GREEN BAY – Despite a new coach in place and what seemed like a flurry of offseason acquisitions, it would be an exaggeration to say general manager Brian Gutekunst overhauled his roster in 2019.
The free-agent signing of outside linebackers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, safety Adrian Amos and guard Billy Turner were significant moves aimed at upgrading his talent (it cost him $57 million in guaranteed money).
But if you consider that of the 15 new players on the current 53, eight were draft picks, this wasn’t a huge makeover.
Turnover on NFL rosters typically ranges from 25-35%, but it can be much higher, especially for teams with new head coaches installing new systems. Just to get an idea of how common it is for teams to turn over their rosters, an Associated Press study showed that Super Bowl champions from 2012-18 averaged 20.4 new players the year after.
The 15 new players represent 28.3% of the roster, which puts Gutekunst right in the range of average NFL turnover.
There are two ways to look at the modest turnover: Either Gutekunst didn’t provide enough competition for the established players or his established players were too good to be uprooted.
“I thought we had a competitive camp, I really did,” Gutekunst said Sunday. “I thought there was a number of tough decisions. I think there’s a bunch of guys that walked out of here that are going to play in the league.”
So far, only two of the Packers’ cuts have been claimed on waivers: quarterback DeShone Kizer (Oakland) and defensive back Natrell Jamerson (Carolina). Gutekunst traded guard Justin McCray to Cleveland for almost nothing and outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert to Tennessee for a seventh-round pick.
Now in their second season under Gutekunst, the Packers have 34 players (64.2%) who were acquired while he was in charge.
There are 19 players left over from the Ted Thompson era, 10 of which are starters.
So, with the changes, what did Gutekunst accomplish?
Here’s a look at the major changes and the players they effectively replaced:
Smith and Smith for linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry: This is likely a big upgrade. All the Smiths must do is come up with 66 tackles and five sacks to equal the two former stalwarts at the outside position.
Rashan Gary for outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert: It’s hard to knock Gilbert for anything. He was an active pass rusher and used all the talent he had. But that’s the point. Gary has a ton more talent and the Packers must find a way to turn it into production. His upside is very high.
Amos and Savage for safeties Kentrell Brice and Josh Jones: There’s no way one could not consider this an upgrade even though Savage has never played an NFL snap. Brice was a stopgap player and Jones a bust; Amos was a four-year starter for Chicago.
“I know that over the past couple of years, we’ve turned the roster over quite a bit, specifically on the defensive side of the ball,” Gutekunst said of all the defensive changes. “I thought we had to do that.”
Guard Billy Turner for guard Byron Bell: This should be a huge upgrade. Bell was a hard-working, selfless player who was at the end of his career. Turner is 28 and he fits the wide zone run scheme coach Matt LaFleur has installed. He’s a big body (6-5, 310), but he still must prove he’s starting material.
Guard Elgton Jenkins and guard Cole Madison for guard Justin McCray: There wasn’t a more versatile and hard-working player than McCray, but Jenkins possesses strength and athletic ability that should result in him being a starter. He may be one before the season is over. Madison is a fifth-round pick in ’18, which might have saved him.
“He did some things he hadn’t done before at center,” Gutekunst said. “He played tackle in college and guard in the past, so, the versatility I think is one thing that stood out and he just kept grinding away."
Receiver Darrius Shepherd for receiver Randall Cobb: Shepherd is a project and no way ready to offer what Cobb did, even in his injury-filled latter years. Gutekunst kept Shepherd over much bigger and more productive Allen Lazard.
“He’s a punt returner for us, can do some kick return stuff, as well,” Gutekunst said. “’Shep,’ I just think, he came in early, was really businesslike, and his ability to kind of do multiple things is what stood out for us."
Running back Dexter Williams for running back Tra Carson: The two battled it out in training camp and Gutekunst went with the potential over the production. He had to because some of the moves Williams showed in the last two weeks of camp looked like the ones he displayed at Notre Dame. He has a lot to clean up, but he might be able to add something as the season goes on.
Jace Sternberger for Lance Kendricks: So far, Sternberger has shown he can’t stay on the field. He’s out again with an ankle injury and it’s going to be hard for him to get back in a position to help the team. Kendricks dropped a lot of balls, but he was reliable and Bill Belichick thought enough of him to keep him on his 53.
Ty Summers for Antonio Morrison and Korey Toomer: Maybe Summers will come through, but Morrison brought energy and nastiness to the defense even if he was a liability in coverage. Toomer was a very good special teams player.
“Ty had a really good preseason and kind of stepped up and made us feel pretty comfortable about keeping him around,” Gutekunst said. “I also think if you look at our history the amount of times we actually have two inside linebackers on the field is another thing. I've said this before, this roster is 365 days, living and breathing, so things change and we're always evaluating where we're at.”
Ka’Dar Hollman and Chandon Sullivan for Bashaud Breeland: The two newcomers are long-term investments. They will add more on special teams, but Breeland stepped in and started when Kevin King got hurt last year. Breeland had his share of bad plays but he had two interceptions and could execute the defense.
Kingsley Keke for Mike Daniels: Even though Daniels was slipping fast and couldn’t stay healthy, Keke is probably not going to have an impact this season. He’s got a lot of talent and if he has a great off-season working on his body, he could be a future starter.