The dust has settled on the Pack’s most jarring day in free agency since they caused jaws to drop from coast to coast when they landed Reggie White, with a little help from the Big Guy upstairs.
In a dizzying day on Twitter Tuesday morning, we saw Gutey lock up four free agents who figure to step instantly into starting roles. Now, let’s back up a moment. It wasn’t too many years ago that the Packers rarely had more than two possible starting spots available from year to year. But a few bad drafts have caused parts of the roster to erode and the Pack had the capital and the proper mindset in the GM’s office to do something about it in March, with an eye toward addressing it in a much more important way in the draft next month.
With Nick Perry and Clay Matthews no longer in the picture, the team needed to find younger versions to help make Mike Pettine’s defense work. Preston Smith is a perfect replacement for Perry, built about the same and big, at 270 pounds. Smith will set the edge and add to the Pack’s improved run defense, anchored by Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels. At 26 he’s already considered a locker room leader and has not missed a game in four seasons. What a breath of fresh air.
You have to believe Gutey and his staff were urged to look at Smith by new inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who comes to the Pack from Washington, where he spent 16 seasons, helping coach a defense that finished in the top teight times. He may be back in Gutey’s ear, telling him to bring in inside linebacker Zach Brown, whom the Skins released on Wednesday. At 29, Brown was third rated inside linebacker by PFF last season and might be had on a one-year prove it deal, especially if he loved his coach.
Za’darius Smith was the heaviest signing, from a dollar perspective. When the numbers came out on how the two linebackers’ deals were structured, they’ll both count for less than ten million against the cap and won’t cost much after two years, if either guy goes belly up. But, watching Smith on tape, you have to be excited about what Pettine can do with him. He’s also heavier, at 270, and has done his most damage when moved inside on sub packages, which teams are in the majority of the time. And Gutey’s new right hand man, Wisconsin native Milt Hendrickson, comes from the Ravens, where he watched every game Smith played.
He played about two-thirds of the snaps with the Ravens and led them with 8.5 sacks in 2018–now that came in a contract year, so you always have to consider that. But I think in a perfect scenario he plays about the same percentage with the Pack, maybe 75%, presuming they land another pass rusher in the draft.
About that: despite signing the two Smiths, I think a guy like Florida State’s Brian Burns is absolutely in the mix at 12. He would be a perfect Matthews replacement: He’s lighter, quicker and would give the linebacker group a complete makeover. Yes, offense could very well be in play at #12 as well, at either offensive line or tight end, but the front seven depth in the first round this year is rare–he could even trade down, now that the team’s biggest needs have been addressed.
Among those needs was a complete do-over at safety. The Packers aren’t done here, but got off to strong start with the signing of ex-Bears safety Adrian Amos, who comes in at a very palatable $6 million against the cap. It’s always nice to weaken a rival when you add a free agent and the Amos signing does just that. Is he Earl Thomas or Landon Collins? No, but he’s cheaper, just 25 and has been healthy. He’s an instant upgrade in the Pack’s secondary.
The fourth signing was more of a head scratcher when it was first announced. Billy Turner is a local kid, Mounds View High School and NDSU alum, who trained this offseason right next door to the Vikings shiny new home, TCO Performance Center. While the Vikings decided he wasn’t in their plans, the Pack swooped in and pounced with a four year, $28 million offer that will account about $4 million against the cap this year. He has played everywhere along the line, except center, with most coming on the right side.
He figures to have the inside track on the right guard spot, with guys like Justin McCray, Nico Siragusa and Lucas Patrick hoping to bump him off. He’ll also be a much more palatable backup right tackle, if and when Bryan Bulaga gets hurt again. Yes, I expect the Pack to bring him back, and with Turner in the fold we should only need Jason Spriggs in case of grave emergency.
It sounds like the Packers are still about ten million bucks under the cap, and will have enough to add a few more players on value deals. Sounds like they’re close with Mo Wilkerson and could look at a RB, WR and another safety.
We all know that teams that spend in March aren’t always smiling in January. But teams have shown how using free agency wisely can make an instant impact (Rams). These four deals on day two of free agency make the Pack’s roster stronger in the short term and won’t hurt the team financially on the back end. They’ve addressed their most glaring needs by bringing in young, ascending players and betting that their best football is ahead of them. In year two of Mike Pettine’s system, he has a much better feel for what he’s got and what he needs. The front office has listened and delivered a youth and talent infusion. And with three picks in the top 44, they’re not done.
Not a bad start to the offseason.