GREEN BAY - When Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst peered into the future one year ago, he knew just how much work it would require to quickly remake his team into a championship contender.
The $182 million he spent to sign four free-agent starters, including three on defense (linebackers Za'Darius and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos), was the most significant move. But Gutekunst’s work was tireless, including maneuvering to move up in the first round of the draft to select safety Darnell Savage, and multiple subtle acquisitions throughout the season.
Necessity, Gutekunst said, was what drove his major overhaul of the Packers' roster last spring. There were other, unintended consequences, such as a veteran quarterback who noticed his general manager’s commitment to the rebuild after consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance. “They did go all in,” Aaron Rodgers said after the Packers’ loss in the NFC championship game. That Gutekunst’s approach changed the mentality of his roster, not just the on-field production, was a pleasant surprise.
“I don’t know if I actually set out to try to message the team by doing those things,” Gutekunst said during his 30-minute, season-ending conference with reporters Friday. “I thought last year, there were some significant things we needed to do to move forward and be the kind of team that can compete for championships. I didn’t think we were close enough, we were going to be able to do that, unless we did a bunch of stuff.
“I kind of feel like we’re all in every year. I don’t think we try to build for windows. It’s Green Bay, Wisconsin, we have Aaron Rodgers, and we’re going to be in it every year.”
Gutekunst faces a different offseason after a surprising 13-3 finish, which he said exceeded “all outside expectations.” Now, the Packers will be the hunted. They’ll have less money after last season’s mega-deals, but still plenty to do.
“I think there’s going to be a little bit more restrictions,” Gutekunst said, “if we’re able to do everything we want to do with the guys who are here already, to be able to do something like we did last year. Saying that, I think there will be plenty of opportunity for us to improve our football team whether it be strictly in unrestricted free agency or other ways.
“We’re pretty sound financially right now to do what we need to do, to go to where we need to go.”
Here are some quick thoughts from Gutekunst on where the Packers have been, and how they should proceed.
On how Aaron Rodgers played this past season:
“I thought Aaron had a really, really good year, especially adapting to a completely new system. There were times he had to carry us, and I thought he did that. I think this was one of the years we had a team that didn’t always have to rely on that quite as much. I think he’s still playing at an elite level and just watching him throughout his career, there were some challenges we face, not only him but some other guys on our team, where I said I was really proud how those guys faced those challenges. They really came together as a team, and that really takes your best players, your leaders, to do that. He obviously was a big, big part of that."
On how he evaluates the Packers’ receiver position:
“Obviously Davante (Adams) is a premier receiver. He’s down at the Pro Bowl this week, and I think he proved that again this year he’s a dynamic player. I thought in different games, different guys stepped up. I thought Allen Lazard had some pretty good moments in clutch time. In that last game, there was a fourth-and-2. Here’s a guy we cut and brought back and he’s catching a fourth-and-2 in the NFC championship game. I thought there were guys that stepped up in some pretty big moments. I think consistency, we didn’t have anybody step into that role consistently, and I think there will be some opportunity for those guys next year, and I think that’ll be a position we look to add.”
On whether he considered adding a receiver who could contribute during the season:
“I think as we got through the first part of the season before the trade deadline, we were looking to see if it would make sense to add another explosive offensive player. The opportunities to do that, there were not many, and the ones that were were not particularly sound value, in my opinion. We looked at that, but I also was very optimistic that some of our young players would improve and get us where we needed to be. I think that’s the one area, when we were in the period before the trade period, that we were looking at.”
On whether he’s pleased with what Jimmy Graham provided in the first two years of his contract:
“Yeah I’m really glad we had Jimmy — not only Jimmy but Marcedes (Lewis) — this year. Obviously that group of tight ends, we’re really excited about Jace (Sternberger) and what he can do in the future, but obviously he had some injury stuff early and he had some growth after only playing one year at Texas A&M. I was really happy having those two guys in the room to kind of carry it along with Bobby Tonyan. I know that Jimmy’s numbers probably aren’t where he wants them to be or certainly where other people want them, but I was glad we had him in a lot of the situations we were in this year.”
On the importance of reaching an agreement with Kenny Clark for a contract extension before training camp, when he begins the final year of his deal in 2020:
“I think it’s important. Kenny’s a big part of what we do, very important to our defense. I’m optimistic we’ll be able to come to some agreement at some point. These things don’t happen quickly, usually. The idea was always sometime this offseason we’d start to approach that, and we will.”
On how to fix the porous run defense:
“I think obviously Blake Martinez is up, and I think we’re gonna have to take a long look at the inside linebacker thing, make sure we’re squared away there. I really do like our defensive line group, I really do. I think obviously Kenny’s a very, very good player. Really happy with Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster. I think Montravius Adams and Kingsley Keke will see a lot more action in Year 2 in Matt’s tenure here. And those guys need to step up and they need to do their job and I think that they will. I’m excited for them. They’re both really explosive athletes. I like the group, but ... with defensive front and offensive linemen, if there’s good players there we’re always gonna try to improve.”
On whether coaches or players are responsible for what Matt LaFleur described as poor effort in the NFC championship game loss:
“I think we were all disappointed in how that last game ended. Certainly, that’s a tough way to end the season. Quite frankly for myself, I’m still reviewing a lot of that. San Francisco is a really good football team. They had a great game plan against us and we got behind early. It made it tough for us to do what we wanted to do. We had to do some different things to try to get back in that ballgame. We’re reviewing it, just like we always do, to identify exactly what happened in that game and where we need to go. It was disappointing, but like I said, I’m pretty excited about where we’re headed and the foundation we laid.
Packers losing Jason Simmons
Packers defensive backs coach Jason Simmons is headed to Carolina to join his former college defensive coordinator Phil Snow with the Panthers, PackersNews.com confirmed. The Packers are lining up candidates to replace him.
Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed.