Silverstein: Credit Packers GM Gutekunst for exploring Mack deal, then moving on

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers GM Brian Gutekunst watches from the sideline during an NFL preseason game at Lambeau Field on Thursday, August 9, 2018 in Green Bay, Wis. 
Adam Wesley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

GREEN BAY – In the years after the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV, they were a team content with what they had.

Under general manager Ted Thompson, the yearly roster turnover consisted mostly of draft picks and rookie free agents moving someone more experienced off the 53-man roster.

Counting only players who were new to the team, turnover consisted of 10 players in 2011, 13 in 2012, 12 in 2013, 11 in 2014, 10 in 2015 and 14 in 2016.

Then in 2017, Thompson, perhaps feeling pressure within the organization to branch out in free agency, brought 18 players onto the 53-man roster who had not been on the team the previous year, only one of whom (Davon House) had been in the Packers organization previously.

The results were not good.

Free-agent tight end Martellus Bennett bailed out soon after quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. Veterans Ahmad Brooks and Quinton Dial, signed just after camp had ended, were not factors at all.

Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois was gone by Week 8.

House missed four games due to injury and was not 100 percent late in the season. Outside linebacker Chris Odom, picked up on waivers after the final cutdown, only played 59 snaps.

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Aside from the rookies, the main contributions came from aging guard Jahri Evans, street free agent Justin McCray and undrafted free-agent punter Justin Vogel.

The Packers finished 7-9, Thompson was forced out and Brian Gutekunst was promoted to general manager, vowing to be aggressive in pursuing all avenues of player acquisition.

True to his word

Gutekunst has been true to his word, signing unrestricted free agents, making trades, attempting to steal other teams’ players with offer sheets and throwing his hat in the ring in the Khalil Mack sweepstakes.

 Assuming there will be some tinkering with the roster this week, Gutekunst as of Sunday had added 19 players to the roster who were somewhere else last year. That’s a 35.8 percent turnover, which is a considerable jump from a nine-year average of 26.4 percent from 2011-17.

Some of the new veterans who will be playing key roles for the Packers this season are tight ends Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis, cornerbacks Tramon Williams and House, defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and linebacker Antonio Morrison.

Quarterback DeShone Kizer and guard/tackle Byron Bell will hold key backup positions.

Gutekunst kept eight of his 10 draft choices and picked four undrafted free agents to fill out the rookie and first-year class, so he has a healthy mix of young and old.

“I think you’re always kind of balancing your developing young players with players with experience,” Gutekunst said Sunday. “And I think in those particular cases as we went through the spring and into the summer, those were just areas we wanted to have that kind of experience.

“You’d always like to have a little bit of both.”

Turnover can be a good thing, especially when you’re coming off a 7-9 season, but as last year showed it can be worthless if you’re not picking the right players. If Thompson had picked better players to sign in free agency and chosen to keep some players he let go, it’s possible the Packers could have had a winning season despite not having Rodgers for half of it.

The question that will loom this season is did Gutekunst do enough to return the Packers to championship contender. It’s not just whether he looked under every rock, but whether he used good judgment, took ample risk and flat out picked the right guys.

There will be a crowd that will consider him a coward for not going further down the path in the Mack negotiations, but as some who know him well said Sunday, he wasn’t going to meet the Oakland Raiders’ price.

It would not be out of the realm of possibility if he allowed his former colleague, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, to tell the Bears he was offering two first-round draft picks just to drive the trade price up for his division rival. One former colleague of Gutekunst’s said there's no way the first-year general manager would have put two firsts on the table for Mack in a serious effort to acquire him.

Even if Gutekunst could have met McKenzie’s price, the financial commitment that came with it would have handcuffed the team for years to come. The Packers would have had the highest-paid player on offense and the highest-paid player on defense and the two of them would have accounted for at least a quarter of the team’s salary-cap space this year and probably more in the coming years.

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Mack would not have guaranteed the Packers a Super Bowl just as the acquisition of Reggie White didn’t guarantee one in 1993. Brett Favre wasn’t the highest-paid quarterback in the league and so general manager Ron Wolf had the ability to sign other free agents like Sean Jones and Santana Dotson and acquire high-paid veterans like Eugene Robinson and Andre Rison after he signed White.

It was the combination of having Favre, White and a whole bunch of other good players that made the Packers Super Bowl champions back in 1996.

Avoiding the rebuild

It’s one thing for Gutekunst to say, “We’re here to win now, you know?”, but it’s another to risk becoming so top heavy you capsize. Fans want immediate gratification, but they hate having to rebuild even more, and that’s what they’d be doing once Rodgers’ and Mack’s contracts hit their peak.

Whether Gutekunst truly tried to obtain Mack or bowed out when he found out what the Raiders were demanding, he at least tried. As they say in the NFL, some of the best moves are the ones you don’t make.

Either way, Gutekunst wasn’t considering Mack when he built the roster in the spring and so he will be rightly judged on the talent he brings to the Bears game Sunday. Like every team, the quality of the draft makes the biggest difference for a franchise and Gutekunst’s first class features five players who are going to do more than ride the pine this year.

If he really knows what he’s doing, cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson are going to be considered for starting spots by year’s end, punter JK Scott will be among the leaders in net average, long snapper Hunter Bradley will be consistent and inside linebacker Oren Burks will add much-needed athleticism to the defense.

Having one of his three rookie receivers make a splash wouldn’t hurt, either.

Building a competitive roster requires a lot of persistence and if Gutekunst is smart he will continue to pursue avenues in which to improve, even if it means having a revolving door at the bottom of the roster.

For good or bad, he has already put his stamp on this team. Now it’s time to find out if he knows what the heck he is doing.

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