Common sense also says the Packers will be no more than bit players in free agency. With no salary cap and a limited number of unrestricted free agents, the shopping figures to be especially expensive. Most of the quality players will be restricted free agents, and they'll be costly in terms of money and draft picks.
There is an alternate point of view, however, that says general manager Ted Thompson will seize this opportunity.
"If I were the GM or a president of a team, I'd want to be the Packers right now," Jack Bechta, an agent and a principal founder and columnist for the National Football Post, told Packer Report. "Even though Ted has not been aggressive in free agency, it is his chance to go out and kind of fill in the blanks and position the team. It's a pretty solid team and it's got really good coaches. And they have a quarterback whose arrows just keep going up."
Bechta wasn't the only league insider who thought the Packers could be players in free agency this season, though he was the only one to go on the record during several phone calls with agents and conversations with insiders during Senior Bowl week, all conducted in hopes of getting a grasp on what might happen during this new look of free agency.
There are several reasons why the Packers could be unexpectedly active, all stemming from the owners opting out of the collective bargaining agreement:
— Chief among them, while there is no longer a salary cap, there is no salary floor, either.
"The owners are embracing this," Bechta said. "It's no secret that they're embracing the uncapped year. I suspect that, on average, you'll see a drop of maybe $20 million or $25 million per team. That money's gone, out the window, and it goes right into the owners' pocket. It's their way of saying, ‘We feel we got the last deal shoved down our throats. We're going to take a little money off the table from it.'"
If enough teams would rather slash costs than contend next season, there will be fewer teams competing for free agents. Plus, those teams that are apt to trim fat from their rosters — like the Dolphins' forthcoming release of linebacker Joey Porter — will add to the free agent pool. If Bechta is correct, that $20 million average could mean an additional 60 players (or more) becoming available.
— The NFL's Final Eight Rule was built into the agreement to prevent a New York Yankees-style purchase of a championship. The teams that reached the conference championship games (New Orleans and Minnesota in the NFC, Indianapolis and New York in the AFC) can't sign a free agent without losing one of greater value first. The teams that lost in the divisional round (Dallas and Arizona in the NFC, San Diego and Baltimore in the AFC) only can sign a free agent after losing one but have different restrictions. They can sign only one big-money free agent ($4.925 million or more in first-year salary) and an unlimited number of modest-priced free agents ($3.275 million or less in first year, with limits on pay increases to prevent skirting of the rules).
That's eight fewer teams bidding for talent, and of those, only the Colts have historically been inactive during free agency.
"Ted's history is that he won't overpay," one team executive said. "I don't think anyone knows for sure what's going to happen on March 5 but if you think it's going to be the Wild West and the free agents are going to get huge contracts, I just don't think that's the case. Teams are going to cut costs, either by not signing guys or waiting to sign them for less."
— The talent in free agency this year will be in restricted free agency, where 212 players with four and five years of experience who would have been unrestricted are now restricted. That means it will take money and a draft pick to make a deal. Last year, no restricted free agents changed teams. It will be different this year because of the lack of depth in the unrestricted pool.
A difference-making starter, not surprisingly, will be given a first-round tender. While Thompson believes in building through the draft, the Packers' draft status could work in their favor. If a team is looking to save money, the Packers' No. 23 overall selection would be more valuable than some team's top-10 pick. For example, last year's No. 23 pick, Michael Oher, got $7.8 million guaranteed from Baltimore while the No. 7 pick, Darrius Heyward-Bey, got $23.5 million guaranteed from Oakland and the top five picks averaged $33.4 million in guarantees.
"I can see where there are several teams that are excited about the lack of a floor to the salary cap," one high-profile agent said. "They're excited about a chance to clean up their books."
Plus, as a couple agents pointed out, a restricted free agent given, for example, the exclusive first- and third-round tender could be acquired in a trade for something less.
Unloading restricted free agents for draft picks is a way for a team to reload financially while being able to tell its fans that it does have a plan.
"The Packers are contenders and they don't have an owner that is demanding a profit," the team executive said. "They made money last year even with the (stock) market. I assume they did better this past year."
For the last year, league insiders and even Packers President Mark Murphy have spoken about the uncertainty surrounding this offseason. Would there be a cap or no cap? Would it be the old rules or the new rules? But other than signing Brandon Chillar in December, the Packers have conducted business as if they knew there would be no cap and that the rules to free agency would change. Their in-no-rush approach to unrestricted-turned-restricted starters Nick Collins, Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, Atari Bigby, Johnny Jolly and John Kuhn suggests they've got a plan in place.
Don't, however, expect the Packers to spend like crazy or get involved in the Julius Peppers sweepstakes. That hasn't been Thompson's style and it's not likely to change now.
"I think if they make a move, they'll be very surgical," said Bechta, who is the agent for Al Harris. "They won't go out and get four or five guys. They may have two guys targeted. Go back to Reggie White and (Charles) Woodson and making the move for Al with the Eagles. They have done good being surgical."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.