With 17 unrestricted free agents (only 11 teams have more) and three more players in other free agent categories, it is possible, if not likely, that nearly 30 percent of the Packers' 2013 roster (including players on injured reserve) could be gone before the first organized team activity.
Considering which players are scheduled to hit the free agent market March 11, the Packers could have as many as eight new starters just from their own losses.
"In terms of free agency, there's always surprises in it. So, we try not to get too worked up about what could or couldn't happen," said Thompson on Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "Like I've said, it's been our policy and it will continue to be our policy that if we can we would like to keep our own free agents. So, I just think we take it day-by-day and let it sort itself out. Every year is a little different. Every year there's different players, but as a whole the market is different year-to-year, so we'll work it out."
Eight players who were starters for the Packers in the regular season opener last year – Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Sam Shields, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Jermichael Finley, James Jones and M.D. Jennings (restricted) – are free agents. Two more players – Mike Neal and Andrew Quarless – ended up starting 10 games apiece because of injuries. And a de facto starter, fullback John Kuhn, could become available.
All told, the 20 free agent Packers accounted for 144 starts during the 2013 regular season (or 7.2 starts per man).
"Our philosophy has always been the same as far as trying to keep your own players," echoed head coach Mike McCarthy of Thompson's previous comments. "I mean it's really not practical to keep them all so we're looking to sign those guys back. We'll see what happens. This is the time of year where the emotion's gone and the scheme evaluations are far enough down the line. We've graded our players as a coaching staff immediately after the season's over and now we've gone back and graded them again. We feel like we have a very good handle on who we want to be. But those decisions, a lot of those will be financial. We'll see what happens."
That the Packers chose not to re-sign any of their own free agents during this past season could mean that the market will decide their fortune. The Packers often identify core players well before their contracts expire, sometimes more than a season in advance. They did it last April with superstars Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers and then again in July with Morgan Burnett.
Of course there are other factors involved besides just financial considerations. For example, Pickett will be 35 years old next season and Finley is coming off a career-threatening neck injury. Raji underperformed in a contract year and guys like Matt Flynn and James Starks might be looking for an opportunity to start.
Thompson seems content to take a wait-and-see approach on many of his own free agents.
"I think it will work itself out," said the general manager. "There's a number of guys whether they're under contract or not under contract that things will sort themselves out as we go along through the spring."
Whether they choose to re-sign some of their own players in the coming weeks and months or free agents from other teams, the Packers will have to spend to fill out a competitive roster. Minus the 20 free agents, the Packers have 57 players on their roster. Since 10 of those players have signed since the end of the season, that means only 47 have any type of experience with the Packers. The NFL roster limit for training camp is 90 players.
While the Packers' brain trust is scouting draft-eligible players this week at the Combine to add, there should be plenty of room for others. And the Packers have some flexibility, too, with just over $32 million under the salary cap according to overthecap.com. Based on numbers provided by the website that is the sixth-most cap room in the league.
"We don't talk much about the cap. We don't make decisions based upon the cap really," said Thompson. "We try to make football decisions. Like I said, the more simple we can keep it the better off I am."
Perhaps more than any other off-season for Thompson in Green Bay, this one can compare to 2006. That year the Packers signed five unrestricted free agents to help offset the six that they lost. Thompson made a free agent splash with big deals for Pickett and Charles Woodson and for Aaron Kampman, a top free agent of their own.
This time around a Woodson or Pickett lucrative-type signing may not happen, but the Packers still have options, plenty of roster spots, and money to make several moves like they did back then.
"It's really the landscape of today's NFL," McCarthy told Packers.com of having so many free agents. "Our hope is to sign as many of our own free agents back and hopefully that process will start here in a couple weeks. So, we'll see what happens. I know our personnel department has been working diligently on both our free agents and the ones that are going to market, so we'll see what happens."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org