After a decade of inactivity from Ted Thompson, there’s a new sheriff in town. And he’s not waiting to win.
After nearly a decade of largely sitting out free agency and trying to build from within, the Packers finally caved. A year after hinting at a new philosophy by dipping their toes in the free agency waters, the club cleared the pool with a head-first dive into external roster construction.
The plunge came during a time of transition in Green Bay. Last winter, longtime general manager and future Packers Hall of Famer Ted Thompson was replaced by fairly anonymous Green Bay executive Brian Gutekunst. Then, after months of turmoil and finger-pointing, the Packers infamously parted ways midseason with one of the most successful head coaches of the last decade, Mike McCarthy.
In case you hadn’t heard, the Packers under Thompson had approximately zero interest in signing big-name free agents. Between Thompson’s infatuation with building through the draft and the financial ramifications of operating in one of the league’s smallest markets, Green Bay developed a reputation for staying on the sidelines during free agency. From 2009-2017, the Packers brought in four free agents on above-average salary deals: center Jeff Saturday (2012), defensive end Julius Peppers (2014), and tight ends Jared Cook (2016) and Martellus Bennett (2017). That’s right, four major free agents in nine years — half of which were tight ends.
Perhaps two straight disappointing seasons culminating in golfing outings instead of playoff games in January didn’t sit well among one of the winningest fan bases in the NFL. Or, maybe Gutekunst realized the core of Packers’ majesty that guided Green Bay’s early-2010s dominance was already out the door (Jordy Nelson and Morgan Burnett) or on its way out (Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb and Nick Perry).
Whatever the motivation was, Gutekunst took action last spring. During his first free agency at the helm, the Packers took a step in the right direction and got it half-right. They threw big money at free agents Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis and Tramon Williams. The problem is, those guys were 31, 34, and 35, respectively, at the time of the signings. Each player flamed out in their first year, particularly Graham, who caught a career-low two touchdowns while playing hurt. But Gutekunst was active, and it was a precursor to his spending spree in 2019.
Fast forward to free agency of 2019, where Gutekunst likely felt the growing restlessness of the Lambeau faithful. He woke up this Tuesday morning — the day before the new league year began — and went all-in. Twenty-four hours and a quartet of four-year deals later, the Packers have a revamped and virtually unrecognizable (for now, at least) defense. Oh, and a solid new guard to protect Aaron Rodgers’ ever-fragile collarbone.
It began with linebacker Za’Darius Smith, a budding star from the Ravens who broke out with eight and a half sacks in 2018. Green Bay locked him up for four years and $66 million. Smith is a player who Gutekunst said the Packers have had their eye on for years, and now they finally landed him. Then, Green Bay pried safety Adrian Amos away from the division rival Bears for four years, $36 million. Amos excelled in Chicago, soaring from a fifth-round pick to Pro Football Focus’s third-best safety over the past three seasons.
Later that afternoon, another Smith came along, this time Preston from the Redskins, for four years, $52 million. Preston Smith, another linebacker, is as durable as they come, never having missed a game in his four-year Redskins career. Smith recorded eight-sack seasons in Washington in 2015 and 2017, and despite his sack total dipping last year, he still totaled 53 quarterback pressures. Gutekunst rounded out his splurge with Broncos guard Billy Turner on a four-year, $28 million dollar deal.
The defense will be rolling out an entirely new crew, one that should dwarf the production of past units. The Packers haven’t had a top-10 defense since — get this — their Super Bowl season in 2010. It’s been an entirely meh unit for close to a decade now, routinely falling in the middle of the pack in most defensive statistics. The team’s primary focus entering the offseason was improving the pass rush, and Gutekunst did so astronomically on Tuesday. Here’s a whopper of a stat from Pro Football Focus:
Green Bay’s edge group of Clay Matthews, Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert, and Nick Perry combined for a paltry 87 total pressures in 2018 on 1,028 pass-rushes. Preston and Za’Darius Smith combined for 113 on 926 pass-rushing snaps.
It’s an utterly astonishing haul for a team that’s spent the better part of this millennium sitting on what little cash it had in free agency. The Packers can now turn their focus to April’s NFL Draft, where they’re set up to succeed again with three selections in the first 44. With all of its gaping holes filled, Green Bay can now focus on taking the best player available with their 12th pick and adding depth at picks No. 30 and 44.
Certain spending sprees have, can and will fail. But this splurge by Gutekunst seems well-calculated. A culture change is underway in Green Bay, with an audacious general manager, an innovative new head coach in Matt LaFleur and a seemingly refreshed Aaron Rodgers. There’ll be a lot of new faces in town to integrate this fall, but this is a franchise that knows how to win. And so far, this Gutekunst guy looks like he does too.