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Patience while the Packers grow up

6/30/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

This is what happens when you build around young players.

They get older.

And they want to get paid.

After three years of fielding the NFL's youngest team, Green Bay has entered the next -- and decidedly less fun -- phase in the development of its program. In the past year, the Packers have signed four veterans to contracts worth a total of $116.5 million, but they still have 15 players whose contracts will expire after this season. Seven are likely starters, and one (safety Nick Collins) hasn't said for sure whether he will report to training camp without a new deal.

Decisions will have to be made and feelings inevitably will be hurt. This crossroads is neither unexpected nor avoidable, but for the Packers it's no less pressing than their conversion to a 3-4 defense as they attempt to rebound from a 6-10 season.

"There is always an evolution of a team," general manager Ted Thompson said. "At different points in people's careers, certain things happen. And we're trying to take care of our business the best we can. Each year your team matures, and we have a larger number of young guys that are getting ready for the next phase of their careers, and that's something that's our job to deal with."

Since his arrival in 2005, Thompson has taken a disciplined approach to building through the draft. You can praise him for developing players who are now worthy of extensions, or you can criticize him for structuring an unbalanced team. Regardless, his choice now is either to maintain the nucleus he has built or cast it aside for another young crop of players.

It's hard to imagine the Packers starting over, but the financial constraints of the NFL's salary cap will likely result in some players being excluded. That unavoidable byproduct has added a new layer to locker room dynamics as players try to figure out where they stand and inevitably compare their situations to others'.

A few players on the list could well be entering their final season with the team, most notably left tackle Chad Clifton (age 33) and nose tackle Ryan Pickett (30 in October). Such departures are a fact of life in the NFL. The unusual segment of the Packers' scenario is how many young players are approaching the end of their first contracts -- a group that includes Collins, left guard Daryn Colledge and safety Atari Bigby.

Collins appears to be the most aggrieved. He and his teammates have watched the Packers extend the contract of tailback Ryan Grant, who staged a training camp holdout last summer even though he was three years away from free agency. They saw quarterback Aaron Rodgers sign a $65 million deal after seven NFL starts. Reserve safety Jarrett Bush got a three-year deal after wading through the restricted free-agent market. Just last week, receiver Greg Jennings signed a lucrative extension.

You could argue that Grant, Rodgers and Jennings are three of the Packers' most indispensable players. None is older than 26, and all three project as starters for the duration of their contracts. Nevertheless, I keep thinking of an obvious but relevant physiological truism: People are human. (OK, so I heard Minnesota legend Sid Hartman say it once and thought it was funny -- and true. Sue me.)

Indeed, people are human. Defensible or not, it's only natural for a player whose contract is near expiration to wonder why, say, Grant got paid and he didn't. Shortly after the Jennings deal was announced, Collins told Wisconsin reporters:

"There's a lot of guys coming up on free agency next year. I'm just glad somebody got it. Greg's a great guy. He deserves it. Hopefully, things work out for me."

Collins, who earned a Pro Bowl berth last season, said "we'll see" when asked if he will report to training camp without a deal. It's clear he is miffed the Packers decided to open their purse strings for Jennings but not him. It's a perception Thompson can do little about, but he does acknowledge the potential repercussions.

"It's never a case of really putting priority on one player or another," Thompson said. "We don't want players thinking that they're competing against [each other] or anything like that. The organization does have to make decisions as we move along."

Jennings earned his extension and is part of an exclusive internal club of players who have been taken care of. He realizes his teammates were carefully watching him this offseason and offered this advice: "Good things come to those who wait."

I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that patience, or a lack thereof, will be the most critical virtue for the Packers this season. This important but ultimately non-football issue won't impact their performance in 2009. As long as they don't let it.