Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has been busy. In a very un-Packers way.
On one action-filled day, he facilitated a massive overhaul of Green Bay’s underwhelming defense, luring some of this year’s top free agents to Wisconsin behind big-money deals. First came budding edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, who parlayed his breakout 8.5-sack season in Baltimore into an average annual salary of $16.5 million with the Packers. The Bears were the next team to get poached, as Gutekunst found his Ha Ha Clinton-Dix replacement in Chicago safety Adrian Amos, who signed a four-year, $37 million deal.
Then came another pass rusher — this time linebacker Preston Smith from Washington. He’ll cost Green Bay up to $52 million for four years of service. The final domino, at least for now, was Broncos guard Billy Turner, who’ll shore up the interior of the offensive line for four years and $28 million.
In fewer than four hours, Gutekunst had come to terms with four top-100 free agents. He’d awarded more than $180 million in contracts. That’s all it took to totally re-shape Green Bay’s philosophy on team building.
This is unprecedented for the Packers, but it might be the league’s best free agent haul
It only took one morning for Green Bay to spend on the open market like the franchise never has before. From 2011-2018, the club came to terms with five outside free agents — Jeff Saturday, Julius Peppers, Jared Cook, Martellus Bennett, and Jimmy Graham — whose new deals paid them significantly more (>$1 million) than league’s average salary at their positions. Only one of those deals was aimed at fixing a homegrown defense.
On March 12, Gutekunst signed four such deals, three of which will boost a defense that wasn’t especially good in most situations and notably bad in others.
After spending $127.9 million on outside free agents over the past eight seasons, Green Bay handed out $183 million in contracts in the course of four hours. It’s a calculated gamble that could pay off in a major way.
The deals take care of two of the Packers’ biggest needs: pass rushing and over-the-top safety coverage. Neither of the front seven Smiths (new band name, I called it) are slam-dunk additions, but each has shown off a flair for breaking down pockets over the course of four-year careers and they’re both just 26 years old. There’s a good chance each is productive throughout all four years of their 2019 contracts.
Same goes for Amos, a rangy defender who developed from a fifth-round pick into Pro Football Focus’s third-ranked safety over the past three seasons. The every-down safety (he played 97.7 percent of Chicago’s defensive snaps in 2018) is a proper anchor who will allow developing young defensive backs like Jaire Alexander and Kevin King to soar.
That four-year mark isn’t a coincidence, either. All four of Tuesday’s reported signings logged deals that will keep these players in Wisconsin through the 2022 season — a year when quarterback Aaron Rodgers will celebrate his 39th birthday. Gutekunst isn’t just adding talent to pad out the potential end of Rodgers’ run in Green Bay he’s setting himself up for a clean rebuild and a handful of expiring contracts in the process.
We saw hints of Gutekunst’s 2019 plan in his 2018 spending as a rookie GM. His big splash game through signing Jimmy Graham to a three-year, $30 million contract to serve as Aaron Rodgers’ red zone sponge. That deal didn’t work out — Graham matched a career-low with only two receiving touchdowns — but it only convinced the budding executive to diversify his acquisitions and take a wider, spread-out approach to bringing new talent to Green Bay.
What’s next for Gutekunst and the Packers?
Green Bay doesn’t have much more room to spend. Releasing Nick Perry in the wake of the team’s other pass-rushing additions saved some cash, but he’ll still leave $11.1 million of his salary on the team’s spending sheet as dead money this spring. After accounting for all the the Packers’ new deals, they’ll only have somewhere between $6-8 million left to spend this offseason. That’ll go to a handful of depth players and some reclamation lottery tickets.
The more reliable pipeline to supplement Green By’s other needs in 2019 — namely at wide receiver — will come in April. The Packers have three of the first 44 selections in this year’s draft, including the 12th and 30th picks. Before Tuesday’s haul, Dan Kadar’s mock draft had them selecting edge rusher Brian Burns and tight end Noah Fant, two picks that fall in line with the consensus picks across the pre-draft landscape. That would give first-year head coach Matt LaFleur a pair of athletic specimens who could step into starting roles when September rolls around.
With the two Smiths on board, the Packers no longer have as much need for a pass rusher. That frees them up to take the best player available at No. 12, whether that’s Burns, Ed Oliver, or any other members of a deep upper crust of defenders. Green Bay could also feel more comfortable about trading back and recouping some extra Day 2 picks — where a concentrated group of good, not great offensive talent lies — or some 2020 draft assets in return.
Getting an impact playmaker in a draft without a ton of top-level offensive talent will be more difficult, but their late first/early second round position will allow plenty of opportunities to find the targets who can make Rodgers’ life easier.
A player like Fant — or his college teammate TJ Hockenson, who’s now in play with the No. 12 pick, or Alabama’s Irv Smith — would give the two-time MVP the reliable red zone and third down target Gutekunst hoped Graham would be. That would also make Graham a bit more replaceable; releasing him would save more than $5 million in cap space if LaFleur decides he can’t return to his old Pro Bowl form.
Green Bay is also in the market for an impact receiver to emerge next to Davante Adams, even after selecting three in last year’s draft. With players like Adam Humphries and John Brown each signing for $9 million annually, free agency is likely out of the picture. Expect the Pack to tweak last year’s strategy by targeting Rodgers’ next wideout from the college ranks — although this year they’ll do it before Day 3 (when they selected J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Equanimeous St. Brown in 2018, to varying returns).
Gutekunst’s monster day not only shores up some of Green Bay’s most glaring weaknesses, but also plays to its strengths. Adding a pair of young pass rushers can intensify Mike Pettine’s already freewheeling, aggressive defense. Signing one of the league’s most efficient safeties — away from the rival Bears, no less — adds another layer of protection in the secondary when that aggression backfires. Amos’ presence, along with the continued development of Alexander, King, and other recent early draft picks like Josh Johnson, Josh Jones, and STAR linebacker Oren Burks, should lead to major gains in the team’s passing defense.
That’ll give the Packers’ defense the opportunity to rise to the level of its offense. Rodgers remains a special player, and signing Turner not only gives him an extra layer of protection but also provides an extra blocker for runners like Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams to punish opponents on the ground. He may not be an immediate starter, but he’ll be a useful swing blocker who has played every position on the line in his five-season NFL career.
This week’s spending spree was a watershed moment for a franchise that had traditionally been reticent to throw cash at other teams’ free agents with a few high-profile exceptions. Gutekunst is betting his job on four big signings — but the good news is he’s walking away with four young, talented players who are all capable of making their deals look like bargains come 2021.
Green Bay’s battle against a post-Mike McCarthy lull will hinge on adding some extra targets to energize the team’s passing attack and give Rodgers all the ammunition he needs to end his career on a high note — and not spending his Sundays in January at home like he has the past two years.
Nailing free agency was a major win for the Packers. Now Gutekunst needs to do the same at the draft.