Gutekunst Needs Another Huge Offseason
There was a legitimate argument for Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst to win executive of the year. All he did was help hire Matt LaFleur, infuse the roster with blue-chip talent in free agency, draft a couple instant-impact players and add some key role players before and during the season.
The result? The Packers went from out of the playoffs with a combined 13 wins the previous two seasons to 13-3 and a trip to the NFC Championship Game this season.
Now, perhaps, will come the bigger challenge of getting over the team over the hump after they were knocked out by halftime for the second time in two months against the mighty San Francisco 49ers.
The work on that started last month. In late December, ESPN.com reported that the Packers turned a 2020 roster bonus of $14.26 million into a signing bonus in 2019. That’s kicking the financial can down the road, but it freed up $11.41 million of cap space for 2020. Suddenly, the Packers are armed with $32.3 million of cap space, according to OverTheCap.com. Releasing tight end Jimmy Graham would provide an additional $8.0 million of space, and parting ways with guard Lane Taylor would create another $4.55 million.
They’ll need every bit of that space to create a roster worthy of playing into February.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga and kicker Mason Crosby lead the list of free agents. Bulaga will turn 31 in two months and has a length injury history, but the Packers don’t have any tackle prospects in the pipeline. Crosby will turn 36 just before the start of next season. Both players had strong seasons, though the dollars and cents will have to make sense.
Linebacker Blake Martinez, who has finished in the top two in the league in tackling each of the past three seasons, has limitations. But, as is the case with Bulaga, there’s no one on the roster to replace him and true three-down players at his position generally go in the top 10 of the draft. To be sure, the Packers can’t go into next season with Martinez being the unit’s top player and an every-down performer and expect a different result.
Cornerback Tramon Williams and two key in-season additions, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer and kick returner/running back Tyler Ervin also are part of the Packers’ 15-man class of unrestricted free agents.
“I love our guys and the pieces that we put together,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I think we need to continue to find those niche guys, like the Tyler Ervins that we brought in. Those guys are obviously really important. Jared Veldheer, Marcedes Lewis – there’s a lot of guys I’d love to see back – Bryan Bulaga. Those guys have been really important to our success but the one thing that is constant in this game, as you all know, is change. I know there’ll be some changes this offseason but the exciting thing is I really have a lot of faith and trust in Brian and his staff.”
While Gutekunst again is armed with the money to get things done, it will be a drastically different outlook in the draft. Last year, the Packers wound up picking outside linebacker Rashan Gary at No. 12 and safety Darnell Savage at No. 21. This year, they’ll pick 30th.
The list of needs to tackle in free agency and the draft is long.
Receiver is perhaps the most obvious need. The Packers have drafted only one receiver – Davante Adams in the second round in 2014 – in the first three rounds of the last eight drafts. With that, is it any surprise why the offense struggled all season and was really challenged to move the ball against top defenses? Imagine Rodgers having someone like the Niners’ Deebo Samuel, a second-round pick who has the speed of a receiver and the running skills of a running back, operating out of the slot. It’s hard to say rookie Jace Sternberger did enough to be anointed the new starter at tight end, where Graham and Lewis face uncertain futures.
Defensively, the lack of development from former third-round pick Montravius Adams – not to mention the thorough butt-kicking applied in the trenches – probably necessitates a sizable investment up front. The lack of development from former second-round pick Josh Jackson might necessitate yet another premium addition at cornerback. Regardless of Martinez’s future, the Packers need speed and coverage ability at inside linebacker. And that’s not even touching the futures of Bulaga and Crosby, which could create even more needs at key positions.
"To do what we did, it’s very special but, then agai,n it’s not enough," left tackle David Bakhtiari said. "I have no how idea how much longer I’m going to be playing and I want to go to the damn Super Bowl."
The Packers of 2019 were a good team with great chemistry, excellent health and a knack for winning close games. In his first season, coach Matt LaFleur squeezed every bit of potential out of the group. When you look up and down the league rankings, it’s fair to say this team overachieved. Teams usually don’t overachieve in back-to-back seasons, let alone go from good to great. The Packers of 2020 need speed and playmakers on both sides of the ball to close what the scoreboard indicates is a sizable gap between themselves and San Francisco.
If Gutekunst can get close to duplicating last year's success, it can happen.
“The (championship) window’s open and I think we’re going to be on the right side of one of these real soon,” Rodgers said.