Ted Thompson took over the general manager position for the Green Bay Packers from Mike Sherman in early 2005. Since then, he has helped lead the Packers to eight playoff appearances, five NFC North division titles, one NFC Championship, and of course, one Super Bowl victory. This article's purpose is not to say that Ted Thompson is a bad general manager by any means. In fact, he has shown to have a great eye for talent and has helped construct a roster year after year that has had the potential to be a Super Bowl contender. This article is to discuss more so if Thompson's usual behavior of only signing Packers' free agents cost them any opportunities at more success.
Ted Thompson was in his first year as the Packers' general manager when he selected quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Despite Rodgers having to wait a few seasons for his chance behind all-time great Brett Favre, it paid off. Rodgers has proven to be not only one of the best quarterbacks in the entire NFL during his time as a starter, but also perhaps one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time when his career comes to an end. Along with drafting Rodgers, Thompson has drafted A.J. Hawk, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Mason Crosby, Jordy Nelson, Josh Sitton, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, T.J. Lang, Bryan Bulaga, Morgan Burnett, Randall Cobb, Casey Hayward, Mike Daniels, Eddie Lacy, and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix to name a few (a few?). Clearly, Thompson has proven to have a great eye for talent.
Drafting the right players isn't the problem though for Thompson and the Packers. It's the whole aspect of free agency that would appear to be their weakness. Since Thompson took over in 2005 as general manager, he has signed a total of EIGHT unrestricted free agents that actually played in a game for Green Bay: Ryan Pickett, Charles Woodson, Brandon Chillar, Marquand Manuel, Frank Walker, Adrian Klemm, Ben Taylor, and Jeff Saturday. Green Bay also signed Marc Boerigter, Matt O'Dwyer, Duke Preston, and Anthony Hargrove, none of whom ended up playing for the Packers. So in Ted Thompson's now 12th year of free agency for the Packers, he has an average of signing ONE unrestricted free agent a year. Other signees like Julius Peppers, James Jones and Letroy Guion were free agents signed by the Packers, but because they were released by their respective teams prior, they are considered "street free agents" as opposed to "unrestricted free agents".
Going off of those names and numbers above, it's quite evident that Thompson has not been one to go out and sign a whole bunch of unrestricted free agents to his team every year come free agency. It's not to say his approach of drafting players and only re-signing his own doesn't work; the Packers are usually a strong team every year. But, how much better could the Packers have done under Thompson's reign if he was more open to signing players from other teams? Now, my colleague Paul Noonan wrote a terrific piece here at Acme Packing Co. a few days ago, looking at Ted Thompson's likely guidelines to free agency and why the Packers are rarely big players in free agency. It breaks down the Packers' & Thompson's general rules of thumb that seem to have been established from watching their activity in free agency and how the roster is handled.
Paul brings up several great points, for example, pointing out that players who are "good" often are overpaid in free agency. This off-season can be a perfect example. A "good" player like Marvin Jones received a five year contract from the Lions worth $40 million, with $20 million of it being guaranteed. Clearly, that is someone who was overpaid due to being "good" - or rather simply, being one of the better options in a very weak free agency class. Another example would be Olivier Vernon, who signed a five year, $85 million contract with the Giants, with $52 million of it being guaranteed. So there is no doubt that "good" free agents often are overpaid in free agency.
Now, I could sit and name off potential players that perhaps the Packers should have signed but didn't and try to make an argument that the Packers could've done better than they did if they have signed "player X". I'm not going to do that, because it would be a lot of hypotheticals. Rather, let's look at some areas of need that the Packers had going into this off-season that could have been addressed on the free agency market.
Going into this offseason, the tight end position (as it has been in years past) was/is an area of need for Green Bay. Richard Rodgers is a solid red zone receiving target, but not necessarily a #1 tight end on a good team like the Packers. We did see former Colts Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen receive massive contracts from their respective teams, so it's easy to see why the Packers did not go after those two. But a player like Ladarius Green, who has proven to have a lot of tools needed for a #1 tight end but often over-shadowed by all-time great Antonio Gates, is a prime example. He signed a four year contract worth $20 million with the Steelers. An average of five million dollars a year for a player of Green's caliber is a terrific deal. He could have added an entirely new dimension to the usually dangerous passing attack of the Packers while also addressing an area of need. Jermaine Gresham (one year, three and a half million dollars) is a terrific blocking tight end (which is an area that Rodgers lacks in) and came rather cheaply in free agency. He definitely would have help bolster the tight end position for the Packers as their #2 tight end (over projected #2 Justin Perillo).
Over the past season and a half, Clay Matthews has been forced to play inside linebacker despite being a natural outside linebacker, mostly due to depth issues. In order to be able to put Matthews back outside again, they would need to address the inside linebacker depth issue. Danny Trevathan is a prime example of a player that would have been a great addition to the team. He signed a four year, $24.5 million contract with the Bears, costing them an average of just over $6 million per year. For a player of Trevathan's caliber and his young age (25), that can be considered a steal for the Bears. Considering Thompson was comfortable giving Julius Peppers a three year contract for $26 million in his mid-thirties, there is no excuse as to why Trevathian wouldn't be a player who could make it work in Green Bay.
With the sudden announcement from B.J. Raji that he will not be playing football in 2016, nose tackle (which was already a need to begin with) is suddenly a huge need for the team. On the Packers' depth chart, that would leave Mike Pennel as their starter at nose for the time being. In his two-year career thus far, Pennel has started only five games and is not really known to be much of a contributor. Someone who might have been perfect for the Packers not only because of his talent, but also at his eventual contract (three years, $10.5 million) is Steve McClendon, who flirted with Green Bay back in 2013 as a restricted free agent. He helped the Steelers be a top five rushing defense in 2015 as one of their primary run stoppers. His presence in the middle of the defensive line could be an upgrade over Raji anyway. He did not appear to be signed for much, making it another head-scratching move by Thompson potentially.
All in all, the Packers will continue to be a great team in 2016 and probably even beyond that, but the question will remain in the back of Green Bay fans' minds: what if Ted Thompson had done more in free agency all of these years? Could they have had more NFC Championship wins during his time? Could they have potentially won more than the one Super Bowl during his time? These are questions that probably cannot be answered, but it's quite clear on what Ted Thompson thinks about for the most part in free agency: If you weren't drafted by us, you aren't going to be one of us.