I don’t know how many of you play poker, but if you ever did or do, you probably wouldn’t like sitting across the table from someone like Ted Thompson. Why? Well, not because he wins all the time, but because you could never get a good read on his hand based on his facial expressions.
Thompson of course is the head honcho in the front office of the Green Bay Packers and he runs his team similar to how he views a poker table. Sometimes he won’t even sit down at the table. Other times, he wins a big pot and then just walks away. But his look will never change.
When it comes to free agency, at least since Thompson became general manager of the Packers in 2005, the former Houston Oiler linebacker rarely dips his toes into the abyss known as unrestricted free agency.
Thompson’s approach to running the Green Bay organization, along with head coach Mike McCarthy, is to utilize a draft-and-develop program.
In 11 seasons since that partnership of Thompson and McCarthy took place in 2006, the Packers have had 114-61-1 regular season record, with six NFC North titles, nine playoff appearances, four NFC title game appearances and one Super Bowl win.
It’s rare that Thompson dips his toes into “pure” free agency, when he picks up a veteran NFL player who has had decent success with another team or teams in the NFL. Instead, Thompson depends much more on the draft and signing “street” free agents or undrafted rookie free agents.
But when Thompson has signed a free agent player like Ryan Pickett, or signed players who were recently released by the previous teams like Charles Woodson (Oakland Raiders), Julius Peppers (Chicago Bears) and Jared Cook (St. Louis Rams), the results have been pretty good.
When it comes to re-signing their own players in free agency, Thompson and the Packers often wait close until to the midnight hour in bringing back that player. Thompson has done that over the years with players like corner back Sam Shields, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, wide receiver Randall Cobb and most recently with outside linebacker Nick Perry.
Going into the start of free agency in 2017, the Packers had several players who were eligible to become unrestricted free agents. One was Perry, who the Packers re-signed Thursday morning before the actual start of free agency later that afternoon.
Perry signed a five-year, $59 million contract on Thursday, while the Packers also re-upped reserve offensive lineman Don Barclay to a one-year deal worth $1.3 million.
With the signings of Perry and Barclay, the Packers were approximately $30 million under the cap figure of $167 million set for this year.
The Packers have lost three players to free agency already, as center JC Tretter signed with the Cleveland Browns, while defensive back Micah Hyde signed with the Buffalo Bills and outside linebacker Julius Peppers signed with the Carolina Panthers, who were the team who first drafted Peppers back in 2002.
Jason Wilde, citing a league source, reports that the Packers never made offers to either Hyde or Peppers.
That left players like right guard T.J. Lang, running back Eddie Lacy, tight end Jared Cook, outside linebacker Datone Jones, running back Christine Michael and longsnapper Brett Goode as unsigned unrestricted free agents.
Thompson is playing the ultimate poker game of bluffing with both Lang and Lacy, as the Packers are allowing them to visit other teams to see what the market says that they may be worth. It’s important to know, that Thompson has an ace up his sleeve, as reportedly both Lang and Lacy will allow the Packers to match or at least counter the offers made by other teams.
Speaking of poker, both Cook and his agent now know that they overplayed their hand against Thompson and Russ Ball, who is the team’s contract negotiator, on Friday.
The Packers made the re-signing Cook a priority this offseason, as he played a big role in the team’s six-game winning streak to the end the regular season and then also the success the Packers had in the postseason.
In fact, quarterback Aaron Rodgers often praised the addition of Cook as being the main reason the offense was clicking late in the season and in the postseason. Rodgers also said that re-signing Cook should be a priority for the Packers.
With that as ammunition, Cook and his agent bluffed Thompson and the Packers one too many times, as the team broke off talks with Cook and then signed Martellus Bennett instead.
The Packers signed Bennett to a three-year deal worth anywhere from $18.5 to $21 million.
This was a rare signing for Thompson, which made this move somewhat shocking. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not that Thompson won’t bring in other players from other teams, as he did that with Woodson, Peppers and Cook, but Thompson shies away from signing “true” unrestricted free agents.
Why? Because they can have an impact on the compensatory picks a team will receive in the NFL draft the following season. Woodson, Peppers and Cook were all released by their former teams before the Packers signed them. That meant that the Packers would not be affected at all in the compensatory pick process.
But the signing of Bennett will, but Thompson still thought it was a risk well-worth taking. Thompson knew all about Bennett, who had played with the Chicago Bears for three seasons before being traded to the New England Patriots last season.
Bennett, who stands 6’6″ and is 248 pounds, is a tight end who can stretch the seam down the middle with his speed and athleticism, plus is solid run-blocker, which is something the Packers have been looking for at that position for years now.
Bennett caught 55 passes for 701 yards (12.7 avg.) and seven touchdowns for the Patriots in 2016. In his career with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Bears and Pats, Bennett has 403 receptions for 4,287 and 30 touchdowns.
Bennett was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2014 when he was with da Bears.
Time will tell how things will develop with both Lang and Lacy, along with all the other free agents like Jones, Michael and Goode, but one thing is for sure, with the signing of Bennett, Thompson is looking to win at the poker table in free agency.
Even if you can’t tell by looking at him.