Morgan Burnett and the Packers Free Agency Playbook
The Packers have not been big players in the free agent market since the beginning of the Ted Thompson era. Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers signings aside, the Packers by and large took a pass on free agency.
But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a reason for the strategy. Though it may not have been what fans wanted, there was an identifiable pattern to the decisions the Packers made, and given Brian Gutekunst’s relationship to Thompson, it’s not unreasonable to assume the plan will be vastly different. So let’s take a look at the two significant tenets of the Packers’ free agency playbook, especially as things pertain to the Packers’ own free agents.
Morgan Burnett is highest profile Packers player hitting free agency this offseason. Looking back at the Packers’ guiding free agency principles shows exactly how they got to this point.
Principle 1: Identify Value in Advance
Though the Packers under Thompson did not sign outside free agents often, the team was aggressive and effective at re-signing its own priority free agents. That’s because the Packers made a high priority of identifying their core players and making sure they never got a chance to taste free agency, typically signing deals that end up below market within the first year or two of the life of the contract.
This principle might seem like it favors the team, given how often the early signings turn out to be bargains (David Bakhtiari’s contract comes to mind), but in reality, it’s a win-win. Unless a player is of a caliber where they could expect to set a new ceiling for contracts at their position, it’s almost always in their best interests to take the money as soon as they can get it, inking a contract before any injuries or other circumstances can alter the financial calculus.
However, the negative side of this free agency principle is not insignificant. In an offseason where a team has multiple pending free agents, inking deals with one or multiple players ahead of time sends a clear message about where players who don’t get offers stand in the pecking order.
The Packers have sent such a message to Morgan Burnett over the past few months, preferring to prioritize Lane Taylor, Davante Adams, and Corey Linsley. No doubt there’s a level of understanding on Burnett’s end given his age relative to those other players, but that doesn’t mean it won’t sting a little too.
Principle 2: Don’t Bid Against Imagination
The second principle is a bit of a two-edged sword, as we’ll see in a little bit, but generally, this idea has served the Packers well.
As the free agency signing period bears down, teams that manage free agency poorly tend to hit the panic button as the prospect of losing one of their players to the open market. Year-in and year-out this results in teams overpaying to keep their own players, shelling out above-market deals that outstrip even what the player was likely to get on the open market.
In a typical bidding war, two sides are trying to one-up each other with increasingly large offers. This is fine, as each side has a chance to get an idea of what the other is offering as it makes its own choice.
But in those panic situations, teams are bidding against an idea: the thought of losing their player. This is an absurd strategy, especially since money is on the line.
The Packers have generally refused to make decisions this way, preferring to stick to their valuation of a player, allowing him to test the market and return to the Packers if other offers don’t stack up or if he decides the benefits of playing in Green Bay outweigh whatever money is offered elsewhere.
Again, Morgan Burnett is on the receiving end of this principle. He’s a quality player who could fill a key role in Mike Pettine’s system whom the Packers would no doubt love to have back at the right price, but the team will absolutely refuse to budge on their price; they won’t bid against what they imagine other teams would pay for a player.
The underlying danger in both of these strategies is that once a player is out the door, he may never come back. Both Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde claim they never received an offer from the Packers, but it’s possible that may not have been the plan.
It’s not impossible that the Packers would have liked to offer both players a contract but never had a chance to match or exceed offers from the Chargers and Bills.
Numerous factors could have led to such a situation playing out. Neither Hayward nor Hyde was pursued with an extension in-season and the Packers declined a chance to put in last minute bids before the players hit the open market. It’s quite possible the Packers had numbers in mind and would have offered given the chance, but Hayward and Hyde chose to move on before things got to that point.
Whether that’s what happened or not is ultimately inconsequential; the broader principles behind this strategy are sound, though not without their drawbacks. Ted Thompson employed them effectively for more than a decade as the Packers’ general manager, and Brian Gutekunst would be wise to follow them, even if he chooses to pursue outside free agents more aggressively.