GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers was still celebrating — and clutching the ball from the game’s final play, eager to present it to rookie head coach Matt LaFleur in honor of his first NFL victory — when the Green Bay Packers quarterback made his way from the Soldier Field tunnel toward the visitors’ locker room.
There he encountered the guy who might’ve been the game’s real MVP: General manager Brian Gutekunst.
Rodgers, by his own admission, had not played well in the team’s 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears. But the three veteran free agents Gutekunst had added to the defense back in March — outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and safety Adrian Amos — had delivered some of the biggest plays of the game: Amos’ end zone interception with the Bears threatening to tie the game on a third-and-10 throw by Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with 1 minute, 58 seconds to play; and Preston Smith’s victory-clinching takedown of Trubisky with 1:02 left. Za’Darius Smith, meanwhile, had a sack and a whopping 10 quarterback pressures.
“The first person I saw when I turned the corner was Brian,” Rodgers recounted at midweek, in advance of today’s home opener against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. “And we exchanged some fun words. It wasn’t the prettiest on offense, but a win is a win. And definitely a fun time there.
“To see the locker room, the way it was, and the personalities, was pretty exciting. And knowing how much ‘Z’ impacted the game and Preston impacted the game and how Adrian basically sealed the game there with the interception … it was fun.”
It was also proof — albeit only one game’s worth — that delving into free agency can pay immediate dividends. While Gutekunst’s predecessor as GM, Ted Thompson, seldom used free agency to augment his draft-and-develop roster-building philosophy, Gutekunst dove headfirst into the free agent pool this offseason because he believed the defense was in dire need of a personnel overhaul.
“I was really happy for our team, and proud of our guys,” Gutekunst said late in the week. “Those guys fitting in so quickly, sometimes that can take time. So that was good to see. But it wasn’t only the players that they are that (was appealing). There’s been some good locker room stuff, some good leadership stuff that they’ve also brought to the table. But until guys get here, you never know how that’s going to work out.”
It seems to be working out well, but it wasn’t cheap. Gutekunst spent a combined $155 million on the three contracts and $48 million in guarantees to add Za’Darius Smith (four years, $66 million, $20 million guaranteed), Preston Smith (four years, $52 million, $16 million guaranteed), and Amos (four years, $37 million, $12 million guaranteed).
Gutekunst pushed back on the suggestion that the spending spree was that unusual for the Packers, pointing out that he had done just what Thompson had in his second year as GM. In 2006, Thompson signed three big-ticket free agents: Safety Marquand Manuel (five years, $10 million), defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (four years, $14 million) and cornerback Charles Woodson (seven years, $52 million).
While Manuel was a disappointment and released, Pickett became a defensive leader and cornerstone up front, and Woodson turned out to be a transformative player who went from being an elite talent to likely first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer while leading the Packers to the Super Bowl XLV title.
“I think it’s just something I think everyone around here felt like we needed to do,” Gutekunst said of his free agent foray. “And when they perform — whether they’re a free agent, a draft pick, or a street guy — I think the guys who’ve been here are appreciative.
“I think for me free agency has always been about the current situation of our team. Obviously there are a bunch of different avenues you can use to acquire players. Some are deeper talent pools than others. I was here early on when we signed Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett. Ted went out and felt the defense needed two premier players, and he got them. And then in 2014, he went out and signed Julius Peppers.
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“I think Ted always looked at all those avenues, I just think our team might’ve been at different places. I felt sometime in the middle of last year we were going to have to do some significant things to get to where we want to be. Again, it’s one game, but we’re pretty happy with the way it’s turned out so far.”
Gutekunst also said that with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine entering his second year in Green Bay, it allowed him to get a better feel for what types of players would best fit Pettine’s scheme. Gutekunst credited Pettine with taking the players he inherited in 2018 and focusing on what they did well instead of grousing about their shortcomings, but when he and the scouting staff put together their free agent board, they did so with Pettine’s preference for size, speed and versatility in mind.
“With Mike being here that first year and the conversations going through the season, I certainly understood what he wanted to do on defense: Come in waves, put guys on the field so the offense won’t know exactly where they’re going to line up,” Gutekunst said. “So that was part of our thought process, to try to acquire those types of players. We are certainly more versatile from that aspect.”
Pettine explained that the scouting staff compiled for the coaches a list of impending free agents in advance of the start of the negotiating period, and that list included a host of outside linebackers. He and outside linebackers coach Mike Smith went through film of each player together, and their wish list had two players at the very top.
“Za’Darius was a guy that just jumped off the tape, and not far behind was Preston. We ended up getting both, and we’d have been thrilled with one of those two guys,” Pettine said. “The fact we were able to pull that off was a tremendous move by Gutey and his group. Evaluating Adrian, that was pretty easy (as well).
“My history, as you know, is looking for the versatility. You always want to be in the mode of, ‘We’ve got our best 11 out there,’ and sometimes if everybody is locked into their position and you’re just bumping the next guy up on the depth chart, that’s not always going to be the case of having the best 11.”
For their parts, the two Smiths and Amos understand their arrivals came with great expectations. They also seem to understand that one game does not a success story make.
“We always have high expectations for us, and we had great results last Thursday night. That can be a foundation we can build on,” Preston Smith said. “Knowing what each guy brings to the table, we’re all motivated. We talk about how we all want to change the look of this defense, and we want to be a Packers defense to remember. We’re all trying to make something special of this defense.”
Added Amos: “We all challenge each other. We just want to keep stacking up games, stacking up big plays — making that the standard. We talk about all of us being expected to come in and be leaders, but also be ourselves. We hold ourselves to a standard. We feel like we can be a lot better than we are now.”
And they’re not the only ones who are expecting even more from the defense going forward.
“We’re definitely excited to have those guys as part of this defense, glad we made those moves,” said veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, a member of the Super Bowl XLV team who returned to Green Bay as a free agent last season. “I just think we were looking for change. We’ve been in the same cycle for years. Not that it didn’t work. It worked. But we probably missed out on some stuff, too.
“I like what I’ve seen from the guys they brought in. It definitely seems like they’re going to be difference makers. Hopefully it continues.”