GREEN BAY – When all seven rounds of his first NFL draft were done, Brian Gutekunst made it clear his work was not finished. His was an incomplete roster. Even with 11 picks, the Green Bay Packers' new general manager couldn’t address every need.
One month later, Gutekunst followed through with a pair of signings that directly address roster deficiencies. It’s too early to know what roles tackle Byron Bell and tight end Marcedes Lewis will have with the Packers, but both could conceivably play significant snaps this fall.
For a franchise often adverse to free agency, such signings have been rare.
“I think it goes back to Brian’s comments,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “and just the conversations we had. Player acquisition is a 12-month process, and there’s definitely a pool of players that come available at this time of year.”
True, most NFL teams continue signing free agents deep into the spring. The Packers rarely took that approach in the past, especially with players new to their franchise. Under former general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers' roster was effectively set after the draft. The only business to handle was whittling 90 players down to 53.
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Thompson made a habit of searching for potential diamonds in the rough, frequently signing undrafted rookies or young practice-squad castoffs from other teams. That trend only began to change last season, when the Packers signed outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and defensive lineman Quinton Dial, veterans of the San Francisco 49ers discarded. But their arrival came in the first week of September, giving them days to adjust for a new scheme before starting the season.
With their signings coming in May, Bell and Lewis get the benefit of a full training camp and part of the team’s offseason program. Their transitions started this week in the Packers' organized team activities. McCarthy said the plan is to start slow, giving them time to learn.
McCarthy expects Bell to add quality competition on the Packers' offensive line. It’s no secret jobs are up for grabs on the right side, and Bell could make a run at being the starting right tackle. He’s by far their most experienced candidate, starting 74 games in his career (49 at right tackle). The rest of the Packers' depth chart at right tackle have combined for 10 starts.
It’s unclear whether Bell can regain the form he showed early in his career. He missed the entire 2016 season with a dislocated ankle, a gruesome injury. As a backup last fall, Bell struggled at times with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Packers certainly hope the 29-year-old can return to his highest level.
“I know one thing,” Bell said, “I came here to play. If I have to be a backup, so be it. I’ve done it in my career, but I know when my number is called, I’ll be ready to roll.”
For Lewis, his free-agent visit to Green Bay last week was a first. A first-round pick in 2006 (No. 28 overall), Lewis played his first 12 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Even though Lewis said he had other teams interested, Gutekunst ensured he wouldn’t take a second visit.
Before he could leave the building, Lewis signed.
“My flight was at 5:30,” Lewis said. “I signed a contract at 5. And good thing the airport is hella small, you know what I mean? I got to the airport at 5:20, walked in and sat in my seat.”
It’s just one perk to living in Green Bay.
“Winning is the first one,” Lewis said, “and no airport traffic is the second.”
It’s easy to see where Lewis fits in the Packers' offense. He’s a classic in-line tight end, built similarly as Martellus Bennett at 6-6, 246 pounds. Lewis believes he can still be a receiving target, even though his last quality receiving season was 2012.
He knows what his primary role will be.
“I block very well,” he said.
Indeed, Lewis is the one classic, in-line tight end on the Packers' roster. Save the highlight plays for Jimmy Graham, with Lance Kendricks adding depth in the passing game. Lewis is in Green Bay to block. Anything he adds as a receiver is a bonus.
Lewis said he has found ways to remain effective as a target. A year ago, he had five touchdown receptions. His size can be beneficial in the red zone. He also has veteran savvy.
“I’ve been able to use different techniques getting off the line and being able to go out and catch passes because I block well,” Lewis said. “I release on guys, and they’re like flying back thinking I’m going to block them, and I’m wide open to catch passes. So I definitely use the bulk to my advantage.
“I’m very confident in what I am and what I can do. I know that what I do comes at a premium and is an asset to any offense or anybody that would want to have me on their team.”
The Packers don’t add outside free agents without consideration, especially this late into the offseason. A locker room’s culture is delicate. As they saw last year as things unraveled with Bennett, it doesn’t take much to knock it off balance.
This is a relatively new approach for the Packers, but an important step as they stay modern within the NFL. McCarthy doesn’t expect Gutekunst to hesitate if presented with a chance to make the team better.
“This is a market that he wants to be active and aggressive in,” McCarthy said, “and once again, when it fits, we’re looking for an ability to improve. Any time you can add experience, and let’s not forget about the way these men fit into the locker room, their reputations, what they bring, that’s all part of it. Because you’re always focused on the chemistry and the culture of your locker room, and it’s just an opportunity to improve.
“I think we clearly have done that this week.”