We’re going to finally start to determine whether Ted Thompson had it right all those years when he was a tightwad during free agency. Successor Brian Gutekunst opened the Packers’ vault for four intriguing free agents Tuesday and we’ll see if he truly has the touch for procuring talent the fast way.
While countless Packers fans were routinely frustrated by Thompson’s prudent ways and were anxious to see him depart, I still vouch for his body of work from 2005-17. One Super Bowl championship. Four NFC championship appearances. Big hits in the draft. And no salary-cap purgatory.
If not for Brett Favre’s ill-advised lame-duck pass on his final play for the Packers in 2008 or that epic meltdown against the Seahawks in 2015, Thompson’s teams easily could have played in three Super Bowls during his 13 years of running the show.
Even with that sole Super Bowl appearance under Thompson’s watch, there’s not many teams with a comparable record of success.
But now that Thompson has been kicked upstairs and Gutekunst is writing big checks, as promised, let’s see what happens.
It’s difficult to take issue with anything Gutekunst closed the deal on during Tuesday’s transactions, which totaled $183 million. And it starts with the Packers’ most pressing need — edge rushers.
Clay Matthews is a shadow of the player he once was and Nick Perry, the Packers’ other pass-rusher, hasn’t been able to keep healthy. Perry was released Tuesday before the $4.8 million roster bonus he was due by the end of this week became payable. Matthews will almost certainly be gone.
Gutekunst is replacing both with Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, both of whom are 26 and trending upward.
Preston Smith was more known for quarterback hits and hurries during his four years with the Redskins and totaled a relatively modest 24.5 sacks during that time. Still, he gets to the quarterback.
Za’Darius Smith had a breakthrough season in 2018 with the Ravens last season with 8½ sacks and Gutekunst is betting $16 million a season that he will be someone special.
Consider this: Matthews and Perry combined for 26 quarterback pressures last season. Za’Darius Smith had 60 in 2018.
Signing safety Adrian Amos fills a massive void in the Packers’ secondary while weakening the NFC North Division champion Bears.
And then Gutekunst took a giant step in protecting the Packers’ most valuable asset — quarterback Aaron Rodgers — by signing versatile guard Billy Turner. Turner is only 27 and the Broncos were said to have desperately wanted to retain him.
The bottom line is Gutekunst is moving on from Thompson’s draft-and-develop philosophy to the style that has served Bill Belichick so well in New England. And that is identifying somewhat under-the-radar players who have NFL experience, are still young and then signing them to contracts that don’t financially strap the franchise.
History has shown that free agency can just as easily cripple teams as revive them.
Perhaps the most memorable cautionary tale came 10 years ago in February, when Albert Haynesworth parlayed two Pro Bowl seasons with the Titans into a seven-year $100 million contract with the Redskins.
After being a malcontent for two seasons in Washington, Haynesworth was shipped to the Patriots for a fifth-round draft choice. When even Belichick couldn’t revive Haynesworth’s career, he was released after four months.
Gutekunst has done his homework and spent wisely instead of swinging for the fences and potentially crippling the Packers financially down the road.
More importantly, he did what he absolutely had to do. And that was give the Packers a reasonable chance of winning another Super Bowl with Rodgers, who will turn 36 this December. There was no chance of that happening before Tuesday’s transactions.
And now that Gutekunst has given defensive coordinator Mike Pettine a chance to succeed, one has to speculate whether he will try to find the next Rodgers for new coach Matt LaFleur to develop.
Rodgers aside, of course, it’s questionable how much of a quarterback guru departed coach Mike McCarthy truly was in Green Bay. That was especially evident with how poorly Brett Hundley played in nine starts after Rodgers was injured in 2017.
Hundley, who was in his third season at the time, had a dismal quarterback rating of 70.6 in those nine games. McCarthy has to take ownership of that.
If the Cardinals are really intent on taking Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray with the first overall selection in April’s draft, could Gutekunst pry away Josh Rosen from the Cardinals with his draft leverage?
Rosen, just 22, suffered greatly playing behind a miserable offensive line on the NFL’s worst team last season. Could a fresh start in Green Bay, where he would learn from an all-time great, give the Packers a shot at their true quarterback of the future?
At least it’s something to think about.
And for the time being, Gutekunst appears to be everything he was supposed to be, when Packers president Mark Murphy said Gutekunst knocked off his socks in his interview to succeed Thompson.
He hit on first-round pick Jaire Alexander, who became just the second Packer at that position to be named to the Pro Football Writers Association’s All-Rookie team since 1974. The same could be said of second-round pick Josh Jackson, another cornerback who was second on the Packers in passes defended last season.
Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling averaged 15.2 yards per catch as a rookie. Equanimeous St. Brown was even better, ranking fifth in the league among rookies with his average of 15.6 yards per catch.
And the jury is still out on several of the other players from Gutekunst’s first draft.
Thompson deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest general managers in Packers history. And, by the way, several of his former personnel hires are doing a fabulous job of turning around the Browns.
But give Gutekunst credit. He’s doing things his way and he’s doing them well.
Peter Jackel is a reporter for The Journal Times. You can reach Peter by calling 262-631-1703 or by emailing him at email@example.com