If the Green Bay Packers could keep only one player they lost in free agency this offseason, T.J. Lang is the guy.
But you’ll get no quarrel here with general manager Ted Thompson drawing the line and losing him to the Detroit Lions for a three-year deal that averages $9.5 million.
Let’s accept as a given that Lang is exactly the kind of player you want on your team. He plays really good football and leads on the field and in the locker room. A true professional.
Yet, when the bidding got serious, according to reports from PackersNews.com and ESPN.com, Thompson and contract negotiator Russ Ball’s final three-year offer was barely more than $7 million per. So Lang did what any of us would. He took the substantially better deal from the Lions, which included the advantage of living in his Detroit-area home year-round.
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The only thing I wonder about the negotiations is whether Thompson and Ball came at Lang with too little, too late. If they’d have made their final offer before he hit the market, instead of after he’d visited Detroit and Seattle, would he have bitten?
We can’t know for sure. But Lang’s offseason hip surgery, which will prevent him from practicing until training camp, might have left him uncertain enough to take the deal in hand and skip looking around.
Regardless, his loss takes a bite out of one of the Packers’ strengths, their offensive line. But there are a couple of points to remember here.
One, the Packers still have the pillars of a good offensive line. Their tackle combination (David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga) ranks among the NFL’s best. They also have a good young center in Corey Linsley. And Lane Taylor was fine as Josh Sitton’s replacement at left guard last season after the latter was surprisingly cut at the end of training camp. Taylor isn’t Sitton, but he’s a bona fide NFL starter.
So while Lang’s departure diminishes the Packers’ line, it shouldn’t ruin it. The harsh reality of the NFL is that guard is not a primary position. The painless transition from the Pro Bowler Sitton to Taylor last season showed that. Faced with hard financial decisions, it’s a lot easier to make-do at guard than tackle, especially when Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady is your quarterback. They’re elite because they can make it work no matter who’s blocking for them.
Last month at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, coach Mike McCarthy ticked through the primary positions: quarterback, left tackle, outside pass rusher and cornerback. The Packers showed this offseason they believe it. They bit the bullet and ponied up market value at outside pass rusher for Nick Perry ($11.8 million average, $18.5 million fully guaranteed) despite his long injury history. But they stopped short on Lang, the older (29 to 26) but far more proven player. That’s NFL economics.
It’s also worth remembering the Packers were bidding against two teams desperate for offensive line help.
Detroit has been badly undermanned on the line for years despite having drafted linemen with three of their last five first-round picks. This offseason, the Lions also signed former Baltimore right tackle Ricky Wagner for the same $9.5 million average that they spent on Lang. Those are huge investments.
Seattle’s offensive line was a disaster last season — Pro Football Focus ranked it No. 29 — and the Seahawks have worked free agency to improve it. They went hard after Lang, signed former No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel (one year, $8 million) to a prove-it deal, and signed former Houston starting guard Oday Aboushi as a possible starter after missing out on Lang.
Those clubs drove up Lang to top-guard value even though he’ll miss the entire offseason because of the hip surgery. That tells you everything you need to know about the state of their lines.
The concern for the Packers is that Lang’s replacement probably isn’t on the roster.
They re-signed Don Barclay, but his niche is as a backup at four positions, not as a starter at any one of them. Lucas Patrick was an unexpected practice-squad keep last year and might have a chance, but it’s an awfully big leap to full-time starter. And tackle Kyle Murphy, a sixth-round pick in 2016, might be able to compete for the job. But that’s only conjecture, too.
That means the Packers’ starting right guard probably is in this year’s draft. Lang, Sitton and Bakhtiari all were fourth-round picks, and Linsley started as a rookie fifth-rounder, so it’s not asking too much of Thompson to find someone in the middle rounds who can step in.
Still, if I were him, I’d look for a fallback in free agency. All the costly players are gone, so it’s bargain shopping now. The hard part is identifying a guy among the cast-offs who could actually hold up if needed. That’s what scouting staffs are for.
Even with the loss of Lang and Jared Cook, the Packers look like they’ve improved on that side of the ball. Over the last five weeks of the 2016 regular season, the Packers scored the third-most points in the league, and free agents Martellus Bennett’s and Lance Kendricks’ all-around skill sets at tight end will make for an even tougher matchup this year.
Still, Thompson saved a lot of money by letting Lang walk, and now it’s on him to use at least some of it to help his defense before the draft.
Alterraun Verner, a former marquee signee by Tampa Bay, still is available at cornerback. His price has to be dropping by the day. If Thompson doesn’t like him, there has to be a cover man worth a look-see at a modest cost. For a six-figure signing bonus, if you end up cutting the guy, chalk it up to the price of doing business. And former Detroit inside linebacker DeAndre Levy might be worth a visit to see if his hip and knee injuries are deal breakers.
It couldn’t have been easy for Thompson to part with Lang, but it’s hard to blame him for drawing a line at guard that he didn’t for a pass rusher. The GM now has about six weeks to make the moves that ensure it was worth it.