Sunday, March 14, 2010

Signings Aside, Can the Packer Upgrade Their 2009 Roster?

There's been much celebration over the past few days in Packerland...another successful Fan Fest was held at Lambeau Field, and the Packers were able to bring in a couple of beloved veterans back into the fold with some hefty in-house free agent signings.  There's a lot of optimism brewing for the Packers, and its nice to have some good offseason news (despite the loss of Aaron Kampman).

So much so, that Mike Vandermause echoes some of the giddiness many Packer fans have exuberantly chanted the past couple days, indicating this is a sign of great things to come.

Thompson is so high on his team that he’s willing to invest major dollars to lock down some of the core players.

“I thought we had a good team,” Thompson said. “In fact, I thought we had a team that could play a few games in the playoffs and we just got in a shootout and couldn’t get out of it.”

Translation: Thompson believes he has a Super Bowl contender on his hands and is willing to pay big bucks to keep it together.

Now, Vandermause has never seen a move by Ted Thompson he didn't gush over, and these signings are no exception.  And personally, I've already stated that these are the kind of moves that are wise ones to make in an uncertain transitional period of free agency.  I give Thompson credit for having the discipline to stay within a budget (unlike several other NFC North teams) in a time when overspending with no cap could really come back to haunt you later.

But, I want to throw in this cautionary nugget:  keeping your own players in this era of free agency is a wise move in any offseason (and this one in particular), but it is maintaining the level of talent that we had last season, not necessarily adding to it.

And, it's not like last year's talent level was anything to be ashamed of in the least.  The Packers rebounded from a depressing 2008 with an 11-5 record and league-leading offensive and defensive squads.  Pro Bowl players on both sides of the ball represented the team, and young players like Clay Matthews and Jermichael Finely added new and exciting dimensions.  The Packers made the playoffs in a season not many predicted them to.  They have solid leaders on both sides of the ball under contract, with Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson taking on the roles as the field generals for their squads.

But the Packers did fold twice under the pressure of facing hated division rival Minnesota last year, and late in the season saw their top-ranked defense completely sieve against the Steelers and Cardinals (the latter in a playoff game).  In order to truly be a Super Bowl contender, the Packers have to figure out how to shore up those weaknesses:  there are no patsies in the playoffs, and the Packers have to come to the game loaded for bear.

The goal for any NFL team, particularly one on the rise as the Packers have been, is how to make the product on the field better than it was last year, more complete.  And, many of us have noted that an upgrade at just a couple of, nickel back, outside linebacker, guard/tackle...may spell the difference between a playoff win and a playoff loss.

And the Packers have taken one solid step towards that goal:  keeping many of their solid vets in the fold.  Kampman is a loss, especially as a solid team leader, but the guys they kept (Collins, Tauscher, Clifton, and Pickett) are all penciled in as starters at positions they have excelled in over their entire career.  For a team that seems to be perpetually the youngest team in the league, year after year, this is a solid statement by Thompson that this team is no longer in building mode, but in "we're here" mode.

The amounts of money that has been thrown at these four players, however, has to be a strong indicator that Thompson is (wisely) going to stay out of the outside free agent market, and I couldn't agree that this year is a good one to play five-card stud instead of drawing from the deck.

So, this leads me to two important questions:  is it possible to upgrade the talent on the roster while staying fiscally responsible in this transition year?  And, if the answer is yes, what is the wisest route to go about doing it?

The Draft:  By most accounts, this draft is going to be one of the deepest in a long time, with many recruits bailing out of college early in the hopes of avoiding a possible rookie salary schedule in the future.  The chances are quite high that you can get a kid that was a first-round talent last year in the second- or -third- round this year.

I've already put my money down on such a player--Nate Allen, as free safety from FSU.  This smart, ball-hawking safety might have cost the Packers their 23rd overall pick in another year, but this year he will likely last until the second or perhaps even the third round.

But most of us know that putting your faith in a rookie to come in and be a solid upgrade right away is wishful thinking.  Clay Matthews is by far the exception than the rule, and even Thompson's relatively good road record on draft day hasn't produced many impact starters right away.  The fact that the rookies would have to supplant players on an 11-5 team make it an even tougher challenge:  it's not like you're trying to upgrade from Wil Whittaker and Samkon Gado anymore.

The chances are far greater that you may find a tackle and safety of the future in the first couple of rounds, but when it comes to getting the Packers over the one-and-done playoff hump, that may be a little long to wait.

In-house Improvement:  the Packers have several project players that they would love to see mature this season and truly bring the competition that Mike McCarthy covets in training camp. 

The offensive line has to be Thompson's Achilles Heel over his tenure, hoping that mid-round picks would be able to compete and create a solid offensive line.  However, the huge contract extensions offered to Clifton and Tauscher is a sign that, after five drafts and ten offensive linemen drafted, the Pack still haven't found anyone to replace the aging holdovers from the Sherman regime.

On the roster, the Packers have a couple of linemen they would love to see mature into solid starting-caliber players, most notably T.J. Lang, who played as a fill-in as a rookie and may project into one of the tackle spots.  Breno Guacamole also has a lot of size and many were hoping he also would be able to come in last season and contribute, but spent most game days on the inactive squad.

The Packers should have back their starting front three on defense, but question marks still cloud the future of Johnny Jolly (though, I will be the first to admit, if I ever get in trouble with the law, I sure would like to know the name of Jolly's lawyer).  It is pretty much consensus that Justin Harrell, Thompson's ill-fated first round pick from 2007, is already a foregone conclusion to be a non-factor again this season (and likely gone in preseason if he struggles).  However, if for some reason Harrell were to even show the consistency and ability to be a rotational player, it would be a tremendous addition to the line.

At linebacker, the Packers have lost Aaron Kampman, and now have an open spot opposite Clay Matthews at OLB.  Several players could not only take that spot over, but possibly upgrade AJ Hawk in the middle.  Brad Jones did a yeoman's job in relief of an injured Kampman last year, but disappeared at critical times.  A year of growth and maturity may mean that Jones can win that spot outright.  Another player we could see taking a step forward is Jeremy Thompson, a guy who shone during minicamps last year but wilted when the pads came on.  He's built for a 3-4 OLB position, and if he were to take that step forward, the Packers would be all the better for it.  Brandon Chillar and Des Bishop are also chomping at the bit to see if they can take over full-time inside, leaving Hawk on the bench (and perhaps available for trade).

Defensive back is the thinnest area right now, which might seem surprising when you consider that three out of the four starters were named to the Pro Bowl over the last two seasons.  Yet, Al Harris will again be a question mark coming off on injury, and while super-sub Tramon Williams is solid in relief, he's a step down from Harris and the nickel position is subsequently an even further drop.  Two players that could really bolster the cornerback position with a sudden maturing process would be both Will Blackmon, a return specialist who struggled in regular coverage, and Pat Lee, the former second-round pick who has struggled to stay healthy.  Brandon Underwood also got some playing time last season with a mixed bag of results.

At safety, the prospects are even worse.  Atari Bigby is the defacto starter, but has yet to regain his 2007 form as he recovers from injuries.  He's another strong safety type, like Collins, who struggles more in coverage.  Behind Bigby are just two players:  Derrrick Martin and Jarrett Bush, both of whom appear to be special team players and servicable backups, not the kind of players who will upgrade your starting lineup.

So, there are possibilities to improve from within, with offensive tackle and safety being the positions with the thinnest talent potential behind the starters.

Trade:  This is pretty much unheard of in the Thompson era, but isn't completely out of the question.  Thompson shocked us all last season with a massive trade-up in the draft, so there's the possibility he may be interested in trading away a draft pick or peripheral player for a good player with a contract in place.

Brian Carriveau over at Railbird Central proposed such a trade today, with the Packers offering a tendered Daryn Colledge to Oakland for inside linebacker Kirk Morrison (also tendered).  While that may not be the trade I'd pull off, it would send a disgruntled Colledge elsewhere, and likely bring in a good player just thrilled to no longer be working for Al Davis.

Obviously, I'd rather see an offensive tackle or a free safety coming to the Packers for Colledge, but those positions are a little harder to find and a lot more expensive.  Unlike Morrison, however, the player we might be looking for in trade doesn't have to be another RFA waiting to sign a tender:  every team tends to have an overload at some position that makes a player expendable.

Heck, I'd be willing to trade Colledge to the Raiders for Michael Huff, the safety we bypassed in 2007 to take AJ Hawk.  Yeah, he's struggled, but I like to believe he was played out of position for several years.  He's a natural free safety that was pigeonholed as a strong safety to start, and struggled as a result.  If a new situation and good surroundings could help him find the talent that made a 7th-overall pick, why not take that risk?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Close To The Vest Approach The Wisest Move This Offseason

It's not often you would ever hear me say this, but allow the words to roll off my tongue:  Thompson is playing it close to the vest in free agency, and it's a darn good idea.

Thus far, Ted Thompson has utilized a series of tenders to keep many of his restricted free agents in the fold, re-signed Chad Clifton for another three years, and generally avoided free agency like the plague.  Any other year, I would be grumbling about his reticence to make any type of splash to bring in some talent from the outside, instead of waiting for his draft picks to eventually (and hopefully) develop.

But this year, the rules have changed, and with the prospects of an uncapped year and the uncertainty of the collective bargaining agreement, teams are able to spend without a ceiling or a least until terms are reached.  If the Packers had a free-wheeling GM at the helm who felt shackled by the cap all these years, this would be a very dangerous time for a small-market team.

We don't like to compare ourselves to teams like the Cowboys or the Redskins that doesn't present the Packers in the best light, but the facts are facts;  the Packers may be the best small-market team built to survive, but in the end, they are still revenue-limited when matched up against the teams from D.C., Dallas, New York, or Boston.

So, while I've gone from complaining to accepting-the-inevitable every year for the last five offseasons (as Thompson's fiscal responsibility would reach exasperating levels), this year is different.  In 2006, when Thompson talked about building for the long haul and keeping the team competitive year-in and year-out, it frustrated those fans who wanted to see the string of NFC North championships continue.  But in 2010, that long haul has a different connotation:  the "long haul" means through what may end up becoming an assortment of revenue, contract, and sharing changes that do not favor the Packers or other small-market teams.

It's not a plan that is designed to bring a championship to Green Bay next year.  But, it is a wise decision that keeps the team competitive on the field and on the ledger.

Some of the tenders offered to our restricted free agents sent a pretty significant signal that Thompson is willing to hang on to his draftees, even if they haven't been lights-out over the past few years.  Anyone who has read my blog knows that I've been calling for a safety upgrade for years, and yet, the Packers placed a 1st/3rd tender on Nick Collins (good move) and a 2nd rounder on Atari Bigby.  Many of us have been ready to write Bigby off, scouring the free agent market and the 2010 draft class for potential replacements.  Now, he has 1.7 million reasons to continue to start opposite Collins this upcoming year.

The oft-maligned offensive line also appears ready to remain the same.  Second-round tenders on both Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz, darlings of Thompson's second draft class, will keep them in the fold and in the starting lineup.  Colledge came under increased criticism this past season, leading many to believe the Packers would look to upgrade.

Perhaps the most eye-raising move was the $20 million dollars given to aging tackle Chad Clifton, with $7.5M guaranteed.  It's a thin free agent market when both Clifton and Tauscher top the list of the best tackles available, despite the belief no less than a year ago that both players would have been replaced by this time.  Without parting with some serious talent in trade, trading up every draft pick we have to get a top prospect, or breaking the bank for another mixed-bag of free agent talent, the Packers decided that keeping Clifton in-house was the best move.

I'm not criticizing the fact, I am acknowledging that they were wise ones in the face of the today's uncertain future.  While many of us no more than a couple of months ago were scheming up ways to replace Clifton, Bigby, and Colledge in the lineup, Thompson decided that the status quo was the way to go.

I would guess that Thompson will continue this approach through the offseason and the draft, eschewing all but the most bargain-basement of free agents and likely returning to his preference of trading back in the draft.  One might even guess that his out-of-character trade-up for Clay Matthews in the 2009 draft may have been not only for CM3's talent, but because he could see the storm on the horizon and knew that might be the last draft that he could risk that many picks for one player, at least for the foreseeable future.

I don't begrudge Thompson for his approach, but there has to be a general disappointment in the timing of the expiring of the CBA.  The Packers finished 11-5 and had perhaps their most dramatic season in years.  One could look at both sides of the ball in 2009 and feel like both squads were just a player or two away from dominance.

I could see the optimism rising for some bold moves (perhaps bolstered by Thompson's already-bold statement in trading up for Matthews), that the time had finally arrived for the Packers to sign some crusty, savvy old veterans to come in and fill in at safety, along the offensive line, outside linebacker, and along the defensive line.  Was it time for our Sean Jones, Eugene Robinson, and Keith Jackson to not only complete the roster, but bring a level of maturity to this "forever young" team?

No, Thompson's moves are not designed to take this team over the hump and make us instant Super Bowl contenders, but he doesn't make the rules he has to play by.  I would be far more critical of Thompson's approach if he were idiotically signing free agents left and right, not unlike a certain team south of the Wisconsin-Illinois border.  Another year, under the old rules?  Sure.  But not this year.

Maybe I am wrong, and Thompson is just waiting to unload a barrage of trades and signings in the next few weeks.  But I have a feeling we have Conservative Ted back in the captain's chair, ready to sign a couple of no-name free agents, trade back to select lesser-known players from smaller colleges, and to build from within, for better or worse.

Any other year I'd probably be complaining.  This year, while it may not be the moves that make the Packers a winner, it's still the winning move.
Restricted Free Agent Tender graphic courtesy of JSOnline

Mea Culpa

It’s not often that I have to come back to admit a mistake (or, perhaps more honestly, it’s not often I admit a mistake), but I think that the time has come.

Yesterday, I penned an article that could be described as “poorly-thought out”, but in reality, it really wasn’t thought out much at all.  Gotta admit it.  I didn’t see the blurb about Kampman’s signing to Jacksonville until late in the evening, and went immediately to put an “I told you so” article on the blog.

The responses I’ve gotten to the article, particularly over at PackerChatters, have been rather scathing: some deserved, and some not so much.  The one thing I will offer is that I have had a lot of distractions from All Things Packers over the last month or so, and have not had my pulse on the daily ins-and-outs or the usual draft and offseason build-up that I usually do.  I don’t offer that as an excuse, but simply as a cautionary tale to myself to not jump back in the saddle cold turkey, without having my usual awareness of what's been going on.

The tone of the article, in particular, was poorly executed.  The “toldja so” made things come off as if I were trying to prove someone else wrong (interpreted by most as being “the Packer administration”), and that wasn’t my intent.  What I wish I would have communicated better was to say “aw-shucks”, kick a rock, and wish we had decided to trade away a quality guy to a place he could have been successful last season, and gotten something in return…a win-win situation for everyone.  That's what my April 2009 article clearly stated, and that sentiment is one that I still stand by.

Now, look.  I am a Packer fan first, and a writer second.  I am not bound by the alleged rules of journalism and neutral, unbiased writing (not that most real, live journalists abide by that nowadays, either).  I write from the heart and from my head, and I will be the first to admit that I have a critical view of Ted Thompson.  I have no qualms about offering criticism towards him or towards anyone in the Packer organization.  Or, out of it. 

But, I do believe that I maintain a balance in that writing, and do my best to present even my criticism in a fair manner.  I also go out of my way to offer praise for the Packer brass when they do well (and when they prove some of my theories wrong, such as the Clay Matthews trade-up).

Not having my facts in order is something that I should be called out on, and to be honest, I appreciate it when readers do.  I want to improve as a writer, and keeping my facts straight should be Job #1.  I didn’t do so in the article I wrote yesterday, and the criticism I took for it is deserved and respected.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Toldja So: Kampman To Jags, Packers With Nothing

A little less than a year ago, I postulated that the Packers might be better off trying to trade Aaron Kampman in his contract year, particularly in light of the fact they'd be moving him to an OLB that few believed would be seamless.  Even moreso, Kampman was clearly unhappy with the move.

But, no, I was told.  Kampman is our best defensive player, and there is no way you move him.  He's going to be just fine in the 3-4.

Verdict:  Even before his injury, Kampman was, at times, painful to watch in coverage.  As the season wore on, Dom Capers starting putting him up occasionally at the line, sometimes with a hand on the ground, and you could see the old Kampman was still there.  But his production was greatly diminished and led to the sunrise of rookie Clay Matthews and Brad Jones, both of whom appeared to be more effective as rookies than the old veteran.

I again made the proposal that the Packers should trade Kampman before the trade deadline:  contract expiring, and we saw the transition problems already by that point.  Again, I was told not to worry, that the Packers would either keep him, or get something of significance in return, as they would likely do a tag-and-trade as they did with Corey Willians.

Verdict:  Neither.  The Jacksonville Jaguars signed Kampman today as an unrestricted free agent.  The Packers get no compensation, and the Jaguars not only get a great player, but a great human being and locker room leader.

In many ways, I can't be unhappy for Kampman, who deserved to finish his career with a team willing to maximize his talents, and that wasn't going to be Green Bay as long as they were running a 3-4. 

But, I am confused on the Packers' approach to perhaps their most valuable defensive player aside from Charles Woodson.  Not to bring up the F-word, but when general manager Ted Thompson claimed that the Packers had to get value for retired/unretired Brett Favre, they nearly drove the team into the ground trying to finagle a middling draft choice.  Yet, Kampman was allowed to leave unfettered and with the Packers empty-handed.

This makes very little sense to me.  With the uncertainty of the collective bargaining agreement, it seems evident thus far that Thompson is taking a cautionary approach to the offseason, tagging average players such as Daryn Colledge and re-signing Chad Clifton simply because it would be too expensive to upgrade their positions through free agency.  Again, it appears that Thompson will be relying on the draft even more heavily in the face of the capless year.

So why, after holding out to garner a mere third round draft pick for Favre, did the Packers sit on Aaron Kampman over the last year and not put themselves in a position to get something in return?  Sure, trading him sight unseen in the new scheme during last year's offseason would have been a daring move, but may have landed them a first-rounder, easily (as well as clearing some cap room).  Once it was clear that Kampman wasn't going to be the same player in the new defense after four preseason games and a couple of regular season games, would anyone have really been upset about trading him out of the NFC for a second-round pick?

And why would you not place a tender on him and at least attempt to trade him?  You have to admit that he would certainly garner a mid-round pick, at least, and then he would happily restructure his deal with his new team.  Could be the exact same contract with the exact same team, but the Packers may have an extra third rounder to boot.

The draft picks become even more important this year:  the Vikings are already a step up on the Packers, and as the Bears and Lions continue to utilize free agency to bolster their teams  The Packers' approach to building from within and with the draft means every pick counts.

It's a sad day when a veteran player that defined "Packer People" leaves the team.  He's a great player, a team leader, and a guy who simply got better by working harder.  We're not going to forget his great career here and how we watched him grow from bench fodder to one of the most dominating defensive ends in the NFL. 

But, you get the feeling that without the scheme change, Kampman would have been happy to finish his career here in Green Bay.  The Packers did him a service by allowing him to go to a team that will allow him to finish his career in a way that maximizes his contributions.  It's just too bad that they dropped the ball and only allowed their team to lose a great player with nothing in return.