Free agency showing Packers' true colors

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - Either the Green Bay Packers are extremely cocky or they know the free-agent market as well or better than anybody in the NFL.

Since the start of free agency Thursday, they have met outside linebacker Nick Perry at his asking price, spit in the eye of cornerback Micah Hyde, low-balled guard T.J. Lang and running back Eddie Lacy, played tight end Jared Cook for a sucker and signed tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks at incredibly friendly prices.

It’s all in a week’s work for general manager Ted Thompson and his negotiator, Russ Ball, who together hold a lot of valuable cards and know how to play them, even while failing in their bid to produce a Super Bowl champion over the last seven seasons.

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They have a franchise quarterback, a head coach with the second-highest active winning percentage (.651) in the NFL, more cash and cap space than should legally be allowed, one of the best teams of draft talent evaluators around and the Taj Mahal of training facilities that seems to get upgraded almost as often as president Mark Murphy buys up real estate.

How else do you explain them signing Martellus Bennett, the best tight end in the free-agent market, for $21 million over three years? Bennett received just slightly more than Indianapolis Colts free agent Jack Doyle in total compensation ($18.9 million) and probably will double the number of catches Doyle has next season.

Cook reportedly could have had a deal for slightly less than Bennett, but Thompson and Ball called his agents’ bluff by apparently keeping Bennett holding on the other line. When Cooks’ agents pulled the amateurish “talks have broken down” card, Thompson and Ball hung up and negotiated a deal with Bennett’s agent, Kennard McGuire.

Then, the next day, just to flex their muscles a little more, they signed tight end Lance Kendricks, presumably at a modest salary given he had been released by the Los Angeles Rams this offseason.

In Cleveland, San Francisco and Buffalo, they attract free agents with huge amounts of money because they have to. In Green Bay, they hold the line on salaries as long as they can with their own players and then cut bait when it just doesn’t make sense anymore. With players from outside, they look for bargains.

In the case of Perry, they correctly read that the market was going to be good for a pass rusher. Indianapolis was hot for an edge player and wound up signing New England’s Jabaal Sheard for a reported $8.5 million deal shortly after Perry re-upped with the Packers.

Did they overpay for Perry? Possibly.

But they identified him as a must-have because of their weakness at outside linebacker and the potential he showed over the past 15 months. Perry’s five-year, $60 million deal ($18.5 million guaranteed) seemed reasonable compared to the reported five-year, $83.5 million ($52 million guaranteed) that Arizona gave linebacker Chandler Jones.

According to NFL-tallied stats, Perry had the same number of sacks (11) and one more pass patted down (four) than Jones in two fewer games. Jones had more tackles for loss (15-12), more total quarterback knockdowns (21-16) and four more forced fumbles (4-0).

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Arizona was so worried about the market for Jones that it put the franchise tag on him, which was worth $14.55 million for one year.

Thompson has shown a willingness to pay market value — and even more — to secure players he values highly. Even though there is risk with Perry because of his injury history, Thompson had enough background information to take the calculated gamble.

On the other hand, he was not willing to overspend on Lang.

The Packers dug in their heels at $7 million per year, the same amount that Josh Sitton received from Chicago after the Packers released him in September. Why they thought that would be the market value for Lang is puzzling, given that Sitton was at a disadvantage getting released at the start of the regular season, when teams had their lineups already set.

Lang was entering a free-agent market where the cap went up $10 million and the number of quality guards available was small. He was coming off a broken foot and hip surgery and so the health risk hovered over him wherever he went.

When Lang visited Detroit and Seattle, two reputable teams with solid general managers, it should have been clear that the price for Lang was rising. Lang visited both teams and each of the medical staffs was satisfied with his condition.

They each presented him with deals better than the $8.25 million-a-year that free-agent Dallas guard Ron Leary received in Denver and the $8.43 million that Laurent Duvernay-Tardif received to re-sign with Kansas City. The Packers raised their offer, but either they thought Lang wasn’t worth much more than $7 million or their cockiness got the best of them, thinking Lang never would pick Detroit over Green Bay.

It’s hard to imagine the Packers underestimating what Lang could provide both as a player and a locker room leader, but they sent a terrible message to the rest of the team by low-balling a guy who put off hip surgery in the summer so he wouldn’t miss any time and played through a broken foot.

If future Packers free-agents-to-be are watching, they would be smart to protect their own interests and not risk what Lang did. They won’t be rewarded for it.

In the case of Hyde, Thompson and Ball never made an offer. Either they thought he got beat too much in man coverage and needed to be replaced or they just weren’t going to pay $6 million for him, which is what he received from Buffalo (five years, $30.5 million).

In this instance, Thompson will rely on his drafting record to address Hyde’s loss. It’s a good year for cornerbacks in the draft and you can’t blame him for wanting to upgrade the speed in the secondary. He just had better hope he does better than he did with Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in 2015 because two years later neither one of them is worthy of starting.

While New England’s Bill Belichick was remaking his Super Bowl-winning secondary — reportedly putting starter Malcolm Butler on the trading block, allowing nickel back Logan Ryan to sign elsewhere and signing Buffalo free agent Stephon Gilmore to a reported five-year, $65 million contract — Thompson was mildly considering signing Davon House to replace Hyde.

As for Julius Peppers and JC Tretter, there wasn't a lot to think about. Both wanted to leave and weren't considered irreplaceable.

Thompson has around $25 million in cap space available to compete for some of his remaining free agents such as Lacy and linebackers Datone Jones and Jayrone Elliott. At most, it would cost him $5 million in cap space to sign to sign those three.

The rest of the cap room? Other than extending quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ deal, there’s nothing much else to do. Might be time to buy up some more land.

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