PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In recent years, I would arrive at the NFL owners meetings in late March to annual questions on the Green Bay Packers' apparent abdication of the free-agent market. What are the Packers up to? That's what officials from other teams wanted to know. My answer was always the same: This isn't Packers season. That starts at the end of April.
This year? Not so much. Last week, center Jeff Saturday became the first unrestricted free agent to sign with the Packers in three years. The team also hosted defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove on a visit, and reports suggest defensive end Dave Tollefson and offensive tackle Demetrius Bell could also visit in the next week or so.
Already, it's the most active stretch of free agency for general manager Ted Thompson since 2006, when he signed defensive lineman Ryan Pickett and cornerback Charles Woodson. Indeed, as of Tuesday, Pickett, Woodson and Saturday remain the only players on the Packers' roster to have been acquired as an unrestricted free agent.
What has gotten into Thompson? Did the Packers' early exit from the 2011 playoffs spur a change of philosophy? Did somebody sprinkle the Lambeau Field coffee with extra caffeine?
Not if you ask Thompson, as a few of us did this week here at the NFL owners meetings. Thompson smiled and said: "I know you guys don't believe me. But we're always active in free agency."
Right. And I hit the treadmill every day, too.
Thompson added: "There have been years, a couple years in a row when we haven't actually signed anybody. It doesn't mean that we weren't active, pursuing leads, trying to understand the market, doing all of that. … Sometimes the market runs away from you, and you keep your hands in your pocket."
In all seriousness, it's not as if the Packers have stayed pat as a rule over the years. In 2009, for example, they expressed interest in defensive lineman Chris Canty but wouldn't make him an offer before he visited Green Bay, as he demanded.
Still, it's hard to look at what's happened so far in 2012 and write it off as random. Given his druthers, I think we know Thompson would prefer to remain in the background in March. So I see at least a couple issues at play here.
First, and most important, the Packers have encountered what I could call "Ted Thompson's Imperfect Storm." The Packers have specific needs at important positions where depth is thin and the draft provides an untenable risk. That was certainly the case at center, a position that might rank second to quarterback in order of importance in the Packers' offense and had no obvious heir on the roster.
Thompson acknowledged that teams have found immediate starters at center in the draft, but that player almost certainly couldn't shoulder the play-calling responsibilities of a Packers center even if he was physically ready to compete with NFL-caliber defensive linemen.
In his typical understated way, Thompson said: "I think it's an important position. The whole makeup on our offense. We asked [former center Scott Wells] to do a lot. We'll ask Jeff to do a lot. … I do think in free agency you're able to target more specific things as opposed to the draft when we try to take the best player."
The same could be said of the Packers' clear focus on pass-rushers. The Packers have a clear need for a right end and an outside linebacker to play opposite Clay Matthews. But in the current pass-happy era of the NFL, you better believe that the other 31 teams are deeply in need of pass-rushers as well. Now more than ever, the Packers would be foolish to close the door on every possible avenue for upgrades.
Second, I wonder if the Packers weren't at least cautioned by their experience with former defensive end Cullen Jenkins last year. Their anticipated succession plan, 2010 second-round draft pick Mike Neal, suffered a training camp knee injury and made little impact. It's difficult to project injuries, even for a player like Neal who has endured more than his share. But the Packers' diminished pass rush made a huge impact on their defensive struggles, thus highlighting the risk in counting on unestablished players at key positions.
Every team would love to follow the Packers' style from recent years, relying almost entirely on drafted players to win the Super Bowl. But you wonder if they were the exception to the rule. Even the best teams need help from the outside at least occasionally, and credit Thompson for acting on that -- even if he did it with his nose pinched and his eyes closed tightly.
Yes, Thompson admitted that he wasn't at Lambeau Field when Saturday arrived last week for his recruiting visit. He was at Iowa's pro day instead. He called Saturday to make sure there would be no hard feelings about his absence and said it was more critical for coach Mike McCarthy to handle the visit. To quote one of my favorite movies: Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.