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Economical free-agent approach has worked wonders for Packers

Green Bay again will need to navigate a tight salary cap this offseason

Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst
Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst

INDIANAPOLIS – Key playmakers coming up for contracts and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the salary cap have required the Packers to tighten their belt during their most recent strolls through free agency.

Yet, a pragmatic approach to team finances and an eye for hidden NFL talent have enabled Green Bay to thrive amidst the challenges.

With executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball keeping the books, General Manager Brian Gutekunst and the personnel department have unearthed a pair of All-Pros (De'Vondre Campbell and Keisean Nixon) and several key contributions (Rasul Douglas, Rudy Ford, Dallin Leavitt, and Dennis Kelly) over the past two years.

While high-profile signings often garner the most headlines in March, hitting on the second wave of free agency can be just as crucial for NFL teams. It's a philosophy rooted in lessons Gutekunst learned from his predecessors, Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson, in Green Bay.

"It's really important," said Gutekunst at the NFL Scouting Combine on Tuesday. "There's some teams that operate where the first two weeks of free agency, they just sit and watch. Ever since I've been doing this, we haven't really done that. But there are times where that makes a little bit of sense. To me, it all goes back to process and the way we do things and the way we scout and the way we stack our free agency board, and then just staying true to that."

Sometimes, that means staying patient and playing the long game. That's the route the Packers went in 2021 with Campbell, a rangy, athletic linebacker whom they targeted for years before finally reaching an agreement with him. Campbell earned All-Pro honors that season after registering a career-high 146 tackles with two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Last year, that unsung hero proved to be Nixon, a former undrafted free agent who was non-tendered after his third season with Las Vegas. Reunited with his special teams coordinator with the Raiders, Rich Bisaccia, Nixon set a new team record for kickoff-return average (28.8 yards) in a single season en route to becoming the first Packers kick returner to earn first-team All-Pro honors by The Associated Press since it added the position in 1976.

Furthermore, when injuries hit in 2022, the Packers fortified the roster with the in-season additions of veteran linebackers Eric Wilson and Justin Hollins, along with safety Innis Gaines, a former undrafted free agent whom the team was developing on the practice squad the past two seasons.

Gutekunst credits director of pro personnel Richmond Williams and director of player personnel John Wojciechowski for building those scouting pipelines, and Head Coach Matt LaFleur and his coaching staff for how they've utilized incoming veterans to the fullest.

"When we bring a guy in late, Matt and his staff, I give them a lot of credit for allowing these guys the opportunity that they do," Gutekunst said. "Sometimes when you bring guys in late, it's very hard for coaches to find that opportunity, and Matt and his staff have done a nice job of incorporating those guys into what we're doing."

The Packers retained both Campbell and Douglas after their breakout seasons and would love nothing more than to do the same with Nixon. In addition to his special-teams impact, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound defensive back played 289 snaps as a slot cornerback in sub-packages.

The Packers already have started restructuring deals to create cap room for when the new league year starts on March 15. Over the next two months, many critical decisions loom for the Packers, who have 14 pending unrestricted free agents and upwards of 10 draft picks.

Make no mistake, however, the search for free agents never stops…whether it's March, June or September.

"I think (it's important) just leaning on our process and not panicking as these really good players fly off the board, guys you're really interested in," Gutekunst said. "That's one of the hardest things in the scouting process is you put a lot of time and effort and you get really excited about what these players can do for you, but the reality is 90% of them are going to go somewhere else.

"Having the discipline to trust your board (is key) and then quite frankly just stay after it once the lights of free agency and the first week are gone."