By BOB McGINN
Indications are that the Green Bay Packers weren’t among the 50% of teams in the NFL that guaranteed portions of base salary as an enticement to sign the highest-rated undrafted rookies.
A sampling of the 14 free-agent contracts signed by the Packers revealed a business-as-usual approach followed by Russ Ball, the team’s executive vice president of football operations who sets company policy and negotiates deals.
Possibly as a result, Green Bay ended up with what appears to be a ho-hum collection of talent. Long a leader in production from free agents, the Packers’ 14-man contingent seems down in quality from previous years.
“Nothing exciting about this group,” an AFC executive in personnel said. “A low-budget accumulation.”
Of the 14 players, the AFC scout personally evaluated seven of the players. He rated Arizona guard Jacob Alsadek as a possible late-round draft choice and Northwestern nose tackle Tyler Lancaster as a priority free agent. He rejected Syracuse inside linebacker Parris Bennett, James Madison safety Raven Greene, Texas outside linebacker Naashon Hughes, Youngstown tight end Kevin Rader and Wisconsin defensive end Conor Sheehy.
An NFC personnel director said scouts for his club had filed reports on 12 of the 14 players. He regarded Richmond tackle-guard Alex Light and Duke center Austin Davis as the best of the bunch, followed by East Texas Baptist outside linebacker CJ Johnson and Rader.
“Lot of small-school guys,” the executive said. “It’s a pretty average group overall.”
The breakdown of the 14 shows eight from major programs (FBS), four from FCS programs, one from NCAA Division II and one from NCAA Division III.
Two players, tight end Damon Gibson and cornerback Chris Seisay, had agreed with the Packers only to flunk their physicals upon arrival in Green Bay. Gibson played for Division II Minnesota State-Moorhead whereas Seisay played at FCS Portland State.
In the last 10 years, 23 rookie free agents originally signed by the Packers made their 53-man roster for the first game. Of those 23 players, 19 hailed from FBS programs, two from Division II, one from FCS and one from Division III.
“More small school than I would have expected from ‘Gutey,’” a personnel man for an NFL team said in reference to GM Brian Gutekunst. “I expect big schools, big guys from him.”
For my draft series, I discuss probably 450 to 500 players (256 were drafted) with personnel people. Not that my list of players should in any way be considered the end-all or be-all, but the only two players among the Packers’ 14 newcomers that I discussed were Alsadek, my 20th-ranked tackle, and Sheehy. The only reason I had inquired about Sheehy was his state connections.
Last week, the Minnesota Vikings released a list of 17 rookie free agents that had agreed to terms. The Vikings (13-3 in 2017) are the team that the Packers (7-9 in ’17) must catch in the NFC North Division.
Of the Vikings’ 17 undrafted players, 14 came from FBS programs and three from FCS. I had discussed nine of the 17 with scouts.
Holton Hill of Texas was my No. 12 cornerback, Tray Matthews of Auburn was my No. 13 safety, Roc Thomas of Jacksonville State was my No. 14 running back, Hercules Mata’afa of Washington State was my No. 21 edge rusher and Garret Dooley of Wisconsin was my No. 25 edge rusher. I also had asked scouts about wide receivers Jeff Badet of Oklahoma, Korey Robertson of Southern Mississippi and Jake Wieneke of South Dakota State, and defensive tackle Curtis Cothran of Penn State.
Let’s make it clear that the objective of the draft series is to rank players as closely as possible to the NFL consensus. My ratings almost always reflect the consensus, or as close as it can be ascertained.
Based on pre-draft evaluations of NFL personnel men, my research would show that the Vikings signed better free agents than the Packers. That certainly could change once players put on pads in pro football.
How did the Vikings secure so many of the better undrafted players to join them?
“They bought them,” said a source familiar with the Vikings’ financial practices. “They guaranteed money on the base (salary).”
Each team was allotted $103,000 under the NFL’s rookie pool for free agents. That’s the maximum amount they can pay in signing bonuses. If a team was to pay $103,000 to one player, no other free agent could be paid a nickel.
Last year, the Packers ended up signing about 25 rookie free agents. Their highest signing bonus was $5,000.
This year, salary information is available for just five of Green Bay’s 14 rookie free agents. Their signing bonuses fell in a range from $2,000 to $6,000. Gibson had agreed to $4,000 before his deal fell through.
At this point, the signing bonuses for just 114 undrafted players league-wide are available. Of that group, the largest signing bonus was $25,000. It’s what Oakland paid kicker Eddy Pineiro of Florida and what Philadelphia paid running back Josh Adams of Notre Dame.
Signing bonus, however, no longer is the only financial method teams use to attract rookie free agents. In the past few years, teams also have been guaranteeing a small portion of the base salary in the first year.
The standard contract for a free agent is a minimal, if any signing bonus plus minimum base salaries of $480,000 in 2017, $555,000 in ’18 and $630,000 in ’19. If the player is released at the end of training camp, as the majority is, he never receives anything off his base salary.
Of the 114 players with contract data available, a total of 42, or 36.8%, received deals with partly guaranteed bases. The average guaranteed portion of the base was $22,088. Teams weren’t limited to how much they guaranteed.
Rob Brzezinski, the Vikings’ executive vice president of football operations and lead contract negotiator, guaranteed portions of the base salaries for all five players whose contract data was available. Those guarantees were $35,000 for Robertson, $30,000 for Dooley, $15,000 for Cothran and $10,000 each for Badet and defensive end Jonathan Wynn of Vanderbilt.
Minnesota also gave those five players signing bonuses totaling $48,000. The high was $15,000 for Robertson, the low was none for Wynn.
The Vikings are among a group of 15 teams that, based only on the 114 contracts, guaranteed some base salaries. The Packers are among a group of 16 that didn’t. There was no information for the 32nd team.
The decision by Green Bay and Ball not to guarantee any part of their rookies’ free agents shouldn’t be surprising. Their policy has been not to guarantee base salaries for veterans, either.
“Green Bay won’t do it,” said one NFL executive. “Green Bay is way too conservative.”
The risk is should the player be cut the guaranteed portion of his base salary would count against his team’s salary cap. If he is re-signed to the practice squad, however, his guarantees are knocked off the annual salary cap charge of $120,000 for a practice squad player. If the player is signed by another team to a practice squad or 53-man roster, his old team does receive credit on its salary cap.
“A lot of these guys are graded as sixth- and seventh-round picks,” one NFL agent said. “So the teams figure (bleep) it, we’ll give you $50,000. It’s the same as being a seventh-round pick.”
Based again on the 114 contracts, it’s probably not surprising that the most aggressive team when it comes to doling out guaranteed bases for rookie free agents was the champion Philadelphia Eagles. Doug Pederson’s high-risk, high-reward style of coaching seems to have trickled down to their money managers.
All seven of the Eagles’ known contracts contained guaranteed bases, and the combined total was $190,000. The combined signing bonuses for those seven players totaled $83,500.
Edge rusher Joe Ostman of Central Michigan, who had 28 sacks and my No. 23 edge rusher, said his agent was dealing with eight or nine teams (the Packers weren’t one) before they decided on the Eagles. Ostman signed for $20,000: $10,000 signing bonus, $10,000 guaranteed base.
“Obviously, the money in the long term won’t mean much if you make the team,” Ostman said Friday. “If it doesn’t work out, it’s something at least.
“It wasn’t necessarily for the money. More so because I felt they valued me. Coach Jim Schwartz (defensive coordinator) texted me toward the end of the draft. They said even if I don’t make their roster at defensive end first year I could still make it on special teams. I also felt I could learn from guys my size that are all-pro. Derek Barnett. Brandon Graham.
“I would have loved to have gone there (Green Bay). Just not the way it worked out.”
Counting Gibson and Seisay, I chatted briefly with 13 of the Packers’ 16 free agents. Not one said he had more than three other teams he could have joined. The scramble for Ostman among eight or nine teams reminded me of the three or even four free-agent additions by the Packers in many of the past five years that also had more than half a dozen suitors.
Why did Deon Yelder of Western Kentucky, my No. 11 tight end, sign with New Orleans? The $75,000 guaranteed base salary and $15,000 signing bonus sure didn’t hurt.
Why did Tarvarus McFadden of Florida State, my No. 13 cornerback, sign with San Francisco? Maybe because his guaranteed base was $70,000 and his signing bonus was $20,000.
From the small sample size of 114 players, 18 teams also inserted language into contracts giving at least one free agent a credited season for 2018, ’19 and ’20 rather than just 2018 and ’19. It’s a so-called “win” for the player and agent, another factor that in the frantic activity of a post-draft Saturday night can sway a player from one team to another.
At least on a six-player sample, Green Bay wasn’t one of the teams doing it.
Ball would like to adhere to his fiscal policies that he established with GM Ted Thompson after they joined forces in 2008. Agents have said Ball doesn’t like setting precedent. He can be stubborn, and team president Mark Murphy forever seemed to have his back until it came down to choosing a new general manager.
Every NFL roster in the salary-cap era demands low-priced players, and it’s obvious that the more capable those players are the better the entire team will be. It’s part of the reason Thompson and others in Green Bay’s personnel department proudly have been wont to say, “We leave no stone unturned.” Presumably, they were including Ball. Every single player on a 90-man roster is important; if they weren’t, teams could draft out of some publication and save millions of dollars.
The Packers can stay true to their contractual policies, sit back and rely on their name, their tradition, their facilities and their quarterback to deliver free agents to the NFL’s smallest city in an intensely competitive free-for-all for the top prospects.
But money always talks, in case they hadn’t notice.