Aaron Nagler fielded Packers fans' questions in a Facebook Live chat Friday afternoon. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
ORLANDO, Fla. - Perhaps it was telling that the first words from Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy were designed to soften the public’s expectations of what the franchise will accomplish on the open market.
Free agency was 12 days old when Murphy addressed the media Sunday during the annual league meeting at The Ritz-Carlton, and in that stretch the Packers had seemingly taken as many steps backward as forward: They traded cornerback Damarious Randall and signed defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson; they cut wide receiver Jordy Nelson and replaced him with tight end Jimmy Graham; they allowed safety Morgan Burnett to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers and instead rekindled their relationship with Tramon Williams, a 35-year-old cornerback who spent the best years of his career at Lambeau Field.
All told, the first wave of activity feels more like a wash than a net positive, and Murphy used his initial public forum as a means of course correction for Gutekunst’s more forceful rhetoric.
“I think he used the term aggressive, but I think it’s more that we’re more active, we’re participating in things that we haven’t in the past," Murphy said. "We’re not going to sign everybody, and obviously with the salary cap there’s limitations, but I think he’s looking at every avenue to try to improve the team.
“Obviously time will tell. We’ve made a couple major decisions, both in terms of releasing some players or allowing players to leave in free agency, and then obviously a few signings and a trade as well. But I’m very pleased with what Brian has been doing.”
Murphy’s vantage point of free agency is a new one for the Packers, whose power structure was torn down and rebuilt following transition from former general manager Ted Thompson to Gutekunst. With an increased involvement in football operations, Murphy positioned himself to survey the interactions of Gutekunst and executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball, the two most important players in building the Packers’ roster.
Murphy said the revised power structure translated to extra time spent with Gutekunst and Ball during their initial free-agent cycle. He visited their offices more often and was privy to discussions involving the many factors the Packers consider when evaluating players, namely salary parameters and medical history.
Still, Murphy said he tried to take a hands-off approach as free agency unfolded.
“Obviously I think anybody who is in a position like mine, you hire really good people and you allow them to do their job,” Murphy said. “When doing their job requires working well together with others, (you’re) making sure that that’s occurring.”
While there are obvious benefits to a smooth working environment, it hasn’t translated to the type of open-market success many fans expected following Gutekunst’s introduction in January. The Packers missed on all the top cornerbacks in free agency and haven't signed a first-tier player at the positions coach Mike McCarthy considers primary in today's game. A fair assessment probably rests somewhere in the middle, with the public expecting a little too much and the Packers being a touch too conservative.
But that doesn't mean Gutekunst hasn't moved in the right direction. Murphy said the differences between Gutekunst's approach and Thompson's are visible on a daily basis, whether that be exploring a larger pool of players or considering tools that were left in the shed for years — i.e., signing cornerback Kyle Fuller to an offer sheet after the Chicago Bears had already applied the transition tag.
Murphy went out of his way to praise Thompson for the rare free-agent signings that made crucial differences — with defensive back Charles Woodson as the obvious example — but admitted that Gutekunst is approaching the roster in a manner more compatible with the modern, wheeling-and-dealing nature of the National Football League.
When it comes to free agency, the Packers are learning to walk before they can run.
“Obviously Brian spent a lot of time underneath Ted and has been trained by him, but he’s his own person, too,” Murphy said. “And as I said, time will tell. But I’m optimistic that some of the changes that we’ve made will really turn out to be very positive for us.”