Gutekunst's History Pairs High Draft Picks with Experienced Free Agents

GM Brian Gutekunst attacks roster building from every angle, including pairing ascending free agents with talented rookies.

After the 2018 season, the Packers had a visible weakness at the outside linebackers position, prompting General Manager Brian Gutekunst to overhaul the edge rushing unit by signing both Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in free agency, and drafting Rashan Gary with the team’s No. 12 pick in the draft. 

Gutekunst wasn’t done there, though. He also revamped his secondary by bringing in safety Adrian Amos through free agency and trading up with his second first-round pick to draft Darnell Savage. Then, in the second round, he drafted Elgton Jenkins after spending big on Billy Turner only a few months prior, with Jenkins quickly taking over as the team’s starting left guard and Turner becoming a mainstay at right guard in 2019. 

Now, another offseason brings about new position weaknesses for Gutekunst to address, specifically along the defensive line and in the wide receivers room. And while the Packers don’t have the spending power they did in 2019 to make a huge splash in free agency, there are still some names available that wouldn’t exactly break the bank. But more on that in a bit.

Priority number one for Green Bay has to be signing Kenny Clark to a long-term deal. That’s something the team will want to get done before training camp begins, and while the payday will be pretty massive, at only 24 years old, Clark more than deserves to break the bank. 

That said, a contract for Clark does little to fix the run defense, as Clark has always been more of a pass rushing defensive tackle than a run-stuffer. In 2019, Pro Football Focus gave Clark an overall grade of 79.9 with a run defense grade of 67.8 and a pass rush grade of 87.0. Additionally, of Clark’s 869 total snaps this past season, only 330 were run defense snaps and a 529 were pass rush snaps. And while that’s not to say Clark can’t stuff the run, because he absolutely can, he’s at his best when he’s allowed to get after the quarterback and create pressure, which he did 62 times last season. 

While the Packers just gave Dean Lowry a contract extension this past summer, the 6-6 defensive end isn’t the run-stuffer that Green Bay needs, splitting his time almost evenly between run defense and pass rush snaps in 2019. Behind Lowry, there isn’t a ton of depth as far as run defense is concerned. Montravius Adams, a player coaches praised highly during training camp, played only 187 total snaps in 2019 and had a run defense grade of 39.0. Fifth-round pick Kingsley Keke had an improved grade of 68.3 against the run, but played a limited 94 snaps all season, with only 39 of those snaps coming in run defense. Finally, while Tyler Lancaster played well for the Packers in 2019 and took the bulk of his snaps in run defense with a 67.6 overall grade, the Packers still need more production from the defensive line as a whole. 

Green Bay’s defense allowed over 100 rushing yards in 12 of the team’s 18 games this past season, and while the team still pulled out wins in eight of those matchups, the run game ultimately ended the Packers’ chances at a Super Bowl when the team allowed 285 yards on the ground to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game.

If the Packers turn to free agency to improve the run defense in 2020, there are plenty of options in a loaded interior defensive line class. While it’s too early to tell if some of these players will even make it to free agency, some names to consider include D.J. Reader (83.3 run grade) from the Texans, Javon Hargrave (77.2 run grade) from the Steelers, Michael Pierce (70.6 run grade) from the Ravens, and Michael Brockers (82.5 run grade) from the Rams.

Gerald McCoy is also a fascinating name to watch in the later stages of his career. He played well in 2019 with an overall grade of 72.0 and 77.1 against the run. While his age might be a concern to some, he still has some gas in the tank and would be an enticing option at the right price to pair with a high draft pick. 

Whatever happens in free agency, it’s still highly likely the Packers will look for a big body along the defensive line earlier rather than later in the draft. Names Gutekunst could explore in the draft include Justin Madubuike from Texas A&M, Jordan Elliott from Missouri, Marlon Davidson from Auburn, Neville Gallimore from Oklahoma, and Ross Blacklock from TCU. 

Flipping to the offensive side of the ball, Davante Adams is just about the only roster lock at wide receiver in 2020, though I’d expect Allen Lazard to come back and that the Packers will give both Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown opportunities to shine at training camp. 

Despite missing four games with a toe injury, Adams still posted 997 receiving yards in the regular season with five touchdowns. The second highest total on the team came from Lazard with 477 and three touchdowns, followed by running back Aaron Jones with 474 yards and Valdes-Scantling in fourth with 452 yards and two touchdowns, though his numbers are a bit inflated given his 74-yard touchdown against the Raiders. It’s also worth noting that the Packers did sign wide receiver in Ryan Grant after he was cut by the Raiders, but Grant didn’t play a single snap for the Packers the entire season. 

PFF gave Adams an overall grade of 83.5 in 2019, with a passer rating when targeted of 101.4. The next best receiver on the team was Lazard with a 72.2 overall grade and a whopping 117.9 passer rating when targeted. 

The Packers spent good money on free agent tight ends the last few seasons, bringing in Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis before drafting Jace Sternberger, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see them take a similar approach at wide receiver in 2020, especially if the team does decide to move on from Graham and free up some cap space. 

Robby Anderson from the Jets (68.6 overall grade and five touchdowns) and Emmanuel Sanders (78.4 overall grade and five touchdowns) are two interesting options for Green Bay given the team did consider adding an offensive weapon before the trade deadline, and then Sanders did end up being traded to the 49ers. Both players should warrant decent contracts, though, so it’s likely Gutekunst could look for a different, lower-cost role player to pair with Adams and a high draft pick. 

Breshad Perriman from the Buccaneers might be a name to look at in free agency with an overall rating of 72.8 and a passer rating when targeted of 94.7, along with six touchdowns in 2019, 645 yards, and only one dropped pass. 

The next free agent receiver already has a familiarity with Head Coach Matt LaFleur, and that’s Tajae Sharpe from the Titans. While his numbers don’t exactly leap off the page as a free agent, he had an overall grade of 74.0 from PFF with 329 receiving yards and four touchdowns, including a stellar passer rating when targeted of 127.0. 

I toyed with putting Randall Cobb on this list since he’s a free agent, but I do think the Packers moved on from him for a reason. Even still, just for fun, he was given a 69.9 overall grade in 2019 from PFF, and he had 828 receiving yards, three touchdowns, and a passer rating when targeted of 100.6. 

Just like with a defensive lineman, I really think that even if the Packers sign a receiver in free agency, Gutekunst will add an additional receiver early, given his history of partnering draft picks with free agents. Some names to keep an eye on in the early rounds of the draft in a loaded wide receiver class include Justin Jefferson from LSU, Brandon Aiyuk from Arizona State, Laviska Shenault Jr. from Colorado, Jalen Reagor from TCU, and Tee Higgins from Clemson, and Denzel Mims from Baylor. 

Now with all of this said, it’s entirely possible Gutekunst does nothing in free agency and simply turns to the draft to improve the roster given the team’s limited cap availability this offseason. But it’s also possible we’re seeing a pattern forming with Gutekunst, where he’s acknowledging certain roster holes can’t just be filled by one player, so pairing a veteran with a draft pick gives the Packers plenty of options at weaker spots on the roster. 

 

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Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV, podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast and Pack's What She Said, and hosts a weekly live show called Happy Hour through Game On Wisconsin. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieJLoney.

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Comments (32)

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jimtalkbox's picture

February 25, 2020 at 12:10 pm

Good article. I'm interested to see how things shape up over the next couple of months.

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Fredrik87's picture

February 25, 2020 at 12:13 pm

In free agency the guys I like the most are
D.J Reader, DL, Houston Texans
Javon Hargrave, DL, Pittsburgh Steelers
Nick kwiatkowski, ILB, Chigago Bears
Sean Lee, ILB, Dallas Cowboys
Corey littleton, ILB, LA Rams

I don't really like any of the free agent WR's of all of them I probably like A.J Green the most because he's a legitimate top 5 WR when healthy, and could come cheap(less than 10 million according to sportrac).
But with the depth of WR in the draft I'd avoid that position in free agency.

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Lphill's picture

February 25, 2020 at 01:15 pm

I agree Clark deserves to get paid but as stated he is better against the pass , what if there is a free agent who is good at both the run and the pass , I would not be surprised if Gute moves on for the better of the team , that’s the Patriots way , make moves to win now not later.

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mamasboy's picture

February 25, 2020 at 03:22 pm

Clark isn't going anywhere, but to the bank!

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jannes bjornson's picture

February 26, 2020 at 11:18 am

Clark will get a second contract, but the Pack still has some leverage with the franchise tag to work the deal until next off-season , if necessary.

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stockholder's picture

February 25, 2020 at 02:59 pm

Every body wants Gute to get something better. But lets wait just a minute here. Yes we were killed by SF. But didn't we beat KC? Didn't we make the playoffs on a 13-3 season? Gute could just sign his own, and let the draft be his guide. Meaning; he doesn't have to do anything. He doesn't have to give into the demands of anybody. Spending money, just to spend money ,isn't about value. It has to be the right thing for everybody. If a player wants to kiss off, let them. Their are no insurances. If a hole opens up, the money saved can fill it. If Gute resolves anything this off season. It should be about pushing the player that didn't make the position better.

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BradHTX's picture

February 25, 2020 at 04:33 pm

“Spending money, just to spend money ,isn't about value. It has to be the right thing for everybody.”

Of course that’s true, and it’s important. Spending good money on a bad player is dumb.

On the other hand, they have the money and there’s no reason not to spend it. As a nonprofit corporation, the goal is to zero out the revenue and expenses. It’s not like a for-profit ownership situation, where every dollar spent is a dollar that doesn’t go into the owner’s pocket. They can make financial decisions based on what’s best for the team’s financial future, not the present bottom line.

That’s what made the old “Tightwad Ted” narrative so silly.

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Stroh's picture

February 25, 2020 at 09:22 pm

Well first of all there is a cap on the amount they can spend on players. They already have about the best facilities a team can offer. As a non-profit that doesn't have a deep pockets owner, they are more vulnerable to changes to the collective bargaining agreement. That is why they have the reserve fund. I don't know where else they can actually put the money. Players? No, the cap prohibits it. Facilities? No, already as good as it gets. Titletown District? Too some degree, but that is going to be mostly completed soon. The teams best financial future is to put money into the District, which they already are doing and keep growing the reserve fund.

As much as everyone complains about Thompson, he was always close to the cap, other than a 8-10M reserve for inseason moves and extensions. The Packers are a pay as you go team, they aren't ever going to mortgage the future for a season or 2 run for a SB. That's also not their style. Nor should it be since they depend on fielding a competitive team on a yearly basis.

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ILPackerBacker's picture

February 26, 2020 at 11:54 am

they may not have an owner.
Study what they pay the people running the show then compare to Chicago.

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dobber's picture

February 26, 2020 at 01:05 pm

Murphy is the only compensated member of the board. Given the net revenue of NFL teams and the amount that he draws in salary compared to the ability of a majority owner to pocket profits, it's not that significant.

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dobber's picture

February 26, 2020 at 07:54 am

Don't forget that the Packers have a significant philanthropic arm of the organization where they spend a big chunk of change on a yearly basis. While we might see the ownership of the Packers as a simplifying factor, the Packers are probably the most complex organization in pro sports.

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

February 26, 2020 at 12:28 pm

"Packers have a significant philanthropic arm of the organization where they spend a big chunk of change on a yearly basis."

I expect Jimmy Graham to be released :D

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albert999's picture

February 25, 2020 at 06:56 pm

Beat KC with out Mahomes
End of story

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dobber's picture

February 26, 2020 at 04:59 am

Only one of KCs losses came when Mahomes was out of the lineup. That means that they lost with him 3 times.

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albert999's picture

February 25, 2020 at 03:42 pm

Rd 1 Ken Murray ILB
Rd 2 (trade up for) *Jonathan Taylor. imagine pairing him with Aaron Jones. We could be the top rushing team in the NFC!!
It would help our passing game, and our defense.
RD 3 WR. I know we can get some good WRs a little later.
(KJ Hamler, Quint Cephus, Lynn Bowden,)

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

February 25, 2020 at 04:22 pm

Robby Anderson and Emmanuel Sanders are going to get way overpaid for their mediocre production. I hope they stay far away.

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MarkinMadison's picture

February 25, 2020 at 06:14 pm

They need to sign Clark. They also need to decide what to do at RT and ILB. Even if the choice is to "stand pat" with Bulaga and Martinez, neither of those choices will come cheap. Bottom line: I don't expect more than one major FA signing this year. It is going to look more like a TT off-season this year than it did last year.

I don't think Gutey has the bullets to attack a single position in a BIG way from multiple angles this year like he did with OLB last year. Look for some older FA on short deals. Probably one at DL - because I think Adams and Keke will still get a shot. Maybe another at WR. Although honestly, if they add a WR high as the 3rd WR I really don't think they are going to be that bad off at WR. Lazard came along nicely this year, and MVS may bounce back as a 3rd or 4th option. I'd be shocked if they spent big money at WR this off-season.

Given the way the draft will stack up I'd expect them to go WR this year high, maybe ILB, but more likely OT and DE. My bet is that they draft DE, OT and WR in the first three rounds. I'd look for the big FA signing at ILB.

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dobber's picture

February 26, 2020 at 07:37 am

"Bottom line: I don't expect more than one major FA signing this year. "

Major FA signings are great for us as fans, but I think BG will do his diligence on lesser, low cap impacting FAs that will raise the talent floor on the roster, create security against injury, and allow him to approach the draft with a little more freedom to make value picks on players rather than being forced to overdraft for need. You can't have game-changers at every position (unless your drafting is impeccable), but if your 'average player' is significantly better than most teams' average player, you've got an advantage on a weekly basis.

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Leatherhead's picture

February 26, 2020 at 05:13 pm

Actually, they don’t need to sign Clark. He’s under contract this season and they could franchise tag him next year and two years is a long time inthe NFL.

IMO, replacing Graham with free agent Hunter Henry and drafting a RT improves our offense .

I don’t understand why we want to spend resources at the #2 WR for a guy who is a blocker or decoy 85% of the time. Lazard is good at that.

The best FA inside linebacker for us is Martinez.

A DL that I’d like to add to the list is Raekwon Davis.

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greengold's picture

February 25, 2020 at 06:25 pm

Nice run down, Maggie! Brockers would seem to be a very positive addition and a big part of the solution. Another polarizing player for Packers fans would be Ndamakong Suh, who is another potent and reliable run defender. I didn’t relize the marginal impact Pierce had defending the run in 2019.

That leads to another consideration: better talent around you makes you a better player. I wish that could have rubbed off on Lowry, Lancaster & Adams, but that showed how poorly they were playing last year. Their numbers plummeted when Clark was on the sidelines too.

Thinking Pierce would be better with our D. The Ravens lost a lot of quality players on their DL last year, and I wonder if that overall lack of talent next to him affected his play. Figure Clark’s numbers would improve conversely with improved talent alongside.

At WR, I would love to see Gutekunst add AJ Green. He is a remarkable WR and should be healthy after taking so much time off w his ankle injury in 2019.

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Stroh's picture

February 25, 2020 at 10:02 pm

Brockers and Green are the 2 FA I would most like to see them sign in FA. Brockers run stuffing ability is excellent and he would be an imposing figure in the middle of the DL. Green would give the Packers another legitimate weapon opposite Adams, while allowing them to focus on a slot WR in the draft. I don't know if they have the wherewithal to sign buth, but that would be the best case scenario IMO.

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Fredrik87's picture

February 26, 2020 at 06:42 am

I personally like Javon Hargrave and D.J Reader a little bit more than Brockers because their still excellent run stuffers, but a little bit younger and lesser known.
I live in Indiana and we get a lot of Texans games here so I've seen a lot of D.J Reader and the guy is a beast.
The depth of DL in the draft and our lack of cap space may keep us from going after him if we decide we must sign a big name ILB in FA.
But if he could be had cheap it would be huge for our defense.
For me My best case scenario is to get both Reader and Kwiatkoski.

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dobber's picture

February 26, 2020 at 08:06 am

Not a fan of Kwiatkowski based mostly on his limited exposure in the pass game. He just hasn't played regularly on passing downs. I can see bringing him in if the price is right, but I suspect you have to find a niftier coverage ILB to take his place in dime and maybe even in nickel. if he can't be a nickel ILB, you can't pay him very much. Another name to consider who will likely be a similar commitment financially to Kwiatkowski is Nigel Bradham who was released by the Eagles (so he won't count against the Packers in the compensatory pick formula). He's a proven commodity, but really is a cheaper version of Martinez, will likely only require a 2-year commitment, and can bridge the gap until they find that star ILB they need.

Bottom line is--and I'm not the first one to say this--that unless you really believe in the three-headed Burks/Bolton/Summers monster, the Packers really need two ILBs. How the Packers handle FA and the draft will tell us what management and the coaches think of those three players.

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Fredrik87's picture

February 29, 2020 at 09:16 am

I agree we need more than one ILB.
Kwiatkoski is just a guy that I think will probably have a lot of upside for what he will cost. I'm not interested if he commands big money but for 5 or 6 mill I'd take him and his upside.
He's a good blitzer, solid in coverage and against the run, and with more playing time could get better.

Proven coverage ILB's are hard to find and the ones that hit the market this year (Litlleton, Schoebert) are liability in the run game and will cost a ton.
The draft is also weak at ILB outside of Simmons.

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wildbill's picture

February 26, 2020 at 01:05 am

No to AJ Green. Gute has shown that he values younger, ascending, players who do not have an injury background. We do not need to add pricey, older players who have been injured. Catch em on the way up, not on the way down

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MarkinMadison's picture

February 26, 2020 at 07:42 am

You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.

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ILPackerBacker's picture

February 26, 2020 at 11:52 am

Dean Lowry did not shape up as anything other than a waste of snaps in most games and nearly the definition of JAG in about 6

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ILPackerBacker's picture

February 26, 2020 at 11:57 am

No team gets better resigning players to 2nd or 3rd contract. After that much time they are who they.

Bulaga is not going to play better next year but he may miss a significant portion of it.
Martinez is not going to get better either, and after 2 years if starkly evident Mike P has no idea how to use or how to sit him on long passing downs.

Neither would improve the team, quite likely resigning each of them would result in lower production at each position

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Fredrik87's picture

February 26, 2020 at 12:45 pm

Agreed on Martinez but Bulaga?
Bulaga faced Mack & Hunter(twice), Von Miller, the Bosa's, Clowney, Lawrence, Armstead and shut them all down.
If Bulaga leaves it will hugely effect the team in a negative way OT's of his caliber are rare.
Brian baldinger did a breakdown of him recently and he was pancaking guys left and right.
The injuries are a concern, but there is no way resigning him will cause worse RT play than keeping him.

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Fredrik87's picture

February 26, 2020 at 12:45 pm

Agreed on Martinez but Bulaga?
Bulaga faced Mack & Hunter(twice), Von Miller, the Bosa's, Clowney, Lawrence, Armstead and shut them all down.
If Bulaga leaves it will hugely effect the team in a negative way OT's of his caliber are rare.
Brian baldinger did a breakdown of him recently and he was pancaking guys left and right.
The injuries are a concern, but there is no way resigning him will cause worse RT play than keeping him.

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Lphill's picture

February 26, 2020 at 04:07 pm

Trade our first round pick for OBJ . Adams and OBJ together would be great.

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kevingopack's picture

February 27, 2020 at 07:01 am

Great piece

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