PALM BEACH, Fla. – The 2007 NFL Draft had just ended, and after making 11 selections who would go on to varying degrees of success (and failure) with his team – and not executing the one trade his then-starting quarterback and much of the fan base had begged for, acquiring wide receiver Randy Moss from Oakland -- someone pointed out to Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson that the two-day affair had been more about doing right by his team than about making the sexy move.
Consistent with his personality, Thompson had been all about substance over sizzle, it was suggested.
"I have sizzle," Thompson protested with a chuckle. "I just don't show it very often."
The room erupted in hearty laughter – except Thompson, who was actually being semi-serious.
You see, while Thompson doesn’t put up too much of a fight when it comes to how he’s portrayed publicly, he doesn’t always agree with some of the presumptions made about him. And that was the case Monday during the first full day of the NFL Meetings, when the eighth-year GM stood in a hallway at The Breakers resort and was peppered with questions about how out-of-character he’s been in pursuing unrestricted free agents this offseason.
And just like his sizzle comment, Thompson made it clear that, despite his anti-free agency reputation, he’s always been willing to use it to improve his team. And that’s what he believes he’s done with the signing of five-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday – the team’s first unrestricted free-agent signing since 2009 and biggest name signing since Charles Woodson in 2006 – to replace the departed Scott Wells and by pursuing several other players on the open market.
“I know you guys don’t believe me, but we’re always active in free agency,” Thompson told a small group of writers Monday between meetings. “There have been a couple of years here in a row where we haven’t actually signed anybody, but that doesn’t mean that we weren’t active, pursuing leads, trying to understand the market and doing all that.
“In the case of Jeff Saturday, we were able to address a specific need that we felt like we needed to address because we were unable to re-sign Scott. We would’ve liked to have Scott back, but we’re happy now that we have Jeff Saturday.”
In addition to Saturday’s signing, the Packers brought in ex-Seattle and New Orleans defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove for a visit on Friday, reportedly have scheduled a visit with Buffalo Bills tackle Demetrius Bell; and are among several teams to have expressed an interest in New York Giants defensive end Dave Tollefson and Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Manny Lawson.
“It’s a conversation I have every day with Ted. We walk down the hall, and you walk in that draft room, the video’s always on – and it’s not always just the college prospects,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re looking at the board, and Eliot (Wolf) and John Dorsey and those guys are beating the bushes, ‘kicking the tires’ as Ted likes to say. That process will go on throughout the spring.”
On a day when he received four compensatory picks in this year’s draft after losing five free agents last offseason without signing a single one, Thompson explained that free agency – something he’s called “a useful tool in the past” – is most useful when targeting a specific area of need. That way, he said, he doesn’t need to deviate from his best-player-available approach to drafting.
“We’ve signed free agents. We’re not opposed to that,” Thompson said. “I do think that in free agency you’re able to target more specific things as opposed to the draft where we try to pick the best player.”
Thompson insisted that even in years where the Packers failed to land an outside free agent, he and his staff are working to sign them, which former Packers directors of football operations John Schneider and Reggie McKenzie both corroborated Monday. Schneider, who is now the Seattle Seahawks GM, and McKenzie, who is now the Oakland Raiders GM, used to do much of the legwork on prospective free agents.
“We made our calls, we discussed with agents, and would do our research on the kids. We’d get all the reports, ‘Here’s the target list,’” McKenzie said. “But we’d know certain guys we weren’t going to go after because the money was just (too much).
“Some of these guys, what’s the use jumping in on the first few days? To me, those are more the overpaid guys. You’ve got two teams competing, and it kind of gets out of hand. But you can still upgrade your team by getting the next guy – which, in some instances, we may feel that the next guy is better than the other guy. What we did with Pickett, he wasn’t in that first tier. The whole Charles Woodson thing, nobody jumped on him. To get those two guys that year (was great). But we waited. We took our time.”
Sometimes, that approach doesn’t work, and the Packers lose out on a player who could have helped them. But when that happens, Thompson said Monday, it’s better than overpursuing a player only to find out that he wasn’t worth the money you spent.
Plus, as Thompson has often pointed out, signing from someone else’s team frequently means losing one of your own future free agents, and with players like wide receiver Greg Jennings, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, nose tackle B.J. Raji and quarterback Aaron Rodgers all approaching the end of their deals in the next few years, keeping the players the Packers you drafted to develop isn’t always easy, either.
“Sometimes the market runs away from you, and you just end up keeping your hands in your pocket,” Thompson said. “Our roster has stayed fairly intact with the exception of adding draft choices and young players. That’s helpful in the management side of it in terms of managing your cap and things like that, but as your team matures, that whole management side becomes a little more complicated.
“It’s not like juggling or something like that, but there are different things in the air at one time, and you kind of have to think through that – like not only how do we look today but how are we going to look six months from now? I’m scared to look out a year from now because that’s too long, but you do have to think of it in (those) terms.
“Those of us in this business are builders. We like to put it together. I talk about that at the final cut down, that’s my worst day because I’d rather have all those guys and nourish them as opposed to get rid of them. And as your team matures, you have to figure out how you’re going to do this.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.