Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Veteran Free Agency: Ted Thompson Should Give It One More Try

(Written 3/11/13, this may be slightly out of date)

By any objective measurement, the Packers' free-agent spending spree before the 2012 season was a total failure. Anthony Hargrove and Daniel Muir didn't make it out of training camp. Phillip Merling made it four games before being cut in favor of Mike Neal, who was returning from suspension. Cedric Benson was injured in his fifth game and lost for the season. And while Jeff Saturday made it fourteen games before being benched for Evan Dietrich-Smith, he was so ineffective that the Packers were forced to change their entire running game to minimize his weaknesses. The Pro Bowl berth Saturday was awarded was cosmetic at best. All this sounds like a powerful argument for staying out of free agency, but there are a few reasons for the Packers to dive back in this offseason.

First, the financial cost of signing several veteran free agents was negligible. Jeff Saturday received a one-time $3.18 million payment. Benson received $540,000, as reported by the Journal Sentinel. The other veterans presumably were compensated for their time in training camp (or got game checks, in Merling's case) in minimalist fashion. Most, like Benson, were presumably signed for the under-a-million veteran minimum salary.

Second, Green Bay doesn't need and won't try to overhaul its roster by signing "second contract" free agents, players fresh out of their rookie contract and looking for a big payday. While these players represent the biggest opportunity for a slam dunk (See: Darren Sproles, Michael Turner, Vincent Jackson, Drew Brees*), they also tend to command plenty of guaranteed money and often aren't as good away from their original teams. Cliff Avril, for example, is supposed to be the No. 1 free agent this offseason; the 4-3 DE had 29 sacks and nine forced fumbles in the past three years, but he also played on one of the NFL's best and deepest defensive lines. Put him on a team with a weak line and he might be the next Ray Edwards, who thrived when he was playing with Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams (16.5 sacks in 2009-10) but failed with the Atlanta Falcons (3.5 sacks in 2011-12, now released).

Third, it's also a banner year for 'cap casualties'. The No. 1 question with any free agent is why his old team is letting him leave. If he was a bad personality, was injured often or just wasn't good at football, why take a chance on him? But if you think the player was poorly coached, in a bad scheme or was cut because the team couldn't handle his salary-cap hit, well, that's another story. And it feels to me like there have been an inordinate number of salary-cap casualties around the league this year. There could very well be some low-priced, low-risk, moderate-reward talent out there for the Packers. I know they will have to find the money for a Clay Matthews mega-deal--I still think that it's just media hype that the Packers are supposed to extend Aaron Rodgers with two years left on his 2008 deal--but there's always a way to sneak in a few small deals if one is judicious.

Of course, that means my dream players are far out of reach. There won't be an in-his-prime, hard-hitting-intimidator-yet-terrific-in-coverage Dashon Goldson to solve the Packers' problems at safety, as much sense as that would make. I'm sure Green Bay will go into the draft looking for a center or O-line sixth man, a tackle (again), a safety, defensive line help and wide receiver help, and they'll probably end up filling most of those needs. Here's a wish-list, though, and a few reasons for the Packers to go and try out a few new faces:

Chris Canty, DE, Cowboys/Giants. Canty isn't Reggie White, but he is huge, long and lean--exactly the player the Packers have been missing, a big run defender and occasional pass-rusher. At 30 and on his third contract, Canty is on the downside of his career, but a two- or three-year deal might get the most out of him. (Canty has since signed with Baltimore, so nuts to that.)

Richard Seymour, DE, Patriots/Raiders: Seymour isn't the type to grab a one-year veteran minimum contract, even at 33, so the Packers would have to think long and hard about this. But even a Seymour in decline would bring some much-needed nastiness to the defense. He's also 6'6", 317 and isn't a slug.

Ricky Jean-Francois, DE, 49ers: RJF won't command a mega-deal; a backup behind an immovable, veteran San Francisco front three, he started just five regular-season games in four years. But he's big and tough, strong as an ox, and he's got that unmistakable patina of 49er punch-you-in-the-mouth. The Packers could use a guy like him.

Steven Jackson, RB, Rams: This frustrates me almost as much as Goldson. Jackson is a 30-year-old RB; he'll be relatively inexpensive. His physical running style would be a great add for Green Bay's often-soft offense. He'd be the kind of legitimate 16-game back that Packers fans have agitated for since 2009. It makes too much sense not to happen--but, as with all the free agents on this list, it probably will not. Sigh.

*Those were the first four names that came to mind; coincidentally, all four are former Chargers. Imagine if that quartet had stayed in San Diego?!

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