A brief look at the three most pressing issues facing new Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst. (Jan. 7, 2017)
GREEN BAY - In what amounted to his final pieces of business as general manager, Ted Thompson signed wide receiver Davante Adams and center Corey Linsley to contract extensions that will keep them with the Green Bay Packers for the foreseeable future.
Consider the deals a metaphorical welcome basket for Thompson’s replacement, Brian Gutekunst.
The Packers concluded their search for a new general manager Sunday by naming Gutekunst the successor to Thompson, who will transition to the role of senior adviser to football operations. And while signing Adams and Linsley to long-term deals crossed two important items off the checklist, Gutekunst is not lacking for work as the Packers attempt to rebound from a dismal 7-9 season that saw them finish third in the NFC North.
Here are five things Gutekunst must address in the coming months:
1. Sign Aaron Rodgers to extension
Rodgers will become the highest-paid player in the National Football League whenever he and the Packers agree on a new deal, which should take place this spring. At age 34, Rodgers remains in the prime of his career and has anywhere from four to seven quality seasons left to play. The Detroit Lions signed quarterback Matthew Stafford to a five-year, $135 million contract extension Aug. 29, 2017, to give him the largest salary in the league. His deal averages $27 million per year and included $60.5 million in guaranteed money. Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders (five years, $125.025 million) and Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts (five years, $122.970 million) round out the top three. Whatever terms Rodgers and the Packers agree on, expect them to be even bigger.
2. Solve WR puzzle
By re-signing Adams, who has taken over the No. 1 receiver role in Green Bay, the Packers could have three wideouts on the roster with cap numbers in excess of $10 million next season. Adams’ contract totaled $58.9 million over four years with an $18 million signing bonus. His cap number in 2018 is $10.6 million. Veterans Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson are on hefty contracts as well, which raises some questions as their production continues to slip. Cobb, who failed to reach 700 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons, has a cap number of $12.75 million next season. Nelson, who lost some of his explosiveness and had only 482 receiving yards, has a cap hit of $12.55 million. Gutekunst must consider whether to release Nelson or Cobb, pay them the full amount or ask to restructure their contracts.
3. Draft an edge rusher
As minor injuries nagged Clay Matthews and Nick Perry down the stretch, nothing was more apparent defensively than the Packers’ lack of depth at outside linebacker. Second-year pass rusher Kyler Fackrell, a third-round pick in 2016, has not produced the way Thompson hoped he would after 36 tackles for loss in three seasons at Utah State. Rookie Vince Biegel saw his growth stunted by foot surgery that cost him all of training camp. And at age 33, veteran Ahmad Brooks lacked the pop he had earlier in his career despite giving tremendous effort. The Packers have the No. 14 pick in this year’s draft after finishing 7-9. It is the first time they will pick in the top half of the first round since 2009, when Thompson drafted nose tackle B.J. Raji with the ninth overall selection. This might be the Packers’ best chance to draft a quality pass rusher who can contribute from day one, and Gutekunst surely knows it.
4. Evaluate Damarious Randall
In May of last year, the Packers exercised the fifth-year option on safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to mark the first time they had used the provision since it became part of the collective bargaining agreement in 2011. By picking up the option, Thompson kept Clinton-Dix under contract through 2018 by agreeing to pay him a guaranteed salary ($6 million) that is roughly four times what Clinton-Dix would have made in his fourth season. Gutekunst’s first opportunity to use the fifth-year option coincides with the 2015 draft, when Thompson selected cornerback Damarious Randall in the first round. There have been wild fluctuations in Randall’s performance through the first three years of his career, but he ended the 2017 season as the team’s best and most consistent cornerback. Gutekunst will need to make his own evaluation of Randall and decide if locking him up for a fifth year makes more sense than allowing him to become a free agent after next season.
5. Identify free-agent targets
It was somewhat cruel that when Thompson decided to dip his toe back into free agency his reward was the underachieving, under-motivated Martellus Bennett, a disastrous signing at tight end. The Packers inked Bennett to a three-year, $21 million contract last March and received 24 catches for 233 yards in return before cutting him around the midway point of the season. While that certainly could be a cautionary tale for avoiding free agency, Gutekunst should look at the rest of the league to see how valuable some of this year’s signings proved to be. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who won a playoff game Sunday, spent huge dollars on defensive end Calais Campbell (four years, $60 million) and cornerback A.J. Bouye (five years, $67.5 million). All Campbell did was earn Associated Press first-team All-Pro honors while setting the franchise record for sacks with 14½. Bouye picked off six passes and played in all 16 games for a defense that was among the two or three best in the league. Out west, the Los Angeles Rams gave left tackle Andrew Whitworth a three-year deal worth $33.75 million and watched him earn first-team All-Pro honors as well. There are impact players to be had if Gutekunst is willing to spend.