Mike Daniels is the epitome of a core player.
The Green Bay Packers defensive tackle is young (26 next month), makes plays and brings an intangible, in this case a mean streak, to the team's defense.
So he'll be an excellent test case for just how much Ted Thompson has changed his approach to re-signing players.
For much of Thompson's tenure since becoming the Packers' general manager in 2005, he signed core players to contract extensions with a year to go on their deals. He usually did it in the spring or summer, though sometimes it took until training camp or even during the season. But they got it done while there still were games to play.
Thompson changed that approach the past couple years with players such as Greg Jennings, Sam Shields, Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga. Instead of extending their contracts, which would have left the Packers assuming more injury risk but likely at a little cheaper price, Thompson waited until they finished their deals. Then he tried to re-sign them in the days before they hit the free-agent market.
Shields, Cobb and Bulaga re-signed at varying degrees of a free-agent premium. Jennings went to Minnesota.
This year, Daniels is the Packers' best player in the final year of his contract. He's their top defensive lineman and probably their third-best player on that side of the ball, behind Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. He's at minimum the team's defensive equivalent of Cobb, and unlike Cobb he's not coming off a serious injury heading into his contract year.
Of the free agents Thompson has lost who could be characterized as possible core players, all were entering a season in which they'd at minimum be 30 years old: Marco Rivera (33), Mike Flanagan (33), Aaron Kampman (31), Cullen Jenkins (30), Jennings (30) and James Jones (30). So Daniels is exactly the kind of young core player Thompson never lets get away.
The question is whether Thompson will make his big push to sign Daniels to an extension this year, assume some injury and performance risk, and possibly save a little money, or wait until after the season and pay the premium if Daniels performs well and emerges healthy.
Recent history says Thompson will wait. But to my thinking, Daniels' high-octane motor, relatively injury-free history since coming to the NFL, and strong locker-room presence make it worth doing this summer if it saves money long term.
That used to be Thompson's modus operandi. For much of his tenure, he assumed the injury risk and re-signed players early to keep costs down. The list of players he signed to contract extensions includes Jennings (2009), Nick Collins ('10), Ryan Pickett ('10), Tramon Williams ('10), Desmond Bishop ('10 season), A.J. Hawk ('11), Josh Sitton ('11), Jordy Nelson ('11) and T.J. Lang ('12).
But since 2013, Thompson has signed only four meaningful extensions. Two of them, Aaron Rodgers ('13) and Matthews ('13), can be considered exceptions because they're the team's two indispensable players. Rarely does any franchise let a player of their caliber get to the final year of his deal.
The others were Morgan Burnett ('13 offseason) and Nelson ('14 training camp).
Thompson might have a couple of reasons for the recent change. One might be circumstance — Bulaga and Cobb, for instance, were coming off injuries in '13, so Thompson probably wanted to see them get through a full season healthy before making the financial commitment.
The tactic also might be a way to keep players highly motivated because they have so much at stake. If they play well — as Shields, Bulaga and Cobb did — their cost goes up. But at least the team gets that performance to show for it.
And if Thompson is looking for reasons to wait, there are the recent cases of Burnett and B.J. Raji. Thompson extended Burnett in the summer of '13, then saw the safety underperform. The GM also tried to sign Raji to an extension in '13 but didn't come close to the defensive tackle's price. So Thompson waited, and when Raji underperformed, Thompson's caution saved the Packers a lot of money.
Daniels no doubt was watching closely the past couple of years as Thompson signed Nelson to a team-friendly extension, while Cobb, Bulaga and Shields put off their pay days and hit it big. On Monday, Daniels was one of three players available to reporters for the first day of the Packers' offseason workout program and gave no hint of his hopes or expectations heading into the final year of his contract.
"The instant people start putting a focus on something like that, that's when their play starts to suffer," Daniels said. "And I don't have time for my play to suffer."
Daniels is the Packers' best interior pass rusher (51/2 sacks last season) and one of the better interior rushers in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, his 41 combined sacks, hits and hurries last season ranked No. 11 in the league among interior rushers.
He's heading into the final year of his rookie deal and will make a $1.54 million salary this season. Based on deals signed in free agency this offseason, the best guess now is that his next contract will pay him in the range of $6.5 million to as much as $8 million or $9 million a year, depending in part on how much of the deal is guaranteed.
The players most comparable in age and performance to Daniels who signed this offseason are Dan Williams and Jared Odrick from the 2010 draft, and Stephen Paea from the '11 draft. Daniels has a strong argument that he's at least as good, and probably better than, all three, though they had the leverage of the open market, whereas Daniels is a season away.
Odrick, a first-round pick by Miami in '10, signed a five-year deal with Jacksonville that averages $8.5 million and includes $22.5 million guaranteed. Williams, a 314-pound run stopper, left Arizona for a four-year deal with Oakland that averages $6.25 million and includes $15.2 million guaranteed.
And Paea, a second-round pick of the Bears in '11, signed four-year deal with Washington that averages $5.25 million and includes $7.15 million guaranteed.
Daniels is one of those players who, barring a catastrophic injury, you can't see the Packers letting get away. Though Thompson has done well waiting on contract extensions the past couple of years, this might be one he's better off doing now than later.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.