GREEN BAY — For years, the Green Bay Packers rarely dipped their toe into the NFL’s free-agent pool. On Tuesday, general manager Brian Gutekunst did a cannonball into it.
Having vowed late last month to be aggressive in free agency to fill holes throughout his roster, Gutekunst was a man of his word on Day 2 of the free-agent negotiating window, reaching deals with ex-Baltimore Ravens edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, ex-Chicago Bears safety Adrian Amos, ex-Washington Redskins edge rusher Preston Smith and ex-Denver Broncos offensive lineman Billy Turner in a flurry of moves Tuesday morning.
An NFL source confirmed all four agreements, which cannot become official until 3 p.m. Wisconsin time on Wednesday.
With the addition of the two Smiths, the Packers informed veteran outside linebacker Nick Perry that he would be released, a move that then became official later in the day Tuesday.
Perry, the team’s 2012 first-round pick who signed a five-year, $59 million deal in free agency in March 2017, was due a $4.8 million roster bonus on the third day of the league year, which begins Wednesday. Given the investments the Packers made at his position, Perry’s departure was hardly a surprise.
Clay Matthews, the team’s other longtime starter at outside linebacker, is an unrestricted free agent, and the arrivals of Za’Darius and Preston Smith may signal the end of Matthews’ time in Green Bay as well. If it does, Matthews would end his Packers tenure as the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks
Za’Darius Smith’s agency, SportsTrust Advisors, tweeted that his deal is for four years and worth a total of $66 million, including a $20 million signing bonus and $34.5 million in the first two years of the deal.
Preston Smith’s deal, meanwhile, is a four-year, $52 million deal that includes a $16 million signing bonus and $27.5 million over the first two years, according to NFL Network.
ESPN reported that Amos’ contract will be a four-year deal worth $37 million, including $14 million in 2019 pay and $21 million over the first two years of deal.
ESPN also reported that Turner’s deal is worth $28 million over four years, with a maximum value of $29.5 million and including $11 million in 2019 pay.
Add it up, and that’s $183 million in contracts, including more than $60 million in 2019 pay and signing bonuses and roughly $100 million to be paid out by the Packers to these four players over the next two years.
Za’Darius Smith, 26, led the Ravens in sacks last season with a career-high 8.5. Pro Football Focus credited him with 60 quarterback pressures, which ranked No. 17 in the NFL. A 2015 fourth-round pick out of Kentucky, the 6-foot-4, 272-pound Smith had just 10 sacks in his first three seasons before his big 2018. Packers new director of football operations Milt Hendrickson, a longtime friend of Gutekunst, just left the Ravens’ staff to come to Green Bay and surely knows Smith well. NFL Network reported that the Packers tried to acquire Smith in a trade a few years ago.
Amos, who’ll turn 26 next month, set career highs in interceptions (two), pass break-ups (nine) and tackles (73) last season in Chicago, and Pro Football Focus graded him as the eighth-best free safety in the NFL. The 6-foot, 214-pound Amos entered the league as a fifth-round pick from Penn State in 2015.
Preston Smith, 26, has never had more than eight sacks in a season during his four-year NFL career, with that career-high of eight coming in 2017. He has 24.5 career sacks, including four last season, but at 6-6 and 256 pounds, he gives the Packers a different outside linebacker body type than they’ve had in the past few years – at least since 6-7 Julius Peppers wasn’t re-signed following the 2016 season. Smith entered the NFL as a second-round pick from Mississippi State in 2015 and has played in all 64 of Washington’s games the past four years, including 50 starts.
Turner, 27, entered the league with the Miami Dolphins as a third-round pick in 2014 out of North Dakota State but spent the past two seasons with the Broncos. The 6-6, 313-pound Turner started 11 games last season for the Broncos (four at right tackle, seven at left guard) and has started 25 of the 40 games he’s played in his career.
He could take over as the team’s starting right guard after the Packers played Justin McCray, Lucas Patrick and Byron Bell at that spot last season, but he’ll also provide versatility, having played every offensive line position except center during his NFL career.
At the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last month, Gutekunst predicted that the team would find players in free agency that could help fill glaring holes in the roster. Outside linebacker, with Matthews hitting the market and Perry’s release, and safety, where the Packers dealt away 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at the October trade deadline, certainly qualified.
“I think it’ll be very similar to last year. We’re going to be very aggressive in the conversations that we have, so the information we have is accurate, and when the opportunities present themselves, we’ll be ready to go,” Gutekunst said. “I think we can help our team in free agency this year, I really do. We’ll see how it goes. It’s an unpredictable market, it’s a small market, but I think we can help ourselves.”
The Packers defense was beset with injuries last season under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, finishing 18th in total defense (354.4 yards per game) and 22nd in scoring defense (25.0 points per game). In his previous seasons as the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, Pettine had never had a unit finish outside the top 10 in total defense.
New head coach Matt LaFleur said after his Jan. 11 hiring that keeping Pettine as defensive coordinator was vital to the continuity he wanted on that side of the ball.
“The foundation is the hardest thing to get right, and I feel that a lot of it has been built. We’ve made a lot of mistakes — especially me personally, I’ve learned a lot of cases of what not to do versus what to do — but when you just look at Year 2 as you look forward to it, the nice part about it is you reap the rewards of having already (built the foundation),” Pettine said.
“We spent a lot of time last year with having to shuffle in a lot of different players. In Year 1 of a system, it’s really hard to get into the graduate level details of the jobs. So kind of going through the end-of-year cutups and you come to the realization we spent so much more time last year on coaching players on what to do and not enough time on how to do it, and that’s usually typical of a Year 1.
“We’re looking forward to having guys that are experienced in the system. We have a much better sense of who we are and what our skill set is what we want to get done. The nice thing is you don’t reset it back to Year 1. You have a little bit of momentum and you’ve built a pretty solid foundation with the guys you’re going to have back.”
Pettine has plenty of options
Now Pettine has a few new pieces to add to that foundation.
“Free agency is a small market. There is not a ton of players in that market. But I think it’s a tool that can help us with our roster,” Gutekunst said at the combine. “I think you have to be careful, because certainly the amount of money that these guys are making in free agency can hinder you down the way. It’s a tool.
“I think you try to be in every conversation, and then when the right opportunities present themselves we’ll be ready to go. But the way we build our team, the foundation of our team, will always try to be through the draft.”
Meanwhile, moving on from Perry was a possibility even before the team added Za’Darius and Preston Smith. Dogged by injuries throughout his seven years in Green Bay, Perry never managed to play all 16 games in any season. He finished his time in Green Bay having started 48 of the 81 games he played in (out of a possible 112) and with 39 career sacks, including seven in postseason play.
Perry, who had a team-high 11 sacks in 2016 and seven sacks in 12 games in 2017 before landing on season-ending IR with ankle and shoulder injuries, managed just 1.5 sacks in the nine games he played last year.
Late in the season, after being placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, Perry had said he hoped to continue his career in Green Bay after all the injuries he’d endured.
“I’m just disappointed,” Perry said in December. “I treat every year as a year to compete and be a team player. To the powers that be that have control over the situations, that’s out of my deal. If ‘Gutey’ and everybody else wants me to be back, I’ll be back.
“I’m not concerned. My conscience is clear. I’m moving forward in the right direction.”