Free-agent additions have come as advertised for Packers

Clockwise from top left: LB Za'Darius Smith, G/T Billy Turner, LB Preston Smith, S Adrian Amos
Clockwise from top left: LB Za'Darius Smith, G/T Billy Turner, LB Preston Smith, S Adrian Amos

GREEN BAY – After what could be categorized as the most action-packed 48 hours in team history as it relates to free agency, Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst stepped to the podium last March to explain what just happened.

Green Bay had secured two of the most coveted pass rushers on the market (Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith), a new starting safety (Adrian Amos) and a new starting right guard (Billy Turner).

With a few strikes of the pen, the Packers had added as many unrestricted free agents (four) as they had signed in the last five years combined.

“This was something we needed to do to help our team,” said Gutekunst at the time. “We’ll see. We’ll see how they fit into the group. But this is about team, right? It’s about wins and losses and I think these guys will help us win.”

Nine months later, those guys have done that…and then some.

The 8-2 Packers are off to their best start in eight years thanks in part to the contributions of the four acquisitions. Each Smith ranks in the top 10 in sacks, Amos leads the Packers’ defense with 669 snaps and Turner has solidified a position that saw three different players start at right guard in 2018.

There was a time not too long ago the Packers were often wary of diving into the free-agent waters and for good reason. GMs, scouts and coaches can watch every single second of film on a potential free agent, but it doesn’t tell you much about the person or how that individual will respond to a large payday.

What stands out the most to quarterback Aaron Rodgers is how all four free-agent acquisitions have not let the offseason affect their hunger or mentality. If anything, it’s motivated them even more.

“You never know when you a pay a guy,” said Rodgers after Sunday’s 24-16 win over Carolina. “Are you getting a guy who now feels like, ‘OK, I’ve got my money and I can kind of just do my thing’ or a guy who’s going to realize that with that money comes some responsibility? And I give all four of those guys a lot of credit. They obviously got paid some money this offseason, and they’ve all made the most of those opportunities.”

Through 10 weeks, Za’Darius and Preston Smith stand among the best offseason additions league-wide. The duo has combined for 18½ sacks, more than any other pass-rushing combination in the NFL this season.

Za’Darius, voted by his peers as the defense’s permanent team captain at the start of the year, is currently second in the league with 57 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s also tied for second among pass rushers with 12 quarterback hits.

With 10 sacks in 10 games, Preston already has surpassed his previous single-season career high and is on pace for the most sacks in a season by a Packers player since Reggie White’s 16 in 1998.

The production was somewhat expected in many regards. While Gutekunst and his scouts pored over the film, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and outside linebackers coach Mike Smith also did a deep dive on potential free-agent targets.

More than just the Smiths’ on-field skills, however, the past six months have showcased the outside linebackers’ character, drive and willingness to lead.

A week after terming the Packers’ 26-11 loss to Los Angeles “a wake-up call,” Za’Darius led the bounce back with one of his best games in a Packers uniform against the Panthers, with Mike Smith charting him for 14 pressures.

“It’s nice to have guys who want to be great, who want to win and they want to put the time in to work,” Mike Smith said. “When you have that, to me it’s hard to fail. It’s hard to beat someone who never gives up. That’s who they are.”

Turner was a bit of an NFL vagabond prior to signing his long-term deal with Green Bay. A third-round pick in 2014, the 6-foot-5, 310-pound offensive lineman had stints in Miami, Baltimore and Denver during his first five seasons.

It was with the Broncos Turner eventually carved out a permanent starting role, though his 2018 season still saw him shifting positions, making seven starts at right guard and four at right tackle.

While versatile enough to play tackle, Turner has been able to settle into the right guard post in Green Bay. Through 10 games, he’s also the only player to see the field for all 670 offensive snaps.

Perhaps based on his professional background, Turner isn’t easily rattled by change or uncertainty. Now in his sixth NFL season, he’s developed an innate ability to adjust to any circumstance.

“I was impressed with his physicality and his athleticism and all that,” said offensive line coach Adam Stenavich of his first impression of Turner at the start of the year. “Whenever you bring a new guy in, you never know what kind of personality he’s going to have, but he’s been awesome. Great personality, hard worker, really adds a lot to our room. We’ve been lucky.”

Out of the four signees, Amos was the one the Packers were most familiar with given his 56 starts in the Chicago Bears’ secondary over the past four seasons.

In his first season with the Packers, the 6-foot, 214-pound safety has been a galvanizing presence in a secondary that lost Raven Greene to injury after Week 2 and played without rookie safety Darnell Savage (ankle) for two games in October.

Nursing a hamstring injury of his own that kept him out of practice two days last week, Amos played all 73 snaps against Carolina and made perhaps the biggest defensive play of the afternoon when he deflected a Kyle Allen pass into the arms of cornerback Tramon Williams, who secured the interception in the Packers’ end zone.

Williams witnessed everything Amos did behind the scenes to be available for the important Week 10 matchup, the team’s final game before this week’s bye, and appreciated how the fifth-year safety battled to the end against the Panthers.

“He’s a guy you can count on,” said Williams after the game. “To have him out here today, (we) didn’t know if he was going to be out here, but for him to gut it out with us, it shows his heart and shows all that he can do. It showed that he’s for the team.”

Nothing is guaranteed in free agency but the early returns on the four March signings have been promising. The Smiths, Turner and Amos have helped the Packers win eight games to this point and enhanced the locker-room chemistry while doing it.

“You can’t plan for that,” said Rodgers about how a free agent will fit into the locker room. “And that’s I think in the past why we’ve been hesitant to bring in free agents because you never know what kind of personality you’re going to get.

“But I do feel really good that we hit on all four of those guys.”

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