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Packers need draft hits after quiet free agency period

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GREEN BAY, Wisc. - The five-year contract extension worth upward of $70 million given to Green Bay Packers All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews on Wednesday underscored one of the biggest NFL Draft heists in recent years.

General manager Ted Thompson, who was notorious for trading back to stockpile picks, dealt a second-round selection and two third-round choices to the New England Patriots to jump back into the first round. Thompson coveted Matthews, an unheralded player from Southern Cal with strong NFL bloodlines, and took him to pair with nose tackle B.J. Raji, whom Green Bay earlier grabbed at No. 9 in the 2009 draft.

"It's when you think you see value," Thompson said Thursday, touching on his philosophy for trading up or trading down with the 2013 draft a week away.

"It's a tradeoff," he explained. "You know that you're giving up something if you trade up, and you know that you're giving up something in terms of opportunity to maybe take a particular player if you go backwards."

That's not to say Thompson is angling to move out of the No. 26 spot in the first round of the draft - the same place Matthews went four years ago.

The Packers have been accustomed to picking near or at the end of the opening round the past few years as a result of their successes the preceding seasons. Being toward the back end on the first night of the three-day draft April 25 isn't doing Thompson any favors in trying to project which players still will be on the board when it's Green Bay's turn to pick.

"I don't know that yet, and I'm not going to know that," Thompson said. "Probably when I first came back here in 2005 (to become the GM), I was a little cockier about, 'Yeah, I know what's going to happen,' and all that. But, as you get older, you start to lose that edge, I think, a little bit, or you fool yourself into so much that you realize you're making mistakes and you didn't know. So, I try not to predict. I try just to make sure that if this guy's on our board in a position to pick, that if he's there, we'll consider picking him."

Unpredictability is the draft catchword with Thompson, who again broke from his once-conservative convention by trading up three times in last year's proceedings.

What is a given is Thompson annually treats the draft as the Super Bowl of the Packers' offseason. He forgoes the recruitment of prized free agents, preferring instead to zero in on young prospects with the premise of breeding homegrown talent to keep in Green Bay for many years, a la Matthews and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (first round, 2005).

So, a year after having just eight picks, Thompson may be compelled to take a step back in the early rounds of the draft and wind up with a haul of players in the double digits. Green Bay enters the seven-round draft with eight selections, including a compensatory choice in the fifth round.

"It's like (retired Packers GM) Ron (Wolf) always said, 'It's kind of like baseball, you're not going to get a hit every time you go to the plate, but if you have more swings you have a better chance at getting a hit,'" Thompson said. "I think, in general philosophy, I'd rather have more than less, yes. But, at the end of the day, I'd rather have more quality than anything. But, quality and quantity both is a nice thing."

Given Thompson's track record in overseeing the Packers' last eight drafts, he will be inclined to make a pick the first night. The only time Green Bay traded out of the first round on Thompson's watch was 2008, when he dropped back to No. 36 early in the second round and landed receiver Jordy Nelson.

Even with the emergence of Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb the last few seasons, the selection of a wideout early in this year's draft, including Round 1, wouldn't be surprising. The Packers go as their Rodgers-led passing game goes, and they lost a key component when veteran Greg Jennings signed with the rival Minnesota Vikings in free agency.

Tight end Jermichael Finley is entering the final year of his contract, thus Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert may be seen as quite the catch for filling a potential pass-catching void.

The emphasis on moving the football through the air in head coach Mike McCarthy's offense has devalued running back. The Packers last had a 1,000-yard rusher in 2009.

Yet, they could be tempted to make a play on Alabama's Eddie Lacy or Wisconsin's Montee Ball in the early rounds to give them an added dimension in the backfield.

Or, perhaps the train wreck that ensued in San Francisco in January, when the Packers were run over in record-setting fashion by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers in a 45-31 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs, will leave Thompson with little choice but to take a defensive mindset into the draft again. His first six draft picks last year were defensive players.

Green Bay has to replace Charles Woodson at safety after releasing the veteran standout in February. The Packers also may have a few holes to plug on the defensive line and at outside linebacker opposite the richly rewarded Matthews.

"At the end of the day ... when we make that call and draft that player, we're trying our best to draft the best player," Thompson said.

Notebook

--Ted Thompson's shrewdness and uncharacteristically bold move on the first day of the 2009 NFL Draft has paid big dividends for the Packers the last four seasons.

"You never know how it's going to work, but that was something we felt was important and worthy at the time," Thompson, Green Bay's general manager, recalled Thursday about parting with three high draft picks to jump up to take USC linebacker Clay Matthews at No. 26 in the first round.

"As an organization, we liked him, and we liked the things that he would bring to our defense," Thompson added.

After becoming the first Packers player selected to the Pro Bowl each of his first four pro seasons, ranking in the NFL's top five for sacks since 2009 with 42.5 and helping Green Bay win the league title in 2010, Matthews is being paid accordingly.

He assumed the mantle of highest-paid linebacker in the NFL on Wednesday, when he signed a five-year contract extension. The deal, which locks up Matthews through the 2018 season, contained a $20.5 million signing bonus and is worth more than $69.75 million.

Matthews, who turns 27 next month, vowed to not get complacent even as the money starts rolling in. He stands to make $29 million the next two years alone.

"It's going to continue," Matthews said of living up to his reputation as a pass-rushing menace for opponents. "The numbers, I'm going to continue to put them up. I'm going to continue to lead this defense."

By ensuring Matthews, who would have been entering the final year of his rookie contract, stays in green and gold for the long haul, next up is backing up a Brink's truck at Lambeau Field to make quarterback Aaron Rodgers a richer man.

The blockbuster contract extension for Rodgers, who's destined to become the league's highest-paid player, should happen any day with the Packers' offseason workout program under way.

"Hopefully, that's the next order of business," Matthews said. "Being good friends with him, represented by the same agent (David Dunn), who knows, hopefully that's sooner than later."

Green Bay had the financial resources - about $18 million under this year's salary cap - to pull off the double play of rewarding their top two players in a huge way this offseason. Taking care of Rodgers on the heels of doing so for Matthews comes with the quarterback still under contract for two more seasons.

Thompson suggested Thursday the big cap hits for Rodgers and Matthews in the coming years won't preclude the team from spending at other positions.

"Rarely, if ever, do I speak of money," Thompson said. "But, in the general sense, I will say this, we understand the restraints and the requirements of the salary cap, we understand and we think how to build a team to go forward, and other than that I really wouldn't have a comment."

Matthews is optimistic about what the future holds for keeping the core of the team intact.

"One thing this organization does well - I know we catch a little heat sometimes - (is) that we like to build through the draft and develop our players, and we've done a great job of that," Matthews said. "Our free agents are the ones who were up on their contracts. It's no different than Aaron, myself or whoever's up next. I'll leave that to them, but for the most part we've had some success here over the last few years in maintaining players, and I don't see it to be any different (now)."

--With the focus in the early spring clearly on getting the extensions done for Matthews and Rodgers, Thompson hasn't been active in free agency. In fact, the Packers don't have a significant roster addition thus far.

However, they took at least a passing interest in Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon. A restricted free agent, McLendon visited the Packers on Wednesday.

It's unclear whether Green Bay had enough of an interest to make McLendon, 27, an offer and force the Steelers' hand on whether to match it.

That became a moot point Thursday afternoon when the Steelers announced they re-signed McLendon to a three-year contract. Pittsburgh previously tendered McLendon at the low level, meaning the Steelers wouldn't have been owed a draft pick as compensation had they let him sign with another team since he came into the league as an undrafted player.

--Thompson was typically evasive when asked in his pre-draft news conference about the possibility of bringing back veterans Cedric Benson and Charles Woodson.

On running back Benson, who reportedly is nearly fully recovered from the season-ending broken foot he sustained in October, Thompson said: "He's an unrestricted free agent and (he has) the injury thing we've got to get past. But, we'll see."

As for perhaps re-signing 36-year-old defensive back Woodson, a 15-year veteran whom Green Bay released in February for financial reasons, Thompson remarked: "Oh, I wouldn't care to speculate on things like that."

--The Packers have yet to compensate for the offseason departures of veteran starter Greg Jennings (signed with Minnesota in free agency) and Donald Driver (retired) from their stable of receivers. That could be addressed as early as the first night of the NFL Draft, which runs April 25-27.

In the meantime, Green Bay gave a boost to what had fast become thin numbers at the wideout position by signing street free agent Sederrik Cunningham on Tuesday. The Packers have just six receivers on the roster, including the playmaking trio of Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb.

The 5-11, 192-pound Cunningham went undrafted out of Furman in 2012 and didn't hook on with any teams.

Cunningham's production in a four-year college career included 95 receptions for an average of 12.6 yards per catch with seven touchdowns, 29 rushing attempts for an average of 8.2 yards and 66 kickoff returns for an average of 23.5 yards and a touchdown.

Cunningham is considered a rookie on the roster for the Packers, who assigned him No. 13.

--Tight end Jermichael Finley took to Twitter on Thursday to make a pledge to help the victims of the bombing incidents near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday.

Finley, whose propensity for dropped passes in recent seasons has been well-documented, tweeted that he will donate $500 for each touchdown he scores and each drop he has next season to the The One Fund Boston relief fund.

"Now fans can cheer & boo me @ the same time!" Finley wrote on his Twitter page.

New England Patriots receiver Danny Amendola is doing something similar with donations of $100 per catch and $200 per drop.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm glad they have put their trust in me and belief in me in awarding me this, but at the same time you're going to get the same type of unwavering perseverance on the field and dedication that I'm going to bring day in and day out. I feel good, but not much has changed." - Clay Matthews, on becoming the NFL's highest-paid linebacker with a five-year contract extension worth nearly $70 million.

TEAM NEEDS

Safety: The cost-saving release of 36-year-old Charles Woodson shortly after last season didn't come as a surprise, but has left a significant void in the starting lineup. Young prospects Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings have some upside, but the Packers could do better for pairing a viable playmaker alongside Morgan Burnett.

Defensive end: Ryan Pickett continued to be productive last season, but the 12-year veteran is signed through only next season, when he will turn 34. Standout nose tackle B.J. Raji, who has been a versatile commodity on the line for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, also will be entering the final year of his rookie contract if an extension doesn't transpire. What's more, the Packers may be without young prospect Jerel Worthy come opening day in September, if not the entire season, as he recovers from a torn ACL sustained in late December.

Wide receiver: Having a playmaking trio of Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb hardly constitutes the position as a big need - some would argue running back is a greater priority to bolster the offense. Yet, Green Bay must move on without accomplished starter Greg Jennings, who signed with the archrival Minnesota Vikings in free agency, as well as Donald Driver, its all-time leading receiver who retired. Getting another quality target for Aaron Rodgers would be sensible for what still remains a pass-first offense.
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