Thursday, March 22, 2007

Nick Barnett: Three Key Questions

NBAs the free agent frenzy has died down, the mob that is the fan base of the Green Bay Packers are looking at the $20 million dollars still available in salary cap space, the now-real possibility that Randy Moss's salary will not be taking up half that amount, and wondering: when are we going to get Nick Barnett back in the fold?

Barnett, 25, has manned the middle of the linebacking corps since his rookie season, and is now entering his unrestricted free agent contract year. Now, there are always a slough of criticisms to be brought up at times like this.

For one, people haven’t always been sold on Nick Barnett. He’s undergone criticism for overrunning plays, not being the prototypical MLB, and of course, never making a Pro Bowl.

Ted Thompson can also come under a bit of criticism, as he had some of last year’s cap space available to push through to this year. Instead of choosing to lock up Barnett, who was asking to be locked up, Ted let it roll over into this season, and now may be looking at losing a player or grossly overpaying for him.

Criticism aside, all rumors suggest that the Packers and Barnett’s agent are “talking”, but nothing has suggested a deal is close, much less imminent. As Adalius Thomas, the new New England Patriot linebacker, can attest, free agency is probably going to be a lot more profitable for Nick Barnett, especially if he proves himself to finally be a Pro Bowl talent in 2007.

Thomas signed a five-year deal with a $12 million signing bonus, and will pocket $22 million between now and December 2008. Peter King commented that the Patriots have mortgaged the future to win now with Thomas, who, while only counting $3.4 million against the cap in 2007, will have cap numbers of $5.4 million, $6.4 million, $9.4 million, and $10.4 million over the next four years.

Mortgaging the future doesn’t sound like Ted Thompson’s M.O. But, you can be sure that somewhere in the NFL, there is a team that will be willing to throw that kind of money at Nick Barnett next offseason.

And you can be sure that Barnett and his agent are acutely aware of that, too.

Which bring us back to the potentially polarizing topic of Thompson attemting to extend Barnett’s contract. Other than Randy Moss, there is perhaps no topic right now that people are more diversely opinionated on: the value of Nick Barnett. While I have few answers for you today, I will offer three questions that, when answered, will tell us whether or not #56 will be a staple in the Green and Gold for the foreseeable future.

Question Number One: How much value do the Green Bay Packers place on Nick Barnett?

The Packer linebacker will be making a mere $1.9 million base salary this upcoming year, with a pro-rated bonus push that will set his cap space at $3.6 million, ranking tenth on the present Packer roster.

That’s a good deal for a solid linebacker who’s been on the cusp of a Pro Bowl, and has led the team in tackles multiple times. But if you renegotiate, where is the point that it becomes too much coin for the same player?

Interestingly enough, Barnett’s and Adelius Thomas’s 2007 cap figures are pretty similar, but we know the comparison ends there. Is Barnett worth $5.4 million later? $9.4 million later?

And most of all, is he worth keeping on a back-loaded contract that will cost us a mint to trade or cut later on? The logic with all the present space would be, unlike Thomas’s contract, to put the bulk of his money at the front of the contract, and put that $9.4 figure on for this year.

But is that something that Thompson is willing to do? Does he see Nick Barnett as a premier middle linebacking talent worthy of a $12+ million signing bonus? Combined, Al Harris and Charles Woodson won’t cost us $10 million this upcoming season.

Barnett has been a solid player who has played through injury. I don’t think anyone will doubt that he is a solid Packer player who is good for the team. But critics say that if you place any decent player at the MLB position in the Packer scheme, they will rack up the tackles, too. He’s never had more than 3 sacks or interceptions in a season. Put AJ Hawk at middle linebacker, and he’ll do just as well, if not better, the critics say.

Now, Ted Thompson has a much better idea of what he has in Nick Barnett than any of us do. He knows the kind of locker room presence he has, knows the ability he has, and has a pretty good idea of the ceiling that this 25-year old player has.

How he answers this question will be evident in how much he’s willing to spend, because after not locking him up in 2006, the price tag just became much, much higher.

Question Number Two: What is more important to Nick Barnett, team loyalty or a big payday?

This question just became uncomfortably obvious when Thomas signed his contract with the Patriots. As the premier defensive player, and clearly the premier middle linebacker, in the 2006 version of free agency, he benefitted from the dollars being thrown around by teams for whom the pendalum has swung the other way. Teams that got burned in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s by back-loaded contracts and dead salary cap space learned to conserve, and now more and more teams are sitting with surpluses and looking for players to spend it on.

Nick Barnett would already be a top defensive player in 2008, certainly in the caliber of Nate Clements, who also got an ungodly amount of money in free agency. Now, add a year and more cap space to the 2008 totals, and possibly a Pro Bowl season by Barnett, and the cast is set for him to truly strike pay dirt, with signing bonuses exceeding $15 million.

Or, he can stay with the Packers for less.

I don’t think there is any doubt that Ted Thompson is going to try and sign him for less than what he’s going to get on the open market. The question is, would Barnett be willing to settle for it?

Barnett may indeed be getting tired of Green Bay, too. His nightclub docudrama has gone on now for over a year, and the frustration of a young man feeling like he’s being attacked unfairly by the people of the city he’s playing in may be growing old, real fast.

Ted could also place a franchise tag on Barnett after the season. The 2007 linebacker franchise number is around $6.4 million, so add a bit to that, especially with Adalius Thomas’s contract.

While I don’t have a definitive answer for this question, I think there’s a pretty clear direction that any 25 year-old with a limited career lifespan is going to lean towards: payday. While Barnett may take less money to stay in Green Bay, its not going to be a lot less. And while many of us may spit and decry the obscene amounts of money being thrown at these free agents nowadays, who among us can begrudge the players themselves for signing on the dotted line?

Question Number Three: How much faith do the Packers have in Abdul Hodge?

This may end up being Ted Thompson’s ace in the hole, because right now, his hand isn’t looking all that good as it relates to Nick Barnett. Barring injury, Barnett has every motivation to play out this season at the highest level he’s ever played at, and then move on to the highest bidder.

When Thompson picked up Abdul Hodge in the third round of the draft last year, many Packers fans raised an eyebrow. Why would we be drafting a linebacker, a middle linebacker, when we already have a first rounder playing the position? Why would we draft a MLB whose abilities don’t translate well to the strong-side, where we didn’t have a proven or set starter at the time?

As many of us suspected at the time, Thompson may have been planning ahead for this moment. Maybe, answering question number one, he didn’t believe that Barnett was as valuable as many of us thought. Maybe, answering question number two, he didn’t believe that he would be worth as much money as he would be commanding someday.

And so, enter Abdul Hodge, undersized but played at a high level in college. His 2006 season was more obscure than it was proving himself an heir apparent, starting one game at Seattle and garnering 12 tackles, and snagging a mid-air fumble from Matt Hasselback and returning it for a touchdown.

But things went downhill from there. Barnett returned from injury, and Hodge developed his own, a shoulder problem that kept him on the bench during the four-game winning streak.

How Hodge develops will play a big part in how negotiations continue to progress with Nick Barnett. If he ends up being an injury-prone, undersized linebacker, the Packers may be forced to pony up for Barnett or begin searching for his replacement. If Hodge ends up being the force he was at Iowa, Thompson may just find #55 as able to fill the MIKE spot as #56, and save a little coin in the process.

Three questions.

Over the next few months, these three questions will likely get answers, and we will know if Nick Barnett is destined for the Packer Hall of Fame or on to his big payday.

Both offer a lot of “green” and “gold”, though with different defintions. It will depend which is more important to Barnett, and how important it is to Ted Thompson to keep him here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Thompson Smart With First Week of Free Agency

Imagine for a second that you are standing on the edge of a long, narrow gorge that is infinitely deep and roughly around ten feet across. You need to get to the other side.

And it’s a long way down.

Now, imagine standing on the same side of the gorge with you are 31 other folks, each also evaluating how they would like to cross the gorge. Many options are open to you, but one thing is for certain: the goal is to get across, as there is a brass ring hanging from a branch over there.

I see this gorge as the challenges an NFL general manager must face as it tries to get back to his team’s ultimate goal: winning a championship, which waits for those who can make it to the other side.

But as we look at each of these 32 teams standing on the edge, not all of them have the same distance to cross. Some of them, particularly the most talented teams, may have only five feet to clear before they make it to the other side. Because the talent is so “close” being a great team already, their challenges aren’t as great. They don’t have as many holes to fill, and, as we’ve heard many times, the brass ring is within reach.

But, other teams like, say, Oakland or Tampa Bay, have perhaps fifteen or twenty feet to clear before reaching the other side. They have many holes to fill, and it is obvious that the task of reaching the brass ring on the other side is going to take some careful planning and preparation.

My point in this analogy? The first week of free agency has passed, and we’ve seen many teams in the league make some flying leaps at some talented and some not-so-talented free agents, with money coming flying out their pockets to bring them in.

Paying big bucks for a free agent, to me, is like trying to solve the problem of getting across the gorge by taking a running start and trying to jump across that gorge. And, depending on the width you have to clear, it’s apparent you’re taking quite a risk in lieu of some good, proper planning and work.

So, what teams can get away with big splashes in free agency? Well, as previously mentioned, there are some teams with only a few feet to clear, whose talent is high and may only need that one player to come in and make the difference. It’s likely that a team like Seattle in 2005, or even New England perpetually, can make these flying leaps and land on two feet on the other side.

But to take a flying leap from a long distance is suicide, as we’ve seen the Oakland Raider suffer through this season, ending up 2006 with only a handful of players actually under contract and having those players take up a whopping amount of salary cap space.

If you fall down the gorge, the eventual reality is that you have to climb back up and try again.

Peter King, of Sports Illustrated, gave effusive praise to Packers’ and Titan’s GM’s Ted Thompson and Mike Reinfeldt (both protégés of Ron Wolf) for their willingness to stay on the safe side of that gorge, watching other teams take flying leaps with free agents, burning cap space, and taking incredible risks.

Some teams, like New England, a perpetual playoff team, can utilize free agency to fill the holes they have and remain competitive, and for them, it’s an easy jump to the other side.

Other teams, like San Francisco, who took one of the first flying leaps, is still flying through midair, but my guess is once December rolls around, they won’t be standing next to New England. That’s the risk you take when you leap before you look, and why today’s free agency is nothing like it was back in the 1990’s.

Of course, the Packers back then were once looking over perhaps a two-foot gap in that gorge, and invested in players like Don Beebe, Desmond Howard, Sean Jones, and Keith Jackson to give them their running jump in 1996.

But today’s Packers aren’t looking like the 1996 team, and Ted Thompson deserves credit for his restraint in avoiding the desperate player grab that several other teams now find themselves in, floating in mid-air with buyer’s remorse.

With that ten-foot gorge in front of them, it’s going to take some careful planning, clever manipulation of the raw materials, and a commitment to getting the job done. But as Ted and Mike look down the gorge, chances are they are going to see at least half of the other folks didn’t make the big jump, either.

It’s one thing to sit and congratulate yourself on being smart enough to not make the high-risk leap. But, the fact of the matter is, those teams that didn’t make that jump are still sitting on the wrong side of the gorge, and now is the time to start assembling your method of getting across.

You see, just standing still isn’t going to get you the brass ring either. And now, all those general managers are going to begin the process of building their bridge across the gorge. Some will choose to build through the draft, as many of us suspect our own GM is going to approach this season.

That’s a pretty wise idea, if you can pull it off. If you think about it, last year, the Packers could have probably spent that #5 pick on nearly any position on either side of the ball, and had a case for it. This season, spending our first pick on a linebacker, defensive lineman, cornerback, or interior offensive linemen would probably raise an eyebrow. We have more pieces in place, but as many have noticed, we also still have many holes to fill.

That is the challenge that Ted Thompson now has: building that bridge to get to the other side. He has some faith that some of the rails he laid down last year will be sturdy enough to hold some weight this year. He has made statements that he feels comfortable with some of the talent we have at running back, wide receiver, and safety (some of our areas identified as highest in need).

But, don’t doubt if the right “equipment” comes along that Thompson won’t be afraid to pull out some boards and replace them (Marshawn Lynch? LaRon Landry?).

So, while we can rest assured our general manager didn’t do the foolish thing in taking a flying leap of the ledge, the true test is still ahead of him: since he didn’t bite on any expensive free agents, what is he going to do to improve the 2007 product over the 2006 product? Are there any cap casualties from other teams that might make a difference? Did some of the shaky talent we saw last season going to prove to make a solid foundation this season? And will we use that sixteenth pick or trade down for quantity over quality?

There’s no such thing as an off-season Super Bowl, and there are no medals to be pinned ten days into the free agency period. What we will watch for now is what Ted Thompson does to build that bridge to the brass ring.

Hopefully, even if it takes another season or two, we will see that bridge inch a little closer to the other side. And hopefully, the bridge won’t collapse halfway through, making us wish we had just jumped to begin with.

Monday, March 5, 2007

How To Polarize Your Fan Base (Step One: Sign Randy Moss)

Well, the rumor mill is churning out the impending Randy Moss Apocolypse to happen any day now, and the reaction among the Packer faithful is certainly powerful.

Certainly, the size of a thread entitled "Randy Moss" is already a significant sign that, if he does don the Green and the Gold, that his name will probably end up in its own seperate forum.

But, let's get to the aftershock, and more specifically, how it will affect the other Most Talked About Guy At PackerChatters, Ted Thompson. You see, the title of this thread isn't about whether or not bringing in Moss would affect our support for the Packers. If we lived through Charles Martin, we're going to continue being Packers fans, no matter what (there might be a few exceptions, of course, but you get my drift).

No, this is about the support system for Ted Thompson, the general manager, and how the aquisition of Randy Moss is going to affect how people view him. And, it will.

Right now, it is relatively evident that Packer Mundo is becoming more and more polarized on Thompson as it is. His eschewing of free agency, his quiet, passive-appearing approach, and the idea of a slow rebuild while Brett Favre is in potentially his last season has certainly divided the fan base into two sides: those that voraciously attack Thompson, and those that voraciously defend him.

Let's take a closer look, though. Who tends to make up these groups? I will avoid political terms to avoid any intellectual dishonest minimalization of the concept I'm trying to get across.

The Thompson Supporters tend to be what I'll call the "traditionalists". These are the folks who have bought into the idea of a methodical rebuild, who are willing to take the growing pains that come along with it. They don't get too worked up, even if a desired free agent slips by. They celebrate trading down in the draft and pride themselves on being able to say, someday, "see, told you I was right."

But most of all, these "traditionalists" don't want to see us make any stupid, impulsive mistakes that would plunge us back into the 70's and 80's.

The Thompson Critics tend to be what I'll call the "revolutionaries". These are the folks who look at the immediate success of other teams and want to see action made with our team now. They grow frustrated when players they feel could help the team slip by, even though we have room to spend on them. They fear losing now will create a habit of losing in the future, and that being passive is worse than making an aggressive mistake.

But most of all, these "revolutionaries" don't want us want to see us make any stupid, hesitant mistakes that would plunge us back into the 70's and 80's.

Now, of couse, there are the invisible middle-ground people who are objective, balanced, and thoughtful. As a result, they are completely ignored and scorned by both sides of the debate. We will call them "daywalkers".

This ongoing "Less Filling, Tastes Great" free-for-all would probably last all offseason long, until the draft, with both sides digging in and developing their stances. But something is going to come along in the next few days that is going to turn this particular debate on its ear.

And that, of course, is Randy Moss.

How Moss will affect the Packers team, the authority of young coach McCarthy, aging quarterback Brett Favre, young receiver Greg Jennings, and the salary cap are all items that will be up for heavy debate.

But I want to thoughtfully think how this will affect Ted Thompson, and the opinions of those who both support and criticize him.

First of all, whether you agree with the move or not, it is clear and obvious that trading away draft picks for an aging and oft-injured wide receiver that will take up a huge chunk of salary cap space is way out of character for what we have grown to expect from Ted Thompson. Ted has built his reputation, like it or not, on eschewing the risks of free agency, not taking expensive chances on second-tier players, and regarding his draft choices as gold.

You can throw all that out the window when he trades what is rumored to be at least a first-day pick for the honor of taking on both Randy Moss's contract and attitude.

Now, if Randy Moss comes in, has a 90-catch, 1500 yard, 15 TD season, Thompson will be hailed by both sides as a hero and a legend, and that third statue will finally be erected next to Curly and Vince.

However, the risk for Thompson, who is often praised for not doing things just to please fans, may end up being much greater. In the end, we are all Packer fans, and that takes precendence over being a Thompson fan, or a fan of any player or figure in the organization.

At risk of oversimplifying matters, how would it affect our three groups?

My prediction with the "traditionalists" is that many will be uncomfortable with the move. They are probably less likely to forgive and forget Moss's rap sheet, and will be even more uncomfortable with what appears to be a complete break from the strategy they all bought into and have been defending. The "traditionalists" have been waiting for that slow, methodical build, and now not only see the big, risky leap with a potentially locker room-destabilizing player, but a destabilizing of the salary cap structure they've so proudly admired for the last two season.

In other words, Thompson may see a lot of his supporters move from "I'm behind TT all the way" to "I'm cautiously optimistic". Or, in some cases, because of their particular feelings about Moss or their feelings about such a break in strategy, may go even further.

On the other side of the coin, the "revolutionaries" will be more likely to be happy with the move. They've been screaming for Thompson to "do something", and this would certainly qualify as a big splash. Moss is a playmaker, and a star, and a weapon. Even one of our board's biggest "revolutionaries" already admitted he would have to rethink his opinion on Thompson if he acquired Moss.

The problem in the long run? Well, "revolutionaries" are bit more impulsive, and a bit more desiring of immediate gratification. If Moss ends up have a season like he did in Oakland the past two seasons, it would follow that the "revolutionaries" would be more likely to become more critical of the move. This would then have both sides of the coin starting to move to a more critical stance of the guy calling the shots.

And the "daywalkers"? Well, I would definately say that bringing in Moss will get plenty of them off the fence, and we'll probably see less and less people being in the middle on Thompson.

Now, this is all a bit premature, as nothing has been officially announced yet, and there's always the possibility that we may have to wait until summer to find out if Moss is a Packer or not.

But, now, that is even an issue. Thompson may acquire him, and upset the people that have been backing his rebuilding process. Thompson could also end up not acquiring him, and after all the promise and excitement, end up upsetting the people that have been demanding a playmaker...or at least something.

Let it be said, however, that if Thompson does pull the trigger, this will be the most defining move of his career. And, we'll all be here to debate it.