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The Packers are taking some risks to get the most of Aaron Rodgers’ prime

Green Bay is spending in free agency to give its star QB room to thrive.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Rodgers has worked best with homegrown talent. The Green Bay Packers never really gave him many other options — until recently.

The franchise that owns the smallest local market of any major American sports team has traditionally built its rosters from the ground up, developing draft picks into NFL stars rather than spending lavishly to attract other team’s players to northeastern Wisconsin. Though there are a few high profile exceptions — Reggie White in 1993, Julius Peppers in 2014 — the Packers have typically built their postseason contenders off the strength of the players they plucked fresh out of college.

But that philosophy is beginning to shift as Rodgers inches toward his late 30s.

Green Bay has taken a more proactive approach in adding established talent to its roster as its star quarterback gets older. Recent seasons have seen more and more players flock to Lambeau Field after starting their careers elsewhere. And while the biggest names have been targets to help boost Rodgers’ game, general managers Ted Thompson and Brian Gutekunst have also addressed the team’s defensive deficiencies in ways the team had previously neglected.

Green Bay has been signing more non-Packers free agents than ever the past two seasons

The Packers’ most recent Super Bowl win and the eight-year playoff streak that surrounded it was a product of the shrewd drafting that brought players like Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to Wisconsin. Green Bay has placed a premium on retaining its emerging young talent and been able to build a contender as a result.

In the past two years, however, the team has turned to free agency more and more to mitigate some lacking draft returns. The Packers rated behind only the Browns in terms of first-round busts since 2000, missing on players like Datone Jones and Derek Sherrod. Other contributors like Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde, and Damarious Randall have either left as free agents or been traded away. The impact of these losses shines through the team’s free agent spending sheet.

Packers free agent signings from other teams, 2011-2018

Year New FAs signed Most expensive FA Total Spent Average annual salary for FAs
Year New FAs signed Most expensive FA Total Spent Average annual salary for FAs
2011 0 n/a n/a n/a
2012 4 Jeff Saturday $9,865,000 $1,497,500
2013 1 Matthew Mulligan $820,000 $820,000
2014 2 Julius Peppers $27,000,000 $4,833,500
2015 0 n/a n/a n/a
2016 2 Jared Cook $5,850,000 $1,725,000
2017 7 Martellus Bennett $36,325,000 $2,903,571
2018 5 Jimmy Graham $42,700,000 $4,740,000

From 2011 to 2016, the Packers doled out exactly one contract worth more than $4 million per year to free agents from other NFL teams — and that was a high-profile signing of Peppers away from the Chicago Bears. In the past two years, they’ve awarded four such contracts.

It’s a shift in strategy that’s even survived a regime change. Thompson’s last offseason ended with two relatively high-profile tight end signings: Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks. He was fired after the team’s playoff streak ended in 2017, and Gutekunst, his replacement, made a splash by ... signing two relatively high-profile tight ends: Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis. As the chart shows, Gutekunst has gone even further to haul in the broadest free agent class in the team’s recent history.

That may be a strategy that dries up in upcoming years after the Packers dedicating more than $100 million in guarantees to keeping Rodgers — but adding a couple more targets is almost as much about keeping the Packers’ franchise quarterback happy as his record-setting deal.

But are the players the Packers sign too old to really help?

The Packers’ biggest acquisitions on the offensive side of the ball haven’t been big-money players entering their second pro contracts — the 26- and 27-year-old stars with the potential to reset the market at their positions. Instead, the team is inking players with name value who have struggled to live up to the expectations set by past production.

The enormous red flag example is what happened with Bennett in 2017. Bennett came to Green Bay to serve as a security blanket for Rodgers, an athletic tight end who doubled as an insurance policy in case Cobb’s and Nelson’s level of play declined. Instead of replicating his high-value performance with the Patriots in 2016, Bennett had just 24 catches and zero touchdowns in seven games before injury issues and in-fighting led to his release just months after signing a three-year, $21 million deal.

The Packers are tempting fate again with Graham, who was even more expensive at $30 million over three seasons. Graham will be 32 in 2018; Bennett was 30 in 2017. Graham is also coming off a season where he posted his lowest receiving numbers since entering the league as a basketball-playing rookie in 2010: 57 catches, 520 yards, and a career-low 9.2 yards per reception.

But Graham is the kind of red zone target who should mesh perfectly with the Packers offense. He’s averaged 8.6 touchdowns per season in his career, which included a 10-touchdown performance in 2017. Pairing him with Davante Adams (10 touchdowns in 14 games last season) should help replace the scoring punch vacated by Nelson, who scored 33 touchdowns in his last three active seasons with the team.

Graham isn’t the only finely aged veteran signed away by Gutekunst this spring. Tramon Williams returned to Green Bay on a two-year, $10 million deal to stabilize the Packers’ inconsistent secondary. The 35-year-old was an undrafted free agent back in 2006 and worked his way up to appearing in all 16 games for the team the following year. Then there’s longtime Jaguars tight end Lewis, who has been frustrating your fantasy teams since 2006.

Even the relatively young star signing Gutekunst lured to the Midwest has warts. Defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson will be just 29 years old this fall, but his production fell off significantly from his 2015 Pro Bowl level in the past two seasons with a dysfunctional Jets team. Green Bay is betting he’ll return to form in a more stable environment, but it’s worth noting Wilkerson is the same age former Packers defensive line standout B.J. Raji was when he played his final season in the league.

Green Bay is buying in on a more aggressive free agency plan in order to maximize the third phase of Rodgers’ career, but none of its recent moves are slam-dunk hires. The Packers have addressed some of their biggest weaknesses by adding players like Bennett, Graham, Williams, and Wilkerson this offseason, but there’s evidence to suggest they’re spending on players who’ve already put their best years in the rear view.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a revival in Wisconsin. Just that it might take some special performances from Aaron Rodgers to get there.