Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson has kept the team on the short list of annual championship contenders every year because, in part, of how he handles the salary cap.
From that standpoint, it’s hard to argue against his decision to let Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang sign with the rival Detroit Lions on Sunday. Thompson and right-hand man Russ Ball have kept the Packers ahead of the salary cap curve because of the strict financial discipline Thompson showed in letting Lang go.
Lang signed a three-year, $28.5 million contract with Detroit, a deal that included $19 million guaranteed. That blew away the Packers’ best offer, which was somewhere north of $21.5 million and $6.5 million guaranteed.
Lang will be 30 in September. He’s had shoulder and hip surgeries. Those may or may not be signs of a body that’s breaking down. No team knows Lang’s body better than the Packers. It’s possible their doctors know something the Lions’ doctors don’t know.
But ... here comes the big but.
This is Titletown. The idea, supposedly, is to win the Super Bowl. Coach Mike McCarthy made clear the team’s mission statement before last year’s season-opening game against Jacksonville.
“We don’t hang division-title banners around here,” McCarthy said when reminded the Vikings had wrested away the NFC North crown. “Frankly, once you cross the threshold into the playoffs, it’s about getting to the final game and winning, and I want everybody to think that way. I want everybody to behave that way and train that way.”
If ever there were a time for Thompson to say, “Screw it,” it’s with Lang. He’s a hell of a player. He’s as tough as nails. He’s a leader. He’s heart and soul and blood and guts. He’s “Packer People,” as they like to say.
And they showed him the door over about $2.3 million per season. What in the hell is $2.3 million for a team with $29.1 million in cap space? I get that once you make one exception, you run the possibility of having a team full of exceptions. And at that point, you’re not running a championship contender. You’re running a team that’s a total mess.
But the Packers entered this offseason with plenty of needs. Now, they’ve potentially created another because there is not an obvious replacement on the roster.
Is it Jason Spriggs? They gave up a fourth-round pick to move up nine spots in the second round to get him last year. Presumably, that was insurance had they been unable to re-sign standout left tackle David Bakhtiari. With Bakhtiari under contract through 2020 and right tackle Bryan Bulaga under contract through 2019, Spriggs — under contract through 2019 — was a man without a position. So, perhaps the team feels compelled to get Spriggs and his $5 million contract on the field.
Maybe Spriggs will be just fine, though 6-foot-6 isn’t the ideal for a guard. As a rookie, he allowed six pressures in 98 pass-protecting snaps at guard, according to Pro Football Focus. Lang, by contrast, allowed 10 in 496 pass-protecting snaps. Worse, according to league data, the Packers averaged for 1.93 fewer yards per carry when Spriggs was in the game.
If it’s not Spriggs, is it Don Barclay? In 144 total snaps, most of which came at guard, he allowed two sacks. No doubt he’d do better at guard than he did at tackle, where he gave up 20 sacks in 19 career starts, but it’s hard to see him excelling as a 16-game starter.
If Thompson isn’t sold on Spriggs or Barclay (or Kyle Murphy or Lucas Patrick) — and why would he? — then he probably has to use an early draft pick on a guard. Regardless of whether Thompson finds the next Lang with that pick, that’s one fewer premium draft pick that can be used to fix an embattled defense.
In other words, losing Lang didn’t just create a hole. It’s potentially curtailing the team’s ability to plug its other holes. And that just puts the Packers further away from getting over those final hurdles and winning another Super Bowl.
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.