Packers boost defense with edge rushers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith, safety Adrian Amos
GREEN BAY – Short of the Reggie White signing in 1993, the Green Bay Packers made their biggest one-day splash in free agency since the NFL's swap meet began 25 years ago.
Waiting until the first wave of signings rolled through the NFL on Monday, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst jumped in with both feet, signing three likely starters on defense and one on offense.
Edge rushers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith and Chicago safety Adrian Amos all agreed to terms on contracts with the Packers on Tuesday morning, NFL sources confirmed.
Gutekunst later added Denver guard/tackle Billy Turner, a source told PackersNews.com.
RELATED: Preston Smith durable, and stout against run
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After taking a beating on Twitter from Packers fans upset he hadn't done anything in free agency, Gutekunst shook up the NFL world with his flurry of agreements. In one fell swoop, Gutekunst took a big step in solidifying his defense and turning pass rusher into a luxury more than a need when he chooses in the upcoming draft.
Gutekunst has positioned himself so he could take a player at almost any position with the No. 12 pick. The draft is thick with defensive linemen and pass rushers, but it also has some talent at tight end and offensive tackle.
There won't be a lot of pressure on him to dangle his second first-round pick (No. 30) to try to move up for a top-level pass rusher. If one of the top edge rushers such as Montez Sweat or Brian Burns falls into his lap at No. 12, Gutekunst wouldn't have to count on him to carry the load.
His two strongest positions on defense next year could be exactly where they should be: cornerback and defensive front. At the same time, taking an offensive tackle (Jonah Williams, Jawaan Taylor) to replace veteran Bryan Bulaga or to move to right guard wouldn't be out of the question.
These moves, if they pan out, serve to boost new coach Matt LaFleur, whose offense will take a while to install and may struggle next season. In addition, Packers CEO Mark Murphy has taken a leadership role on the football side and desperately needed a splash in free agency to excite the fan base.
Free-agency spending was anathema to former general manager Ted Thompson's reign and Murphy and Gutekunst seem to have turned that approach on its head. Time will tell whether they were correct in taking this approach, especially given the money they sunk into the three defensive starters.
Za'Darius Smith cost the Packers the most, if the numbers his agents posted are true.
According to a tweet from SportsTrust Advisors, Smith's deal is worth $66 million over four years, including a $20 million signing bonus and $34.5 million in the first two years. Based on those numbers, Smith's salary cap number this year should be around $8 million.
According to NFL sources, Preston Smith agreed to a four-year, $52 million deal, which includes a $16 million at signing and comes with a $6.2 million salary cap hit in 2019; Amos agreed to a four-year, $36 million deal, which includes an $11 million signing bonus and a $5.9 million cap hit this year; and Turner signed a four-year, $28 million deal, which includes a $9 million signing bonus and a $4.25 million cap hit this year.
All totaled, the Packers will hand out a combined $56 million in cash to the four free agents when they sign their contracts.
The Packers' official salary cap room remaining won't be known until Wednesday at the earliest, but based on the above deals they should be around $17 million under. That does not include and restricted free agent tenders they submitted or the $4 million or so they'll have to devote to draft picks in April.
The earliest any of the deals can be signed is 3 p.m. CT on Wednesday, when free agency officially begins. Since Monday morning, teams have been able to negotiate deals with free agents in what has been deemed the "legal tampering" period.
ESPN.com was the first to report the Preston Smith agreement and NFL Network was the first to report the other two.
The most celebrated of the signings is Washington's Preston Smith, although he didn't have a particularly great year in 2018 and didn't receive as much money as Za'Darius Smith. In his first three seasons, he had 20½ sacks, but last year he managed just four.
However, the 6-foot-5, 271-pound edge rusher ranked second on the team in total quarterback hits (knockdowns and sacks) with 16 and had an interception and three pass break-ups. The 2015 second-round pick had eight sacks as a rookie in 2015, 4½ his second year and eight his third year. He has four career interceptions and four forced fumbles.
Scouts like Smith, 26, because he has been getting better over time and will be a leader.
"Good player," an NFC personnel director said. "He will help them. Rushes with power and stout vs. the run. Good edge player. Reliable and dependable. Has upside to develop as a rusher as well. Good pickup."
Another scout described him as a "great locker room guy."
Gutekunst definitely went into free agency looking to move on from Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, who have been their edge players for the past seven years. Last year, they combined for five sacks, which wasn't good enough.
Perry, who is due a $4.8 million bonus Saturday, won't return. The Packers will not pay the bonus, which means he will become a free agent and the team will gain $3.6 million in salary-cap space.
Matthews is an unrestricted free agent and it seems unlikely that he will be re-signed.
If the Packers played tomorrow, Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith would line up at the two outside positions with Kyler Fackrell rotating with them, and Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark would line up inside. On passing downs, both Smiths can line up inside if defensive coordinator Mike Pettine wants to rush all three of his outside linebackers.
Preston Smith can do more than just pass rush. He's a powerful player in the Perry mold who can hold the edge in the run game. Lined up next to Daniels and Clark, the Packers could have a formidable run defense.
Last year, the Packers ranked 11th in yards per carry allowed (4.3) and 23rd in sacks (44).
Za'Darius Smith, 26, bounced back from a pair of unremarkable seasons to finish with 8½ sacks for the Ravens in a contract year. The 2015 fourth-round selection had 5½ sacks his rookie year but just 4½ the next two.
In 2018, he had a breakout season, leading the Ravens in sacks, quarterback hits (25, including sacks) and finishing second in tackles for loss (10). He finished tied for sixth in tackles.
The Packers need the 6-4, 274-pound Smith to be more than just a pass rusher, although hitting quarterbacks will be his No. 1 duty. At the combine four years ago, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.83 seconds and benched 225 pounds 23 times.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will have to find out whether Smith can help him at outside linebacker or simply as an edge rusher in nickel situations. Smith was a defensive end in college at Kentucky.
The Ravens had tried to trade him prior to the 2018 season.
"He had a good year but most of his pass-rush production came as an inside rusher in sub," one of the scouts said. "He played to a starting level this year but had always been a disappointment in previous seasons.
"I like what I saw on tape from this year but there is always a little bit of a worry when a guy has a big year in his contract season ..."
The signing means that Gutekunst doesn’t necessarily have to draft an edge rusher with the No. 12 pick in the 2019 draft. It’s very possible there will be a pass rusher available at that pick and Gutekunst probably wouldn’t pass on him, but he has the option of taking the best player available and waiting until later to take another pass rusher.
Edge players have been in high demand since the start of the free-agency negotiating period Monday.
Among those who have agreed to terms are New England’s Trey Flowers ($17 million per year from Detroit), Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander ($13.5 million from San Francisco) and the Los Angeles Rams’ Dante Fowler (re-signed for $14 million).
In Amos, the Packers are getting a midlevel starter who started all 16 games for the Bears last year and had 73 tackles, a sack and two interceptions. He also had nine pass breakups and a forced fumble.
At the combine in 2015, the 6-foot, 218-pound Amos ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds and registered a 35½ -inch vertical leap.
Amos, a fifth-round pick who will turn 27 in April, played second fiddle to safety Eddie Jackson on the Bears’ outstanding defense. Jackson made more big plays than Amos, who in four years has just three interceptions.
"Better vs. the run than the pass," one of the scouts said. "Average instincts in coverage. Tough and physical. If it (the money) isn't too high, it will be a good sign. But if they paid too much it will be bad."
The Packers will expect him to start, but they are still going to have to make another move at the position because they do not have an established ballhawk in the deep middle. It’s possible they’ll move cornerback Josh Jackson to safety, but he would need a lot of training.
It’s unclear whether the Packers have submitted a restricted free-agent tender on safety Kentrell Brice, who has battled ankle injuries the last two seasons. Brice would make $2.025 million if the tender is made and so with this signing it’s possible the Packers will take a pass.
Josh Jones, a second-round pick in 2017, remains an option at safety, too. Pettine also could keep cornerback Tramon Williams at safety after the veteran bailed him out last year when injuries struck the position.
The 6-5, 310-pound Turner was a backup his first three seasons in Denver, but filled in as a starter at tackle and guard, starting 11 games. The Broncos wanted to re-sign him but felt his price was too high, several reports indicated.
He appears to fit the mold of lineman LaFleur is seeking. In the "wide zone" run system he employs, LaFleur needs linemen who can move and Turner is light on his feet.
"Wasn't a big fan of Turner coming out," a third scout said. "Thought he'd be a solid backup at best. Journeyman type."
Turner, 27, will compete for a guard or tackle position with, among others, Jason Spriggs. As of Monday, the Packers' intention was to keep Spriggs, but that was before the team signed Turner.
Terms: Four years, $66 million
Signing bonus: $20 million
Salary cap number: $7.2 million
Base salaries: $850,000 in '19, $4.35 million in '20, $6.85 million in '21, $11.35 million in '22.
Roster bonuses for 3rd day of league year: $4 million in '20, $4 million in '21.
Per-game roster bonuses: $500,000 each year.
Workout bonuses: $650,000 each year.
Pro Bowl escalators: $250,000 in '20-'22.
Terms: Four years, $52 million
Signing bonus: $16 million
Salary cap number in 2019: $6 million
Base salaries: $850,000 in '19, $4.35 million in '20, $6.85 million in 2021 and $11.35 million in 2020.
Roster bonuses due 3rd day of league year: $4 million in '20, $4 million in '21.
Per-game roster bonuses: $500,000 in each year.
Workout bonus: $650,000 in each year.
Terms: Four years, $36 million
Signing bonus: $11 million
Salary cap number in 2019: $5.9 million
Base salaries: $1.25 million in '19, $1.75 million in '20, $4.9 million in '21 and $7 million in '20.
Roster bonuses due 3rd day of league year: $1 million in '20, $4 million in '21 and $1.5 million in '22.
Per-game roster bonuses: $400,000 in each year.
Workout bonuses: $500,000 in each year.
Pro Bowl bonus: $250,000 in '22 plus escalators each year.
Terms: Four years, $28 million
Signing bonus: $9 million
Salary cap number in 2019: $4.25 million
Base salaries: $1.35 million in 2019, $1.7 million in '20, $4.15 million in '21, $5.2 million in '22.
Roster bonuses due 3rd day of league year: $3 million in '20, $1 million in '21.
Per-game roster bonuses: $300,000 each year.
Workout bonuses: $350,000 each year.
Playing time incentive: $500,000 each year depending on participation.