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Tom Oates: Four free agent pickups free up Packers' thinking for top pick in April draft

Tom Oates: Four free agent pickups free up Packers' thinking for top pick in April draft

Preston Smith photo

Edge rusher Preston Smith had 24½ sacks in his four-year career with the Redskins, including four last season.

Well, you can forget about the notion that Brian Gutekunst is the second coming of Ted Thompson.

In one busy morning, the Green Bay Packers’ second-year general manager got as much accomplished in free agency as his predecessor and mentor, Thompson, did in his 13 seasons as the chief architect of the team’s roster.

Gutekunst had promised to be active in free agency this offseason, so his haul on Tuesday morning wasn’t a complete surprise. The shocking part was he didn’t stop at just one or two acquisitions. By the time his whirwind tour of free agency was over, Gutekunst had gained four commitments.

If there were any remaining doubts the Packers have changed their approach on how to build a roster, they were erased Tuesday. One after the other, edge pass-rushers Preston Smith of Washington and Za’Darius Smith of Baltimore, safety Adrian Amos of Chicago and guard Billy Turner of Denver agreed to contracts with the Packers and, presumably, will sign those contracts when free agency officially begins today.

The contracts, all four years in length, were for a total of $183 million. Some of that is funny money that will never be paid out, of course, but the Packers are known more for shopping off the bargain racks in free agency than competing for players who are among the top five among available free agents at their position.

None of the players the Packers acquired is likely to become a much-needed difference-maker, but all three defensive players are durable, above-average performers who just completed their fourth NFL season, which means they might still be ascending talents. The most important aspect of the deals, however, is they should better set up the Packers to find a bona fide difference-maker or two in the NFL draft next month.

Because there might not be a genuine star among the Packers newcomers, some will claim they overpaid for good — not great — players. But while all four are almost certain to be upgrades over the players they will replace in the starting lineup, it is the domino effect of those deals that will have the greatest impact on the Packers as they try to recover from back-to-back playoff-free seasons.

Basically, what Gutekunst did was fill the four biggest holes in the lineup and give himself uncommon freedom in the draft to select without regard to need. Indeed, as good as Tuesday’s acquisitions were on paper, they can’t be looked at in a vacuum. The Packers added versatile, experienced, high-quality players to a roster badly in need of such players, but they also opened up a whole new world of possibilities in the draft.

For one thing, Gutekunst can now forego team needs and take the player with the highest ceiling, especially with the first (No. 12 overall) of his two first-round picks. At that spot, the Packers are expected to choose from among players with major potential at positions such as tight end, offensive tackle, defensive line, outside linebacker and inside linebacker.

If they still needed, say, a starting outside linebacker, their hands could be tied with that pick. Instead, their needs aren’t as pressing as they were before Tuesday and the Packers will be able to used the pick for the player on their board with the most potential. That’s important since the board should have multiple potential difference-makers at that spot.

If the Packers think Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson is a future star, they can go that route. If they view one of the top offensive tackles as Bryan Bulaga’s eventual replacement at right tackle, they’ll have that option. Or maybe they will prefer one of the top inside linebackers, Devin White of LSU or Devin Bush of Michigan. Finally, the draft is deep in outside linebackers and just because the Packers are signing two veterans wouldn’t preclude them from drafting another one, especially since both Smiths can rush the passer from anywhere along the front.

Second, the team also could benefit from using the best-available-player approach when it exercises its other first-round pick (No. 30 overall) and its second-round pick (No. 44). Had the Packers scratched only one itch in free agency, those picks would have been needed to plug holes as well. Not anymore.

Based on the way the draft board is shaping up, those picks could yield just about any position. The Packers still need help at tight end, wide receiver (slot variety), running back, offensive line, defensive end, inside linebacker and safety. If a player somehow slips to 30 or 44 who they think has big-time potential, they can make the choice regardless of position.

Finally, after filling their major holes in free agency, the Packers, who have extra picks in the first, fourth and sixth rounds, will have more ammunition if they target a player and want to trade up in the draft. It’s a lot easier to surrender draft picks in trades when you already have your bases covered.

Gutekunst didn’t get off cheap on these deals. He paid the going rate for signing tier-one free agents, which was steep. But the acquisitions will give him more options than he had previously and put him in prime position to maximize one of the more important drafts in the Packers’ recent history.

That wasn’t always the case under Thompson.

Contact Tom Oates at



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Related to this story

Having vowed late last month to be aggressive in free agency to fill holes throughout his roster, Gutekunst was a man of his word on Day 2 of the free-agent negotiating window, as the Packers came to agreements with ex-Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, ex-Chicago Bears safety Adrian Amos, ex-Washington Redskins outside linebacker Preston Smith, and ex-Denver Broncos offensive lineman Billy Turner.

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