GREEN BAY – Brian Gutekunst is fond of saying that he wants to put the Green Bay Packers in position to “be in every conversation” when it comes to free agency. He said it last year when he became the team’s general manager, and he said it again last month at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
But with the NFL’s negotiating window set to open at 11 a.m. Wisconsin time Monday, Gutekunst thinks there will be more for the Packers to talk about than perhaps in past years under his predecessor, Ted Thompson, and even last year, when Green Bay was far more active in the market than they'd been under Thompson.
“We’ll be active in everything and if the right opportunity is there, we’ll certainly pull the trigger,” Gutekunst said during an interview in Indianapolis. “I think there will be opportunity to help our football team through free agency this year. (But) it’s a little bit unpredictable.”
Last year, Gutekunst added tight end Jimmy Graham with a three-year, $30 million deal as free agency opened. He also added veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, and cornerback Davon House. Wilkerson (broken leg) and House (shoulder) suffered early-season injuries, while Graham put up what he himself considered to be disappointing numbers (55 receptions, 636 yards, two touchdowns).
Williams, meanwhile, was an invaluable, versatile veteran presence in the secondary, playing outside at cornerback, in the slot in nickel and dime sub packages and moving to safety after starter Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was dealt at the trade deadline. But he also finished the season without an interception.
The Packers also pursued free-agent wide receivers Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins and signed Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller to an offer sheet that the Bears wound up matching.
Gutekunst believes there should be more opportunities to improve the roster this year. While teams can start negotiating with agents on Monday morning, no signings can be made official until the league year begins on Wednesday at 3 p.m.
“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 enter free agency with 11 unrestricted free agents of their own – and, apparently, with the team willing to let them all test the market: Wide receiver Randall Cobb; outside linebacker Clay Matthews; Wilkerson; inside linebacker Jake Ryan; defensive back Bashaud Breeland; tight ends Lance Kendricks and Marcedes Lewis; safeties Ibraheim Campbell and Eddie Pleasant; offensive lineman Byron Bell; and House. Wide receiver Geronimo Allison and safety Kentrell Brice are restricted free agents.
“(The roster) is ultimately Gutey’s decision, but certainly we talk all the time, and we’re in constant communication,” first-year head coach Matt LaFleur said. “The reason I felt so good about this job in particular was to work with a guy like him, because I know he wants to do right by us. We’re a team, and we’re going to work together.”
Matthews and Cobb are obviously the biggest names in the bunch, and Gutekunst insisted at the combine that the personnel department hadn’t made any decisions on whether to bring either player back or let them walk.The market will likely dictate if Cobb and/or Matthews will still be available at a price the Packers are willing to pay.
“If it makes sense for our football team to bring those guys back, we will,” Gutekunst said. “And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
With Matthews headed to the market and a decision looming on Nick Perry, who is scheduled to be paid a $4.8 million roster bonus on Saturday, outside linebacker is an obvious area of uncertainty for the Packers, and multiple reports from the combine indicated that the Packers will utilize free agency to upgrade the position. Last year, surprising Kyler Fackrell registered a team-leading 10.5 sacks, and he’ll have to prove that 2018 was more than a fluke as he enters a contract year himself.
The NFL Draft is also deep with edge rushers, so the Packers might not want to get into a bidding war for a veteran player and could opt to fix the position through the draft if free-agent prices skyrocket.
“Obviously Kyler had a breakout year for Kyler. I thought Clay had a really good year; I thought he produced at a really high level. Nick struggled with some injuries and things like that, so there’s some decisions we’ll have to make as we get more information and the puzzle becomes clearer,” Gutekunst said. “But it is a very deep class on the edge, which is exciting. You never really know how it’s going to fall, but I think there’ll be opportunities – not only the draft but in free agency – to continue to help our football team there.”
The Packers reportedly have an interest in Kansas City Chiefs pass rusher Dee Ford, who is coming off a 13-sack season and has been franchise-tagged by the Chiefs. Acquiring Ford, who had new Packers outside linebackers coach Mike Smith as his position coach in Kansas City last season, would certainly make sense, but he’ll cost the Packers a draft pick or two in trade compensation in addition to what figures to be a huge payday.
“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. “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.
“But I think there’s going to be some opportunities to help our football team. I think we’ll be ready to go if it makes sense for the team. Even though there’ll be good players who’ll go to other teams for more money and things like that, if they can help our team, we’re going to consider adding them to the roster.”