Dougherty: Free-agent binge a sign Packers in 'win now' mode
Brian Gutekunst and Mark Murphy see the clock ticking.
How else to explain the Green Bay Packers’ startling leap into the deep end of the free-agent pool this week?
Gutekunst, the Packers’ general manager, did what would have been unthinkable in the Ted Thompson era by agreeing to contracts with four players on the second day of free agency. That meant paying a stiff premium to upgrade his roster and buy more flexibility in the draft.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say Gutekunst has gone all-in for 2019. But he has pushed a lot of money onto future caps and assumed more risk than this franchise has in the past, knowing he has a 35-year-old quarterback who may or may not make it to 40 in the NFL, and who also is the league’s highest-paid player.
“They have to win now, they’ve got Aaron Rodgers,” is how one executive for an NFL team put it Tuesday.
We don’t know whether Gutekunst did it at the urging of Murphy, the team’s CEO, or simply with Murphy’s consent. Murphy, after all, has final say. But I suspect Gutekunst was the main driver.
Though he was a scout for Thompson for 13 years, Gutekunst at the start of his career worked for Ron Wolf for five years. Wolf as Packers GM was an active player in free agency, as were his proteges who have run NFL teams (John Dorsey, John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie and Scot McCloughan). Thompson’s disdain for free agency was the outlier of the group.
Either way, Gutekunst shocked the league with the four signings, and the only one that was a head scratcher was offensive lineman Billy Turner. He’s on his third team in five years yet signed a four-year contract that averages $7 million a season.
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The question that will only be answered on the field is, did Gutekunst do right in signing outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and Turner?
The history of NFL free agency tells us this is just as likely to fail as pan out. But as we sit here in March, it doesn’t look like the second-year GM did anything stupid or reckless. If nothing else, he filled some needs that, though at a high cost, free him to use his highest draft picks on the best prospects available, regardless of position.
No question he overpaid.
Za’Darius Smith ($16.5 million average, $34.5 million over the first two years) and Preston Smith ($13 million average, $27.2 million the first two years) are not high-end rushers. But they’re being paid like they are.
Amos ($9 million average, $20.8 million the first two years) is a smart, dependable safety but not the playmaker (three interceptions and two sacks in 56 starts) his salary suggests.
Another scout said Za’Darius Smith’s deal is $3 million to $4 million a year more than he’d expected, Amos' $2 million a year more, and Preston Smith's about on target. The scout didn’t have Turner rated as anywhere near the $7 million average the Packers are paying him.
On the other hand, the three new defensive starters are young enough to still have upside: Za’Darius Smith turns 27 in September, Preston Smith with be 27 in November, and Adrian Amos turns 26 in April. Plus they’re all good competitors. That mitigates the risk.
“I think (the Packers) are thinking they don’t have enough players,” said one of the scouts. “Desperate seems too strong because they’re not in a desperate situation – brand new coach, second-year GM. I think it’s smart because they’re almost getting ahead of it. They feel like they needed to add more players, and they got two edge guys and a safety. I get it.
”I like the three defensive guys. Did they overpay for them? Maybe. But so what? The cap is going to go up again next year. They’re all good guys, they’re all good players, they’re all scrappy.”
Also, if Gutekunst can land a decent rusher in the draft, the Packers might make up in depth what they lack in quality. They might not have an individual who strikes fear in offensive coordinators, but they could consistently pressure quarterbacks with fresh rushers down after down.
Specifically, Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels are above-average inside rushers. Combined with the Smiths, a draft pick and maybe Kyler Fackrell, the Packers could have six players who finish next season with anywhere from five to 10 sacks each.
“They’re getting medium (quality) pass rushers (in the Smiths),” said an offensive assistant coach for an NFC team. “What they’re doing is beefing up their run defense. That’s a smart deal. (Fresh rushers) might be the idea. Everybody’s got to pay money for the pass rushers, but then you realize you’re (neglecting) other parts of your team.”
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Amos isn’t a difference maker but can play both deep and in the box. The Packers were willing to pay a premium for a dependable player at a position that was a disaster last season with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s excessive freelancing and Kentrell Brice’s inability to play the ball in the air.
The Packers traded Clinton-Dix during the season and did not offer Brice a restricted free-agent tender by Wednesday’s deadline.They’re starting over at that position.
“(Amos) was a good steady player, a real good system guy,” said an assistant coach who works in the NFC North. “I thought he fit (the Bears’) system very well. He’s not a guy that’s out of position, he’s not a guy that won’t know how to fit the run. I didn’t sense a lot of mental mistakes in pass coverage. He’s not a bad player by any stretch.”
The risk Gutekunst has taken is pushing money into future salary caps. He fit all four under the 2019 cap by keeping their numbers low: Za’Darius Smith at $7.25 million, Preston Smith $6 million, Amos $5.9 million and Turner $4.25 million.
But going light this year means their cap numbers spike in the future. Zadarius Smith’s jumps to $17.25 million in 2020 and $20.75 million in ‘21. Preston Smith’s more than doubles to $13.5 million in ’20 and $16 million in ’21.
That will eat into what Gutekunst can do in free agency next offseason.
Still, Gutekunst took the plunge, and rightly so. He needs a good draft, and for that he needs the freedom to pick the best talent regardless of position. Now he’s got it.