Off-season plan of attack

Tyler Dunne breaks down the risk/reward options that Packers general manager Ted Thompson faces as free agency and the NFL draft draw near.

And to think, the Green Bay Packers nearly were forced to rely on Rod Gardner, Samkon Gado, and Aaron Rodgers as franchise saviors.

After two off-seasons (and two grateful ‘I'm ins' from Brett Favre) Ted Thompson has pumped some oxygen into a drowning organization. Sequential dreadful personnel decisions by Mike Sherman easily could have buried Green Bay into a five-year dormancy stage. Yet after suffering through one 4-12 season with Sherman's outcasts while toasting in salary cap hell, Thompson has been nearly flawless. His trade-down draft philosophy has reinvigorated the team with plenty of youth and promise. Yet he has still remained focused on the present by dishing out major dough to Ryan Pickett and Charles Woodson.

In a league where teams are either in a full-fledged ‘win-now' phase habitually gambling on aging high-priced free agents (see Dan Snyder), or are spinning their tires in rebuilding mode (see Matt Millen), Thompson has found the happy medium. He realizes the future health of the franchise is premium, but there is always a sense of urgency to win in the present, especially with Favre under center.

With $24.1 million in his holster, expect Thompson to continue this effective half-and-half style. He won't mortgage the future for quick fixes, but the Packers are certainly on the cusp of playoff contention which translates to a couple hefty paydays to offensive playmakers.

After last season's spending spree on Day One of free agency left a shell-shocked Green Bay front office reaching for Marquand Manuel as their first signee, Thompson must react with rational decisiveness. The talent pool is slim pickings at RB, WR, and TE, but here is a map that the GM could use as a guideline to send Favre off in style. The Packers' season truly begins on March 2.

A handful of colossal risk/reward options await in Thompson's wake.

1. Stockpile running backs. It will be very interesting to see how many teams pursue Ahman Green, who is 46 yards away from shattering Jim Taylor's half-century team rushing record. As a free agent last year, Green couldn't get a bite if you spotted him a pole, some worms, and all of Lake Erie.

Now all he needs is for fishing season to open.

Father time keeps knocking on Green's door, but timing is perfect for the six-time 1,000-yard back this spring. The only other premier backs available are Michael Turner, Dominic Rhodes and maybe Chris Brown (if you're the type who likes injury-prone string beans that share the same name as teen pop idols). In other words, the almost-30 year old Green will likely be overpaid in a textbook supply and demand scenario.

But with the cap room, retaining Green should be a priority for Thompson.

A new era has dawned upon the NFL. After a backfield-by-committee mentality lifted Chicago, New Orleans, New England, and Indianapolis to conference championships, it's clearer than ever that NFL teams need two workhorses to win. Alternating between two backs keeps fresh legs on the field, opposing defenses on their toes, and fantasy football owners in manic depression. The days of pounding the rock to one back are over- something Arizona didn't realize in their spending binge last year. Baked in the Phoenix heat, Edgerrin James didn't have a run over 18 yards through 337 carries. Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington could've done that.

Running backs coach Edgar Bennett realizes the necessity of multiple backs.

"I'll tell you this, you can never have too many good backs," Bennett said. "And that's just the way this game is built."

With an offensive line that will only improve in Year Two of its development, Thompson should prioritize the rushing game. Green and Vernand Morency could develop into the modern-day Dorsey Levens-Bennett duo. There's no telling whether Marshawn Lynch will be available at Green Bay's 16th pick, so why let Green slip away? It's safer to stuff a number of horses into the stable. A Green-Morency-Lynch three-headed training camp battle would exemplify everything head coach Mike McCarthy stands for: heated completion.

If Green takes the money and runs out of town, it's imperative for Thompson to respond with authority and pursue Rhodes, Turner, or a back via trade in the mold of Cincinnati's Chris Perry. Morency should get more touches next year, but he'll need a sidekick, or two.

2. Don't bet on Manuel. Arguably the biggest mistake Thompson could make this off-season is to get too wrapped up in his defense's lights-out finish to 2006. Sure the Pack only gave up one touchdown over the final 12 quarters, but remember it came against Jon Kitna, Tarvaris Jackson, and Rex Grossman. Those guys could choke on Gerber apple sauce. Thompson must address a secondary that's mostly to blame for five losses in which Green Bay surrendered over 30 points. Looking lost in deep center was Marquand Manuel.

Brought in as a potential run-stuffer/playmaker, Manuel failed to deliver. He finished fourth on the team with 81 tackles but instead of playing the quarterback in the defensive backfield, Manuel showed no grasp of Bob Sanders' scheme.

Considering the team's defensive line is as deep as it has been since the days of White-Dotson-Brown-Jones, the linebacker corp has the makings of greatness (pending a Nick Barnett contract extension), and the ‘D' has two shutdown corners, Thompson has the luxury of inking a new strong safety to big contract.

Thompson should just bite his lip, squeeze that stress ball and capitalize on a decent market of safeties that includes Ken Hamlin, Gibril Wilson, Deon Grant, and Kevin Kaesviharn (a former Packer himself). If Thompson signs one of the above and Marviel Underwood successfully recovers from his torn ACL and MCL than Manuel (and his $10 million contract) should be shown the door in training camp.

As far as Thompson should be concerned, Manuel had 16 games to prove his worth last season. Green Bay's defense has too much upside and present talent to wait for a high-priced veteran to blossom. Much like the RB position, a heated Collins-Manuel-Underwood-Culver competition would be bolstered with newcomers.

3. Driver, ?????, Jennings, and Martin…o my! Randy Moss? Drew Bennett? Kevin Curtis? Dwayne Jarrett? Whoever it is, Thompson must acknowledge Green Bay's starvation for vertical playmakers. It's a small miracle that Favre almost eclipsed 4,000 yards with Greg Jennings smashing into the rookie wall and Donald Driver facing more brutal ‘cloud' coverages than Seattle on a spring day.

But believe it or not, as one-dimensional as Green Bay's passing offense has been the past two years, it can quickly become of the league's most diverse attacks next season. The late-season improvement of Ruvell Martin and Carlyle Holiday is encouraging, while Jennings can only improve after a respectable rookie campaign. Throw in the possibility of Koren Robinson by midseason and it'd appear Green Bay already has enough complements for the Pro-Bowler Driver.

But this is what separates the pretenders from the contenders.

Thompson can easily stand pat satisfied with his current arsenal around Favre. Immense potential is there. But for the Packers to take the next step, Thompson should be bold.

Behind Door #1 lies the relatively safe bets. Donte Stallworth, Kevin Curtis, and Drew Bennett certainly elevate Green Bay's air assault. Stallworth (19.1 avg. last season with PHI) has enticing big play ability, while Curtis and Bennett are as reliable as they come. Thompson could also opt to cash in on a rich WR draft class. All of the above options would come at a reasonable price and undoubtedly upgrade a veteran-thin group.

But behind Door #2 lies Randy Moss and his unearthly talent. The last time Brett Favre had a 6-4 receiver to chuck jump balls up to his yearly totals skyrocketed back to 4,000-plus yards and 30-plus touchdowns. But Javon Walker brought drama and juvenile prima donna spunk to Green Bay that is everything the Packer franchise doesn't stand for. Now multiply that by 100 and you have Moss in a Packer uniform. The scene simply craves a daily ESPN circus. The man who brought new meaning to the term ‘moonshine' a Packer? Unthinkable.

But on the other hand, Thompson is giving Robinson a similar opportunity. Moss' police report pales in comparison to Robinson's, so why not team Moss with Green Bay's emerging pack of wideouts? Moss and Driver would instantly compose the league's most lethal receiving duo and make Favre appear 10 years younger. Moss brings over 10,000 yards and over 100 touchdowns to the Packers.

Chances like this are rare and as G.M., it's Ted Thompson's duty to take the risk. It's a risk that Ron Wolf probably regrets bypassing when he drafted Vonnie Holliday instead of Moss in the 1999 NFL Draft. Imagine how history would have been rewritten in the NFC Central if Moss teamed with Favre in that era?

Sure, countless fans may raid with hate mail. But just imagine. As Moss keeps defenses honest deep, Driver dissects zone defenses underneath, forcing teams to back off, which returns Green to a screen pass/draw play threat. And, oh by the way, Marshawn Lynch, Vernand Morency, Greg Jennings, and Ruvell Martin are lurking as more ammunition for Favre. Such a trade immediately puts Green Bay back on the map as a Super Bowl favorite.

How could anybody pass that up?

Stay tuned. What transpires over the coming months will shape the Green Bay Packers in the present and future. It's up to Ted Thompson to make the tough decisions that will either make or break the franchise. It appears he is nestled into an effective dual-purpose management style as last season showed. If he can extend Barnett's contract and lock up Green, the fun will begin.

It's just a matter of how much fun Thompson is willing to have. Buckle up, cheeseheads.

Tyler Dunne is a college student and frequent contributor to PackerReport.com from the Buffalo, N.Y. area. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.


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