The Green Bay Packers are young.
“I don’t even look at the rankings anymore,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in a lengthy interview session with a half-dozen beat writers in Lambeau Field’s Lombardi Board Room on Thursday morning.
The league’s official age rankings won’t come out until next week, since they’re based on who’s on the Week 1 rosters. But the Philly Voice puts together an annual look at ages based on who survived Saturday’s final cuts. The Packers? Not surprisingly, they rank as the third-youngest team in the league with an average age of 25.36 years. That’s the youngest during the Voice’s five years assembling the list.
That the Packers are forever young fits general manager Ted Thompson’s history. They’ve ranked among the six youngest teams in each of the Voice’s five seasons. However, it’s almost beyond belief that a team that reached the NFC Championship Game in 2014 and almost got back to that stage in 2015 could find room to keep a staggering 13 rookies on this year’s opening roster. While that number has dropped to 12, it’s still an amazing number for a team that is a perennial winner.
“I think balance in life is important to have a success, and I think it's no different when you have a roster,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think you go out and say, ‘I need this many first-year players, this many second-year players.’ If you’re going about it the right way, the competition is real. Everybody earns the job, earns the opportunity. If you look at the 11 … 53-man rosters that we’ve had here, we’ve always been young. We were a 25-year-old football team, I think, almost every year. So, after the first three years, I don’t even look at the rankings anymore. We’re the youngest team in the league the first three years, I don’t know if it’s changed much. But I know the league’s changed.”
The league has, indeed, changed.
According to Pro Football Reference, there were 18 players ages 35-and-up on rosters last season. (And, for the sake of this story, we are defining players as all positions other than quarterback, punter and kicker). In 2010, there were 31. Taken further, in 2015, there were seven players ages 35-and-up who started at least 10 games. In 2010, there were 17.
The math is pure accounting. On the current roster, the 12 rookies have cap charges of $450,000. That’s a total of $5.4 million against the cap. With the release of Josh Sitton, the Packers wiped $6.3 million off the books.
That, of course, is an extreme example. The Packers let Casey Hayward sign with the Chargers, with his three-year deal including a Year 1 cap hit of $5.13 million. Take Sam Shields out of the equation and the Packers’ other four corners have a combined cap charge of $3.63 million. The Packers let Scott Tolzien sign with the Colts, and his Year 1 cap figure is $1.5 million. Undrafted rookie Joe Callahan’s cap number is $1.05 million less. The release of Tim Masthay saved $1.2 million, or $675,000 less than his replacement, Jacob Schum. The release of Sam Barrington cleared $675,000.
For the Packers, there’s really no other way of doing business – a point driven home by OverTheCap.com. Even without Sitton, they have 49.7 percent of their salary cap invested in seven players and 63.6 percent in 11 players. Both of those rates are the highest in the league. By contrast, they have a league-low 8.1 percent of their cap invested in a league-low six second-contract players making $3.8 million or less. In other words, with so much of their cap tied up in high-priced veterans, there’s no room for a veteran middle class.
Yet, the Packers have overcome that lopsided salary structure. GM Ted Thompson has paid his top players and let the other veterans walk, then entrusted the coaching staff to develop crop after crop of rookies to fortify the roster.
“We’ve kind of followed the same format all 11 years and it’s healthy,” McCarthy said. “The important thing is too, we want to train our guys, we want to develop our own players, and ultimately those are the guys getting paid. I mean that’s the way we prefer to do business. But, obviously, it has to work out that way. For the most part, it has.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.