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Packers have a calculation to make with Russ Ball as reported front-runner for GM

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Is promoting Thompson’s apparent choice as successor worth losing valuable personnel talent?

NFL: Green Bay Packers-Training Camp
Russ Ball (right) may be the top choice for the open GM position for Mark Murphy (left) but at what cost?
Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Russ Ball’s name isn’t the one coming up in every vacant GM job hiring process, but there are other Green Bay Packers front office lieutenants popping up on the “must have” interviews list.

But as Tom Silverstein first reported (and later echoed by Sports Illustrated), Ball appears to be the front-runner for the open GM job in Green Bay, a plan former GM Ted Thompson and Packers President Murk Murphy apparently hatched well in advance of this offseason.

If Ball’s place as the next Packers GM really is fait accompli, that would help explain Alonzo Highsmith’s departure from Green Bay before even interviewing for the job, despite being on the NFL’s GM watch list of candidates.

As Silverstein notes, just because a great team manager suggests a candidate is the right choice to be his successor doesn’t mean he’s right about that. Ron Wolf deemed Mike Sherman a capable personnel man, something Sherman proved quickly he was not. In other words, just because Thompson likes Ball, doesn’t mean he’s the right man for the job.

But the calculation here for the Packers must be broader than which guy Thompson likes.

It’s not only possible, but likely that guys like Eliot Wolf and Brian Gutekunst believe themselves to be GM-in-waiting. If the Packers hire Ball, a man with no direct personnel experience, they not only risk losing their top evaluators, but will be left with a GM who isn’t, himself, an evaluator.

Ball’s reputation as a shrewd negotiator and smart administrator shouldn’t go unmentioned. John Schneider might be the best talent evaluator in the league, but the Seahawks have been facing a looming cap bubble.

Part of John Dorsey’s exit in Kansas City likely had to do with his inability to manage the cap, as he reportedly didn’t even have much interest in dealing with that side of the front office role.

Both men are extraordinary are identifying talent, but it’s the Packers, with the help of Ball, who have managed the cap as well as any team in football over Thompson’s tenure in Green Bay.

It’s not a throw-away skill.

But here’s where the rubber meets 1265 Lombardi for the Packers: if they promote Ball, Wolf and Gutekunst both likely leave within a year or two, leaving the cupboard bare in the Green Bay front office and a head man without a personnel background.

If they promote Wolf/Gutekunst, it’s likely the other will make his exit. However, the Packers would likely also be able to retain Ball who, as I mentioned earlier, isn’t a hot GM candidate and who, without a background as a scout, isn’t likely to become one.

The decision comes down to whichever skillset the Packers deem most valuable. If they view the scouting aspect as more replaceable — Green Bay has the most consistent scouting infrastructure in the sport — they could believe Ball makes the most sense.

That doesn’t come without its own inherent risk. When the top lieutenants to Ted Thompson left, at the very least, the team still had Thompson’s superlative instincts to fall back on. Relying on a new GM without those skills — at least that we know of — would mean also relying on him to keep the front office stocked with ultra-talented scouts and evaluators, which adds a layer of risk that wouldn’t exist should they pick a former scout for the head post.

Michael Cohen reported last offseason that Ball was trying to add talent evaluation and scouting to his repertoire by sitting in on scouting meetings.

But it’s lines like this one from Cohen’s story that really pop:

The idea of Ball as a general manager is one that surfaced repeatedly during the reporting of this story. A number of former coaches believed he has earned the opportunity, and roughly 80% of the agents interviewed by the Journal Sentinel agreed.

Perhaps, Ball’s status as a respected figure around the league has been obscured by his ... well, obscurity.

Perhaps Ball is the straw the stirs the drink in the Packers front office and even just a competent set of scouts set up Green Bay well for the future because Ball is a tireless worker and as respected a financial mind as there is in the business.

But that is part of the calculation here.

Is there a greater risk of leaving him standing around with no experienced personnel people, or of being able to keep him should Wolf/Gutekunst get the head job?

We can’t know the answer. That’s what Mark Murphy has to figure out.

Furthermore, we don’t know if any of these three perceived quality candidates will be as good as Ted Thompson, who we do know for sure is good at his job. Picking any of them represents risk. From the outside, there’s no way to assess who would be the best fit at the position. We don’t know if Wolf should be the pick over Gutekunst, or if the Packers have a stable of rising star scouts to fill their spots should they move on.

It’s worth noting the only front office man’s job credentials we can assess outside of Thompson is Ball, and his success can’t be understated. Green Bay consistently pays under market for their players and has managed the cap exceedingly well.

We know Ball can handle that part of the job.

Is that enough to risk losing well thought of talent evaluators? It’s a question only Mark Murphy can answer, because he’s the only one with enough information to answer it.