Dougherty: Hits and misses in Packers GM Brian Gutekunst's first free-agent moves

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and head coach Mike McCarthy talk during practice on Clarke Hinkle Field Thursday, September 27, 2018 in Ashwaubenon, Wis

Jimmy Graham hasn’t transformed the Green Bay Packers’ offense, but that doesn’t mean rookie general manager Brian Gutekunst failed in his first offseason working the NFL’s open market.

Graham was Gutekunst’s biggest move in free agency, and nine games into the season it’s clear the GM overpaid in a big way.

But Gutekunst also made some tough decisions on a couple of his own veteran players that the season has validated, and he actually took part in the free-agent market instead of watching from the cheap seats. In this instance, just participating counts for something after his predecessor essentially ignored an entire pool of available players for most of the last decade.

To be fair, Graham has been much better than last year’s marquee signing, Martellus Bennett, was with the Packers in 2017, but not the difference maker Jared Cook was the year before that. Cook, you’ll remember, was one of the keys to the Packers’ stretch run of 2016 that ended in the NFC Championship game.

Graham probably will finish this season with OK stats — after nine games his 33 catches rank No. 11 among tight ends in the league, and he has a 13.3-yard average per reception and two touchdowns. He also has drawn his share of double teams, especially in the red zone. That’s helped his teammates.

But age is closing in, and fast. After going to the Pro Bowl last season, Graham, who turns 32 on Nov. 24, no longer is a quick-twitch athlete who stretches defenses or routinely catches high-point balls against tight coverage. He hasn’t been the downfield threat or touchdown machine Gutekunst and coach Mike McCarthy were hoping for.

Graham’s still their best tight end, so he’ll have a significant role in the offense for the rest of this season. But after Gutekunst doled out $13.25 million to Graham this year, it’s hard to see him paying the tight end another $9 million in salary and bonuses next year. This could end up being a one-year rental unless the sides agree to a pay cut in the offseason.

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Overall, Gutekunst’s first offseason in free agency produced modest help for the roster, and with the exception of Graham involved relatively low-risk signings. Here’s a look at how the key moves Gutekunst made last spring in signing or moving on from veteran players has worked out a little more than halfway through the 2018 season:

Jordy Nelson: Along with Graham, this was the GM’s biggest move, cutting a former standout and Aaron Rodgers favorite. Gutekunst might have been better off keeping Nelson at a reduced salary as a part-time slot receiver and red-zone threat, and cutting Randall Cobb ($9.5 million in salary and bonuses this year) instead. The GM also could have cut both and used some of the money to sign a receiver on the open market.

I’d have kept Nelson and cut Cobb, but it’s probably a horse apiece. Nelson at age 33 is in sharp decline and has only 25 catches and three touchdowns through nine games with Oakland, a pace of 44 receptions and five touchdowns for the season. That’s at a cost of $7.4 million this year.

Nelson’s uncanny chemistry with Rodgers might have helped the quarterback on scramble plays and in the red zone more than Cobb (26 receptions, 9.9-yard average) has this year. But really, Geronimo Allison (now on IR) and rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling needed to get on the field more than either at this point anyway. So Gutekunst showed good judgment by parting with at least one of his declining veterans and showed nerve by making it Rodgers’ favorite target.

Muhammad Wilkerson: A low-risk signing that didn’t pay off. The 29-year-old defensive lineman, whose season ended in Week 3 because of an ankle injury, will end up costing the Packers about $3 million. He was worth that price on the hopes that departing his home state of New Jersey and reuniting with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine might revive a talented player who had 12 sacks in 2015.

It didn’t happen. Wilkerson added little to the pass rush before his injury, and Dean Lowry has proved to be the better player. But it was worth the shot at that cost.

Damarious Randall: Gutekunst traded the former first-round pick, and maybe Randall’s immaturity meant he had to go. McCarthy clearly wanted him out of the locker room. But Randall is a talented player who’s getting good reviews in Cleveland lining up at his natural position, safety.

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McCarthy and his staff blew it by playing Randall out of position (cornerback) and not holding him accountable. When he worked the system by sitting out practices with minor injuries, the coaches should have benched him on game day, but instead they played him. If they’d been tougher on him then, maybe he’d be one of their starting safeties today.

Tramon Williams: A good signing of a veteran defensive back who knows the team and Pettine’s defense. For $5.225 million this year he has set a great example for the locker room, played OK at cornerback at age 35 and probably will finish out the season as a starting safety. Good bang for the buck.

Morgan Burnett: Gutekunst made the right call letting the former starting safety walk in free agency. Burnett had missed numerous practices and 10 games because of a variety of ailments his last three years with the Packers. This year at age 29 he has already missed four games and started only once for the Steelers, at a price of $5.25 million.

Marcedes Lewis: Signed on the open market for $2.1 million, the 34-year old tight end can’t run at all anymore (three targets, two receptions). Still blocks well. Cheap enough to not hurt the cap.

Gutekunst’s offseason, not including the draft, probably deserves a B-minus grade. He didn’t get the big hit he needed with Graham, but it hasn’t been a Bennett-like bust. The GM also parted with aging starters where it was necessary and took some low-risk shots on other teams’ players. And just getting in the free-agent game counts for something.

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