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Tom Oates: Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst again shows he knows what he's doing
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Tom Oates: Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst again shows he knows what he's doing

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Brian Gutekunst photo

It appears Monday's deals with offensive tackle Rick Wagner and linebacker Christian Kirksey will possibly leave Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst with room for a significant free agent acquisition.

They’re not all going to work out.

Not every offseason personnel move by the Green Bay Packers will be a home run. Not every free agent signing will turn into Za’Darius Smith. Not every draft pick will become Elgton Jenkins.

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst had some big-time hits after striking quickly in free agency and exercising three of the first 44 picks in the draft last year, but that’s not how it usually works in the NFL, where every move carries an element of risk. No general manager bats 1.000. Most would settle for hitting .500. Few even reach that.

Even before the league’s free agent negotiating window opened Monday morning, there was Gutekunst, making early waves once again. By signing two veterans who had recently been released, Gutekunst backstopped the Packers at two important positions. When he signed offensive tackle Rick Wagner, the former University of Wisconsin player, and inside linebacker Christian Kirksey at the outset of his third crack at free agency, it expanded his options for later on and, more than anything, confirmed our early impressions of how Gutelunst operates.

Although he’s not right every time, he always has a plan and he aggressively pursues that plan.

Gutekunst was mentored by former Packers general managers Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson, but his resolute, aggressive approach is more out of Wolf’s playbook than Thompson’s. And, really, who among us doesn’t think that’s a good idea?

To be clear, the Packers didn’t become a better team with these two signings, at least not in the short term. The additions signaled the end in Green Bay for venerable offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga and stable-but-limited inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who are more sure-things than Wagner and Kirksey but are hitting free agency and would have been very expensive to re-sign.

By jumping into the fray right away, Gutekunst covered two vital positions on his roster at a very reasonable price. Sure, there are risks involved. Wagner’s play has fallen off the past two years and he wasn’t as good as Bulaga to begin with. Kirksey might be on a par with Martinez as a player but injuries have limited him to nine games the past two seasons after he never missed a game in his first four.

As Gutekunst warned in February, however, the Packers don’t have the salary-cap room to be as free-wheeling in free agency as they were last year, when they overpaid for Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner. Of course, you didn’t hear anyone complaining when all four hit and the Packers’ record went from 6-9-1 to 13-3.

In part because of those signings, the Packers were a team of limited means when free agent negotiations began Monday. But you don’t judge a general manager by his resources, you judge him by how he maximizes his resources.

Gutekunst’s plan seemed to be to sign Wagner and Kirksey to roughly half of what the top free agents at their positions are commanding, then have enough room left under the cap for a significant free agent acquisition. He accomplished the first half of that plan, but it remains to be seen if he has enough cap room to get the second part done.

The Packers clearly were interested in Atlanta tight end Austin Hooper, but he agreed to a four-year, $42 million deal with Cleveland. At inside linebacker, the Packers were eyeing the Los Angeles Rams’ Cory Littleton and Cleveland’s Joe Schobert, but Littleton agreed to a three-year, $36 million deal with Las Vegas and Schobert a five-year, $54 million deal from Jacksonville.

Confirming the Packers’ fears about how much it would cost to get an upper-tier inside linebacker, Martinez agreed to a three-year, $30 million deal with the New York Giants. Meanwhile, Bulaga got a three-year, $30 million contract from the Los Angeles Chargers.

There are a lot of conflicting reports about the Packers’ current cap situation, but remember the rookie salary pool, the tenders offered to retain the team’s five exclusive rights free agents and setting aside some rainy-day money will eat into the remaining cap room. Still, with some contract creativity it would seem the Packers might have one more move left in free agency.

In the meantime, there are benefits to Gutekunst’s quick strike. Since Wagner and Kirksey were both cut by their teams, they were technically street free agents and won’t count against the Packers’ compensatory-pick ledger. Also, both deals — Wagner signed for $11 million for two years, Kirksey for $13 million for two years— were cap-friendly and structured so the Packers could end them after one season without taking a huge cap hit.

More important, the moves give the Packers insurance at those two positions and will allow Gutekunst great flexibility in the draft. And because they’re not long-term deals, Gutekunst probably wouldn’t hesitate to use his No. 1 pick on an offensive tackle or inside linebacker should a top player at one of those positions fall to them.

It is now clear the Packers either couldn’t afford or weren’t willing to pay a big-ticket free agent. This isn’t 2019, however, and different situations call for different approaches.

By getting in quickly and signing two low-risk veterans at below-market prices, Gutekunst showed he knows what he’s doing.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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