Packers targeted players on the rise in free agency

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GREEN BAY – In each of his first two offseasons as Packers general manager, Brian Gutekunst has signed a handful of free agents.

But there’s a big difference this time, and it’s not just the amount of money involved.

A season ago, the youngest of Gutekunst’s five unrestricted free agent signings was 29 years old. Over the last couple of days, he has brought four players all age 26 or 27 to Green Bay, meaning they’re potentially core players for the Packers for years to come.

“We did want guys that we thought their best football was ahead of them,” Gutekunst said on Thursday, discussing the flurry in free agency that has seen outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, along with safety Adrian Amos and offensive lineman Billy Turner join the Packers.

“I think all four of these guys probably had their best seasons last year and they were trending in the right direction. That’s the way we look at it. It doesn’t always happen that way, but I think all four of these guys have really good football ahead of them.”

Smith, Smith and Amos entered the league as 2015 draft picks, while Turner was a 2014 selection. They’re in different stages of their careers than last year’s free-agent signings such as Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis and Tramon Williams.

While that trio remains in the Packers’ plans for 2019, the hope is this year’s quartet of additions has not yet reached its prime years.

The Smiths could be stepping in as immediate starters at outside linebacker for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, while Amos certainly will be at safety. They were positions that had to be addressed, and Gutekunst wasn’t just going to rely on the draft to upgrade Pettine’s defense in Year 2.

Turner also will have an opportunity to start immediately at right guard, where the Packers left 2018 with no established veteran to carry forward.

“Our roster at the time, this was something we needed to do to help our team,” said Gutekunst, who also described the personnel staff being “locked in” its meeting room as free agency kicked off, an indication of both the urgency and opportunity he referenced two weeks ago at the scouting combine.

“We needed to get better on our edges, we needed some help at safety and I’m glad to add Billy Turner where we added him. So 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.”

Versatility is a key trait across the board. The Smiths have pressured quarterbacks from the inside as well as the outside. Amos can line up in centerfield or near the line of scrimmage. Turner has started at multiple positions across the offensive line, primarily right guard and right tackle, and has the type of athleticism that fits new Head Coach Matt LaFleur’s outside zone run scheme.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Gutekunst mentioned both Amos and Za’Darius Smith as players the Packers liked coming out of college four years ago. Gutekunst has monitored their progress with the Bears and Ravens, respectively, and the impact they’ve had on two of the league’s better defenses. He described Amos as “ascending” while also referencing efforts to acquire Smith in the past.

“Kind of the player he’s become is what we saw,” Gutekunst said of Smith, who had a career-best 8 ½ sacks in a part-time role for the Ravens last year. “That defense in Baltimore, he was stuck behind some really, really good players. There were times we thought (getting him here) might be a possibility. It didn’t happen, but I’m glad we got him today.”

The signings required some financial maneuvering to not max out this year’s salary cap, but Gutekunst doesn’t believe he’s jeopardized the future. There’s still room for another move or two, and the Packers will be bargain hunters in the coming weeks as the buzz from the initial free-agent frenzy dies down. They’ll also explore possibly re-signing some of their own free agents, with longtime mainstays such as Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb on the market.

With some obvious needs addressed, Gutekunst also mentioned having “a little more freedom to move around” with his 10 picks in the upcoming draft, including two first-rounders. The player-acquisition phase is really just getting started.

“It’s a good day,” Gutekunst said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and there’s a long way to go. But we’re excited about what we did today.”

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