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Making Sense of Thompson's Free-Agent Frugality

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Making Sense of Thompson's Free-Agent Frugality

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson. Photo by Brian Carriveau of Cheesehead TV.

Despite his roster entering the 2013 offseason in possession of a number of positional needs, Ted Thompson has once again remained especially frugal in free agency.

The reasons why the Packers general manager has so far left a Goodwill market of free agents empty-handed have always been readily available, but are just now coming to be respected. The money needed to retain his two best players—quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews—is going to be astronomical.

And with those looming millions in mind, Thompson has sat idly by as veterans at positions of need have signed cost-efficient deals elsewhere.

Steven Jackson, a jackhammer at 6-2 and 240 lbs who fits exactly what the Packers should want at running back, flirted with Thompson briefly before signing a three-year, $12 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons that included just $4 million in guaranteed money.

Chris Canty and Cullen Jenkins, both of whom could have added much-needed depth along a thin defensive line, signed dirt-cheap deals in Baltimore and New York, respectively. Canty received just $8 million over three years and $2.8 million guaranteed, while Jenkins signed essentially the same deal with $3 million guaranteed.

Michael Huff, an athletic, versatile safety who reportedly drew interest the Packers, bluffed a visit to Green Bay before inking a three-year deal worth just $6 million with the Ravens.

Even receiver Greg Jennings, one of Thompson's own draft picks, eventually signed a deal worth $9 million annually in Minnesota after the Packers were reportedly still in the running.

The reasons for passing on such available players hasn't been a matter of current cap space. As of Thursday, the Packers have the NFL's sixth-most cap room at $17.8 million, per the NFLPA's salary numbers.

Soon enough, however, that available money is going to transition from the Packers' vault to the wallets of Rodgers and Matthews.

Rodgers, already complete with a regular season and Super Bowl MVP at the ripe age of 29, will eventually become the highest paid player in the history of the NFL. Not even the recent mega-check signings at the quarterback position can prevent that eventual reality.

Fresh off his own Super Bowl win and without a contract in 2013, Joe Flacco held as much negotiation leverage as the NFL has seen in recent history, and he used it to secure $120.6 million over six years from the Ravens last month. The deal also included $52 million in guaranteed money.

Tony Romo, possessing his own abundance of leverage against the cash-strapped Cowboys, swindled Dallas into giving him a six-year extension worth $108 million, plus a ridiculous $55 million in guaranteed money. Romo will be 33 later this month, is four games under .500 the past three seasons and has just one playoff win.

A year earlier, Drew Brees fought through a growingly public dispute with the New Orleans Saints and still wound up with $100 million over five years and a record $60 million in guarantees. Like Flacco and Romo, most of the leverage was solely in Brees' corner.

For now, Flacco—a fellow Super Bowl MVP— holds the title of the game's highest paid player.

But not for long. In the case of Rodgers, who still has two years left on the $65 million deal he signed just seven starts into his reign, one-sided leverage isn't the driving factor for a mega deal.

Various reports peg Rodgers' extension—which is almost certain to be completed this offseason—at a value at or richer than $25 million per season. Flacco's deal averages $20.1 million.

ESPN's Adam Schefter speculated that four years and over $100 million is a very likely scenario for Rodgers' new money, and his guaranteed money should also set a new bench mark, likely meaning a number in the $60-70 million range.

Even the most savvy cap manager—in this case, Russ Ball—would struggle to lessen the impact such a deal will have on the Packers cap. Unless the cap suddenly balloons, Rodgers will cost the Packers nearly a sixth of their total salary cap over the next few season. It's certainly a worthwhile investment, as players of Rodgers' caliber at the game's most important position don't just grow on trees, but Ball's job over the next few years will grow infinitely more challenging once the ink dries on Rodgers' contract.

The offseason checklist for Thompson and Ball doesn't end with Rodgers, however. While one history-making extension would be difficult enough for most franchises, the Packers have the luxury of negotiating two.

Matthews, who turns just 27 in May, would enter 2013 on the final year of his rookie contract if the two sides somehow failed to agree on an extension. Escalators in his original deal bumped Matthews' salary next season to $3.73 million, but he's still woefully underpaid. The Packers will remedy that situation, likely sooner rather than later. It's in their best interest to do so.

In fact, Matthews' new deal could come down the wire before the Packers put the finishing touches on Rodgers' history-making extension.

Both Tom Silverstein and Schefter have reported over the last 10 days that Green Bay is close to agreeing on an extension for Matthews. Schefter, who is clearly one of the few in contact with Matthews' agent, David Dunn, reported earlier this week that the extension is likely to cost the Packers $13 million or more per year in new money.

If correct, Matthews would trampoline from one of the game's most underpaid defenders to one of its highest.

An annual compensation of $13 million or more would grant Matthews the title of the NFL's highest paid linebacker, well ahead of DeMarcus Ware and his $11.14 million average. Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams makes $16 million a season and is the game's richest defensive player.

Like Rodgers, Matthews has earned his looming extension. Over four years in Green Bay, Matthews has 42.5 sacks in 58 regular season games. He's missed just six total games, with four coming in 2013. By all accounts, Matthews has been one of the NFL's most disruptive defensive players since the Packers drafted him 26th overall in 2009.

The impact of the two extensions will be significant.

When each deal is finalized this offseason—and chances that both aren't before the start of 2013 are growing increasingly more slim—Green Bay's nearly $18 million in cap room will likely be reduced by at least two-thirds.

Rodgers' cap number in 2013 should inflate from $9.75 million to around $15-17 million, while Matthews' number of $4.9 million should increase into the $9-10 million range. The resulting cap space will be left primarily for the incoming class of drafted and undrafted rookies.

These contract realities for Rodgers and Matthews are not breaking news. The need for both to receive monster extensions has been well-documented for months now, but the enormity of the numbers needed to secure both long term have made it crystal clear why Thompson was so willing to let even cost-efficient free agents sign elsewhere over the last month.

Call him unnecessarily frugal at your own peril. While Jackson, Canty, Jenkins and Huff each made varying amounts of sense, Thompson obviously had a prophetic understanding of what locking up his two superstars would ultimately cost.

Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at zachkruse2@gmail.com.

Comments (34)

Stroh's picture

Why anyone couldn't figure out Thompson's frugality this offseason must not have been paying attention to the fact that Rodgers is the best player in the NFL and Matthews is among the best defensive players and both needed new contracts. Not like it took a rocket scientist to figure this out well ahead of time.

Morgan Mudane's picture

Nor does it take a rocket scientist to look down the road and understand you have two highly paid players and all the rest are bums. You can't win with two players and bums. Detroit and the Vikes are vastly improved over last year , and haven't even drafted yet, drafting ahead of us by the way.

Evan's picture

"Detroit and the Vikes are vastly improved over last year..."

That's some major BS right there.

jmac3444's picture

how are the Vikes "vastly" improved before the draft?

mudduckcheesehead's picture

Give him a break. He's from Minnesota. Standards are much lower there. Nothing but a Vikings fan doing a little trolling. Probably the only satisfaction he'll get all year.

MarkinMadison's picture

I can't entirely agree. It's true that we all knew TT would want to save money for these two bigs, and we've talked about a couple more as well. But the fact that they were reportedly in the running for Jennings at a rate of $9M a years shows that not everything is set in stone. They could have picked up Chris Canty and Steven Jackson with that kind of money. You could then still sign Rodgers and Matthews by either: A) pushing more money into later years or by B) cutting a player with a big salary - like Finley or Tramon Williams. There are choices being made here by TT. How much to front load. Do you want to back load more and push for a SB run now? It's not quite as cut and dried as you put it.

Lars's picture

They were never going to pay Jennings $8 (not 9) million. That was reported by Jennings agent to squeeze a few more dollars out of the Vikes. He was gone, period.

Raji's not getting any this year either, nor should he.

MarkinMadison's picture

Really, you know this for a fact, despite all the reporting? And it is beside the point anyway. The Packers could certainly have chosen to cut Tramon or Finley, taken the $8M+ for this season, and spent it on Canty and Jackson IF they had wanted to. Or pick any other combination of other players or dollars amounts if you please. My point is that just because TT is signing Matthews and Rodgers this year does not mean that he could not have also pursued FAs IF he had wanted to.

Stroh's picture

If Jennings accepts the 8M they release Finley. It was one or the other not both. Other FA would have been couple million and could have meant less for AR or CM and more later. Notice I said he would be frugal that doesn't mean he wouldn't sign a FA at his price.

jeremy's picture

Good thing we have a general manager who hates free agents because soon the Packers won't be able to afford one anyway.

Morgan Mudane's picture

What do you me soon? Ted knew he didn't have the money in January. He doesn't have the money now and won't have the money for years to come.
Lets hope those 6th rounders are all top quality players for us.

Evan's picture

Any time you can trade a 24-year-old gamebreaker for a soon-to-be-30-year-old coming off two injury-shortened seasons in a row AND cut your defensive leader, you just have to do it.

Daniel's picture

This is a fantastic essay, Zach. One thing: frugality is the more graceful cousin of frugalness and the more widely accept noun for frugal.

Zach Kruse's picture

Ahh yes. That reads and sounds much, much better. Thank you.

FITZCORE 1252'S EVO's picture

Hey, Professor, I believe you were looking for "accept(ed)". No? How does that old 'glass house' and 'stones' thing go again?

GBP 4 LIFE

Morgan Mudane's picture

Na. The only sense to what Ted does is that he has no money like the other deep pocket owners to throw around.
The Pack has to sell t shirts at lambeu ans stupid stocks worth nothing to pay the wages of these guys. Mathews and Rogers will eat up 41% of all the money available to the team.
Not too many FA's want to play for cheap. look these free agents are free because they are mostly looking for that big contract near the end of their careers. They only use GB as a bargaining chip to go elsewhere. They sure as hell aren't coming here to play cheap ball.

jmac3444's picture

you know that as a business GB has plenty of money and fiscally had one of their best years last year which is why Murphy has said that they can afford to give Rodgers and Mattews big bonuses.

mudduckcheesehead's picture

Go be a troll somewhere else, Morgan. And take Ma with you. There's only one idiot from the land of 10,000 lakes and 0 Lombardi Trophies that I want to hear from...

Backlash LaRue.

Idiot Fan's picture

Zach, there's no room for this kind of common sense around here.

Bing Bong's picture

Waste of space/writing.

packeraaron's picture

Your comment? Yes indeed.

Point Packer's picture

"Your comment? Yes indeed."

+1

Zach Kruse's picture

Bing Bong, I have no problem with you having that opinion. But why? Present your argument and let's talk about it.

KennyPayne's picture

Zach, the logic behind TT's frugality certainly makes sense ... In 2013.

However, TT has spent $ this offseason on Francois and Jones his own players.

Moreover, the 2 best players as you say Rodgers and Matthews were both underpaid in 2011 and 2012 yet TT was still frugal ... when it came to free agents from other teams. Nobody could accuse TT of being frugal when he rushed to overpay AJ Hawk (a mistake that required a salary reduction after 2 years) or when he agreed to pay Finley $8M this season. And TT's decision to give Crosby and Kuhn big contacts is hardly a sign of a frugal GM.

In fact, since 2006 when he signed Woodon & Pickett TT has signed exactly 2 UFAs of note Chillar and Saturday. He has also traded for exactly 1 player on another NFL roster Grant in 2007.

I submit that the record reflects an aversion, for whatever reason, to acquiring players who have played for other teams not just some innate frugality as the reason TT virtually shuns unrestricted free agency.

cow42's picture

this is the problem that i have.
i completely understand that most of the current cap $ will be gone soon.
in fact, i have been against signing each of the free agents that the Packers have been "rumored" to be interested in.

...i just don't like the fact that jones, williams, crosby, hawk, finley, and kuhn are all getting paid waaaaaay to much.

i also have reservations about the team's last 2 drafts.

the Packers' situation is of their own making (to some extent).

hopefully...

-williams returns to 2010 form (doubtful imo)
-finley goes off for a new contract (likely imo)
-bulaga heals up (likely)
-newhouse improves (highly doubtful imo)
-sherrod contributes SOMETHING (extremely doubtful imo)
-house heals up (probable imo)
-harris is the real deal (i'm skeptical)
-eds proves to be an above average starting C (doubtful he becomes anything more than serviceable)
-perry heals up and shows he can play OLB (likely imo)
-bishop returns full force (highly doubtful imo)
-a stud emerges from the pile made up of smith/manning/lattimore/jones (i have no idea on this one)
-mccmillian's light bulb goes on (i actually think this will happen)
-green shows he can play (i've never been high on this guy - seems soft to me)
-raji plays his arse off for a contract (highly likely imo)
-neal stays healthy for a full season (ha ha ha - no chance)
-ross shows he can man the return job (i think this can happen)
-this year's draft contributes 2 players who can help right away

damn... that's a lot of sh*t that's up in the air.

cross my fingers, i guess.

Evan's picture

"-perry heals up and shows he can play OLB (likely imo)"

That's a new tune for you.

Also, the only thing I'd add is Newhouse made some big strides last year from the year before. I don't think it's "highly doubtful" he makes a similar jump from year 2-3. That said, the big question is what is his ceiling?

cow42's picture

yeah - i don't think perry will ever be a star (not "sudden" enough) but he should be able to muscle his way past some guys for an occasional sack and he should be able to control his edge.

it's up to capers to make sure he never has to cover a slot receiver (couldn't believe when i saw that... still shaking my head).

Idiot Fan's picture

We do have some overpaid LBs. But every team has some over-paid players. The good news is that the Packers seem to be better at this than most...

http://www.jsonline.com/sports/packers/green-bay-packers-count-little-de...

...and they seem to be excellent drafters:

http://www.nationalfootballpost.com/Studying-the-draft-record-of-NFL-Tea...

Being a successful GM isn't about being perfect; it's about being right more than you're wrong.

redlights's picture

Isn't this what makes the offseason great?

We can postulate, theorize, and opine all we want. TT and the staff will follow their vision, and we'll see how it turns out.

Then we go through the same exercise next year! There's worse things to do.

CSS's picture

Good read, Zach. You could give his 'frugality' even more context by integrating the recent article on how little 'dead money' the Packers tend to carry under Thompson and Ball. When the futures on your superstar contracts eat substantial cap-space on top of a future environment where owners appear to have little appetite for significant leaps in the cap-ceiling year-over-year it's a prudent bet to hedge against overpaying in the FA market.

Clearly you're at more risk for future dead money when you sign veteran free-agents. Future dead money handicaps the teams ability to surround your stars with complimentary players (or even re-signing your own players). Given the risk, I would be a bargain shopper too.

Lars's picture

The other reason the Packers have minimal dead money is they hang onto to their mistakes longer than most teams---Harrell, Hawk (resign), Crosby (re-sign), Neal and soon Sherrod.

Also, GB hasn't signed a FA of any note since 2006. Kind of hard to have mistakes when you don't play the game. They did dump mistake Saturday, but he wasn't one of their own. TT didn't have to come to grips with a high draft pick busting like Harrell, Sherrod and Pat Lee.

Drealyn Williams's picture

No need to dip into the FA Pool when TT knows there's talent all over this team. It's up to the coaches to play them. Lock DJ Williams' ass in a weight room. I want to see him used as an H-Back more often. Francois should be in on pass downs. He has length and athleticism. How about Sam + House as base corners? Or House + Casey? We finally got more of Brad Jones (due to injuries). Barclay should be competing for a starting spot somewhere. When healthy -- this team is scary good.

Mojo's picture

It's not that TT didn't want to dip into free agency this year, it's that they couldn't. They had interest in Jackson, Canty (although not after a physical), resigning Jennings and Huff. Put another way, if the Pack were not so handcuffed with the two big signings, I believe they would have been much less frugal in free agency this year.

They have to recognize there are holes to fill and with quite a number of FA's out there at reasonable prices (compared to past years) I think they would have taken a bite out of that apple, given the chance.

Maybe after the ARod and CM3 signings they'll look at whatever's left. But don't be mistaken, they've had genuine interest.

Jyros's picture

Still shoulda signed Jackson.

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