Look for Thompson to seek best of the rest

Franchise tags make a weak free-agent class even weaker, but there are some players who could bolster the roster at the right price. PackerReport.com's Steve Lawrence breaks it down.

The free-agent signing period begins at 1 minute after midnight Friday on the East Coast, and unlike last year, there's genuine mystery about Ted Thompson's plans.

Will the Packers' general manager follow the stereotype and remain frugal (never mind that he signed Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett a couple of years ago), or will he try to fill a void or two in hopes of pushing the Packers over the top in the NFC?

Last year, in answer to Thompson's legion of critics, I guessed Thompson would open the wallet when he had a clear idea of what the Packers' needs were, and spend some money once the Packers had risen from pretenders to contenders.

Well, that time is now. The Packers' youth movement has taken hold. The youngsters have had a couple of seasons to show Thompson what they can (or can't) do, and the GM no doubt has learned the team could use a starting guard, as well as a young cornerback, perhaps someone to challenge Brady Poppinga at strong-side linebacker and a safety to push the duo of Nick Collins and Atari Bigby. A stud defensive end would be great too, but that's been the case since Reggie White retired. They don't exactly grow on trees.

Complicating matters are teams are awash in salary-cap money — the Packers, before designating Corey Williams their franchise player, were about $25 million under the cap, yet that ranked only 14th in the 32-team league. And with that money, most teams have locked up their best players, meaning teams generally will be paying porterhouse-type money for hamburger-quality players.

Making those slim pickings even slimmer, 11 of the best players have been tagged franchise players, effectively pulling them off the market. Of Scout.com's 13 best free agents, eight of them were franchised. Among them are a few who Thompson might have taken a long look at: Chiefs defensive Jared Allen, Cowboys safety Ken Hamlin, Ravens pass-rusher Terrell Suggs and Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant.

It would be shocking to see Thompson pay jaw-dropping money to one of the few remaining elite free agents, so that probably rules out Patriots ballhawking cornerback Asante Samuel and Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, who are the consensus best players available.

Ditto for Steelers guard Alan Faneca. He would be a huge upgrade over inconsistent Daryn Colledge, but the 31-year-old is likely to get a deal averaging more than $7 million per season. Do the Packers really need three high-priced, 30-something starting linemen?

So, who could be the right players at the right price? Here is look at the Packers' positions of need.

Guard: Jake Scott of Indianapolis and Jacob Bell of Tennessee fit the mold of lighter linemen the Packers covet in their zone scheme. Both have played integral roles on offenses with successful running games. Plus, both will be only 27 when the season kicks off. On the price spectrum, good guards typically can be signed at a decent price, so this might be Thompson's No. 1 free-agent focus.

Outside linebacker: Because this position plays only about half of the defensive snaps — obviously, the Packers aren't pulling Nick Barnett or A.J. Hawk off the field in nickel situations — spending big money here doesn't make much sense. Perhaps someone like Atlanta's athletic Demorrio Williams, with five interceptions in his first four seasons, would be a fit.

Safety: Cincinnati's Madieu Williams, a native of Sierra Leone, has nine interceptions in his four NFL seasons and is one of the top cover men at the position. The Vikings, with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier a Bengals assistant when Cincinnati drafted Williams, are expected to push hard to sign him. Another possibility is Atlanta's athletic Chris Crocker.

Defensive end: The only legit pass-rushing DE available is Cincinnati's Justin Smith, who could get upwards of $8 million per season. That's a ton of money for someone with 43.5 sacks in his seven NFL season but just two last season. Thompson might as well stick with Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and his 74 sacks in eight NFL seasons, including 9.5 last season.

Cornerback: Don't expect the Packers to go after a starting-caliber corner in free agency, given the team has two high-priced corners and the price will be astronomical because this is such a weak group of free agents at the position. Look for Thompson to draft a young prospect, hope Will Blackmon can stay healthy and perhaps add a modestly priced veteran that works out better than last year's modestly priced addition, Frank Walker. One player perhaps worth taking a flyer on: Philadelphia's William James. He's got the size (6-foot) and the potential (the former William Peterson was a third-round pick by the Giants in 2001).

The Packers are in an enviable position. With no gaping holes to fill and a lot of money to spend, Thompson can sit back and see what's leftover after the initial spending frenzy. That's what allowed him to sign Woodson and Pickett. Expect him to hope some delectable crumbs fall his way.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com

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