GREEN BAY — For as much excitement as Brian Gutekunst’s free-agent foray has generated among Green Bay Packers fans who’d been dissatisfied with the team’s inactivity in the market in past years, there’s a stark reality that caused it: The Packers second-year general manager had no choice but to be aggressive there because the team made too many mistakes in past drafts.
And Green Bay’s 2015 draft debacle was as much a factor as any.
The Packers’ three additions on defense — ex-Baltimore Ravens edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, ex-Chicago Bears safety Adrian Amos and ex-Washington Redskins edge rusher Preston Smith — all were 2015 draft picks who hit the open market: Za’Darius Smith was a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky; Amos was a fifth-round pick from Penn State, and Preston Smith was a second-round pick out of Mississippi State.
While no one would suggest that the Packers should’ve had the foresight to pick all three of those guys during that 2015 draft — although the Packers did like Za’Darius Smith coming out, according to one league source — the misses from that draft by then-GM Ted Thompson and his staff, of which Gutekunst was a part, set the stage for what happened on Tuesday.
Not a single pick from that 2015 draft remains on the Packers’ roster, with inside linebacker Jake Ryan, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee suffered in training camp last August, now an unrestricted free agent.
Although Thompson had the final say on those selections, that was Gutekunst’s final season as the team’s director of college scouting, a role he was promoted to in 2012. He moved up to director of player personnel in 2016.
“I think obviously we’ve always built our team through the draft. It’s the most important way, we believe, to build a team,” Gutekunst said at last month’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “And the more picks we have, the greater chance of success we’ll have.
“(Free agency) is a tool. But the way we build our team, the foundation of our team, will always try to be through the draft.”
That 2015 draft was also the first of three drafts over a four-year period in which the Packers spent their top two selections on the defensive backfield: Damarious Randall (first round) and Quinten Rollins (second round) in 2015; Kevin King (second round) and Josh Jones (second round) in 2017; and Jaire Alexander (first round) and Josh Jackson (second round) last year.
While Randall and Rollins are gone, King has been beset with injuries in his first two seasons and Jones has struggled to find his place in the secondary, Alexander appears to have the skill set and attitude to be a top-flight cover corner and Jackson, while inconsistent as a rookie, flashed his potential.
The problem is that by investing six high picks in the secondary like that, the Packers weren’t using premium choices on edge rushers. Over the past four drafts, the Packers have picked a not-so-grand total three picks on outside linebackers: Kyler Fackrell (third round, 2016); Vince Biegel (fourth round, 2017); and Kendall Donnerson (seventh round, 2018).
In the meantime, the Packers traded back in the 2017 draft and missed a chance to draft University of Wisconsin edge rusher T.J. Watt, who has recorded 20 sacks in his first two NFL seasons, including 13 while earning his first Pro Bowl selection last year. They also could have stayed put last year at No. 14 and drafted Texas-San Antonio edge rusher Marcus Davenport, whom the New Orleans Saints traded up to take — and gave up their 2019 first-round pick to do so. Davenport had 4.5 sacks as a rookie last year.
That’s why the Packers, who spent first-round picks on the position in 2009 on Clay Matthews and in 2012 on Nick Perry — and signed each player to lucrative second contracts — had to spend significant money on Za’Darius Smith (four years, $66 million, $20 million signing bonus) and Preston Smith (four years, $52 million, $16 million signing bonus) to get younger and — they hope — better on the edge. Perry was released Tuesday with three years left on his five-year, $59 million deal; Matthews is an unrestricted free agent after playing out the five-year, $66 million extension he signed in 2013.
To a lesser degree, the team’s 2016 second-round selection of ex-Indiana offensive tackle Jason Spriggs also led to Tuesday’s deal with offensive lineman Billy Turner, who got a four-year, $28 million deal that the team likely would not have had to pursue had Spriggs, who is entering the last year of his rookie contract, not been as inconsistent as he’s been so far.
Investing a second-round pick in an offensive tackle doesn’t always have to lead to a Pro Bowl left tackle like Chad Clifton became after his 2000 selection, but certainly Spriggs’ uneven play an inability to win a starting job has been an issue.
It used to irritate Thompson to no end when reporters would accuse him of ignoring free agency. While he acknowledged that he was more selective than other teams, he would point out that when the team did sign free agents — most notably Charles Woodson in 2006 and Julius Peppers in 2014 — the moves paid significant dividends.
The Packers now are hoping their additions can collectively pay similar dividends. If they do, and Gutekunst takes advantage of his draft opportunities (two first-round picks, six picks in the first four rounds), then perhaps he won’t have to be as active in future free-agent periods.
“We value draft and development. We (also) value free agency,” Thompson explained in an interview at the 2015 NFL combine. “We’re not opposed to doing that. We’ve said all along in a perfect world, you’d be able to draft, develop and keep your own players.
“I think you have a philosophy in how you think is the best way to build a team. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those philosophies that people report everything that we do or ascribe to those are not necessarily true. We sign free agents. We look at free agency. But we’re not going to chase ghosts because we think the clock is ticking.
“I think you have a philosophy and I think you stick with that philosophy. Everybody is talking about how we’ve been in position to be fairly successful for some time. You can’t do that if you’re changing all the time. I don’t necessarily ascribe to the theory that we’re one-sided and the only thing we do is try to draft. I’m a big believer in trying to help our team in free agency as well.
“But it’s not just, ‘What are you going to do next week when free agency starts and spend X amount of dollars?’ You have to counter that with, ‘What’s your draft going to look like this year? Not only this year, but next year. What’s free agency going to look like next year? What is your draft and develop going to be doing all this time?’ You have to think about what you’re doing.”