DETROIT – As the 2019 regular season and the 2019 calendar year come to a close, let’s take a look back at how the Green Bay Packers went from 6-9-1 last season to 12-3 and rolling into the playoffs this season.
No. 1: Fabulous Free Agents
Other than outlandish amounts of guaranteed money, there’s nothing guaranteed in free agency. This past offseason, the New York Jets spent $226 million - $40 million more than any other team. Their reward? Six wins. Five teams spent at least $170 million; three will miss the playoffs, including Detroit. Of the nine biggest spenders, as many as seven will miss the playoffs.
The Packers, however, will buck that trend. According to Spotrac, they spent the second-most in free agency this past offseason, with $186.4 million doled out for signings and re-signings. The headliners were outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (four years, $66 million), outside linebacker Preston Smith (four years, $52 million) and safety Adrian Amos (four years, $36 million). In terms of total contracts, they ranked sixth, 11th and 20th in this year’s free-agent class.
The payoff from general manager Brian Gutekunst’s approach has been obvious. The Packers are 12-3 heading into Sunday’s game at Detroit. Their defense started hot and is finishing strong, highlighted by a dominant performance in a 23-10 win last week at Minnesota in which the Vikings were limited to 139 yards.
“Every defensive coordinator wants to put together a defense that’s capable of that and when we signed those guys, there was certainly that optimism of, hey, these are three key positions in the defense that needed to be addressed and were and we were 3-for-3 on those signings,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said.
“Sometimes, you’ll obviously see free agents, it’s just like the draft, it’s hit or miss, so credit to Gutey and his staff that it was three hits. It’s rare that you fix everything or a lot through free agency, and we’ve been able to accomplish that, and I think all three of those guys have done a great job coming in and learning what we’re doing and fitting in with the fabric of the defense and doing their job and providing leadership for the others as well. It’s very fortunate that we were able to get those guys here and we’re obviously glad that they’re here and will be here for a while.”
Za’Darius Smith turned in arguably the most dominant performance by a Packers defender since Reggie White in running roughshod over the Vikings last week. Smith enters this week ranked sixth in the league with 13.5 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, his 87 pressures are one of the league lead held by Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter.
Preston Smith is eighth in the league with 12 sacks and 18th among edge defenders with 55 pressures. Smith has five more sacks and as many pressures as Detroit’s Trey Flowers. Flowers’ $90 million deal was the most expensive in free agency. It included $56 million guaranteed; the Smiths and Amos signed deals with a combined $48 million guaranteed.
Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, they are the first Packers tandem in which each player has posted at least a dozen sacks. The Smiths have combined for 25 sacks and 132 pressures. Last year, Green Bay’s high-priced tandem of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry combined for five sacks and 43 pressures. In 2017, they combined for 14.5 sacks and 74 pressures. Put another way, the Smiths have 5.5 more sacks and 15 more pressures than Matthews and Perry had the past two seasons combined.
Amos, meanwhile, has come as advertised. He’s second on the team with 76 tackles and has two interceptions and eight passes defensed, but he’s always in the right spot and has been a rugged tackler. By our unofficial count, Amos has missed five tackles. The man he essentially replaced, Kentrell Brice, missed 11 while playing almost 400 fewer snaps.
Together, they have changed the face of the defense. From 2015 through 2018, Green Bay was No. 22 in points with 23.4 points allowed per game and No. 26 with an opponent passer rating of 94.3. Entering Sunday, Green Bay is No. 9 in points with 19.5 points and No. 7 with an opponent passer rating of 82.6.
The fourth member of the Fab Free Agent Foursome was right guard Billy Turner, a part-time starter in Denver and Miami who inked a four-year, $28 million contact. After a slow start to the season, he’s settled in down the stretch. According to Pro Football Focus, he hasn’t allowed a sack in five of the last six games.
“I think when you throw that kind of money around, the expectations are set pretty high because you’d love to see those guys play to the money they’ve been given, and they have. They all have,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I think they’ve all been big, impact players. Obviously, played against Adrian for a few years and knew what kind of player he was. Tougher, smart, instinctive. Didn’t know a whole lot about Z, so when this big dude comes in with a big ‘ol head and huge dreads, I’m thinking, ‘This could be good here.’ And I knew that he was kind of a platoon guy in Baltimore and watching him the first couple weeks in pads, you think, ‘How in the hell is this guy a platoon guy?’ But the energy, you just love from the start. His passion, just for life. The way he kind of grabbed onto the leadership opportunity on defense, and Preston, as you see, they’re hand in hand. They’re fast friends and I knew what kind of player we were getting in Preston.
“I didn’t know anything about Billy. But I could tell from the start, again I go back to the word energy, but he just had a really calm presence about him, a very positive outlook on things and body-type-wise, watching him move, ‘OK, he’s going to definitely fit into this scheme where we’re trying to run off the ball and capture edges. He’s been a very steady guy for us at right guard.”