Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers returned to Green Bay recently after a tumultuous offseason filled with uncertainty regarding the reigning MVP’s future with the Packers organization. In his first press conference since his return, Rodgers wasted no time tearing into the Packers’ front office stating that although Rodgers has given his GM several opportunities to listen to his advice on players to go after in free agency as well as the draft, Gutekunst has more or less ignored Rodgers’ pleas.
Additionally, Rodgers claimed that the Packers never treated their outgoing free agents well. As Rodgers put it, “These were high-character guys. I felt like they were core players to our foundation.” Rodgers then went on to name the following 12 players:
- Charles Woodson
- Jordy Nelson
- Julius Peppers
- Clay Matthews
- Randall Cobb
- James Jones
- John Kuhn
- Brett Goode
- TJ Lang
- Bryan Bulaga
- Casey Hayward
- Micah Hyde
Rodgers described them as “exceptional players for us … many of whom were not offered a contract [from the Packers] at all, or were extremely low-balled, or were not given the respect that players of their status deserved.”
Rodgers is implying that the Packers should have at least tried to re-sign every one of these players before they were forced to join different teams. Why? Well, obviously because Rodgers believes each of them still had talent to spare when they left and would’ve helped their team win — if not with their skills, then at least with their uplifting presence in the locker room.
I understand the importance of high-character guys in a locker room. There’s a reason several teams make valiant efforts to grab these guys in free agency and in the draft. Their presence can help build a better culture and can motivate teams to continue pushing when the going gets tough. Last year, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said they wanted to use each of their 12 draft picks on “high-character” guys. The Broncos and Bills have also attempted to build their team’s with the same sort of players. In the mid-2000's, ESPN’s John Clayton wrote a piece that told a story involving former Miami Dolphins’ linebacker Zach Thomas. In the article, Thomas explains how important it is to have guys who are willing to work hard and want to be on the field. Thomas explained, “The thing in a locker room is if a guy is missing practice and everyone knows that he’s not wanting to come on the field and play, it’s like a cancer and it affects your play. It spreads quickly.”
However, rather than an endorsement for high-character guys in a locker room, that piece comes off more so as a warning against players who bring down the morale of the team, which is far more detrimental. Not to mention, most of the time when teams make an effort to improve their locker room, teams will reach out to veterans that had been undervalued by their clubs and thus hit the free agent market. Teams will sign these players to light contracts and won’t rely on them to provide incredible production on the field. That’s the point though — to sign those guys on light deals. As soon as you start spending too much money attempting to improve morale, you might be losing out on talent. Obviously, the dream would be to sign guys who provide both, and that’s probably what Aaron Rodgers was getting at — that the players he listed had both. I can understand breaking the bank to keep players like that around, and several of the players Rodgers mentioned maintained their high level of play after leaving the Packers.
Charles Woodson was no longer the elite cornerback he was throughout his career with the Packers when he left the team following the 2012 season. However, the Raiders moved him to safety in 2013 and he thrived. I wouldn’t expect every team to take the risk that Woodson could make the transition to safety, but the Packers had been watching Woodson play for seven years at that point. I’m sure his injury-marred 2012 season played a factor in Green Bay deciding not to return Woodson as well, but they could’ve at least given Woodson more time to transition to his new position. He played just seven games at strong safety for the Packers in 2012 and showed some signs that he could adjust, but was ultimately never given the chance.
Julius Peppers went through a similar situation. After three years and one Pro Bowl in Green Bay, Peppers hit the open market and headed to Carolina, where despite starting in only five games his first season with the Panthers, Peppers still recorded 11 sacks. Those stats would have been much appreciated in Green Bay. Former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy even said there was a “pretty significant void” without Peppers. I’m sure if the Packers could go back to that 2017 offseason, they’d be more than willing to pay a little extra to keep the star pass-rusher in town.
When healthy, Bryan Bulaga played well in his first year with Los Angeles. Same goes for TJ Lang in Detroit. James Jones was used very poorly in his single season with Oakland and showed he could still ball when he recorded eight touchdowns and 890 yards during the final season of his career. John Kuhn’s run-blocking prowess was a big reason the Saints vastly improved their ground game between 2015 and 2016. Micah Hyde has been a consistent force in the Buffalo secondary, and Casey Hayward earned two consecutive Pro Bowls after leaving the Packers.
I won’t say that re-signing these athletes wouldn’t have made the Packers better. These players were obviously still tremendous talents and definitely would’ve made the Packers much better had they remained with the team.
I can’t give the same praise to players like Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and Clay Matthews. While all three were elite talents at their positions earlier in their careers, they had clearly taken major steps back in their final years with Green Bay. Also, I have no idea how to evaluate long snappers, so I can’t speak on Brett Goode’s performance in his final seasons. However, like I said, if those guys were available for lowered rates, and were legitimately as “high-character” as Rodgers describes, I would’ve had no problem with the Packers re-signing them.
While it may not be the case for everyone Rodgers mentioned, Rodgers has a pretty good point with the players he named. Most of them proved in their first years away from Green Bay that they could still ball out. The Packers are a team that will always contend as long as Rodgers is under center. So while opting to save some money by dropping one of your older veterans in exchange for a young replacement may seem like a smart move, it’s not only a huge risk to thrust an unproven piece into that role, but it also frustrates your other key players. Based on what just transpired this offseason, that’s something the Packers will hopefully never do again.