Dougherty: Packers must capitalize on cap space

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson

“(Ted Thompson) knows that he has all the resources he needs. But the way I manage and work with people, I would never tell Ted what to do. My philosophy is hire really good people, give them the resources they need and you support them. I think that’s worked well for us.”

– Packers president Mark Murphy, on whether he encourages general manager Ted Thompson to use free agency


Mark Murphy is right not to push free agency on Ted Thompson.

But that doesn’t mean Thompson shouldn’t use free agency more.

The foundation for the Green Bay Packers’ success over the last 25 years is the front-office set-up to which Murphy alluded. They grant their GM authority over all football decisions.

If the results aren’t there, then the team’s president should find a new GM. But the approach is right: Allow someone trained in building a football team to build the team. The NFL is no place for dilettantes. Not if you want to win.

But while Murphy should let Thompson run the team his way, Thompson needs to adapt and evolve. And that means expanding the ways he adds players beyond the draft. If Murphy shouldn’t force free agency on Thompson, Thompson after six years since his last trip to the Super Bowl should see he has to do more.

Now, that doesn’t mean spending silly money on the first day of the signing frenzy. There are other approaches to targeting the available pool of players. More on that in a moment.

But the point is especially salient now that the Packers have cut Sam Shields. It has been obvious for a while that this move was coming – at the NFC championship game, Shields revealed he still was experiencing symptoms four months after suffering the fifth concussion of his football career. If he doesn’t retire, he’s crazy.

Still, the Packers have lost one of their best defensive players. That hurts.

But they’ve known it was coming. And they gain a big chunk of salary-cap space – the $9 million Shields was to make in salary and bonuses in 2017.

Add last year’s carryover and a cap that’s projected to rise about $13 million this year, and Thompson will have approximately $43 million in cap space this year, according to Over The Cap.

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A lot of that will go fast with re-signings before free agency starts, though predicting how much gets murky. Thompson has 11 unrestricted free agents, and we can’t say for sure which ones he’ll re-sign.

Still, for a back-of-the-envelop estimate on Thompson’s cap space when free agency starts, here’s a guess on the players he’ll re-sign and the cap space they might take: Nick Perry ($8 million), T.J. Lang ($5 million), Jared Cook ($5 million), Micah Hyde ($3 million) and Eddie Lacy ($3 million). Then there are exclusive-rights and restricted free agents ($4 million) and the rookie class ($5.75 million).

Combined, and rounding upward, that’s about $35 million. So that would leave about $8 million, which isn’t much space at all. But remember, there’s a decent chance Thompson won’t re-sign Lang or Lacy, and regardless, some of those deals can be structured for much lower cap numbers than I projected. The NFL also has informed teams that the cap could be up to $2 million more than the projection used here.

So it’s a good bet Thompson will have closer to $15 million than $8 million in cap space by the time the free-agent market opens. Maybe more.

That’s not bad. Which leads to the approaches Thompson could take if he were to break from his M.O. and be more active on the open market.

He could target one or maybe two higher-value players. Or he could be more of a bargain shopper on the mid- to lower-level tiers.

I’d look to how New England has treated free agency recently. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who along with quarterback Tom Brady just won his fifth Super Bowl, uses it as a pre-draft draft.

In the last two years, Belichick has signed a handful of mid-level free agents and large number of low-level players. He has tried to plug holes, improve depth and uncover hidden potential.

In 2015 he signed outside rusher Jabaal Sheard ($11 million for two years, $5 million guaranteed) and tight end Scott Chandler ($5.3 million for two years, $2 million guaranteed) to mid-level deals. Last year it was receiver Chris Hogan ($12 million for four years, $7.5 million guaranteed), linebacker Shea McClellin ($8.95 million over three years, $3.5 million guaranteed) and defensive lineman Chris Long ($2.375 million for one year, $1 million guaranteed).

All but Chandler played secondary roles in helping the Patriots win the Super Bowl last Sunday.

But in those two offseasons combined, Belichick also signed 10 free agents to low-level, short-term deals with modest guarantees ranging from $40,000 to $550,000 each.

He ended up cutting eight of the 10 either in camp or early in the regular season. That meant eating close to $1.8 million in guaranteed pay.

But so what? It’s the cost of doing business in the NFL. For that price, you get a closer look at a bunch of guys you think might have something that can help you. And if they don’t, you move on, just like with a draft pick.

Look, free agency is no panacea. If you’re not careful, it’s a great way to waste a lot of money. You can’t buy Super Bowls in this league.

But you can help your team, occasionally a lot, if you’ll take some calculated risks and live with the inevitable swings and misses. Think of where the Packers would have been without Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett in 2010, or even without Jared Cook last season.

Thompson loves the draft. He should look at free agency as another chance to pick a few more players.

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