Will Peppers change Ted Thompson's mind?
Ted Thompson stepped out of character when he signed Julius Peppers after the Chicago Bears cut him last March.
It's hard to argue with the results. Peppers was an age risk at 34 but has been one of the Packers' best defensive players at a cost of $8.5 million. Thompson is getting his money's worth.
So could this signal a change, or at least a tweak, in Thompson's approach to free agency for his Green Bay Packers? Will the NFL's most free-agent averse general manager start trying to plug a hole or two each offseason via free agency?
Or was it a blip, and will Thompson return to the norm of 2007 through 2013, a seven-year span during which he signed a mere seven players (unrestricted free agents and released vested veterans), three of whom became starters (Brandon Chillar, Charlie Peprah and Jeff Saturday) and four others who were cut in camp or early in their first season (Duke Preston, Anthony Hargrove, Phillip Merling and Matthew Mulligan).
"How old is Ted?" asked a high-ranking NFL personnel man who has studied Thompson from afar. "Sixty-one? Sixty-two? When a man gets 60 years old, how many times does he change his ways?"
So the smart money says Thompson, 61, won't alter the course that has built a title-contending franchise.
Still, you have to wonder if the Peppers signing might convince him to concede to avenues of player acquisition other than the draft in his quest to win another Super Bowl. Because Thompson has one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers, his team is almost automatically in the title discussion every year, giving him an opportunity most GMs never get.
A premier quarterback doesn't guarantee titles — Peyton Manning has won only one Super Bowl. But the handful of teams that have one can realistically aspire to multiple Lombardi trophies, such as the three the New England Patriots have won with Tom Brady at the helm.
But since winning the Super Bowl in 2010, Thompson has been playing whack-a-mole in using his high-value draft picks to address the shortcomings that hinder his team's title chances. If the cycle doesn't end, Rodgers (age 30) will be in his mid-30s, and the Packers will have a lot of wins but only one Super Bowl to show for it.
Last year, for instance, Thompson drafted for major needs on the defensive line (Datone Jones in the first round) and running back (Eddie Lacy in the second), but didn't use high picks for two other glaring weak spots, safety and inside linebacker. Those weaknesses helped get the Packers knocked out of the playoffs.
Then this past offseason, Thompson used high picks at safety (first-rounder Ha Ha Clinton-Dix); to fill new holes at receiver (second-rounder Davante Adams) and tight end (third-rounder Richard Rodgers); and for another defensive lineman (third-rounder Khyri Thornton).
But Thompson wouldn't force a pick when it wasn't there and never selected an inside linebacker. The Packers' shortcomings there are a major reason they rank last in the NFL in run defense.
And next year, the list of immediate needs will be as long as ever. Inside linebacker is the most acute — it would be no surprise if the Packers drafted two players there. But defensive line still is an issue, and tight end and perhaps tackle will be priorities as well. Keeping in mind that there are more misses than hits on draft picks, Thompson will do well to find immediate upgrades for two of those spots in next year's draft. One might be more realistic.
Thompson is wary of free agency for good reason. Twenty-plus years of free agency show you can't buy Super Bowls, and teams have blown millions upon millions of dollars overpaying on the open market. The truth is, the rate for getting your money's worth is about the same as the draft.
"Seventy percent of the time you fail (with signings)," the aforementioned front-office executive said. "It looks good in the media, but at the end of the day, was it really the best thing to do?"
It also must be noted that Thompson's concerns go beyond money. He likes to accrue compensatory picks for free-agent losses, for good reason. There's a significant element of luck in drafting, and the more picks you have, the better your chances of landing good players. Signing other teams' free agents cuts into that haul. (Peppers won't count in that regard, because he was released by the Chicago Bears and thus was not officially an unrestricted free agent).
Also, Thompson is uncommonly sensitive to the locker room, where the morale of home-grown players can suffer when free agents are brought in for higher pay.
Still, there are approaches to free agency that, though hardly guaranteed of success, at least might offer palatable risk.
One is based on quantity, used in the most extreme by Bill Belichick in 2001, when the New England Patriots coach and general manager used free agency as essentially a second draft.
Among Belichick's free-agent class were 17 bargain players with a combined total of $2.123 million in bonuses. The outlay of guaranteed money averaged $125,000 per man, and ranged from $25,000 to $675,000.
At those prices, Belichick could have cut them all and left his salary cap unharmed. His hope was to find a handful of players who could help his team.
Those Patriots famously won the Super Bowl. And though that free-agent class wasn't the driving force — Brady took his first step toward becoming an all-time great as a first-year starter, and first-round draft pick Richard Seymour was a difference maker on the defensive line — it provided a handful of valuable players who helped win that title.
Among them were linebacker Mike Vrabel ($225,000 bonus), who was a key role player in all three of the Patriots' Super Bowl championships in the 2000s and had 48 sacks in eight seasons; Mike Compton ($625,000), who started at guard for two years; Larry Izzo ($275,000), a special teams ace; and Antowain Smith ($25,000), the starting halfback in '01.
Thompson has no reason to sign 17 bargains, or 10, or even six. But with roster holes like last season at inside linebacker and safety, he might have hedged his draft bets with one or two relatively inexpensive prospects at each position. If they're no better than what's on hand, cut them. In the era of a projected $160 million salary cap next year, even an upper six-figure signing bonus on a player or two who don't make the team won't hurt the cap one iota.
Thompson might have been discouraged from that approach after trying it in 2005, when he was starved for offensive linemen and signed guards Adrian Klemm ($800,000 signing bonus) and Matt O'Dwyer ($25,000 bonus). Klemm lost the starting job at left guard halfway through the season, and the Packers cut O'Dwyer in training camp.
Same with Mulligan in 2013. Thompson paid the tight end a $50,000 bonus and cut him at the end of training camp.
To that I say, so what? It's the cost of doing business.
Another approach is Seattle's and Denver's in recent seasons. That is, signing a few targeted free agents to shorter-term deals with substantial but not huge guaranteed money.
In 2013, general manager John Schneider built up the defensive line that was key to the Seahawks' Super Bowl run by signing ends Cliff Avril (two years, $6 million guaranteed) and Michael Bennett (one year, $5 million guaranteed) on the open market. Those deals left minimal long-term cap consequences.
It's also worth noting that Schneider paid cornerback Antoine Winfield a $1 million bonus yet cut him in training camp. According to the NFLPA's salary-cap report, the Seahawks are about $7 million under this year's cap, so that was hardly a budget buster.
Denver GM John Elway has been even more aggressive in trying to win a Super Bowl in Manning's last years, but without blowing up his cap. In '13, he signed four starters at significant but not huge cost: guard Louis Vasquez ($7 million guaranteed), receiver Wes Welker ($6 million guaranteed), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ($5 million guaranteed) and defensive lineman Terrence Knighton ($500,000 guaranteed).
After getting blown out in the Super Bowl, Elway spent bigger this year: defensive end DeMarcus Ware ($16.5 million guaranteed), cornerback Aquib Talib ($11.5 million guaranteed), safety T.J. Ward ($7 million guaranteed) and receiver Emmanuel Sanders ($6 million guaranteed).
The Broncos are about $10 million under this year's cap, which they can carry over to next year.
It bears repeating that Thompson's philosophy is sound. Even though NFL teams have grown smarter over the years, some still spend crazy money on the open market. The teams that appear to win biggest in free agency rarely win big on the field.
But that doesn't make free agency useless.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.