Getting early start on free agency, Packers strike deals with LB Christian Kirksey, RT Rick Wagner
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Getting early start on free agency, Packers strike deals with LB Christian Kirksey, RT Rick Wagner

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GREEN BAY — The NFL’s free agency negotiating window hadn’t even opened yet, and Brian Gutekunst was already hard at work Monday morning.

The Green Bay Packers general manager struck deals quickly with ex-Cleveland Browns inside linebacker Christian Kirksey and ex-Detroit Lions right tackle Rick Wagner, a West Allis native and ex-University of Wisconsin standout, filling two soon-to-be created voids on the roster with free agents Blake Martinez and Bryan Bulaga hitting the open market.

Kirksey’s representatives at SportsStars announced his agreement, while NFL Network and ESPN reported the Wagner deal. The Packers had not yet announced either deal.

The Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson reported Wagner’s deal is a two-year contract worth $11 million, with a $3.5 million signing bonus and $2.25 million base salaries in 2020 and 2021. His deal also includes a $1 million roster bonus scheduled to be paid on the third day of the 2021 league year, plus $500,000 in incentives for 2020 and a $2.75 million playing time escalator in 2021.

Wilson reported Kirksey’s two-year deal is worth $13 million, including $4 million in guaranteed money with a $1.75 million base salary in 2020 and a $3 million base salary in 2021. Kirksey’s deal also contains a $1.5 million roster bonus in 2021, as well as $1 million in per-game roster bonuses for 2020 and $1.25 million in roster bonuses for 2021. There are also incentives included in his deal.

Their deals virtually guaranteed the Packers wouldn’t bring back Martinez, a 2016 fourth-round pick who set a single-season franchise record for tackles last season, and Bulaga, a 2010 first-round pick who had arguably his best season in 2019 and should have a robust free agent market with very few quality free agents available at the position.

Gutekunst said last month he wouldn’t be able to spend on free agents like he had a year earlier and suggested he’d have to delve into a different market: players who were cut by their previous teams.

“We’re not going to be able to do what we did in unrestricted free agency last year,” said Gutekunst, who signed four big-money veterans — outside linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and right guard Billy Turner — at the outset of free agency last year. “But I think when you look at free agency overall, with salary-cap casualties and different things, I think we’ll be able to add some players to our roster that can help us.”

Rick Wagner  mug

Wagner

Clearly, Gutekunst believes Kirksey and Wagner fit the bill as less-expensive veterans who can allow him to allocate funds elsewhere since Bulaga and Martinez would not have been as cost-effective to bring back.

The 30-year-old Wagner, who entered the league as a fifth-round pick with the Baltimore Ravens, had two years left in a five-year, $47.5 million free agent deal he signed with the Lions as part of their offensive line makeover in 2017. He wound up starting 40 of a possible 48 games at right tackle but never lived up to a contract that made him one of the highest-paid right tackles in the league. Wagner will actually count more against the Lions’ salary cap this season ($5.8 million) than he will on the Packers’ cap.

The 27-year-old Kirksey, a 2014 third-round pick from Iowa, played two seasons for the Browns under now-Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the ex-Browns head coach. And in 2016 and 2017, Kirksey was one of the NFL’s most productive inside linebackers in the NFL, with 148 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss in 2016 and 138 tackles, 3.5 sacks, six tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in 2017.

But injuries have plagued him each of the past two years, as he played just seven games in 2018 because of shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries and played only two games last year after suffering a torn pectoral tendon that required surgery.

Nevertheless, ex-UW and Browns star left tackle Joe Thomas praised Kirksey as a player and teammate.

“He is exactly what you think about when you hear people say ‘a true professional.’ He’s a guy that approaches his game with a level of detail, a level of study that you rarely see in the NFL,” Thomas said Monday on ESPN Wisconsin. “He’s a guy that has an incredible passion for the game. He’s an unbelievable leader.

“He’s got great skill on the field. He can fill in the run game. He’s not a ‘big’ linebacker, so a lot of times, especially early on his career, we would see him when we would go through 9-on-7 drills and think, ‘Hey, we can run at this guy. He’s a smaller linebacker …’ But the way he comes downhill and the way he’s able to thump people really impressed us. He was knocking guys out left and right in training camp and his first few years in the NFL.

“He’s got a level of power and an ability to get under your pads (as a blocker) that you rarely see as an undersized linebacker. And he’s got that willingness. He really checks all the boxes when you talk about what you want from a middle linebacker from a leadership standpoint, as a quarterback on the field. I think the only reason Cleveland got rid of him was the last couple years he’s been banged up. Which obviously is a concern, and that’s why the Packers were able to get him at a ‘comfortable’ number compared to maybe where his skill level is. Obviously, the injury risk is going to be a concern.”


Photos: The best shots from the Green Bay Packers' 2019 season

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