Here’s a sentence perhaps never written before in the history of football journalism: It’s a good time to be a guard.
Last season, there were only three guards in the NFL with an average salary of more than $8 million per season: Kelechi Osemele ($11.75 million), Kyle Long ($10 million) and David DeCastro ($10 million).
With T.J. Lang signing with the Detroit Lions on Sunday, five guards have signed contracts this offseason averaging more than $8 million per year: Kevin Zeitler with Cleveland ($12.0 million), Lang ($9.5 million), Ronald Leary with the Broncos ($9.0 million), Larry Warford with the Saints ($8.5 million) and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif’s extension with the Chiefs ($8.25 million).
If there were ever a decision that defined Packers general manager Ted Thompson’s roster-building approach, it was with Lang. The Packers reached the NFC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons. Would Thompson mortgage the future a bit to pay more than what he had budgeted for his Pro Bowl right guard? Or would Thompson, as he’s done throughout his tenure, keep one eye on today and the other on tomorrow?
Not surprisingly, Thompson kept one eye on the future by refusing to — in his mind, anyway — overpay for a player who will turn 30 in September and has an injury history. Thompson increased his offer but, as is his way of doing business, refused to get into a bidding war.
While that might turn out to be a prudent decision in the long run, there is no doubting the Packers are not as good today as they were when they lined up at Atlanta with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The offense is not as good without Lang, especially without an obvious replacement on the roster. The defense is not as good without Micah Hyde, who had four interceptions in the last eight games. Those facts are inarguable.
When quarterback Aaron Rodgers used the words “all in,” you knew they would fall on the general manager’s deaf ears. Thompson’s way has built a consistent winner. The Packers and Patriots are the only teams with eight consecutive playoff berths. Would a bold move or two potentially put the Packers over the top? Perhaps. But that’s not a gamble Thompson has been willing to take.
Never mind that Thompson is 64 and potentially in his last year or three of running the team. Never mind that Rodgers is 33 and is on the back nine of his brilliant career. Thompson simply isn’t into robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or, in this case, robbing from the salary cap of Eliot Wolf or Russ Ball or whoever replaces him as general manager to pay himself in hopes of a last hurrah.
“It doesn’t matter how old we are,” Thompson said when I pointed those facts out at the Scouting Combine. “We’re going to try to do the exact same thing every year. We’re going to try to get to the Super Bowl and win it. And that’s what we’re going to try to do again this year.”
Getting to the Super Bowl just got harder without Lang. According to Pro Football Focus, Lang allowed 10 pressures in 496 pass-protecting snaps. A potential in-house replacement, Jason Spriggs, allowed six pressures in 98 pass-protecting snaps at guard. Don Barclay’s track record has been established over five seasons. Who knows if a rookie would be ready to roll for Week 1.
Thompson’s fiscally conservative approach has led to sustained success. Nothing lasts forever, though. And at the start of this fifth day of free agency, it appears the Packers are further away from the Super Bowl than they were while getting blown out by the Falcons. With about $30 million of cap space, will Thompson do anything to change that trajectory? Given his history, you probably can guess the answer.
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.