Dougherty: Packers can't quit on free agency despite Martellus Bennett debacle

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett (80) catches a pass against the Chicago Bears in the third quarter on Thursday, September 28, 2017 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

The Martellus Bennett signing has blown up in Ted Thompson’s face. No getting around that.

It looks like the book on Bennett was right: He’s a front-runner who’s great to have around in good times but checks out when things get tough.

And that he ended up with the New England Patriots a day after being released makes this already-fishy thing stink to high heaven. You now have to think Bennett tried to get himself cut so he could join a Super Bowl contender.

That, in turn, raises other questions, starting with, why would Thompson give him what he wanted by cutting him so abruptly? Did he and coach Mike McCarthy want him out of the locker room that badly? If so, why do they want their money back? What's their case for getting any of it back? And did Bennett's agent talk with the Patriots before Bennett was cut? 

Maybe things will clear up in the coming days as more facts come out about Bennett’s shoulder injury — when it happened, how severe it is, and whether he’ll need surgery. But we don't know the full story. Something strange is going on here.

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Still, let’s get to today’s main point. There are concerns and red flags with almost every player in free agency — that’s why they’re available. There were plenty when the Packers signed tight end Jared Cook in 2016, don’t forget. And just because Bennett bombed, it doesn’t mean signing him was reckless or stupid, and it certainly doesn’t mean that free agency is as useless as Thompson had treated it for most of his tenure as Packers GM.

That, in the end, might be the biggest question of the fallout from the Packers’ falling out with Bennett: Will it turn off Thompson from free agency next offseason after his shocking dive into the open market (Bennett, Lance Kendricks, Davon House, Jahri Evans and Ricky Jean Francois) last spring?

Because that would be the wrong lesson. He needs to use every avenue to improve his roster, and that includes targeted signings in free agency.

Of course there’s great peril on the open market. Goes without saying.

And of course it’s easy to say now that Thompson should have seen this coming with Bennett. The tight end definitely came with a buyer-beware sticker.

But the Packers acknowledged that with his contract’s structure. It was a one-year deal with two years at their option.

If they don’t win their grievance to recover some of his signing bonus — they cut him with the designation that he failed to disclose an injury — they’ll at worst absorb $4.2 million in dead money on next year’s cap. But they also wiped off his $6.45 million in 2018 salary and bonuses, so it’s still a $2.25 million net gain for their ’18 cap.

As for Bennett the player, it’s been obvious for several weeks the Packers would have been better off upping the ante to re-sign Cook last spring, rather than moving on to Bennett when the Cook talks snagged. Cook (age 30) has aged much better than Bennett (also 30). Cook still can stretch the middle seam of the defense; Bennett can’t. That matters, a lot.

But it’s worth pointing out that Cook had a buyer-beware tag, too, when the Packers signed him in 2016. He had a reputation for being hot and cold in his practice habits and becoming uninterested when he wasn’t getting many passes his way. And signing him turned out fine.

So I don’t find it reckless that Thompson took a chance on Bennett. In 2016, the tight end had shown signs of change. He caught 55 passes, including seven touchdowns, while helping the Patriots win the Super Bowl without tight end Rob Gronkowski. The handful of scouts I talked to after the Packers signed Bennett described him as one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. If he wasn’t as fast as Cook, he was more complete.

Bennett definitely marches to his own beat. You could see in training camp he wasn’t winning any hustle awards — he usually jogged leisurely back to the offense after each play, and until the ball was snapped moved at his own pace.

But overall, his effort on game days was fine. His problem with drops — I had him for seven in seven games — remains a mystery. But his blocking, while a little sporadic, was pretty good. And though he couldn’t run, he still was a good athlete with a huge frame (6-foot-6) who still might have made some plays in the red zone if Aaron Rodgers hadn’t gotten hurt.

He wasn’t as advertised. But he might have helped this team win games.

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Still, it’s impossible not to see him in a new light now. Bennett apparently was willing to play through his sore shoulder while Rodgers was the quarterback, but not Brett Hundley. He quit on his team. That’s a mortal sin in an NFL locker room.

“When you’re talking about work ethic, quitting on your teammates, that’s a pretty big character flaw,” said an agent who represents a Packers player as well as teammates at Bennett’s other stops. “…The biggest issue all through his career is when the ball is coming his way and he’s scoring, he’s happy as hell. But when stuff turns south he’s the first to jump ship.”

So Bennett didn’t pan out in Green Bay. That’s the nature of free agency. Like the draft, you have to accept some swings and misses. You just have to limit your risks, and in this case, the Packers did with the way they structured Bennett’s contract.

Thompson’s mistake isn’t Bennett. It will be only if he sees this as confirming all his misgivings about free agency. To view the upside, he only has to look at another of his offseason signings: the 34-year-old Evans, who was a stopgap at right guard to replace departed T.J. Lang.

At a relative bargain ($2.425 million), Evans has been everything the Packers could have expected.

He’s not the athlete and bulldozer he was as an All-Pro in his prime. But he’s been a professional presence in the locker room and crafty vet who still protects the passer well. He’s the old guy at the Y who knows all the tricks on the basketball court and still is good enough to get it done.

If the Packers had done something special this year — and that looked like a possibility until Rodgers’ injury — Evans would have been one of the reasons why. Not by being a great player, but by solving a real problem.

That’s what free agency is for. Try to plug one hole here and maybe another there. It doesn’t always work, and it’s far from a be-all. But Thompson shouldn’t dismiss it just because he dismissed Bennett this week.


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