At the beginning of every February, Packers fans can only wonder as they take note of the top free agents and the available cap space.
How much of an impact could Albert Haynesworth make on the defense?
Would Ray Lewis add the toughness and leadership the Packers could use with their new 3-4 defense?
Is Chris Canty really an option?
By early March, all of those free agent fantasies have turned into free agent frustrations. One by one, the top free agents sign elsewhere in the first few days. Not long thereafter, the second-tier free agents are gone.
Finally, as if to prove there is someone at the office, general manager Ted Thompson makes a token signing or two. Aggravated fans wonder if Thompson gets to pocket the unspent salary cap space.
For better or worse, Thompson is a think-ahead sort of general manager. Whether that's the right or wrong approach in the win-now world of professional sports is for you to decide.
We reopen this festering wound of a debate today in light of the Packers' looming free agent situation. Thompson locked up big-play receiver Greg Jennings on Wednesday, but he and cap guru Russ Ball won't get much of a breather. Not with outside linebacker Aaron Kampman, nose tackle Ryan Pickett, left tackle Chad Clifton and linebacker Brandon Chillar headed for free agency following this season, regardless of what happens with the collective barganing agreement.
And if a new accord is struck, Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, starting linemen Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz, standout returner Will Blackmon, defensive lineman Johnny Jolly and utility lineman Tony Moll will be free agents, too.
Had Thompson opened the vault for an upper-echelon free agent, he might have been able to re-sign Jennings, but at what cost?
Because of Thompson's frugal ways in free agency, the Packers remain $21.5 million under the cap after signing Jennings. Throw in the money needed to sign their eight draft picks, the Packers will have $16 million remaining. That's enough money to give Collins a new contract and hand out one or possibly two more extensions before the end of the season.
That would not have been possible had the Packers signed Canty, for instance. Considering how well Canty played in Dallas' 3-4 defense, he would have been a great fit at end in Green Bay, which is why Thompson was interested. But his six-year, $42 million contract with the Giants has a cap charge of $5.45 million this season and ranging from $6.45 million and $8.2 million for the next five seasons.
Acquiring a big-money free agent comes with obvious costs.
First, it makes it harder to re-sign your own free agents. Thompson probably could have signed Canty and re-signed Jennings and, for sake of example, Kampman and Collins. You can argue the value of a Colledge or a Spitz or a Pickett or a Blackmon, but if you lose them, you've got to replace them — probably with a younger and/or lesser player. Jennings said as much on Wednesday when asked if he was thankful for Thompson's free-agent philosophy. And from the team's perspective, it's almost always cheaper to extend a player before free agency than it is to re-sign him once he's hit the open market.
Second, bringing in a Canty and re-signing Jennings and another player or two brings to an end the perpetual salary cap space Thompson has worked to create. Why can Thompson sign a key player or two to extensions every year? Because the team always is far, far below the cap. This year, for instance, it entered free agency with about $34 million of cap space. That allowed him to front-load Jennings' contract so the brunt of the cap impact is this year. Ditto for Aaron Rodgers' deal last year. The highest cap hit in his six-year, $67.5 million deal was felt last year, $13.9 million. For comparison, will Canty be worth an $8.2 million cap charge when he's 32 years old? If not, that's bad news for the Giants' cap in 2014.
Time and again, it's been proven that teams that spend big in free agency don't win it all. Smart spending is the key, which means it's not necessarily who you sign but who you can keep.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and 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 twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.