On the first day of free agency, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson was at Wisconsin for the Badgers’ pro day.
That, of course, drew the ire of those who believe Thompson’s well-established disdain for free agency continues to hold back the franchise from winning another championship. Never mind that New England’s head coach, general manager and chief popcorn vendor, Bill Belichick, spent the first day of free agency at Alabama’s pro day.
“We look at free agency,” Thompson said — with a straight face — at the Scouting Combine. “We’ve been doing it for the last several months about perspective free agency.”
When Thompson says he and his staff work long hours getting ready for free agency, I don’t doubt him. However, it’s easy to understand why the team checkbook stays locked in Russ Ball’s office.
Just look at the money that was thrown around during the first 24 hours of the signing period:
— Quarterback Brock Osweiler went from Denver, where he would have led the defending champions, to Houston. Even with just seven starts on his resume, he inked a four-year deal worth $72 million that included $37 million guaranteed. His cap charge for 2017, 2018 and 2019 is a combined $60 million. Two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers’ cap number for that span? $62.3 million.
— Receiver Marvin Jones left Cincinnati, inking a five-year, $40 million contract that included $20 million guaranteed to fill Calvin Johnson’s shoes in Detroit. Jones caught 10 touchdown passes in 2013 and made 65 receptions in 2015. That’s better than what his former teammate, Mohamed Sanu, accomplished. Sanu joined the Falcons with a five-year deal worth $32.5 million, including $14 million guaranteed. He caught all of 33 passes last season and led the NFL in drops in 2014. By the way, Jordy Nelson’s contract included $11.5 million guaranteed.
— Tight end Dwayne Allen — hardly the top free agent at the position — stayed in Indianapolis with a four-year deal worth $29.4 million, including $16 million in guarantees. Allen caught 16 passes for 109 yards and one touchdown last season and had a total of 46 receptions since hauling in 45 passes as a rookie in 2012.
— The Jaguars, with cap cash dripping out of their pockets, handed the biggest free-agent deal of the offseason to Malik Jackson, giving the former Broncos defensive end $85.5 million ($42 million guaranteed) over five years. He’s a good player but his $17 million per season is more than J.J. Watt’s $16.7 million.
— The Giants handed a five-year, $85 million deal to defensive end Olivier Vernon, a five-year, $62.5 million deal to cornerback Janoris Jenkins and a five-year, $46.25 million deal to defensive tackle Damon Harrison. Those contracts included a combined $105.3 million in guarantees — to players with a combined zero Pro Bowls. In their four seasons, Vernon’s got 29 sacks and Jenkins has 11 interceptions. Nice production but hardly elite.
The Packers weren’t priced out of all the bidding. Sometimes, there are other circumstances.
— Former Bears running back Matt Forte, who the Packers seemed legitimately interested in, signed a three-year deal with the Jets worth $12 million, which included $8 million guaranteed. As a source told Packer Report on Wednesday, what the Packers really couldn’t match was role: Forte will be the No. 1 back for a pretty good Jets team; he would have been the No. 2 behind Eddie Lacy with Green Bay.
— Former Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan, the clear-cut No. 1-ranked inside linebacker, signed a four-year, $24.5 million deal that included a $5 million signing bonus and $12 million guaranteed. That’s not a budget-busting deal, though Trevathan is back together with Bears coach John Fox. Connections matter.
Still, as usual, money defined the first wave of free agency. This harsh reality is subject to change as the details of more contracts become available, but, according to the numbers at Spotrac.com through the first 24 hours of free agency, Vernon, Jackson, Osweiler, Jenkins, center Alex Mack, left tackle Kelechi Osemele, Harrison, guard Brandon Brooks, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, cornerback Sean Smith, Jones, outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, tight end Coby Fleener, safety Rodney McLeod, running back Lamar Miller, Sanu and receiver Travis Benjamin signed free-agent deals that included at least $13 million guaranteed. Only Mack has made a Pro Bowl from that 17-player group.
With that in mind, check out this history: Last offseason, 531 free agents changed teams. Only two were selected to the Pro Bowl (guard Mike Iupati and cornerback Darrelle Revis) and two more went to the game as alternates (guard Richie Incognito and quarterback Tyrod Taylor).
Finally, ESPN provided this stark reminder: Over the previous 10 offseasons, six teams spent more than $500 million in free agency. Those teams combined for zero postseason wins. Denver’s success as heavy players in free agency was the exception, not the rule.
Would the Packers have won another championship had Thompson delved into free agency occasionally? Nobody knows that answer. Even with Thompson’s ultraconservative approach, the Packers started the day ranked only 19th in available cap space. Only five teams had fewer players under contract. Add it all together — the ridiculous price tags, the lack of correlation between spending and winning, and the state of the Packers’ cap and roster — and it’s little wonder why Thompson would rather spend the first day of free agency in Madison than work the phones at 1265 Lombardi Ave.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.