Dougherty: Packers poised for free-agent pursuits
If you want to see where NFL roster building is as Brian Gutekunst takes over as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager, just look at the four teams remaining in the playoffs.
Jacksonville, Philadelphia, New England and Minnesota all have used free agency and trades to dot their rosters with difference makers, core players and fill-ins. Gone are the days where the smartest teams build only through the draft.
Jacksonville is the ultimate example. The Jaguars in the last two years spent a combined $89 million in guaranteed pay and $42.75 million in average salary on three key free agents for their defense: Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Malik Jackson.
Philadelphia’s best receiver (Alshon Jeffery) was one of its nine free-agents starters, and the Eagles made a meaningful in-season pickup when they traded for running back Jay Ajayi.
New England spent big at cornerback last offseason for Stephon Gilmore ($31 million guaranteed, $13 million average per year) and traded for its best big-play threat (Brandin Cooks).
And Minnesota dipped into free agency for its key run stopper (Linval Joseph in 2014) and left tackle (Riley Reiff last spring), as well as the backup quarterback (Case Keenum) who has played well enough to get the Vikings to the NFC Championship game.
Compare that with the Packers team Gutekunst inherits. For our purposes, a player was acquired as a free agent if he was unrestricted, restricted or a salary-cap casualty. The Packers’ best player who fits that definition from last season probably was 34-year-old Jahri Evans, signed as a stopgap starter at right guard.
With former GM Ted Thompson in charge, the Packers were the most home-grown team in the NFL. To wit, on the Packers’ 53-man roster for their final game in 2017, they had 40 players Thompson either drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent. By comparison, Philadelphia has 24, Jacksonville 26 and Minnesota 29.
Gutekunst made a point in his introductory news conference to say he will have a different approach.
“We’re not going to be able to make (free agency) the foundation of our team,” he said, “but we want to be in it and we want to be in the know of everything that’s going on and, if it makes sense for us, not to be afraid. We have to be prepared enough to pull the trigger. That’s one of the areas I’m excited to kind of see how we go.”
There are a couple points we have to make here. First, it’s easy – too easy – to take the final four teams, or the Super Bowl teams, in any given year, find some similarities and say that’s the way you have to do it. That’s a good way to draw a bad conclusion. The playoffs can be too random for that.
You could just as easily say that three of the four remaining teams don’t have a quarterback even in the top half of the league, so maybe there’s too much emphasis on that position. I’m not buying that for a second.
But it’s also fair to say that teams have adapted after 25 years of free agency and the salary cap. They’ve learned to work the market better with front-loaded, pay-as-you-go contracts that don’t wreck future plans if the player doesn’t live up to the deal.
The Patriots are the most interesting roster-building case because Coach Bill Belichick has as diverse an approach as anyone in the league.
Maybe, in the end, all that separates the Patriots from the rest of the league – they’re playing in their seventh straight AFC Championship game – is Belichick and Tom Brady. It might be that simple.
But look at Belichick’s roster. Five of his 53 were signed as free agents, including Gilmore and two role players in the passing game, Chris Hogan and Rex Burkhead.
But Belichick also acquired seven players – seven! – in trades, including Cooks, starting linebacker Kyle Van Noy and nickel defensive back Eric Rowe. Only nine of Belichick’s starters in the divisional round of the playoffs were his draft picks. The Packers had 14 in their last game.
Likewise, the Jaguars are where they are in large part because they hit big on a top-five pick in each of the last two drafts, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and running back Leonard Fournette.
But Blake Bortles is a marginal quarterback at best, yet the Jaguars are 12-6 and just won in Pittsburgh in the divisional round of the playoffs. They do it with defense (yeah, they gave up 42 points to the Steelers), and acquired seven of their defensive starters as free agents. That includes difference makers Campbell and Bouye.
Philadelphia acquired more of its starters in free agency and trades (11) than in the draft (nine). Obviously, what makes the Eagles special and a contender for years to come is injured quarterback Carson Wentz. But the Eagles are still playing because they’ve overcome Wentz’s season-ending knee injury with a starting lineup built as much outside the draft as with it.
And Minnesota has five starters acquired as free agents, including two backups (Keenum and running back Latavius Murray) forced into major roles because of early-season injuries.
Again, let’s not overstate the case. The Vikings win mostly because they have the league’s best defense, which was built primarily through great drafting. But even that defense couldn’t stop Drew Brees from getting two go-ahead scores in the final five minutes Sunday. Yet they still won.
The point is, NFL teams have learned a thing or two in the last decade. Free agency still has its perils, but smart teams use it. Belichick has even shown that trades aren’t dead.
The Packers just hired a GM who has been brought up in this new climate. This spring we’ll see what he has learned.