Aaron Nagler talks to Ryan Wood about his takeaways from Ted Thompson speaking on a possible contract extension for Aaron Rodgers and the league's reaction to his free agency "spending spree." USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
PHOENIX - Among friends who know how the NFL works, namely his peers overseeing 31 teams around the league, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson admitted there has been some friendly needling at this spring’s meetings.
See, general managers know Thompson. His reputation for draft and develop extends beyond his team’s fan base. So when they look up and see the Packers signed four free agents from other teams, it’s impossible not to notice.
“There were people that asked me certain questions,” Thompson said Monday while standing underneath a shade tree outside the Biltmore Hotel, “and had it come up a lot lately. But it’s all in jest. Everybody is having a good time here. It’s a beautiful place.”
For a team that finished one game shy of the Super Bowl, Thompson faced major reconstruction this offseason.
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Thompson must seriously upgrade a defense that allowed 44 points — and absolutely no chance to win — against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game. It would be enough of a challenge on its own, but Thompson didn’t stop there.
He also overhauled the Packers' offensive personnel. After signing tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, one of the Packers' greatest weaknesses might be a strength. With Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb best used in the slot, the Packers could be uncommonly deep in the middle of the field — an area they lacked for able bodies much of the past three seasons.
Bennett was the Packers' most significant offseason addition. The one “true” free agent, president Mark Murphy called him. Kendricks, cornerback Davon House and defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois were released from their previous teams. They’re “street” free agents who won’t count against the Packers' compensatory draft pick formula.
Bennett, the first unrestricted free agent Thompson signed since 2012, will count against the formula. The small sacrifice showed the Packers’ level of interest.
“We like him,” Thompson said Monday. “We like what he brings to the equation. He seems to be excited about being there, so we’re happy to have him.”
The Packers' offense isn’t without its significant departures. Running back Eddie Lacy is in Seattle. Right guard T.J. Lang signed with Detroit. Thompson will have to address both vacancies through the draft.
Lang, especially, will be difficult to replace. Between him and Josh Sitton, the Packers lost a pair of Pro Bowl guards in the past year. Lang was the offensive line’s unquestioned leader as its eldest member, one of the toughest players inside the Packers' locker room.
“All of those things, yes,” Thompson said. “We wish him well, and we thank him for his service. Now it’s our job to get busy and try to replace him. It won’t be an easy task, but it’s not something we’re shying away from.”
There is no clear replacement to fill the hole Lang leaves behind. The Packers re-signed guard Don Barclay, but he’s better suited to provide depth at multiple positions than start at one.
It’s possible, if not likely, the Packers' starting right guard next season will be found in next month’s draft. Thompson wouldn’t make any predictions.
“I wish we could look into a silver something,” Thompson said, “and see what the future holds there, but we’ll just wait and let it play itself out.”
After making the Packers' offense more dynamic, Thompson’s attention shifts to fixing his porous defense.
It’s a handful for one offseason. The Packers' defense didn’t just struggle with a Super Bowl trip on the line. They ranked 21st in points allowed (24.3). They ranked 22nd in yards allowed (363.9).
Part of the reason was injuries, especially to pass rusher Clay Matthews and corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. Regardless, the lack of dynamic playmakers on the Packers’ defense is impossible to overlook for a team that has drafted that side of the ball first in each of the past five years.
Thompson said “we feel pretty good about what we’ve done” signing House and Jean-Francois. He also allowed that his defense’s offseason renovation will be “coupled together” with the draft.
There will be a lot to do with the Packers' eight picks next month. Other than guard and running back, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Packers focused solely on defense. Perhaps most important will be adding more speed in the secondary.
When asked about more speed, Thompson wouldn’t say it’s a priority in the Packers' defensive backfield. In general terms, he said, it’s important to add speed everywhere. But the lack of speed could be Thompson’s best reason for not offering valuable and versatile safety Micah Hyde, who signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Buffalo Bills.
“Micah is one of my all-time favorites,” Thompson said. “Sorry it didn’t work out. We’re happy that he seems to be happy.”
Hyde isn’t the only departed player who could fit that description. Among the seven Packers wearing different uniforms this season, the team will be replacing more than 3,500 snaps from 2016. Among the team’s core, only outside linebacker Nick Perry — the team’s returning sack leader — was re-signed.
Thompson admitted “it’s difficult” to replace so many players at once. He isn’t backing down from the task.
“That’s part of what we have to do,” Thompson said. “That’s the reason this isn’t an easy job. But at the same time, we’re excited about the guys we’ve signed and we’re excited about what we might be able to do in the future.”