Grading Brian Gutekunst’s Free Agent Signings 2018-Present

Brian Gutekunst took over as general manager of the Green Bay Packers in 2018. Since then, the Packers have made the playoffs twice after winning back-to-back NFC North titles. In 2019, they reached the NFC Championship Game.

Gutekunst has turned the Packers around after two straight losing seasons in 2017 and 2018 and part of the way he did that was by signing some big ticket free agents, something his predecessor, Ted Thompson, rarely did.

Here is a look at all Gutekunst’s big ticket free agent signings over his three years as Packers GM. This list only includes offseason, big ticket free agent signings. It does not include instances where the Packers re-signed a player already on their roster or street free agents picked up during the season.

Players are graded on a combination of expectations, cost and productivity.

2018:

CB Tramon Williams

The Packers brought the veteran cornerback back to Green Bay where he played from 2007-2014. Williams started all 16 games for the Packers in 2018 and provided a steady veteran presence to the lineup. Williams only allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 54.8 percent of their passes against players he was covering according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. He also helped mentor young players like Kevin King and Jaire Alexander who eventually took his starting job from him.

In 2019, Williams was a strong presence as the team’s nickel back and again provided leadership for the team, especially as many younger players were participating in their first NFL playoff game.

Grade: B

DT Muhammad Wilkerson

Wilkerson had worked with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine with the Jets and it was hoped that reuniting Wilkerson and Pettine would benefit both parties. Wilkerson was signed to improve the team’s run defense and pass pressure from the interior of the defensive line.

Unfortunately, Wilkerson suffered a serious ankle injury in the Packers Week 3 game against Washington and was lost for the season. That ended his career in Green Bay. We will never know how well Wilkerson could have done had he stayed healthy.

Grade: C-

TE Jimmy Graham

Graham was the biggest free agent signing of the 2018 offseason. The Packers made him the highest-paid tight end in the league and expected him to be a big threat in the red zone and a player who could stretch the field a bit from the tight end position.

Unfortunately, Graham never lived up to that billing. He caught 55 passes in 2018 and 38 in 2019. He suffered too many drops and failed to make enough contested catches. In two seasons with the Packers, Graham caught a total of five touchdown passes. He was never a good blocker to begin with and that didn’t change during his tenure in Green Bay.

Overall, Graham was a major disappointment and the Packers released him after the 2019 season to save cap space. Robert Tonyan has been a major upgrade over Graham in 2020.

Grade: C-

2019:

OL Billy Turner

Turner has been a versatile addition to the Green Bay offensive line since Gute signed him prior to the 2019 campaign. He started all 16 games for the Packers in his first season with the team, playing at right guard. He got off to a shaky start but improved his play as the season progressed.

In 2020, Turner has played mostly at tackle. He started the year at right tackle, shifted to left tackle briefly when David Bakhtiari missed time with injuries and then moved to guard when the Packers lost Corey Linsley to injury and Elgton Jenkins shifted to center.

Turner has been a solid player for the Packers this season and his versatility has been a major reason why the offensive line has been able to overcome the rash of injuries that have sidelined so many players.

Turner has also been a leader in the clubhouse and has been very involved in the community since arriving in Titletown.

Grade: B

OLB Za’Darius Smith

Za’Darius Smith has provided the Packers with consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks since signing with the Packers prior to the 2019 season.

He totaled 13.5 sacks in 2019 while playing in all 16 games and has added 10.5 this season through 13 contests.

In addition to the strong pass rush, Za’Darius has improved the atmosphere in the locker room and provided leadership to the team. Z makes the experience more fun for all.

Za’Darius has been a great pickup for the Packers and may earn a second consecutive Pro Bowl berth this season.

Grade: A

OLB Preston Smith

Preston Smith had a career year in 2019 after signing with Green Bay, picking up 12 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 23 quarterback hits. He was providing the Packers with a good pass rush and occasionally dropping into coverage as well.

This year, Preston Smith’s game has fallen off a bit although in the past three games he has improved his level of play. In 2020, Preston has just three sacks, six tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits. Pettine has had him drop into coverage more frequently, but he has not been consistent trying to cover tight ends and running backs.

Green Bay needs Preston to continue to play at the level he has been playing at in recent weeks down the stretch. When he and Za’Darius are both on their games, the Packers pass rush can be game changing.

Grade: B

S Adrian Amos

Amos was brought in to solidify the Packers secondary because they were giving up too many big plays deep down the middle in 2017 and 2018. Amos has provided the experience and stability that was expected of him.

The former Penn State star is consistent and smart. He came up with a huge interception in his first game as a Packer that clinched a win against his former team in Week 1 and has three picks overall since joining Green Bay. He also has two quarterback sacks and a fumble recovery.

Amos can play either strong safety or free safety, he can play centerfield and occasionally in the box. In recent weeks, Amos has raised his game a bit higher. He has played in all 29 games since joining the Packers and adds leadership in the secondary.

Grade: B

2020:

ILB Christian Kirksey

The Packers signed Kirksey to replace Blake Martinez who left in free agency. Kirksey took over the defensive play calling responsibilities and was really the Packers only experienced ILB when the season got under way.

Unfortunately, the Iowa alum has struggled with injuries and inconsistency since signing with Green Bay. Kirksey was injured in the Packers third game of the season and sat out five games as a result.

Since his return, he has made tackles but very few impact plays. Kirksey has 61 tackles in eight games but no tackles for loss.  He has intercepted one pass this season but overall, too many of his tackles come downfield after a big gain has already been picked up.

Unless he picks up his game down the stretch and in the playoffs, Kirksey may be a cap casualty next season as the Pack has younger, cheaper options in Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin.

Grade: C

OT Rick Wagner

Wagner was signed to add depth to the offensive line after the departure of Bryan Bulaga. He suffered an injury that limited him in training camp and he started the season as a backup. Eventually, Wagner started six games once injuries hit the offensive line. He is best suited to playing right tackle and has done an admirable job filling in at that position.

Wagner even played tight end for part of one game when Marcedes Lewis was unavailable and did a good job blocking.

The former Wisconsin Badger star has proven to be an important depth piece of the Packers offensive line and he has graded out well when placed in the lineup.

Grade: B-

WR Devin Funchess

Funchess opted out of the 2020 season because of the Covid-19 pandemic. His contract will carry over to the 2021 season and the Packers will have his rights for that season.

Grade: Incomplete

You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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Comments (38)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
stockholder's picture

December 19, 2020 at 12:26 pm

Just an uppity Gm now. Never replaced Wilkerson or Daniels. I Don't give him any Credit for Tramon Williams. It just made others more Tradable; Ha Ha Dix , Randall, and Jones. Replaced CM3 because he kept Graham instead. And when he did have money; replaced them with the best FA class in years. If he didn't sign one he wouldn't have got the others. {Smiths and Amos} So were judging him on those 3 only. The rest are making up for his draft failures. And now he wants Rodgers money like CM3 and Nick Perry. BG speaks with a fork in his tongue. The sooner we get a GM that takes BPA in the draft. The better the future will look. Fire Gute = Before he trades Rodgers!

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PhantomII's picture

December 19, 2020 at 01:39 pm

At this point, as close as we are it's better to go get the best player available by trading up and getting what you need= best payer in the draft that you need.

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stockholder's picture

December 19, 2020 at 02:19 pm

Like ILB!

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:29 pm

Always a tough call in the draft, PhantomII. I think most teams balance the BPA with their needs to make their board. Often, they group players in tiers and then pick the player in the highest tier that impacts their team the most. Thanks for commenting.

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stockholder's picture

December 19, 2020 at 06:44 pm

I don't mind Not taking BPA. I think if he would stay put, the draft would come to him. 1. He's lost a lot draft revenue. 2. His draft grades. Are getting worst. 3. his last draft was the opposite of looking for WRs and LBs. Yet he still took Martin. IT took a 2 and 3 to get CM3. BG uses FA like Sherman. And he's losing money and Talent.

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rodic's picture

December 19, 2020 at 01:46 pm

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dobber's picture

December 19, 2020 at 02:17 pm

I read this and I think my IQ dropped 10 points.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:06 pm

Not sure why you don't give Gute credit for signing Tramon Williams. Sure, there have been misses, but the hits in the 2019 FA class helped revitalize the team and change the culture in the locker room. Thanks for the comment, stockholder.

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stockholder's picture

December 19, 2020 at 06:52 pm

Yes BG has lived on Amos, and the Smiths. It was what had to happen since Nick Perry and Cm3. Tramon wanted to come back to GB. And they lost that CB to KC. (Breland)

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Bearmeat's picture

December 19, 2020 at 12:37 pm

Graham was a straight up F.
Wilkerson was an incomplete.
Kirksey is a D trending F.

The rest I agree with. Unfortunately, Gute's drafting record has been measurably worse than his UFA record.

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Jonathan Spader's picture

December 19, 2020 at 01:38 pm

Completely agree that Wilkerson is an I and Graham is a F.

Blake Martinez is having a WAY better season.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:09 pm

Blake is fitting in well with the Giants, but not sure he has the same kind of season if he'd have stayed in Green Bay. He just didn't fit in well with the Pettine system, not that Kirksey has done well either. Thanks for the comment, JonathanSpader.

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dobber's picture

December 19, 2020 at 02:17 pm

I think you only give Wilkerson an incomplete if he were going to play, yet. The returns are in. He was no help...F.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:11 pm

He was no help, but it was because of injury, not because he was a bad player. Granted, he was very average in the 2 1/2 games he played. I was going back and forth between the incomplete and the grade I gave. Thanks for the comment, dobber.

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Guam's picture

December 19, 2020 at 02:48 pm

IDK Bearmeat, I think Graham might actually rate a D- .....:)

Also agree that a C for Kirksey is generous. Probably a D+ for me.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:14 pm

Kirksey has been pretty bad this season, a disappointment. I wonder if he would have stayed healthy if the results would have been better. Graham, I try not to think about Graham. Thanks for the comment, Guam.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:08 pm

Tough to make Graham a complete F in my mind just because he played all 32 possible games, started most of them and had 50-plus catches in 2018. Now, he was a big disappointment and never even came close to living up to his contract. I can easily see the incomplete for Wilkerson because of the injury and yes, Kirksey isn't trending the way we'd like. Always good to hear from you, Bearmeat.

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Ferrari-Driver's picture

December 19, 2020 at 12:46 pm

Gil, I agree...there wasn't a Joe Johnson in the bunch.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:14 pm

LOL. There's a blast from the past. Thanks, Ferrari-Driver, always good to hear from you.

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Since'61's picture

December 19, 2020 at 01:22 pm

I would give Graham a D at best.
Amos B+
Kirksey C-

The rest I agree with. I could give a B+ to Preston Smith but I’d rather see how he finishes out this season first.
Thanks, Since ‘61

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:17 pm

All fair grades, Since'61. Graham was a major disappointment. Amos a B+ is more than fair. I like his professionalism and he's a class act. I'd love to give Preston the B+ if he can finish strong. Thanks for the comment.

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PackerBacker77's picture

December 19, 2020 at 06:29 pm

B+ for Preston wow. He was good last year and garbage this year

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Qoojo's picture

December 19, 2020 at 01:36 pm

Wilkerson: Incomplete due to injury
Graham: F but I can see it going up to D
Kirksey: D+ given injuries and performance

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:19 pm

All fair, I was torn on the incomplete for Wilkerson. Thanks for the comment, Qoojo.

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egbertsouse's picture

December 19, 2020 at 01:49 pm

Graham-highest paid TE in the League=F
Wilkerson-F
Z. Smith- B. Doesn’t get an A because of his run defense
Kirksey- D

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:20 pm

Hard to give Wilkerson an F because he got hurt. It wasn't necessarily a bad signing, he just couldn't play. In his brief tenure, he was average at best. Graham was painful to watch, disappointing almost all the time. Thanks for the comment egbertsouse.

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Coldworld's picture

December 19, 2020 at 01:54 pm

To me this doesn’t make a lot of sense without considering others,. Didn’t such as Tonyan, Lazard, Sullivan, Redmond as well, who have contributed. I’d give P Smith a B+ and Graham a D. Of course Graham wouldn’t have been here if Ball hadn’t walked away from Jared Cook negotiations.

Wilkerson had to be incomplete. Overall, our roster today is a lot deeper and has a lot less holes than when Gute took over. For those that don’t like it’s shape, that’s LaFleur and Murphy. But can’t argue it’s helped the O and that there are few weak players on O at this point.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:24 pm

I would put the others in a different category. Tonyan, Lazard, Sullivan etc were street free agents rather than big-ticket free agents. The grades would integrate on Gute's overall GM grade. Graham wouldn't have been here if Cook would have stayed, but that didn't happen. You're right about the increased depth and talent since Gute took over and it's part big ticket FAs, part street FAs and part draft. Thanks for the comment, Coldworld.

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

December 19, 2020 at 03:03 pm

I would give Amos an B+. He's been exactly what you expect out of the signing.

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dobber's picture

December 19, 2020 at 04:23 pm

His lackluster play earlier this season gave me pause, but he's been more sure and more physical recently. He was the Robin to Jackson's Batman in Chicago, and has been pretty much as advertised.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:25 pm

He has been. He's steady, professional, a leader in the locker room and a reliable player who makes the occasional big play. Thanks for the comment, jerremyjjbrown.

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Lare's picture

December 19, 2020 at 03:34 pm

Tough to grade FA signings as it's mostly to make up what a GM didn't do in the draft. At least with FA signings you have an idea how they're going to do in the NFL, with drafted players it's pretty much a crapshoot.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:26 pm

The FAs were necessary before the 2019 season, the team needed an injection of talent especially at edge. The Packers rarely signed big FAs under Thompson. Obviously, the 2019 splurge resulted in the limited cap space we have now. Thanks for the comment, Lare.

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PewAuKeeFan's picture

December 19, 2020 at 04:40 pm

I would give Graham an F , or even worse, if there is a grade lower than F. Graham caused Packers to miss out on having better players. Additionally, on the field he took up valuable snaps and had abysmal drops.

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GilMartin's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:27 pm

He was a major disappointment and so frustrating to watch. Not my favorite Packers player for those reasons. Thanks PewAuKeeFan.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:36 pm

B+: Tramon. Got an above-average DB for below-average starting DB $.
D+ Graham. Top paid TE for below average play. Worse, blocking limits things.
Inc: Wilkerson. Purely on results, it's an F+. I don't blame GM for unforeseeable injuries.
B: Turner. Paid mediocre starting money and has been a decent/solid starter w versatility.
B+: Zadarius. Great pass rushing. Ave to below Average at everything else.
B-: Preston. Excellent 2019, if iffy against the run at times. 2020 isn't worth $13.5M.
B+: Amos. As advertised. Above ave. safety with versatility. $9M is a little much for an A.
F+: Kirksey. His pay is moderate, play is terrible, not above replacement level.
A: Wagner. Fine play for modest money. Keeper despite cap savings in 2020.
D/Inc: Funchess. I doubt he makes the team in 2021, so loss of $1M.

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Mojo's picture

December 19, 2020 at 06:15 pm

I'm going to piggy-back off of TGR's comments. I like how TGR factors the $'s in his analysis, since that's as important as anything in grading FA's.

Generally agree with them but I would downgrade Amos. I'm assuming a "C" is an average NFL player. There has been nothing spectacular with Amos, but he's better than what we used to have. I'd give him a C+.

Turner I'd give a B- and only because he surprised me with his tackle play as a fill in there. Else, he kind of was a C- player last year.

I wouldn't give Wagner an A only because his limited PT. Nice value pick though.

I'd downgrade Graham just a little because of the opportunity cost of his ridiculous salary.

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Mojo's picture

December 19, 2020 at 05:54 pm

The thing with Graham wasn't as much with his limited production as it was with his cap hit. In 2019 it was nearly $13mil. They probably could have kept one of Rodgers favorite receivers - Cobb if they didn't overpay Graham.

They might have been able to resign Martinez instead of being stuck with the flub they have at ILB now.

With FA's it's not so much the player as it is the cap-hit value.

I give Grahams production a C- and his cap-hit value a D- for an overall grade of D.

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