Right or wrong, trade is about looking ahead

It's so obvious, you wonder why more teams don't use their franchise tag and then trade players instead of just letting them go for free, ala Alan Faneca and Michael Turner. Also, PackerReport.com's Steve Lawrence says the Packers will be fine without Andrew Brandt.

Maybe Corey Williams will blossom into a Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

Maybe Johnny Jolly won't be back at full strength at the start of next season.

Maybe Justin Harrell will develop into nothing more than a 320-pound waste of space.

Maybe the second-round pick acquired for Williams will be blown on some stiff who can neither block nor tackle a Division III bench warmer.

All, or most, of the above would be a nightmare for general manager Ted Thompson, who surprised insiders by making Williams the Packers' franchise player, and then stunned them by trading him to the Cleveland Browns for a second-round pick.

On the surface, the trade doesn't make much sense. Williams played a key role on a defensive line that played a major role in the Packers' surprising season, then, once worn down by injuries, played just as big of a role in the Packers' stunning loss to the Giants in the NFC championship game.

But Thompson seems to know what he's doing, and here's why: He's always thinking ahead, and he's generally one step ahead of everyone else.

In the long run, the Packers couldn't afford Williams, not with Ryan Pickett and Harrell already at defensive tackle and Jolly — who the coaches think could be better than Williams — set for a handsome raise after next season. Having too much money invested in one position — Williams got $16 million in up front in a six-year, $38 million deal with the Browns — is a sure way to put too much stress on the salary cap.

So, Thompson locked up Williams, insuring the Packers got something for him. It's such a simple idea, you wonder why nobody else is doing it. Why, for instance, didn't the Steelers make Alan Faneca their franchise player? Instead, perhaps the NFL's best guard signed with the Jets, and Pittsburgh got nothing in return. Ditto for the Chargers, who get nothing after the explosive back bolted for Atlanta.

You can rightly argue the Packers should have just bitten the bullet and kept Williams, even if it's just for one season. After all, the Packers are knocking on the door to greatness. Who cares about 2009 and 2010 when 2008 could be so special? But with three picks in the first 60 selections in April's draft — or fodder to move into the middle of the first round — Thompson again has the Packers' long-term vision in his mind.

That long-term vision has the Packers where they are today. Why mess with success?

Andrew Brandt

Yes, the Packers' salary-cap guru will be missed. Mostly by reporters, though, who found him to be one of the most likable, knowledgeable and helpful people in a tight-lipped front office.

Brandt did a great job navigating the salary cap, especially keeping the Packers' heads above water during the open-wallet days of Mike Sherman as general manager.

Today, the Packers are in great salary-cap shape for a few reasons beyond just Brandt's expertise. First, general manager Ted Thompson cleaned house on the roster during his first months on the job. Second, the Packers have the youngest roster in the NFL. Young players generally are cheap players.

Third, and most importantly, the salary cap exploded with the new collective bargaining agreement a couple of years ago. The cap for the 2005 season was $85.5 million. The cap for 2006 was $94.5 million. For 2007, though, it soared to $109 million. For the 2008 season, it's expected to be $116 million.

Thus, in the last three years, the cap has grown by more than $30 million.

So, while the Packers enter this offseason about $24 million under the salary cap, that's only in the middle of the pack. Interestingly, the Saints have the fifth-most cap space in the league, about $35 million. Their salary cap manager was Russ Ball, who's the man who replaced Brandt in Green Bay.

Certainly, comparing the Packers' and Saints' cap situations is like comparing apples to orangutans. Three-time MVP quarterback Brett Favre takes up a big chunk of the Packers' cap, for instance.

Still, Ball's work in New Orleans bodes well for the Packers. Like Brandt, Ball has earned the respect of the league's agents. Also like Brandt, Ball has avoided lengthy holdouts with rookies. For instance, No. 2 overall pick Reggie Bush — the consensus best player in that draft — missed just a couple of days of practice.

Thanks in part to Ball's work, the Saints have struck quickly in free agency, trading for linebacker Jonathan Vilma in a move that will go a long way in improving a defense that kept the Saints out of the playoffs last season.

None of this is meant to denigrate the work of Brandt. It's unfortunate Thompson's ego, it appears, got in the way. But Ball did a great job with the Saints, and there's little reason to doubt he won't do a great job for the Packers.

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

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