Thompson strikes again with Lee

Tight end Donald Lee's four-year contract extension is the latest example of GM Ted Thompson's cap-friendly strategy and willingness to keep his young nucleus intact.

This isn't the only reason Ted Thompson has kept the Packers so far below the salary cap, but it's certainly one of them.

Just like he did last year with center Scott Wells, Thompson and the Packers hammered out an 11th-hour contract extension with impressive young tight end Donald Lee on Monday.

Monday was the deadline for teams to sign players to extensions but be able to count some of that money on the 2007 salary cap. Lee, who was making only $595,000 this season and would have been a coveted unrestricted free agent during the offseason, had his 2007 pay increased to $2 million.

Including a $1 million roster bonus to be paid in March, Lee's four-year deal is worth $11.9 million and runs through the 2011 season.

The Packers were $7.4 million under the 2007 salary cap. Because Thompson and vice president of player finance Andrew Brandt got the deal done before the deadline, the Packers were able to put Lee's $1.4 million raise on this year's cap. That's money that won't be on future caps, as Thompson continues to successfully manipulate the cap in the Packers' long-term favor.

Before signing Lee, the Packers were about $25 million under the projected 2008 cap of $116 million. Thompson made the first year of the deal worth $4.9 million, so $6.9 million will be on the 2007 and 2008 caps and the remaining $5 million will be spread out over the 2009, 2010 and 2011 caps.

That's what you call cap management.

The only gamble, of course, is whether Lee really is a legitimate tight end worthy of a long-term deal.

Lee caught only 10 passes last season and had almost half as many drops. This year, he's caught 29 passes for 382 yards and a touchdown — he ranks 10th among NFL tight ends in receptions and seventh in yards — while giving the Packers a big-play dimension at the position they haven't enjoyed since the days of Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson.

Based on Thompson's track record, chances are Lee isn't just a one-year wonder. If he is, though, Thompson's cap management has the Packers in good shape to swallow a bad contract or two.

Say what you want about Thompson's inactivity on the free-agent market, but the Packers' general manager has done a brilliant job of building a winner on a low budget.

At some point, of course, those small-dollar players' contracts are going to expire, and they're going to want market value. Thompson has the Packers in position to re-sign those players and keep the lion's share of a budding roster intact.

Thompson's cap-management strategy and his willingness to extend contracts of his young before players before they hit free agency are two of the biggest reasons why these Packers should be long-term winners.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to E-mail him at

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