Thompson ignores free agency at his peril

Pete Dougherty
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Ted Thompson places as high a premium on his locker room as any general manager in the NFL.

Probably to a fault.

It likely dates back to his long (10-year) career as backup linebacker and special teams player for the Houston Oilers. He had a front-row view of how bad contracts can lead to dissension in the locker room that filters into performance on the field.

It’s a big reason Thompson has disdained free agency in his long tenure as the Green Bay Packers’ GM.

Yeah, Thompson thinks the risks of free agency are too high, that way too much money is spent, often in desperation, on players who more often than not don’t warrant it. And yes, a good amount of that money ends up wasted.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson speaks at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis.

But Thompson also is acutely sensitive to the pay structure within his locker room. He doesn’t want to create a cascade of internal problems by paying a premium for another team’s player. Players know how much their teammates make. They can see their performance on the field. If they don’t match up …

There’s no disputing that the locker room is important. Mike McCarthy often has said that keeping his finger on its pulse is his most important job as coach.

But the NFL is all about winning, and ultimately, winning the Super Bowl. Sometimes, if you need to overpay to sign a guy in a quest for a championship, you have to do it. The other players are just going to have to deal with it. That seems to be John Elway’s approach in Denver.

Not that you can spend willy-nilly. I don’t doubt that the way Jerry Jones has thrown money at suspect characters in Dallas has contributed to his team’s chronic underachieving. The same has been true for Washington owner Daniel Snyder, at least until his most recent front-office regime.

But if Thompson’s history shows that draft and develop to the hilt is a good general strategy, the Packers’ last five Super Bowl-less seasons suggest that you ignore free agency at your own peril.

What jumped out to me during the flurry of expensive, first-day signings in free agency Wednesday afternoon was the Pittsburgh Steelers landing tight end Ladarius Green.

No one is going to confuse the Steelers’ approach to personnel to Jones or Snyder. If you were ranking NFL teams on a continuum of draft and develop to free-agent oriented, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert skews far toward the former. Thompson is at the beginning of that scale, but Colbert isn’t far down the line. When I think draft and develop, I think the Packers, then the Steelers.

Yet there was Colbert on Wednesday, neck deep in free agency’s opening day of silly spending. No details of Green’s contract were available, but you can bet he didn’t come cheap.

On Monday, Indianapolis signed another young tight end who was about to hit free agency, Dwayne Allen, to a four-year contract that averages $7.35 million and included $16 million guaranteed. The 26-year-old caught all of 16 passes in 13 games last season, and 45 in the last two years combined.

Green, 25, had only 37 catches last season as Antonio Gates’ backup with San Diego. But he has great speed (4.53-second 40) and is an interesting talent. You have to think he at least matched Allen and likely surpassed him.

Yet Colbert anted up. And remember, this is a GM and team that don’t have a history of reckless spending. But they’d lost their tight end, Heath Miller, to retirement this offseason. Colbert clearly wants quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to have plenty of weapons, so he added Green to Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell. It was a big move.

Now, I wouldn’t read too much into Thompson sitting out the first day of free agency. That was almost a given no matter what happens later. And that's why Danny Trevathan, the best young inside linebacker available, is now with the Chicago Bears. Thompson won't get involved in first-day bidding no matter how great the need, and at inside linebacker, Thompson's need is great.

Regardless, that hardly precludes Thompson from signing a significant player in the next week or two. It just means he’s never getting involved in the auction right when the bell rings.

Also, the rumors of Matt Forte to the Packers always sounded like a stretch. Sure, it would make sense if he could be had on the cheap. But to pay $3 million or $4 million a year for a 30-year-old backup running back who has the most touches in the NFL since 2008? It just didn’t add up for a team with acute needs at tight end and inside linebacker. So off to the New York Jets he goes.

The question is: After the signing flurry of the first couple days, will Thompson poke his head out of his cave and pursue a player or two?

This year, I think he has to. He has too many roster holes to fill them all through the draft. The need at tight end, especially, is just too great and immediate, and even a good pick there might not help a lot this year.

Several already have come off the market – Allen, Green and Coby Fleener (to the Saints). But there still are a few who could help the Packers, including Martellus Bennett, assuming the reports are true that Chicago is going to cut him; Jared Cook; and Vernon Davis.

It’s now Thompson’s move.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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