The Green Bay Packers have a single free agent among the group of inside linebackers, since Morgan Burnett still technically qualifies as a safety in our roster analysis. That player is in a position very similar to that of another Packer three years ago, both in terms of his role and the type of contract he is likely to command this offseason.
NFL Experience: 3 years
Status: Restricted Free Agent
Expiring Contract: One year, $615,000
2017 Stats: 12 games played, 1 start; 12 total tackles, 5 solo, 0.5 sack, 1 pass defended; 107 defensive snaps (10.1% of team total), 212 special teams snaps (50%)
As far as backup inside linebackers go, Joe Thomas is arguably the ideal player. He is a high-effort player with good athleticism and physical ability. He has some starting experience, with seven starts in 2016 when Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez struggled with some injuries and ineffectiveness. And, perhaps most crucially, he is a critical member of the special teams units. However, Thomas fell back on the depth chart in 2017 thanks to Martinez becoming an excellent starter and the team rotating in a pair of safeties — Morgan Burnett and Josh Jones — at the inside linebacker position in the Nitro package.
Thomas is a restricted free agent this offseason, and although he is unlikely to be a player who would command massive interest on the free agent market, he is absolutely a useful piece. The question that the Green Bay Packers’ front office must answer is whether that piece is worth about two million dollars for 2018.
That is because the Packers can protect Thomas from getting away by issuing him a restricted free agent tender. The 2018 tender amounts are not yet finalized — they will be confirmed when the 2018 salary cap number is locked in — but we have a good projection from Overthecap.com, who projects the tenders as follows:
- First round: $4.152M
- Second Round: $2.916M
- Right of first refusal: $1.908M
As a refresher, a restricted free agent who receives a tender from his previous team means that the player is still free to negotiate offer sheets with other teams once free agency begins, but that the original team has the ability to match any offer sheet. In the case of the first-round and second-round tenders, the original team — should they decide not to match the contract —would receive the corresponding draft pick of the team signing the player to that offer sheet.
There is virtually no way another NFL team would consider giving up a first or second round pick for Thomas, a solid backup and spot starter. Thus, the only tender that makes sense would be the right of first refusal tender.
The Packers, like every other NFL team, have used RFA tenders with regularity since the last CBA in 2011. Perhaps the most notable instance was when they signed Sean Richardson to a ROFR tender in 2015. Richardson was in a similar position to Thomas, in that he was a valuable backup and special teams player, and he received an offer sheet from the Oakland Raiders for about one million dollars over the tender amount. The Packers elected to match that contract, but would not have been formally able to do so had they elected not to tender him.
With an estimated $17 million in salary cap space in 2018 (for the time being), the Packers can afford to use two million on a critical special teams player. Furthermore, there is no money guaranteed on the RFA tender, meaning that if Thomas does not make the team out of training camp there is no financial liability for the team. Ultimately, it appears logical for the Packers to retain this key backup for a modest dollar value.