Super Bowl titles, division championships and winning seasons are determined on the field. But the players who suit up change teams in the magical two weeks in the NFL offseason when free agent rumors become reality.
As this season’s playoff picture comes into greater focus, let’s evaluate the free agents the Packers were connected to (plus one player who was on the trade block). Beside each could-have-been free agent is a current Packers player with a similar salary. If possible, the player is at the same position or side of the ball as the free agent in question. This is not meant to be a comparison, but rather to add context on the contracts of current Packers.
CB Casey Hayward
Contract: 3 years, $15.3 million ($6.8 million guaranteed)
Comparable Packers Salary: K Mason Crosby - 4 years, $16.1 million ($5 million guaranteed)
When Casey Hayward joined Green Bay as a rookie in 2012, he led the team with six interceptions. The second-round pick battled injuries and decreased snaps over his final three seasons with the Packers, and never really seemed like a serious candidate to return to the Packers, considering the presence of two high draft picks and an ascending undrafted player at the same position.
San Diego snared Hayward with a moderate three-year contract this offseason, and the Vanderbilt product has flourished. He leads the Chargers in interceptions with 5, and Pro Football Focus ranks him in the top 10 of cornerbacks in the league.
As Tex pointed out in last week’s Wednesday Walkthrough, “the fact that he is playing the way he is on the boundary rather than in the slot (where he was typecast in Green Bay) is even more maddening.”
Hayward’s departure was softened by the Packers’ depth in the secondary. Injuries have forced reserve corners Micah Hyde and Ladarius Gunter to play more snaps this season than Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, and Julius Peppers.
In the short-term, Casey Hayward’s moderate contract and massive production have made the Packers look foolish for letting him leave. Cornerback was a position of depth for Green Bay heading into the 2016 season, and Ted Thompson bet on second-year corners Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall. Both have missed significant time due to injury this year.
TE Ladarius Green
Contract: 4 years, $20 million ($4.8 million guaranteed) with the Pittsburgh Steelers
Comparable Packers Salary: G T.J. Lang - 4 years, $20.1 million ($5.5 million guaranteed)
Being a backup on a football team behind a great player has its positives and negatives. While you can absorb technique and skills through observation and practice, you most likely aren’t seeing the field very often.
Ladarius Green was supposed to be the heir to the Chargers’ talented tight end Antonio Gates. But in 2015, Gates experienced a career resurgence, and Green’s time in San Diego ended after his rookie contract expired.
Coveted by many Packers fans, bloggers, and even members of traditional media, Green quickly signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. A shrewd team in free agency, the Steelers were replacing the recently retired Heath Miller with the physically gifted Green. Then, the headaches started. Literally.
In training camp, rumors swirled while Green recovered from offseason ankle surgery that the 26-year-old was contemplating retirement because of “exercise induced headaches.”
The ankle injury kept the tight end on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, and he has only recently seen the field. Even when he’s been on the field, he’s only grabbed three catches for 30 yards.
Green, to his credit, is quickly ascending as a red zone threat in the Pittsburgh offense:
TE Martellus Bennett
Contract: 1 year, $5.1 million base salary with the New England Patriots (originally signed contract with Chicago Bears)
Comparable Packers Salary: TE Jared Cook - 1 year, $2.8 million ($825k guaranteed)
While not technically available via free agency, the Bears traded Martellus Bennett and a sixth-round pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for a fourth-round pick this offseason. Bennett, a tremendously gifted but outspoken tight end, fell out of favor in Chicago. If Chicago had been unable to trade Bennett, he was rumored to be cut.
With the Patriots, Bennett has undergone a career resurgence. Alongside perennial All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, Bennett heads into this week’s contest as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-highest ranked tight end – behind only Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, and Jimmy Graham.
He’s also being targeted by Tom Brady more than his counterpart Gronkowski:
Given Bennett’s price tag of a fourth round pick and only one year remaining on his contract, it’s unlikely a deal could have been struck to bring him to Green Bay. However, it’s a fun thought to imagine their offense with Bennett as a red zone threat.
RB Matt Forte
Contract: 3 years, $12 million ($8 million guaranteed)
Comparable Packers Salary: DT Letroy Guion - 3 years, $11 million ($500k guaranteed)
We will never know how close Matt Forte was to joining the Packers, but there was very real interest from both sides. ESPN’s Rob Demovsky reported before free agency that former Bear Julius Peppers was recruiting Forte, but before long Forte ended up in New York.
There are most likely 8 million reasons why the 30-year-old running back is playing for a losing Jets team this season. If Forte had received the same contract from the Packers, his guaranteed money would rank him ahead of RT Bryan Bulaga and SS Morgan Burnett.
So far, Forte’s tenure with the Jets has been mixed. Once known as a dual-threat pass catcher and runner, Forte has lost a step catching the ball out of the backfield. That’s got to be the only logical conclusion – given how the Jets have downright avoided throwing the ball to Forte:
Ultimately, a three-year commitment to a running back past his prime is an extraordinarily risky signing. The conservative front office of Green Bay chose to re-sign James Starks – a known commodity for the Packers – instead of going outside the organization in free agency.
ILB Danny Trevathan
Contract: 4 years, $24.5 million ($12 million guaranteed) with the Chicago Bears
Comparable Packers Salary: SS Morgan Burnett - 4 years, $24.8 million ($8.3 million guaranteed)
Linebacker Danny Trevathan was a key member of the legendary Denver Broncos defense last season. In Super Bowl 50, Trevathan scooped up two fumbles (one by the Panthers’ Mike Tolbert and another by teammate T.J. Ward after an interception in the second half) to polish off an excellent fourth season in the league.
The undersized Trevathan fell to Denver in the sixth round in 2012. He made a name for himself on special teams early in his career and was a starter for both of the Broncos’ recent Super Bowl teams.
Trevathan signed with the rival Chicago Bears – reuniting with former head coach John Fox – and has had modest success in a lost season:
Instead of pursuing a free agent linebacker, the Packers instead invested in the draft - selecting Blake Martinez in the fourth round. The Packers entered training camp with seven inside linebackers. Only three – Martinez, Jake Ryan, and Joe Thomas – have seen significant playing time in a now-thin position group.
Trevathan’s contract demands likely exceeded what the Packers would have offered, but his steady, all-around play would have been an excellent addition to the defense.