Packers: Donald Driver Situation Puts Pressure on Ted Thompson
Speaking a day after his team had lost to the New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Round, Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver wasn’t having any of the speculation that he may be retiring after 13 NFL seasons.
And without actually saying it, Driver made it seem clear that continuing his career in another city had become a viable option.
“If the Packers don’t want me, I’ve got to go somewhere else and play,” Driver said. “I don’t have a choice. I’m not ready to hang the cleats up.”
That sound-byte from Driver probably caught Packers GM Ted Thompson a little off guard. A fair number of observers had envisioned 2011 being the 37-year-old’s final season.
The plot added another twist last Friday.
At a breakfast banquet in Milwaukee, Driver said that he’d be willing to take a pay cut to stay with the Packers in 2012, a statement that seemed to contradict his earlier feelings on wanting to play elsewhere if the Packers weren’t willing to keep him.
Driver is scheduled to make $2.6 million in base salary in 2012, plus a $2.2 million roster bonus due in March and another $200,000 workout bonus. Altogether, Driver’s cap number stands at $5 million. One of the main driving points for the potential release of Driver has been his cap number, and there’s likely no scenario in which he plays for the Packers next season at that price. Restructuring that $5 million number would seemingly make it easier to keep him on the roster.
However, Thompson is now in a tough spot. Every coin has two sides, and that premise applies here.
On one side, Driver is a respected team leader who worked his way up from the poverty-striken streets of Houston to the sandy beaches of four NFL Pro Bowls. Losing him would be an unquestioned blow to the Packers’ well-established locker room and the state of Wisconsin, where Driver has committed countless hours to improving the Green Bay community and state as a whole. Driver also proved there is still something left in the tank, catching six touchdowns during the regular season and being arguably the Packers’ most productive receiver in the playoff loss to the Giants.
But there’s another side to this decision. For starters, Driver is 37 years old. Football skills diminish rapidly at that age, and he has already lost several steps. Expecting Driver to match his 37 catches and 445 yards—both equaling Driver’s lowest production numbers since 2001—would be a stretch next season regardless of whose roster he’s on.
There’s also the looming reality that the younger players at Driver’s position in Green Bay—Randall Cobb, Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel—are probably deserving of increased roles in 2012.
Cobb, who as a rookie provided the Packers with a spark in the return game, has been equally electric in the passing game. But playing behind Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Driver at receiver, Cobb only saw 308 offensive snaps last season. Driver played on 562. An offseason of growth in the Packers offense could set up Cobb ready for a breakout year in his sophomore season, but only if the opportunities are available.
Interest in Gurley has been rampantly increasing. The undrafted free agent from South Carolina earned a spot on the practice squad in training camp, wowed veterans during the season with his play on the scout team, then spurned the rival Minnesota Vikings by turning down a spot on their active roster for a pay increase in Green Bay. You’d have to assume that Gurley stayed on the Packers practice squad partly due to the opportunity he could see in 2012 with Driver either retired or playing elsewhere. Who knows if Gurley would turn down the next chance to be on a 53-man roster, which are sure to be numerous if he’s forced back onto the Packers practice squad in 2012.
Fellow practice squad member Diondre Borel has been impressive and could push Gurley for the fifth receiver slot if Driver is gone next season.
There’s also the special teams factor, as Driver staying on as the fourth or fifth receiver doesn’t allow the Packers to get a contribution from the bottom of its receiving depth chart. Most teams expect those players to play on special teams, but Driver obviously hasn’t and wouldn’t be asked to do the same. Gurley and Borel—and in particular Gurley, who blocked several punts during training camp—could play right away on special teams and have an impact.
Driver’s willingness to take a pay cut puts a lot of pressure on Thompson during this process. Money isn’t an issue to Driver and it should now be a non-factor in if Thompson keeps or lets go the veteran receiver. Before, cutting a well-liked and universally respected receiver would have been a tough but understandable choice if it meant saving the Packers money on the cap. But now that Driver is willing to eliminate that hurdle to stay in Green Bay, the decision to part ways just got a lot more difficult.
I wrote recentlythat Thompson has no room for sentimental decision-making in building an NFL roster. I still think that applies here, and the best football move—regardless of public opinion and backlash—will eventually be made by Thompson. His track record in this regard is pretty cut and dry.
And if you don’t think a team will cut a tenured but aging receiver, look for further than the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are planning on cutting soon-to-be 36-year-old receiver Hines Ward, who, like Driver in Green Bay, leads the Steelers franchise in receptions and receiving yards and helped them win a Super Bowl. Ward has also expressed an interest in restructuring his contract to stay in Pittsburgh.
In the end, cutting Driver and letting the young receivers blossom is probably the best football decision. I’m positive that a combination of Cobb and Gurley or Borel can replace and possibly exceed what Driver contributes next season.
Driver has said that his goal is to play until he’s 40. Ted Thompson now has the difficult decision of deciding whether or not he attempts to accomplish that goal in Green Bay or elsewhere.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2