GREEN BAY — Brian Gutekunst went into the offseason a year ago knowing he had to do something drastic to get the Green Bay Packers to be legitimate playoff contenders again.
So the second-year general manager acted decisively.
He signed four veteran free agents – outside linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and guard Billy Turner – to solidify positions where aging veterans or less-than-successful draft picks had left the team vulnerable. All four proved to be reliable and durable, and Za’Darius Smith wound up being a transformative locker-room presence – but the foursome came with an expensive price tag of $56 million in guaranteed up-front signing-bonus money.
He made some tough calls on players who’d been with the organization for a long time, waving goodbye to outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, not making any effort to re-sign wide receiver Randall Cobb and cutting veteran defensive lineman Mike Daniels on the eve of training camp. While Matthews and Cobb were relatively productive with their new teams, it’d be hard to argue he erred in any of those moves.
And he invested a pair of first-round picks on defense with edge rusher Rashan Gary (No. 12) and safety Darnell Savage (No. 21), made what seems to have been a brilliant selection in the second round in Mississippi State offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins, and added a tight end in third-rounder Jace Sternberger who flashed late in the year – although Gary spent most of the season on the bench behind the Smiths and Savage had an up-and-down season as a rookie starter.
Now, after watching his team go a pleasantly surprising 13-3 under first-year coach Matt LaFleur but get blown out by the Super Bowl LIV-bound San Francisco 49ers twice – including by a not-as-close-as-the-score-indicated 37-20 count in last Sunday’s NFC Championship Game – Gutekunst knows there is plenty more to be done to close the gap between the two NFC rivals and build on the club’s 2019 success.
“Last year, I thought there were some significant things we needed to do to move forward and be the kind of team that can compete for championships. I didn’t think we were close enough,” Gutekunst explained during an end-of-season press briefing with reporters. “We weren’t going to be able to do that unless we did a bunch of stuff.
“I kind of feel like we’re ‘all in’ every year. I don’t think we try to build for windows. It’s Green Bay, Wisconsin, we have Aaron Rodgers, and we’re going to be in it every year. That’s kind of how we think. I just thought there was a lot we needed to do last year to get to where we wanted to be.
“The salary cap restricts you on what you can do. We had some room last year, so we just felt that was the best decisions for our football team at the time.”
On the offensive
Fast forward one year, and while Gutekunst moves improved the defense – regardless of how abysmal the unit looked with its inability to stop 49ers running back Raheem Mostert last Sunday – appreciably, he now faces a similarly daunting task to improve his offense and get his two-time NFL MVP quarterback the requisite weapons to be better in Year 2 of LaFleur’s scheme.
From a thin wide receiving corps behind three-time Pro Bowler Davante Adams, to an uncertain tight end position where veteran Jimmy Graham appears unlikely to return, to having one key longtime veteran offensive line starter (Bryan Bulaga) headed for free agency, Gutekunst enters his third offseason as GM not only with a renovation project on that side of the ball but also some challenges on defense – despite all he did over there last spring.
Gutekunst certainly sounded like he isn’t planning on bringing back inside linebackers Blake Martinez or B.J. Goodson, both of whom lack what he acknowledged is the speed required to play the position in today’s NFL. While 2018 third-round pick Oren Burks will be entering his third season, he’s barely played in his first two years and there’s no reason to think he’ll be the answer in 2020. And even if he was, inside linebacker will still be a need.
Add to that the team’s stated desire to extend nose tackle Kenny Clark, who will be entering the fifth-year option year of his rookie deal as the team’s 2016 first-round pick and could hold out if a new accord isn’t reached, and Gutekunst can’t merely focus on retooling the offense.
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“I think there’s going to be a little bit more restrictions (financially) if we’re able to do everything we want to do with the guys who are here already, (and want) to be able to do something like we did last year,” Gutekunst said. “Saying that, I think there will be plenty of opportunity for us to improve our football team whether it be strictly in unrestricted free agency, (or) other ways. We’re pretty sound financially right now to do what we need to do to get where we need to go.”
Wide receiver would seem to be the team’s biggest need, and Gutekunst even admitted that to some degree when he said he did try to add to the position at the October trade deadline, when the 49ers traded for Emmanuel Sanders and the New England Patriots traded for Mohamed Sanu. A league source said the Packers were interested in Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker but Miami’s asking price was too steep.
“As we got through the first part of the season before the trade deadline, we were looking to see if it would make sense to add another explosive offensive player,” Gutekunst said. “The opportunities to do that, there were not many. And the ones that were (there) were not particularly sound value, in my opinion. We looked at that, but I also was very optimistic that some of our young players would improve and get us where we needed to be.”
He wound up being wrong. Geronimo Allison, who is also headed for unrestricted free agency, regressed in his fourth season; Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who opened the season as the team’s No. 2 receiver, disappeared in the second half of the year; former UW-Whitewater standout Jake Kumerow didn’t do much with the limited offensive opportunities he received; and 2018 draft picks J’Mon Moore (cut at the end of training camp) and Equanimeous St. Brown (placed on injured reserve at the end of camp) didn’t play a down.
Only Allen Lazard, who started the year on the practice squad before being promoted to the 53-man roster just before the opener, showed genuine promise, catching 35 passes for 477 yards and three touchdowns in the final 11 regular-season games after not catching a single pass during the first five weeks.
“Obviously Davante is a premier receiver. I think he proved that again this year. He’s a dynamic player,” Gutekunst said. “I thought in different games different guys stepped up. I thought Allen Lazard had some pretty good moments in clutch times. Here’s a guy we cut and brought back and he’s catching a fourth-and-2 in the NFC Championship Game.
“I thought there were guys that stepped up in some pretty big moments. (But) we didn’t have anybody step into that role consistently. I think there will be some opportunity for those guys next year, and I think that’ll be a position we look to add.”
In what is thought to be a deep wide receiver draft, Gutekunst will have to show he has the magic receiver touch his predecessor, Ted Thompson, had. While the Packers haven’t taken a wide receiver in the first round since coach/GM Mike Sherman took Javon Walker in 2002, Thompson found second- and third-round gems in 2006 (Greg Jennings), 2007 (James Jones), 2008 (Jordy Nelson), 2011 (Cobb) and 2014 (Adams).
With LaFleur’s offense entering Year 2, he and Gutekunst should have a better feel for what type of receiver fits the scheme best.
“For the guys you’ll have back, you know what they can do. And then you know areas of where they need to improve or where you might need to go add some pieces,” LaFleur said. “You never truly know until you’re in the trenches with these guys and on the field and put them through certain situations really what they can and cannot do.”
After last Sunday’s loss, Rodgers admitted that losing to the 49ers twice – including falling behind by a combined 50-0 in the two first halves and losing by a combined score of 74-28 – certainly indicated that the Packers have a long way to go to catch the 49ers, who not only thoroughly outplayed Green Bay but also, by LaFleur’s own admission, outcoached him and his staff.
But, Rodgers added, the chasm might not be quite as large as it appeared in those two losses – and the quarterback insisted that playing the 49ers in Green Bay might have yielded if not a different outcome, at least a more competitive one.
For their parts, both LaFleur and Gutekunst seem to be entering the offseason believing the separation is vast – and that they have much to do to reduce the differential.
“There obviously is (a big gap). I mean, we played them twice and they took it to us two times,” LaFleur said. “So that’s something that we’ve got to take a good, hard look at this offseason because right now they’re the class of the NFC. They’ve shown it throughout the course of the season, and that is a really good football team. It was disappointing to go out there and get beat like that.”
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