NFC North: Igor Olshansky
|Darren Hauck/Getty Images|
|GM Ted Thompson's passive offseason approach will be strongly questioned if the Packers produce another losing season in 2009.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
They tricked us. Or, at least, they fooled me.
When Green Bay acknowledged this winter it was shifting to a 3-4 defense, my thoughts moved immediately to free agency. Finally! Packers general manager Ted Thompson would be forced to dabble in a market he has historically disdained. After all, the Packers were built as a 4-3 team and it's unreasonable to expect every player can make the transition. You figured the Packers would need at least one or two new veteran starters to smooth out the makeover.
Tuesday, however, marks the 33rd day of free agency -- and Thompson has changed nothing about his offseason approach. The Packers have signed two veterans, but safety Anthony Smith and offensive lineman Duke Preston project as backups and play positions that don't impact the schematic transition.
So what gives? How could Thompson justify such a passive offseason approach following a 6-10 season that spurred the defensive overhaul?
I missed Thompson at last week's NFL owners' meeting, but he told Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he is satisfied with the personnel makeup of the team. "We're pretty solid in our starting lineup," was the way Thompson put it. Later, he added: "I think our team is built as such we don't, in my opinion, have some glaring needs."
In essence, Thompson stood pat. In poker terms, he checked. Many fans and observers are bewildered by the paradox between changing schemes and sitting tight on personnel; in the end it represents a staunch and perhaps stubborn display of confidence in past drafts and the prospects for this year's affair. But let's be clear: The approach has left the Packers with no room for error in the April 25-26 draft and little doubt about how to judge the 2009 season.
That final clause is the part that intrigues me the most. The Packers aren't the only team that stood on the sidelines of free agency this year. You don't have to look further than the NFC North to notice that Minnesota has done nothing more than trade for a career backup quarterback and sign a nickelback. Chicago has quietly revamped its offensive line but hasn't addressed its defense in a meaningful way.
The Vikings, however, will return a team that won 10 games last season. The Bears went 9-7 and lost three games after leading late in the fourth quarter. The Packers, on the other hand, dropped seven of their final nine games and produced the ninth-worst record in the NFL. To stand pat after a 6-10 season is to stake your career on the idea that it was an aberration rather than a sign of long-term trouble.
Sure, the Packers hired a new defensive staff led by coordinator Dom Capers to revamp the scheme. But those changes are tied to the flexibility of the personnel on hand. Speaking earlier this month at the Packers' FanFest, Capers said the transition will be a "process" and added: "I wish I had a comfort level where I could stand here and say we've got everything we need, but you probably couldn't get a coach in the league to say that."
|Evan Pinkus/Getty Images|
|New D-coordinator Dom Capers has the unenviable task of implementing a 3-4 scheme mostly with players brought in for a 4-3.|
Before free agency began, we noted the change would be a step-by-step process. But a little more than a month later, the Packers don't seem to have made any progress from a personnel standpoint. They haven't taken any steps. We're not any closer to naming their four-man group of linebackers. We don't know who would replace nose tackle Ryan Pickett if he were injured. We have to wonder whether Johnny Jolly can handle left end -- and, even if he can, whether he will face NFL discipline as a result of an arrest in Houston last summer. That's a totality of uncertainty you don't want to be facing a year after finishing 6-10.
If nothing else, free agency could have provided alternatives worth embracing with more enthusiasm than Thompson has. That doesn't mean the Packers should have paid $41 million in guaranteed money to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. It doesn't necessarily mean they should be pursuing a trade for Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.
But even if it meant overpaying a bit, w
ouldn't you feel a bit better if the Packers knew they could turn to, say, Kevin Burnett at linebacker or Igor Olshansky at defensive end? Even from a standpoint of pure principle, it would demonstrate the Packers were pursuing every option available to improve their team and, consequently, transfer one less position of pressure to the draft.
What I'm building to is this: Thompson should face serious questions and be exposed to high accountability should the personnel group he is endorsing not generate a significant improvement from last season. If the Packers produce another losing season, Thompson's failure to address the 2008 performance more aggressively will prove to be a grave mistake.
This tack ultimately will validate or revoke the philosophy of setting a base, as Thompson did in his first season, and then building almost exclusively through the draft.
I did catch up last week to the man who ultimately will evaluate Thompson's performance. Team president/CEO Mark Murphy expressed no regret about the approach to free agency but made clear it was an option if Thompson wanted to use it.
Here's the exchange Murphy had with Silverstein and me:
What's been your assessment of the offseason?
Mark Murphy: Well, to me the biggest change was following the season, [coach Mike McCarthy] changing the coaching staff. I'm very encouraged. I've been very impressed with Dom Capers and the staff he and Mike have put together. I think you'll see a difference on the field. We haven't been big players in free agency, obviously, to this point.
Did you know that going in?
MM: We're always looking for opportunities, but we want to make sure it makes sense and fits into our long-term plans.
NFL.com Video Packers GM Ted Thompson discusses the team's transition to a 3-4 defense.
Did you expect more out of free agency?
MM: Free agency isn't over yet. It's not a one-week event. It goes on for quite a while. I still think you look historically and the better teams are built through the draft. And then filling needs in free agency.
Were there any financial restrictions on Thompson?
Did the football budget remain the same?
MM: Yeah, we haven't dropped off.
I didn't sense any impatience or exasperation from Murphy, but he has a long history in the NFL and knows how successful teams are built. He understands the risks and rewards of Thompson's offseason gambit and no doubt will judge him accordingly.
Thompson prefers to focus on the draft, and the Packers have a chance to grab an immediate starter with the No. 9 overall pick. But a great draft would produce two or three starters across the board. Is it reasonable to expect immediate defensive dividends from one draft? Consider that last year's draft produced two immediate starters in the entire NFC North. Both were tailbacks: Chicago's Matt Forte and Detroit's Kevin Smith. Otherwise, it's a crapshoot.
Thompson isn't the only NFL general manager who shies away from free agency. But the combination of last year's 6-10 record and the defensive changes has put his approach into critical focus moving forward.
One of the more interesting questions entering free agency was whether Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson would accelerate his usual plodding approach in order to re-stock the Packers' roster for its transition to a 3-4 defense. The answer has been a resounding no.
Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel offers a good overview of what the Packers have -- and haven't done -- in the first four days of the market. Here it is in a nutshell: "Their strategy appears to be to take their time and make sure they don't overbid for players who would have to compete to become starters."
This has led the Packers to have casual conversations with the agents for defensive ends Igor Olshansky (San Diego), Marques Douglas (Baltimore) and Mike Wright (New England). But no visits are scheduled. It's possible the Packers will schedule a visit soon with free agent safety Michael Adams (Cleveland). None of these players are game-changers but could contribute to a winning team.
Like it or not, that's the approach Thompson has taken once again in 2009.
Continuing around the NFC North on a Tuesday morning:
- Two Packers free agents, defensive end Mike Montgomery and fullback John Kuhn, are beginning to take visits, according to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Montgomery is in Atlanta and Kuhn was in Arizona.
- Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune examine the situation around Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, who would like to be traded.
- Minnesota special teams ace Heath Farwell has scheduled a visit with New England, according to Zulgad.
- Vikings defensive end Jared Allen will participate in a USO trip to U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf this week. Allen's younger brother recently joined the Marines, according to Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Detroit has scheduled a visit with free agent offensive lineman Daniel Loper, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press. Meanwhile, the Lions lost fullback Moran Norris to San Francisco.
- Bob Wojnowksi of the Detroit News would like to see the Lions pursue Cutler: "It's such a no-brainer, I shouldn't even waste your time on it. It's also probably a complete pipe dream, a nasty little tease, an unrealistic notion."
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune offers a similar sentiment for the Bears: "At some point [returning to the Super Bowl] will require bigger and bolder moves, and prying Cutler away from Denver would be one that could cement [Jerry] Angelo's legacy in Chicago."
As we look ahead following a wild opening weekend of the NFL's free agent market, the ESPN blog network will take a look at what's next. Let's have some fun and try matching a remaining player with an NFC North team:
It won't sound exciting to many Bears fans, but offensive lineman John St. Clair looks like a pretty important figure right now. The signing of free agent tackle/guard Frank Omiyale gives the Bears some flexibility, but there is still no obvious successor to retiring right tackle John Tait.
St. Clair is an ideal short-term fit for that role, much as he was in 2008 at left tackle. He hasn't attracted a ton of interest from other teams, and it is in both sides' interest to find a common ground.
It's been a long time since the Lions have had a consistent returner, and they could use more depth in their defensive backfield even after acquiring Anthony Henry and Eric King over the weekend. This makes Carr a real value.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported the Packers might target San Diego's Igor Olshansky, who would give them another option at defensive end as they convert to a 3-4 defense.
Olshansky isn't exactly a household name, but the Packers don't have a proven pass rusher at this point to play either end position.
Ok, let's have some real fun.
I'm baaaaaaaack. Whether you noticed I was away from the blog is another question. Thanks to those who filled in some posts while I was attending a lovely -- and warm -- wedding south of the border.
With internet access restored, I've spent some of Monday's wee hours trying to catch up on the free-agent happenings around the NFC North. It seems that Minnesota wants another big-time receiver, Green Bay is patiently waiting for the right price and Chicago's top target was an offensive lineman who can play tackle or guard. Oh, and Detroit reportedly was involved in trade discussions that would have netted Denver quarterback Jay Cutler while also signing a starting-caliber receiver and acquiring two cornerbacks.
That's what I gleaned in a nutshell, and I'll return later Monday with some more detailed thoughts on those topics. For now, let's get ourselves back to even and catch up on the Black and Blue's latest news, starting with a holding pattern in Minnesota for free agent receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh:
- Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune report Houshmandzadeh met with Vikings officials for nearly six hours Sunday at the team's facility. But as of Sunday evening, agent Kenard McGuire said no deal had been reached. The Vikings are competing with Cincinnati and Seattle for Houshmandzadeh's services.
- Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reviews some of the factors that could be complicating the Houshmandzadeh negotiations. Among them: Would the Vikings offer more than they gave current No. 1 receiver Bernard Berrian, who received $16 million guaranteed last year?
- Lions defensive end Cliff Avril said he is praying for teammate Corey Smith, who is among four passengers missing from a boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Here is a report from the Detroit Free Press.
- Former Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky signed with Houston on Sunday, where he will be the clear backup to starter Matt Schaub. The Lions offered Orlovsky a chance to compete for their starting job, but Orlovsky was wary of his chances, according to John Niyo of the Detroit News.
- Green Bay had hoped to host free-agent defensive end Chris Canty on a visit, but Canty signed Sunday night with the New York Giants. According to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Packers general manager Ted Thompson wouldn't commit to a ballpark offer prior to scheduling a visit.
- The Packers also passed on pursuing defensive tackle Colin Cole, who got $6 million to sign with Seattle. After losing out on Cole and Canty, Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the Packers will shift gears and pursue San Diego defensive end Igor Olshansky.
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times casts serious doubt on the possibility of the Bears acquiring Cutler.
- Former Minnesota safety Darren Sharper told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune that the Bears have expressed interest in signing him. New Orleans seems the likeliest target for Sharper.