Packers approached free agency with sustainability in mind

Head Coach Matt LaFleur excited about the team’s four new additions

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PHOENIX – Barely two months on the job, Matt LaFleur watched from his new Lambeau Field office as the Packers made one splash after another in the opening wave of free agency two weeks ago.

In a matter of days, Green Bay's new head coach had four new players on his roster after General Manager Brian Gutekunst signed edge rushers Za'Darius and Preston Smith, offensive lineman Billy Turner and safety Adrian Amos on the first day of the new league year.

Needless to say, LaFleur was happy with the outcome.

"That was exciting," said LaFleur at this week's NFL Annual Meetings. "Gutey and his crew did a great job bringing in four quality players like that."

The Gutekunst era in Green Bay has started with a flurry. Since succeeding Ted Thompson in January 2018, Gutekunst has signed six unrestricted free agents, with five of those signings being for more than two seasons.

Comparatively, the team signed just six over a 10-year span from 2008-2017. Only one player, Martellus Bennett, signed for more than two seasons.

There is a method to Gutekunst's mentality. His strategy isn't to return veteran players for a year or two. He wants to build with ascending players and is off to a good start. The four players the Packers signed all range from 25 to 27 years old and played in all 16 regular-season games in 2018.

Durability hasn't been much of an issue, either. Preston Smith hasn't missed a game due to injury in either the NFL or college. Za'Darius Smith missed just three games in four years with Baltimore, while Amos has started 56 of the 60 NFL games he's played.

"I expect these guys to be playing together for a while. Not just for a short period of time," Gutekunst said. "Every year is different, which is true, but at the same time Matt and I are trying to build something here that's going to sustain and last. These guys kind of fit what we're looking for."

Amos, a fifth-year safety out of Penn State, may not be as high-profile a signing as the Smiths, but could be the Packers' most important acquisition this offseason with two open spots at safety and Tramon Williams slated to move back to cornerback.

Historically, the safety position has been the linchpin of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's scheme. So much so Pettine once took former Wisconsin safety Jim Leonhard with him to three different NFL stops (New York Jets, Buffalo and Cleveland) because of his discipline and knowledge of Pettine's defense.

The Packers hope Amos will provide similar stability in a defense that played musical chairs for a majority of the year at safety, finishing with Williams and Josh Jones on the back end.

Amos played mostly the strong safety position in Chicago, but Gutekunst believes he has versatility.

"He's another veteran guy that brings some physicality and a lot of accountability to the table in terms of I think he's going to be a great leader in that room," LaFleur said. "We had a great conversation when he came in, when we brought him in after the free-agent signing. I'm just excited to get a chance to work with him."

Turner was a bit of journeyman during his first three NFL seasons. A third-round pick out of North Dakota State in 2014, Turner played 2 ½ seasons in Miami before being cut midway through the 2016 season.

He then spent three days in Baltimore before getting claimed by the Denver Broncos. After suffering a season-ending hand injury in his only game of 2017, Turner made 11 starts for the Broncos this past season (seven at right guard, four at right tackle).

The Packers have a starting spot open at right guard but remain non-committal about where Turner fits. However, LaFleur is very familiar with Turner's background and expects him to be an ideal fit for the outside-zone scheme he runs.

"I remember him coming out a few years back and when his name showed up on the free-agent list he was a guy we spent some time evaluating," LaFleur said. "He definitely is quote-unquote a scheme-fit type player."

The Smiths represent a tectonic shift on the Packers' defense. The two will be tasked with replacing six-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams last week, and Nick Perry, who was released earlier this month.

"The one thing that's unique about those two guys is they're still young in their career. Their best football is in front of them," LaFleur said.

"When you have two guys taking care of the edges, it presents a lot of problems on the defense. Not only from a pass-rush perspective, (but also) those guys bring it in the run game as well, which sometimes is an oversight in this league."

Gutekunst acknowledges with a smile the cost associated with being active in free agency. At the same time, he deemed it necessary for the Packers to jump back into contention.

"I think these guys will give us an opportunity to be better than they were last year," Gutekunst said. "There's a lot of hard work. There's a lot of grind. There's a lot of stuff that has to happen. We'll see how they come together as a team. I think the guys we picked up, I like their mindset and what they bring to the table."

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