During the dreary 1970s and ’80s when the Packers enjoyed only four winning seasons, and labor disputes and lawsuits whittled away at the NFL’s control over player movement, their club executives and officers privately feared that if unfettered free agency ever became reality, Green Bay’s franchise would be all but doomed.
But here it is, 24 years later, and the Packers’ signing of Reggie White might still be the biggest coup since NFL owners basically granted players free agency, as we still know it today, in exchange for a salary cap. Not only that, but the Packers also have signed two other players that will likely join White in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Here are the Packers’ best unrestricted and veteran free-agent signings since 1993.
1. Reggie White, DE (1993) – White was the biggest prize of the first free-agent class and, arguably, had a bigger impact than any unrestricted free agent since. When Ron Wolf began his pursuit of White, players throughout the league viewed Green Bay as a hellhole. Today, by all appearances, many of them consider it one of the most desirable places to play. When White signed, his agent, Jimmy Sexton, said, “We shocked the world, didn’t we?” They sure did. And the shock waves are still being felt.
2. Charles Woodson, CB (2006) – When Oakland didn’t put the franchise tag on Woodson for a third straight year, he hit the free-agent market with more fanfare than suitors. In the end, Woodson had only one other option, Tampa Bay, and waited more than seven weeks before reaching his decision. Needing a better cornerback than Ahmad Carroll, Mike Sherman’s bust, General Manager Ted Thompson continued to patiently court Woodson and wound up with a player who sealed his Hall of Fame credentials with seven outstanding years in Green Bay. While the Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn’t ask players to pick the team they want to represent, it does designate a team where a player made his primary contribution. In some cases, it designates more than one team. That was the case with White. He’s listed as having made a primary contribution to both Philadelphia and Green Bay. The expectation is that when Woodson is inducted, both Oakland and Green Bay will be listed as his primary teams.
3. Santana Dotson, DT (1996) – Wolf signed three key free agents before the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI: Dotson, Desmond Howard and Don Beebe. Howard might have contributed more to the Packers winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy that year, but Dotson had more staying power. In six seasons with the Packers, he had 26 sacks, including 11 in their back-to-back Super Bowl seasons. The Packers signed Dotson as an unrestricted free agent after being outbid in their quest of linebacker and potential pass-rusher Cornelius Bennett, who chose Atlanta instead.
4. Ryan Pickett, DT (2006) – Two other teams in the hunt had an in with Pickett, but Thompson snatched him away from the St. Louis Rams, where he had played five seasons, and Buffalo, where Pickett’s former defensive line coach, Bill Kollar, was working. Choosing between Dotson and Pickett was a close call. In fact, they would have been a good match if they had played side-by-side in a traditional 4-3: Dotson as the primary pass-rusher and Pickett as the run-stuffer. What’s more, Pickett played one more season in Green Bay. But Dotson was given the edge because there’s a higher premium placed on pass-rushers.
5. Julius Peppers, DE (2014) – Thompson signed Peppers as a veteran free agent two days after the Chicago Bears waived him, and in three years with the Packers he has registered 25 of his 143½ career sacks. Overall, Peppers has played 15 seasons, including eight with Carolina and four with the Bears, and has had a much better career than Dotson and Pickett. Clearly, it also takes a special athlete to be as productive as Peppers has been in his mid to late 30s. But the future might dictate whether he’ll be listed in Canton as a primary contributor to the Packers. Hall of Fame safety Emlen Tunnell spent his final three seasons in Green Bay making a significant contribution to Vince Lombardi’s first three teams, but is listed as a primary contributor only for the New York Giants, where he spent 11 years.