteed right-of-first-refusal tender, the Packers gave the former undrafted free agent some financial security ($600,000 signing bonus) in exchange for Green Bay avoiding five potential offensive linemen hitting unrestricted free agency in 2017.
All indications are the Packers would have extended a low tender worth $1.671 million if a deal couldn’t be reached. Now, Taylor will make a shade more ($1.75 million) next season and actually will account for less space on the 2016 salary cap ($1.45 million) than the tender would have.
Green Bay protected itself in making $1 million of Perry’s contract based on his participation on the active roster. The former first-round pick was dynamic in the playoffs (eight times, 3½ sacks), but went the previous nine games without a sack to end the regular season as he battled shoulder injuries.
Perry’s return gives the Packers options with how they want to utilize Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews next season and one more chance to evaluate whether he could be counted on as a starter with 36-year-old Julius Peppers entering the final year of his contract.
Starks is important on multiple fronts. He’s coming off the most productive year of his NFL career (993 total yards) and is close friends with starting running back Eddie Lacy, who has been working with P90X founder Tony Horton to improve his conditioning this offseason.
If Lacy bounces back, Starks would have no problem reverting back to a No. 2 role. If Lacy doesn’t, the 30-year-old veteran has proven he can handle the extra workload. There’s also the added insurance he provides as a stop-gap option if Lacy would leave as a free agent after the 2016 season.
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