It's still early in the NFL offseason, but the Green Bay Packers' roster has gotten younger in a hurry. During the past month, the team has cleared out its three oldest players with the release of Charles Woodson and the retirements of Donald Driver and Jeff Saturday.
The Packers now have only two players signed for the 2013 season who are over the age of 30: defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (33) and fullback John Kuhn (30).
Green Bay had the NFL's second-youngest team in 2011 and the sixth-youngest team in 2012. If no veteran players are added to offset the loss of Driver, Woodson and Saturday, the Packers could open next season with the youngest team in the league.
It hasn't been by accident that Green Bay's roster has lacked veteran players. For years, general manager Ted Thompson has shown his preference to have a young team that is built through the draft, while letting players with more experience -- who therefore make more money -- continue their careers elsewhere.
This offseason could be different for Thompson, though.
During the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the GM may have tipped his hand a bit about his upcoming plans to fill out the roster.
"I don't think we're going to be too young when it's all said and done," Thompson said at the end of his answer when asked about having only two players over 30 signed for 2013.
Notice how Thompson summarized his statement: "When it's all said and done." That is the key.
"I think we've got a lot of leadership," Thompson said. "We have a good core and it's made up of veteran players. But the game continues to evolve. Your team continues to evolve. You have to be prepared for it, and I think we have been."
The NFL draft in late April will only make the Packers younger. There's no Brandon Weeden in this year's draft class, so picking up a 28-year-old rookie isn't going to be an option. Therefore, Thompson's statement could be an indication that Green Bay's front office intends to deviate from its typical team-building game plan and make a splash in free agency.
The Packers have already reportedly showed interest in 30-year-old defensive end Chris Canty, who was released in early February by the New York Giants. If signed, Canty would become the third-oldest player on Green Bay's current roster.
It's also possible that the Packers could reunite with 32-year-old defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, who was released this week by the Philadelphia Eagles. Jenkins played his first seven NFL seasons in Green Bay, but Thompson wasn't interested in re-signing him when his market value was high two years ago.
There's a long list of veteran players available who the Packers could consider, if in fact Thompson decides to go that route when free agency begins March 12. Green Bay has needs on offense and defense that could be addressed with proven veterans.
There isn't a shortage of running backs on the roster with DuJuan Harris, James Starks and Alex Green all signed for next season, but adding a player with a track record of success could give the offense better balance. Former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw wouldn't fit into the 30-plus category with Pickett and Kuhn, but the soon-to-be 27-year-old is available after being released by New York. Bradshaw is ranked by ProFootballFocus.com as the best free-agent running back available. Other veteran options include Steven Jackson (29) or re-signing Cedric Benson (30).
A veteran free agent also could give Marshall Newhouse competition at left tackle, or help in case Derek Sherrod isn't ready yet for a starting role. Longtime Viking Bryant McKinnie, 33, played every postseason snap for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and won't command a big contract. After investing first-round draft picks in Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past three years, it's doubtful that the Packers will spend big on some of the more marquee names such as Sebastian Vollmer or Jake Long. With starting guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang locked into long-term deals and coach Mike McCarthy pleased with center Evan Dietrich-Smith, Green Bay is unlikely to sign a starting-caliber interior offensive lineman like the team did a year ago with Saturday.
On defense, safety is an area of need. After Nick Collins' neck injury in 2011 and now the release of Woodson, Green Bay could add a veteran to start next to Morgan Burnett. Ed Reed is the flashy name on the list of free agents. Though his production was way down in 2012, Reed -- at age 34 -- could be a defensive leader added at a relatively cheap cost to replace Woodson.
There isn't much help available at inside linebacker, with Packers free agent Brad Jones and former Packer Nick Barnett being two of the best free-agent options. At outside linebacker, Green Bay will certainly want to give 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry every opportunity to start opposite Clay Matthews next season. That should rule the Packers out from chasing a big-name pass-rushing outside linebacker in free agency.
On the defensive line, Canty and Jenkins are both realistic options.
So, when it's all said and done, those could be a few of the veteran players the Packers could target in free agency. But, if Thompson opts to stick to his normal philosophy and add players only through the draft, Green Bay's roster won't have nearly as many veteran leaders as it has in recent years.
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