If the Green Bay Packers are serious about signing restricted free agent Steve McLendon away from the Pittsburgh Steelers—and given the current talent and depth on the defensive line, Green Bay should be—general manager Ted Thompson wouldn't have to get too creative to do it.
The Steelers—currently stuck in a tricky salary cap situation—simply don't have the financial flexibility to match even a modest offer from the Packers, and McLendon's original-round tender would not require Thompson to sacrifice a draft choice in the event Pittsburgh decided against matching an accepted offer sheet.
The Steelers risked such a scenario in early March when they gave McLendon the lowest possible tender, valued at just $1.323 million.
Now, the Packers are reportedly giving the idea of stealing McLendon more than just a passing glance.
Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun originally reported that McLendon was in Green Bay Wednesday for an official visit. Earlier this offseason, the Packers kicked the tires on Chris Canty but decided against signing the veteran defensive linemen because of medical reasons.
Restricted free agents are allowed to sign offer sheets through Friday, April 19.
McLendon, a 27-year-old nose tackle, was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009. Over three seasons and 37 games with the Steelers—mostly as a reverse defensive lineman—McLendon has registered 22 tackles and three sacks.
The Steelers were internally counting on McLendon to take over the starting nose job position for veteran Casey Hampton, a 35-year-old veteran who hasn't been retained this offseason.
The Packers can very easily force alternate plans in Pittsburgh if the interest in McLendon is serious.
According to the NFL Player Association's salary cap numbers, the Steelers have less than $800,00 in total cap space. Included in the current cap calculation is McLendon's $1.323 million restricted tender, but Pittsburgh still lacks the ability for much financial finagling.
Matching Emmanuel Sanders' $2.5 million offer sheet from New England earlier this week sapped nearly all of Pittsburgh's already limited cap space, and it would likely take a restructure of one or two contracts for the Steelers to seriously consider matching even a slight raise on McLendon's current tender.
Pittsburgh is also considering signing veteran running back Ahmad Bradshaw this offseason, a plan which would be further complicated if forced to pay McLendon more money.
If Thompson offered a deal anywhere in the $2 million a year range, the Steelers would be stretched to match.
A 6-4, 325-pound lineman with experience in the 3-4 defense, McLendon makes sense as a player the usually frugal Thompson would be willing to spend money on.
Despite playing only 139 snaps in 2012, McLendon graded out as Pittsburgh's top overall defensive lineman (per Pro Football Focus). He was also given the defensive line's top pass-rushing grade after providing three sacks, two quarterback hits and two pressures over just 73 pass-rushing snaps (this post from Cian Fahey provides picture evidence of McLendon's three sacks).
The Steelers used McLendon primarily on the nose, but his length and quickness suggest he could easily transition to the five-technique defensive end, where the Packers need help. Or, he could stay on the nose and provide the Packers with a potential base front of B.J. Raji, McLendon and Ryan Pickett. Either scenario is preferable to the Packers' current combination of defensive linemen, which is arguably the team's biggest weakness heading into the 2013 NFL draft.
After meeting with McLendon Wednesday, Thompson will now have to decide if spending a small chunk of his dwindling cap space is worth the trouble.
The idea of stealing away a potential starter with experience playing in 3-4 has to be appealing. If the interest in McLendon is indeed serious, Thompson can approach an offer with the comfort in knowing his competition is currently handcuffed financially.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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