GREEN BAY — While he clearly isn’t a clone of his mentor and predecessor, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst’s core philosophies about roster building aren’t vastly different from what Ted Thompson espoused, believe it or not.
Sure, as he showed with the four-member free agent class — outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and offensive lineman Billy Turner — the Packers introduced Thursday, Gutekunst is certainly ready, willing and able to use the free agent market. And he hasn’t ruled out adding a few more veterans from the market, either.
But as Gutekunst has said many times, he still believes excelling during the NFL draft is the proper way to build a Super Bowl-contending team.
But when you don’t hit on your draft picks and your personnel isn’t good enough — and make no mistake, after back-to-back playoff-less seasons, Gutekunst was acutely aware the Packers’ roster definitely was inadequate — Gutekunst knows you have to take action.
And that’s what he did, with his eye on getting his team back to the postseason and giving first-year coach Matt LaFleur the best chance to win
“I think our roster at the time, this was something we needed to do to help our team,” Gutekunst explained Thursday. Later, he added, “Obviously this is Green Bay, Wisconsin. We’re in a ‘win now’ mode all the time. I thought we needed to add to our defense significantly. And I think these guys will.”
If there is one trait all four of the Packers’ signees share, it’s that they all are what Gutekunst described as “young, ascending players.” None of them are the household names that recent prominent free agent signings — Charles Woodson in 2006, Julius Peppers in 2014, Jimmy Graham last year — were before arriving in Green Bay.
Instead, none of the four has gaudy numbers or has had what you could truly consider a “breakout” season, with Za’Darius Smith’s 8.5-sack, 60-quarterback pressure season last year for Baltimore being the closest to one. Preston Smith had only four sacks last year for Washington; Amos has just three career interceptions with Chicago; and Turner has only started 25 games in his five NFL seasons with three teams (Miami, Baltimore, Denver).
“We did want guys that we thought that their best football was ahead of them,” Gutekunst said. “I think all four of these guys probably had their best seasons last year and I think their best football is (ahead of them). They were trending in the right direction. So, I do think that’s the way we look at it. It doesn’t always happen that way, but I think all four of these guys have really good football ahead of them.”
For instance, 26-year-old Za’Darius Smith had just 10 sacks during his first three NFL seasons after coming into the league as a fourth-round pick from Kentucky. But the Packers have had their eye on him for years, having been interested in him during the 2015 draft and also having tried to acquire him via a trade, Gutekunst said.
“It wasn’t basically a jump (last year). I would say I’ve had the tools to do what I’ve done (all along),” Smith said. “But it all came together and I focused in. … What I did is I took advantage of my opportunity and made the best out of it, and as you can see the potential that I had for last season is paying off now.”
His running mate, Preston Smith, had eight-sack seasons in 2015 as a rookie and again in 2017 but acknowledged the Packers will be counting on him to pressure quarterbacks more consistently, as he did with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a 2015 NFC wild card game, when he sacked Rodgers for a safety.
“I feel like I have a high ceiling and I just have to keep working on my craft, perfecting my techniques,” he said. “I put pressure on myself, I have high expectations of myself.”
Amos comes to Green Bay after an up-and-down four-year stint in Chicago, where he was an all-rookie team pick his first year, then lost his starting role in his second season before moving back into the starting lineup. The Bears, coincidentally, filled his spot with ex-Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, whom the Packers traded to Washington last October. Clinton-Dix signed a reported one-year, $3.5 million deal with Chicago; Amos’ deal is four years and $37 million.
“It was a bumpy road at Chicago,” Amos said. “Down years and up years — it’s just an up-and-down battle. You just have to stay the course.”
Turner has played every spot on the offensive line except center during his five seasons, and he figures to be given every opportunity to win the starting right guard job on an offensive line that should be set at tackle (David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga), center (Corey Linsley) and left guard (Lane Taylor).
“The film that I was able to put out there over the years has only gotten better and better year by year,” Turner said. “Obviously, I haven’t been a guy that started every single game and started on every team that he’s been a part of, but at the same time every year that I’ve been in this league, I’ve gotten better. And I think my best years are in front of me.”
Meanwhile, Gutekunst didn’t rule out more free agent additions, especially now that the expensive first wave of spending is over and bargains could be found. Although he didn’t sound optimistic about free agent outside linebacker Clay Matthews returning (“He will help somebody if it’s not us”), Gutekunst said there will be more options. He also said the free agent additions will give him greater flexibility in next month’s NFL draft.
“At the end of the day, it’s what you do on the field,” Gutekunst said. “There’s a lot of hope right now and we’re really excited right now. We think this made us better, but we’ve got a long ways to go before we get to training camp and beyond.
“But we’re excited right now.”