INDIANAPOLIS – It doesn’t sound like Brian Gutekunst’s first foray into free agency as the Packers’ general manager last season was just a one-time thing.
Green Bay’s second-year GM said on Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis that his approach to free agency will be very much the same in 2019, and while he doesn’t see a ton of big names necessarily becoming available, there will be opportunities for the Packers to improve their roster.
“I think we can help our team in free agency this year, I really do,” Gutekunst said in an extended Q&A session over lunch with a number of Green Bay beat reporters. “We’ll see how it goes. It’s an unpredictable market, it’s a small market, but I think we can help ourselves.”
The overall mindset – much as it was last year when Gutekunst signed tight ends Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis, defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive back Tramon Williams and offensive lineman Byron Bell, the most active the team had been in free agency in several years – is rooted in doing all the groundwork.
Gutekunst plans to continue to be in on any discussions that make sense for the Packers so he’s fully prepared to make a move at a moment’s notice. He also said not getting any compensatory picks in this year's draft won't deter him from pursuing free agents, because while he'd always like to have plenty of picks in a draft (and the Packers have 10 this year, despite no comp picks for the first time since 2009), a win-now mentality can override that desire.
The draft will still remain the lifeblood of the team, but using free agency as a regular tool of improvement seems to be Gutekunst's outlook for the current Packers team.
“We’re going to be very aggressive in the conversations that we have,” he said, adding he doesn't feel he needs to find any additional salary-cap space to accomplish what he'd like to. “So the information we have is accurate, and when the opportunities present themselves, we’ll be ready to go.”
The Packers’ most glaring roster needs where established players could step in and help immediately appear to be at edge rusher, safety and offensive line. Gutekunst didn’t get into specifics regarding positions or individual players he’s got an eye on, but similarly general comments last year proved to be far more than lip service regarding free agency.
Not all the moves were home runs, but they never are. Wilkerson went down with a season-ending injury in Week 3, and Bell also ended up on IR after starting half the season at right guard. Lewis was used as a blocking tight end but rarely in the passing game.
As front-line contributors all season, Williams and Graham played the most of the free agents. Williams’ versatility at cornerback and safety proved valuable as injuries struck the secondary and the unit adjusted to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme.
Graham’s 55 catches for 636 yards and two TDs weren’t the numbers he was hoping for, but Gutekunst committed to bringing him back for a second season with quarterback Aaron Rodgers to see if their production increases in new Head Coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.
Gutekunst suggested Graham’s knee problem, which limited his practice participation much of the season, and later his broken thumb were factors in a season that Graham himself criticized as it wound down.
“He fought through a lot of things just to be out there,” Gutekunst said. “Guys who have played as long as he has don’t have to do that. His professionalism was on display each and every day, and I look forward to seeing what he can do for us this year.”
The comment is significant because there had been some media speculation, due to a large roster bonus Graham is due early next month, that the Packers might move on from Graham to save salary-cap space. That does not appear to be the case.
LaFleur envisions planning to use Graham the same way he intended to use Titans veteran tight end Delanie Walker last year before an injury in Week 1 ended the three-time Pro Bowler’s season right out of the gate.
“He’s a big, long, linear guy,” LaFleur said, noting the matchup issues that 6-foot-6 tight ends can present, but also how important it is to keep them longtime vets healthy. “Last year was kind of the first time I’ve been around a guy similar to that skill set that was more stretch the field vertically with Delanie.
“Anytime you’re dealing with a guy who’s got a little bit of mileage on him, I think we have to be careful in how much we ask of him throughout the week.”
Another veteran due a roster bonus and around whom speculation has swirled is outside linebacker Nick Perry. Injuries limited Perry to just nine games and 1½ sacks in 2018, but Gutekunst was non-committal on his future.
There’s also no definitive answer yet on veterans Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb, the two biggest names with expiring contracts.
Gutekunst characterized the time between now and the start of free agency on March 13 as an “information gathering” stage.
As Gutekunst works with LaFleur to evaluate how current players fit the new coach’s vision, those players will gauge outside interest in the two-day negotiating window prior to March 13. At some point, the decisions will come into focus.
Gutekunst referred to Cobb as “one of the all-time Packers” and to Matthews as a “Packer Hall of Famer,” but it’s wait and see on both players for the time being.
“As that information comes in, me and Matt will sit down and make decisions how we want to go forward,” Gutekunst said.
“Again, it’s unpredictable, but I think it’s one of those things that we’ll gauge it as it goes. If it makes sense for our football team to bring those guys back, we will. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Photos of Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy, General Manager Brian Gutekunst, and Head Coach Matt LaFleur at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.