Packers scoring with 'street' free agents
GREEN BAY - Several points about what presumably will be the Green Bay Packers’ opening-day roster can be uncovered using calculator and copious notes.
» At an average of 25.08 years per man, this is the Packers’ youngest team in the last 30 years, when records were available, and quite possibly ever.
» The Packers have 15 players on the 53-man roster that weren’t on their 53 or reserve list last season, their highest number since 2006.
The franchise’s football decision-maker, general manager Ted Thompson, steadfastly believes in building a team through the draft and college free agency.
“We think we do things pretty consistently,” Thompson said Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with youth.”
Yet, in some ways, the Packers’ success under Thompson has been due as much to his track record in free agency, limited though it might be, than the draft.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” he said.
Thompson hasn’t even signed an unrestricted free agent since 2012. In 12 offseasons he has signed merely a dozen UFAs, and seven of those came in 2005-’06.
Nevertheless, the Packers have struck it big on all three of their major acquisitions in “street” free agency the past three years by sitting out the early signing frenzy and then bargain shopping.
This year, the Packers waited until March 28 before adding tight end Jared Cook for $825,000 guaranteed and linebacker Lerentee McCray on April 18 for $50,000 guaranteed.
Cook had a superb training camp and could play an enormous role. McCray acquitted himself well before being traded to Buffalo for a conditional seventh-round draft choice in 2018.
In 2014, the Packers signed linebacker Julius Peppers ($7.5 million guaranteed) on March 15 and defensive lineman Letroy Guion ($100,000 guaranteed) on March 17. Peppers has been the team’s best pass rusher over the past two years and Guion has held his own inside.
Where in the world would the Packers have been then and now if Thompson hadn’t checked out of his preferred mode of operation and signed those players?
“I get your point,” the general manager said.
Thompson’s most significant veteran acquisition in the 2015 offseason was insignificant quarterback Matt Blanchard. In 2013, it was Matt Mulligan, a tight end who seems to have been with half the teams in the league.
The Packers missed on Jeff Saturday, the washed-up center who arrived as an unrestricted free agent in 2012 to replace Scott Wells and wound up being replaced himself late in the year by Evan Dietrich-Smith.
Let’s backtrack further.
The 2011 offseason was quiet, but in 2010 the “street” market produced Tim Masthay, an effective punter for six years, and Charlie Peprah, a ball-hawking safety for a Super Bowl winner.
From 2007-09, the unrestricted hit on linebacker Brandon Chillar overshadowed the unrestricted miss on center Duke Preston.
Thompson blew it as a novice GM in 2005, giving oft-injured Adrian Klemm an $800,000 signing bonus thinking he could start at guard for the departed Mike Wahle or Marco Rivera.
Safety Marquand Manuel ($1.5 million signing bonus) didn’t pan out in 2006, either, but there would have been no Super Bowl rings if nose tackle Ryan Pickett wasn’t signed on March 15 ($2 million signing bonus) that year or Charles Woodson didn’t agree on April 26 ($8.4 million in bonuses).
Given a rich albeit thin record of success, isn’t Thompson tempted to do more and more in the veteran markets?
In so many words, no, he is not.
If anything, the Packers have become even more isolationist in their player-procurement practices.
Just four of their 53 players – punter Jacob Schum, Cook, Guion and Peppers – have spent time on another team’s 53. Only four others – safety Chris Banjo, long snapper Brett Goode, running back Jhurell Pressley and linebacker Joe Thomas – have ever even been under contract with another club.
The math says 45 of the 53, or 84.9 percent, never have worn another NFL helmet. That number was 83 percent in 2015, 77.4 percent in ’14 and ’13, 73.6 percent in ’12 and ’11, 75.5 percent in ’10 and 73.6 percent in ’09.
Is Thompson offered players by trade-eager teams all the time during August?
“All the time would be a little bit too loose but it happens,” he replied. “Sure, it does.”
The Packers have traded for six players in Thompson’s 12 years: linebacker Robert Thomas in 2005, wide receiver Carlton Brewster and running back Vernand Morency in ’06, running back Ryan Grant in ’07, safety Derrick Martin in ’09 and safety Anthony Smith in ’10.
He wasn’t reluctant to trade players during the first half of his tenure, shipping out 11 through September 2011. McCray, however, was just the second to be dealt since then.
“I’m a little bit of a hoarder, I will admit, and I think I’ve come to grips with it,” Thompson said. “People that work with me know that I am.
“I like to accumulate players and see ‘em develop and see ‘em grow. I’m reluctant to take one of those players and trade him.”
Youth continues to be served. Of the 15 new players this year, seven were draft choices and four were original undrafted rookies. The total of four is more than the Packers have had in at least 25 years, and it would be five if you care to count rookie free agent Jhurell Pressley, the waiver pickup from the Vikings.
“Really? They made it?” an NFL college scouting director said from the road at mid-week when told quarterback Joe Callahan and safety Marwin Evans made a contending team like Green Bay. “Wow.
“If you keep a guy you can say, ‘We’re going to develop him.’ But then in Week 2, when a couple guys go down with injuries, that guy has to play. Maybe they can cut him then and bring in a vet.”
The Packers seldom operate like that. Under Thompson, they’ve had 25 undrafted rookies on opening rosters, and in many cases they have played from scrimmage.
“It’s a reflection of the organization itself, the way the organization bends over backwards to try to make this a comfortable and secure place to play football,” Thompson said.
“It’s also a reflection of the coaching staff that willingly takes on young players and rookies … and gets them ready to play. There’s an entire floor here of personnel people that likes to chase and likes to try to find players and recommend players that we should take a look at.
“If I didn’t have those people coming to me and knocking on my door saying we’ve got to look at X player here then a lot of this wouldn’t happen.”
Ninety-one of Thompson’s 111 draft choices, or 82 percent, cracked the opening-day 53 as rookies. Mike Sherman’s four-year mark was 74.1 percent (20 of 27), and Ron Wolf kept 61.8 percent (42 of 68) in his seven seven-round drafts.
Every year there are alternatives in building a team. Kyle Murphy, the Packers’ final draft choice this year, made it as a backup tackle.
Seattle’s backup tackle is Bradley Sowell, a fifth-year man signed March 14 for $200,000 guaranteed as an unrestricted free agent. Miami’s backup tackle is Jermon Bushrod, the former Saints-Bears starter who as a “street” free agent received $985,000 guaranteed on March 10.
Thin on the defensive line without suspended Mike Pennel, the Packers selected practice-squad refugee Christian Ringo for the No. 5 berth.
Some other 3-4 teams with veterans backing up at 5-technique are the Redskins (Kendall Reyes, $1 million guaranteed), the Jets (Jarvis Jenkins, $3 million guaranteed) and the 49ers (Tony Jerod-Eddie, $25,000 guaranteed).
“We do what we do, and we did what we did,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to look back in this game. Got to keep going.”
Just two NFL teams, Green Bay and New England, have made the playoffs in each of the last seven years. From 2009-15, the Patriots are 93-33 (.738) and the Packers are 84-40-1 (.676).
No two teams are more polar opposites, however, when it comes to putting together a roster.
Compare the 57 players signed by the Packers in this calendar year to the 50 signed by the Patriots.
GREEN BAY: College free agents (31, nine more than ever before under Thompson), “street” free agents (17), draft choices (seven) and waiver claims (two).
NEW ENGLAND: “Street” free agents (19), college free agents (nine), draft choices (nine), unrestricted free agents (eight), trade acquisitions (four) and restricted free agents (one).
Although the experience level of the Patriots’ “street” free agents is far greater than the Packers’, the number of players in that category are almost identical. The major difference is that New England fills its 90-man roster with veterans whereas Green Bay fills its with rookies.
The Patriots ended up keeping 19 of the 50 newcomers. Nine are rookies, and the average years of experience is 2.9 years.
The Packers retained 15 of their 57. Twelve are rookies, and the average years of experience is 0.7.
After saying he had never discussed team-building with Bill Belichick, Thompson was asked if he would like to.
“I’m sure it would be an interesting conversation,” he replied. “He’s obviously world-renowned. It might be a good education.”
As captains of potentially two Super Bowl-bound ships, Thompson and Belichick will keep on doing things their own diametrically opposed way.
WR – Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis, Ty Montgomery, Trevor Davis, Jeff Janis
TE – Jared Cook, Richard Rodgers, Justin Perillo
T – David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga, Jason Spriggs, Kyle Murphy
G – T.J. Lang, Lane Taylor, Don Barclay
C – JC Tretter
QB – Aaron Rodgers, Brett Hundley, Joe Callahan
FB – Aaron Ripkowski
RB – Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Jhurell Pressley
DE – Mike Daniels, Dean Lowry, Christian Ringo
NT – Letroy Guion, Kenny Clark
ILB – Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas
OLB – Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, Datone Jones, Jayrone Elliott, Kyler Fackrell
CB – Sam Shields, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, LaDarius Gunter, Josh Hawkins
S – Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde, Chris Banjo, Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans
K – Mason Crosby
P – Jacob Schum
LS – Brett Goode
RESERVE/PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO PERFORM (1)
C Corey Linsley
RB John Crockett, CB Makinton Dorleant, NT Tyler Kuder. G-C Kyle Steuck
CB Demetri Goodson, DE-NT Mike Pennel
PRACTICE SQUAD (10)
WR Geronimo Allison, LB Carl Bradford, TE Devon Cajuste, LB Reggie Gilbert, RB Don Jackson, G Blake Muir, G Lucas Patrick, NT Brian Price, WR Herb Waters, S Jermaine Whitehead