Aaron Nagler and Michael Cohen look at the decision to allow TJ Lang to walk and where the Packers go next to fill the hole on their offensive line. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers had a decision to make: Do they hold firm with their offer and trust that T.J. Lang would choose them for the sake of familiarity or do they follow the market and make him the fifth-highest paid guard in the NFL?
The decision they made resulted in Lang, their toughest and most consistent offensive lineman, signing a three-year, $28.5 million deal Sunday with the Detroit Lions. According to a knowledgeable source, the contract includes $19.5 million of guaranteed money.
Lang had solid offers from the Lions and Seattle Seahawks, but the Packers refused to match them and Lang decided he could be happy playing for the team he followed growing up in the Detroit suburbs. He said it ended up being an easy choice because he thought the Lions were an up-and-coming team and believed in him as a player.
"It was something obviously, Detroit with all things considered, not only just the offer, but all things considered was just really a no-brainer in my mind," Lang said in a conference call with Detroit-area reporters. "It has been a bittersweet day. I'm excited for the opportunity to come to Detroit and play with another elite quarterback (in Matthew Stafford).
"But at the same time, just texting with some of my friends back there (in Green Bay) — and I consider them my brothers — it was tough. But at the same time I made the decision. I can’t look back at it. I'm ready to start a new chapter."
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According to a source who was informed about how the negotiations played out, the Packers based their offer on the three-year, $21 million deal that Lang's former teammate, Josh Sitton, signed with Chicago after the Packers cut him in September. The market, however, was bearing a much higher figure with Ron Leary signing a four-year, $35 million deal in Denver and Larry Warford signing a four-year, $34 million deal with New Orleans.
By the time Lang got around to visiting Detroit and Seattle late last week, he was the top guard on the market. Both teams were serious about signing him, but the Packers either believed Lang would return for less, thought it wasn't worth paying a guard that much or figured there was too much risk paying him $9.5 million a year due to his injury history.
The Packers raised their offer above $7 million a year, the source said, but it never came close to the $9.5 million average or the $19.5 million in guaranteed money the Lions delivered. Lang, who played through a broken foot and a damaged hip last year, may have felt the Packers weren't being as loyal as he had been during the season.
When asked about the Packers' offer, Lang laughed softly.
"That was something that I’m sure will be brought out over time," he said. "I’ll let other people handle that. I’ll let my agent handle that. It was something Detroit, with all things considered, not only just the offer, but all things considered, was just really a no-brainer in my mind."
Lang's agent, Mike McCartney, did not return phone messages.
Because Lang said publicly many times over that his desire was to re-sign with the Packers, it might have emboldened general manager Ted Thompson and negotiator Russ Ball to stick to their offer and try to get a home-team benefit.
But the guaranteed money the Lions offered essentially assures Lang two years of salary regardless of whether his many injuries catch up to him, a luxury the Packers weren’t willing to provide. By comparison, when they signed left tackle David Bakhtiari to a four-year, $49 million extension in September, they gave him only $16 million in guarantees.
Lang, 29, is four years older than Bakhtiari and the fact he had undergone hip surgery after this season and shoulder surgery after last season, likely caused the Packers to balk at guaranteeing so much of the deal.
At $9.5 million per year, Lang ranks around fifth among all guards in average salary.
Lang has been an ironman on the Packers' offensive line the past six years and emerged as its leader last season after the departure of Sitton. After years of manning the right guard position with consistency and toughness, he was elected to his first Pro Bowl.
The Packers' wish all along had been to sign Lang, but they wanted it only at their price. Their No. 1 priority in free agency was outside linebacker Nick Perry, who signed a five-year, $60 million deal just before the start of the free-agent period. Next, they were going to make sure they had a tight end. They wound up signing free agents Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks over Jared Cook.
A source said Thompson and Ball dug in their heels on both Lang and running back Eddie Lacy, refusing to move off their offers. It's a clear sign they didn't value those two as much as Perry and the tight ends. They also didn't make an offer to cornerback Micah Hyde and let center JC Tretter leave as well.
Two things could have been at play in the Packers taking a hard line: They felt either Jason Spriggs or Kyle Murphy, two picks from the 2016 draft, could replicate the success guard Lane Taylor had after Sitton was jettisoned in September or the medical staff had estimated that Lang’s hip or foot or shoulder wouldn’t hold up over time.
Expecting Spriggs, Murphy, practice squad member Lucas Patrick or veteran swingman Don Barclay to fill the position would be a major reach. Taylor was a true guard and had three years in the system, but Spriggs and Murphy both are 6-6 and around 305 pounds and were tackles in college.
Spriggs had a lot of difficulty filling in for Lang in spots last year. Murphy worked some at guard for the scout team last year, but would have to increase his strength significantly to be able to hold up at the right guard position. The Packers have no intention of moving right tackle Bryan Bulaga to right guard.
The injury concerns with Lang are legitimate. In just the past three years, he has had ankle, knee, shoulder, back, foot and hip injuries. He had surgery to repair his labrum after the 2015 season and surgery to repair his hip after this past season. Despite that, he has missed only five games since becoming a starter in 2011.
He probably was the toughest player the Packers had in the locker room and an enforcer on the field. He led the team in skirmishes and verbal battles with opponents by a large margin.
The Packers had a chance to re-sign both of their guards during the offseason but instead chose to cut Sitton and let Lang go in free agency. They informed both that they would not be negotiating with them on contract extensions during the season. Instead, they focused on Bakhtiari.
After playing out the year, Lang waited it out during the initial flurry until he was the top guard on the market. He decided he would only sign with a team that had a chance to win a championship.
Both the Lions and Seahawks were appealing spots for Lang. Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who was on the Packers' staff when Lang was drafted in 2009, offered a solid contract that competed with Detroit. But the fact he wouldn’t have to move his family made him pick the Lions.
“There was a list I had of things I wanted to hit and Detroit checked everyone of them off,” Lang said. “It will be different no doubt playing against some of my best friends, but I think they all understand the business side of it as well, and they are all exited for me, and I will still maintain friendships with them.”
The Packers now have lost unrestricted free agents Lang, Hyde, Tretter and linebacker Julius Peppers in free agency. They all will count when compensatory picks are calculated for the 2018 draft. When Cook signs with another team, he will count also.
The Packers' only unrestricted free agent signed so far is Bennett. Their signing of Kendricks doesn't count in the calculation because he was cut by the Los Angeles Rams and not an unrestricted free agent.