Dougherty: Packers GM Brian Gutekunst surprises with high-risk, boom-or-bust signings
PHOENIX – The shock wasn’t that Brian Gutekunst spent a lot of money in free agency. The Green Bay Packers general manager signaled that as a real possibility earlier in the offseason.
No, the stunner was that he swung big and worked the open market early, when the premium to sign players is the highest.
Gutekunst could have taken several approaches and still spent as much as he did on the open market. Most would have included sitting out the first couple days of free agency, then signing a larger group of players, maybe anywhere from six to 10, at prices ranging from $3 million a year for the cheapest to $10 million or $12 million for the most expensive.
Instead, he went hard after clear targets when the market opened, and by early in Day 2 of the early negotiating period he’d agreed to deals with four players: outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith ($16.5 million average per year) and Preston Smith ($13 million), along with safety Adrian Amos ($9 million) and offensive lineman Billy Turner ($7 million).
To put that in perspective, the two Smiths received the second- and third-highest salaries of all the edge rushers on the open market, behind only Trey Flowers ($18 million from Detroit). They were also the fourth- and 12th-highest averages among free agents at any position. The only other team with two signees in the top 12 was the New York Jets.
Gutekunst obviously wanted to upgrade his pass rush in particular and defense overall, but the four players he signed have one thing in common: relative youth.
Turner is 27, the two Smiths turn 27 this season and Amos is about a month shy of his 26th birthday.
Three of the four also have good health histories. Preston Smith hasn’t missed a game in his four NFL seasons, Za’Darius Smith has missed six games in four years (none last year), and Amos has missed four games in four years (none last year).
That tells you Gutekunst’s priority on his spending binge was quality and the longer term over quantity and the shorter term. Higher risk, higher reward.
“You wouldn’t want one of these things where we’re going to rent a guy for a year or two,” he said Monday at the NFL’s owners meeting. “I wanted to build the team. Obviously, these guys are going to be with us for a while. They’re at an age where their best football should be ahead of them. That was kind of my thought process going through it.”
One area where teams have found value in free agency is with stopgaps for a year or two at the most. Maybe older players with a good season left in them, or younger guys who have underachieved.
Going into free agency, I’d have guessed Gutekunst would have signed several players like that, maybe ended up with seven or eight guys. He might still be in signing mode today if he’d taken that route.
The possibilities were almost endless.
Maybe he’d sign only one of the Smiths, or instead of paying the premium on them, wait and added 30-year-old Justin Houston, who went to Indianapolis late last week almost two full weeks after free agency started for an average of $12.4 million.
Ziggy Ansah, another former top rusher, is still on the market because of his age and injury history. Other cheaper alternatives were Bruce Irvin (43½ career sacks), who’s 31 and went to Carolina for one year and $4 million. Or younger, less accomplished rushers such as Shaquil Barrett (one year, $4 million with Tampa Bay) and Markus Golden (one year, $3.75 million with the New York Giants).
Gutekunst also could have waited to find a pass rusher early in the draft and gone bigger ticket for running back Le’Veon Bell, whose market was relatively soft. Bell went to the Jets for an average of $13.1 million. Also, Tevin Coleman, who already knows coach Matt LaFleur’s offense from Atlanta, was a bargain with his two-year deal with San Francisco that averages $4.25 million.
Then there were all sorts of possibilities at other positions. If Gutekunst hadn’t spent big on both Smiths, he could have re-signed Clay Matthews and Bashaud Breeland as part of a larger haul of cheaper players. Matthews went to the Rams for an average of only $4.6 million a year and $5.5 million guaranteed. Breeland went to Kansas City for one year at $2 million.
Gutekunst could have signed a young and cheap safety, Jimmie Ward, who re-signed with San Francisco for $4.5 million. Or old and cheap in 34-year-old Eric Weddle (two years, $5.2 million average with the Rams).
At slot receiver, Golden Tate signed for an average of $9.3 million for four years, and 26-year-old Jamison Crowder went to the Jets for an average of $9.5 million for three years.
Neither approach is inherently better or worse, because much like the draft you never know how it’s going to work out with free agents. The big-ticket signings are more boom or bust. The cheaper route is more like trading back for extra draft picks, and while less is riding on how any one of the cheaper signings turn out, you also can end up with a whole lot of nothing.
But Gutekunst has a 35-year-old quarterback and rookie head coach. So the GM paid the premium to get the four guys he really wanted and leave it there. The best guess is he paid $2 million to $3 million a year extra for each.
“Every year is different, which is true,” Gutekunst said. “But at the same time Matt and I are trying to build something here that’s going to sustain and last. These guys kind of fit what we’re looking for.”
Going big early means Gutekunst hasn’t signed anyone since, and very well might not do any more shopping before the draft. The Packers have about $13.7 million in cap room, according to Spotrac. But subtract about $4 million for their rookie class to fit in the top 51, plus the $7 million or so they like to have going into the season, and that leaves only about $2 million to work with.
Never say never, but any meaningful signings probably would mean cutting someone else to create the cap room.
“What we can do now is probably a little bit more flexible than what we could have if we didn’t do what we did in free agency,” Gutekunst said. “I’m excited, I think we can help our football team.”