GREEN BAY – The offseason already is well underway for General Manager Brian Gutekunst.
Upon returning from scouting the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., the Packers GM took both a look back and look forward Friday at the team in a season-ending press conference.
The crux of his message was very similar to that of Head Coach Matt LaFleur two days prior – that there's a lot of pride to be taken in what was accomplished, but the ending was tough to swallow and all eyes are on improvement for 2020, a process that begins immediately for Gutekunst and his personnel department.
"We didn't end the season the way we wanted to end the season, but I'm really excited about the foundation we laid last year, some of the strides we made," Gutekunst said. "I have a lot of optimism going forward. We have a lot of work to do. Excited to get there. We've got a lot of decisions to make coming up."
Some of the first big decisions will involve the Packers' 13 pending unrestricted free agents. Players from the 2016 rookie class like Blake Martinez, Kyler Fackrell and Geronimo Allison are looking for their next contracts, while other long-term veterans such as Bryan Bulaga, Mason Crosby and Tramon Williams have deals expiring as well.
Speaking about the latter three in particular, Gutekunst called it "big-time" for them all to perform the way they did in the later stages of their careers. He acknowledged how much they've meant to the Packers both on the field and in the locker room for a decade or more.
But he didn't commit one way or another to who might or might not be back. He and the scouts will be reviewing the season over the next few weeks and putting a plan in place as free agency approaches.
"I've got a lot of Ted Thompson in me," Gutekunst said. "I'd like to keep them all. I wish our roster size could be a lot bigger than what it is. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way."
If he said anything definitive about a particular player, it was regarding defensive tackle Kenny Clark, noting "it's important" the Packers work out a long-term contract with the 2016 first-round pick this offseason. Clark, who went to his first Pro Bowl this year as an alternate, is entering the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.
"Kenny is a big part of what we do, very important to our defense," Gutekunst said. "I'm optimistic that we'll be able to come to some agreement at some point. These things don't happen quickly, usually."
As for adding new players when free agency opens in March, a repeat of last year's major splash – signing four players on opening day – isn't realistic given the value of those contracts and the desire to retain some of Green Bay's own pending free agents. He did term the Packers' salary-cap situation "sound," so he's not conceding the Packers will be observing strictly from the sideline.
The character component will remain a priority for any acquisitions, given the success the Packers had bringing in Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner, whom Gutekunst applauded for helping LaFleur establish the culture the new coach wanted in the locker room.
Their fresh presence, combined with the long-established leadership of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and some of the other aforementioned veterans, helped make this team what it was in Gutekunst's eyes.
"The thing that by far exceeded my expectations was how this group came together and worked together as a team," Gutekunst said. "They put their individual stuff aside and put team above all else. That doesn't always happen in the National Football League. This group and this group of leaders that were in that locker room decided that's the way it was going to be."
Other thoughts he shared included his eagerness to see how Rodgers performs in his second season in LaFleur's offense. He felt Rodgers handled the challenges of the transition well and that has the offense's arrow pointing up for next season.
He did indicate receiver is a position where he plans to add – and his scouts have told him it's a strong receiver draft coming up – after a year of ups and downs with the group behind Davante Adams. Players stepped up into the No. 2 role at times, but not consistently enough.
He also noted how important a role the defense played in coordinator Mike Pettine's second year, especially early in the season when the offense was finding itself, but he acknowledged the importance of speed at the linebacker level, particularly in the middle of the field.
That was one shortcoming exposed by the 49ers and their ground attack in the NFC title game. While Gutekunst wants to fix that and close the gap between his team and San Francisco's, he cautioned it would be misguided to focus the entire offseason solely on what went wrong in the last game against this year's class of the conference.
"I think it was evident in the two games we played that we have a lot of work to do if we want to be on that level," he said. "At the same time, they were No. 1 and we were No. 2 in the NFC.
"Every year's different. There will be new challenges next year whether it's them or somebody else. My thought process on that is we're constantly working to be as good as we can be. We know there's a lot of areas we can get better in. That's what we're looking to do."