Packers can find free-agent bargains

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson speaks at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

The first few days of free agency are the NFL's silly season.

It’s hard to blame Ted Thompson for sitting them out year after year. Teams make the costliest mistakes under duress and desperation when the signing period opens.

But that doesn’t make free agency useless, and I came away from the first few days of the signing period this week with two prevailing thoughts: The deals signed by two players at the Green Bay Packers’ positions of greatest need don’t look like silly money, and Thompson still has viable options for a targeted free-agent of note.

First, as a reminder of the folly that often is free agency, let’s look at some of the early signings from a year ago: Miami’s Ndamukong Suh ($114 million over six years, $60 million guaranteed); Philadelphia’s DeMarco Murray ($40 million for five years, $21 million guaranteed) and Byron Maxwell ($63 million over six years, $25.5 million guaranteed); Jacksonville’s Julius Thomas ($46 million over five years, $24 million guaranteed); and San Francisco’s Torrey Smith ($40 million over five years, $22 million guaranteed).

While several of those players still could turn things around, their first year with their new teams was a colossal bust. The Eagles already dumped Murray and Maxwell.

That doesn’t make all early signings bad. Chicago got good value out of outside linebacker Pernell McPhee ($38.75 million for five years, $15.5 million guaranteed), Kansas City did OK with receiver Jeremy Maclin ($55 million for five years, $22.5 million guaranteed) and Arizona has to be happy with guard Mike Lupati ($40 million over five years, $22.5 million guaranteed).

Still, it’s worth remembering that headline-grabbing signings in early March often look laughable by December.

So I didn’t think much of it when Thompson was a no-show for the first couple days of signings this year. But then the contracts for linebacker Danny Trevathan and tight end Ladarius Green came in. They were substantial but not outrageous for players who have a critical factor — youth — in their favor. Both turn 26 later this spring and should be at or near their peaks for the next year or two.

Trevathan was more expensive but also would have filled the more urgent need. Coach Mike McCarthy is moving Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker, and the Packers have to find an inside linebacker who can run and cover in their nickel and dime defenses. That’s what Trevathan is.

His four-year deal with Chicago averages $6.125 million and includes $12 million guaranteed. That’s the cost of doing business in this league and doesn’t strike me as reckless spending.

Trevathan said the Packers never called. Now, you can’t get suckered into a bidding war where the price keeps going up incrementally. That’s how you end up making a bad deal. But maybe a similar bid could have lured him to a Super Bowl contender in Green Bay. We’ll never know.

Green’s contract was surprising based on a couple of the other tight end deals before him, though it probably shouldn’t have surprised considering he signed with Pittsburgh. The Steelers are a lot like the Packers and don’t do silly money.

Green’s four-year deal averages $5 million and includes $11 million in the first two seasons. That’s in contrast to Dwayne Allen’s $7.35 million average ($16 million guaranteed) on a four-year deal with Indianapolis, and Coby Fleener’s $7.5 million average ($14.6 million guaranteed) on a five-year deal with New Orleans.

All three are young tight ends with modest-at-best production through four years in the league. Green might be the most talented of the three but missed one game because of two concussions sustained in a two-week period early last year and had ankle surgery after the season. That accounts for his cheaper price tag.

Again, not worth a bidding war. But an NFL source told me the Packers didn’t contact his agent. So we’ll never know if they could have signed him for a similar price, either.

I’m not arguing that Thompson should have signed both. But those prices weren’t prohibitive for trying to land one.

That said, the silly season basically is over, so in the next few days the bargain shoppers will start coming out. Maybe even Thompson will find something appealing.

There are a couple tight ends of note still available (Vernon Davis and Jared Cook), plus the good possibility that the Bears will cut Martellus Bennett soon. Davis is a physical wonder who is getting old (32); Cook once was a burner (4.49-second 40) but never has produced big and could be in decline (29 in April); and Bennett (just turned 29) put up a 90-catch season as recently as 2014 but became a locker-room problem for the Bears.

The free-agent market at inside linebacker is less promising. With Trevathan gone, there’s mainly just older players at a position where, like running back, they decline quickly. For instance, Jerrell Freeman has been one of Indianapolis’ best defensive players when healthy, but he turns 30 in May. His play could plummet at any time. James Laurinaitis is a former second-round pick, but the Rams cut the 29-year-old because his performance nosedived last year.

Maybe Thompson has a sleeper in mind. But it doesn’t look promising.

After re-signing Nick Perry on Friday, Thompson has about $14.5 million in salary-cap room. Perry’s deal, reported at $5 million, seems steep for an outside linebacker with a long injury history and only 12 ½ sacks in four seasons. But he must have won over Thompson with his 3 ½ sacks in two playoff games this year.

Thompson will need about $5 million for his rookie class and still is trying to re-sign B.J. Raji, who could cost in the $4 million range. Either way, the GM has the wherewithal to sign a meaningful free agent. That’s if he wants to.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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