Pragmatic approach to free agency molded Packers' turnaround

LB Za'Darius Smith
LB Za'Darius Smith

GREEN BAY – Last March, there was no D-Train. There was no 13-3 season to build off or any NFC North championship hats to pass around a celebrating locker room.

Za'Darius Smith wasn't a team captain – or even a Pro Bowler. Preston Smith didn't have more than eight sacks in a season. Meanwhile, safety Adrian Amos and guard Billy Turner were months away from leading their respective sides of the ball in playing time for the Packers.

All four were simply names on a board, filled with hundreds of other free agents General Manager Brian Gutekunst and his personnel department sorted through in hopes of finding players who could help reverse the team's fortunes after two playoff-less seasons.

From the day he was introduced as the Packers' new GM on Jan. 8, 2018, Gutekunst stated his desire to be in every conversation as it relates to free agency. Following a 6-9-1 season, those principles – and the plan behind them – would be put to the test.

"Two years ago, we started changing up a little bit about how we went about it," said Gutekunst of the team's preparation for free agency. "We started to set a board, and then they started having meetings exactly like we have our college meetings. It's a little bit more monotonous and takes a little bit longer to kind of carve out some time for that, but it's really important for us. Most of those guys in our pro department came from the college side, so that's what we're familiar with."

"Us" is the Packers' personnel department – the 20-person staff responsible for how Green Bay attacks every form of free agency and the NFL Draft.

While the organization remains draft-and-develop at its core, Gutekunst understood the importance of augmenting the current roster with outside talent in the aftermath of a disappointing 2018 season.

Scouts grinded tape on potential free agents like any other year, but the "tweaks" came in how the personnel department processed the information it gleaned, and applied it to meetings and building the free-agent board that preceded the most active offseason in more than a decade for the Packers.

In signing the Smiths, Amos and Turner, all of whom were 27 years old or younger at the time, the Packers were betting on the quartet's best years still being in front of them as a new head coach in Matt LaFleur took over.

"It's a tough market to be in, the history shows that, but some of the things we felt were important, the character of the guys, some of the things we looked at came to fruition during the season," Gutekunst said. "Obviously those guys are very productive players on the field, but they really I think helped Matt establish the kind of culture he wanted in the locker room, and that was very, very important as we move forward. We're going to be looking for guys like that again."

As much as he credits Ted Thompson for helping develop Green Bay's scouting department, Gutekunst has begun putting his own stamp on the front office over the past two years.

He's promoted respected scouts Jon-Eric Sullivan, John Wojciechowski, Matt Malaspina, Sam Seale and Richmond Williams into prominent positions. Last January, Gutekunst also hired longtime Baltimore personnel exec Milt Hendrickson as the Packers' director – football operations.

A member of the Ravens' front office that drafted Za'Darius Smith in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Hendrickson was an important advocate for bringing the fifth-year linebacker to Green Bay.

The Smiths and Amos ushered in a culture shift on the defensive side of the ball, while Turner used his off-the-field interest in fashion to personalize coats for the entire locker room – all the way down to the practice squad.

"I don't think you can ever bring someone in from outside of your building and know how they're going to affect the locker room," Gutekunst said. "We really liked all the intel on 'Z' and Preston and all the guys, Adrian and Billy. We knew they'd be good additions to our group, but to see the new guys and the guys who had been here come together and put the individual stuff aside for the team stuff was impressive."

The personnel department's job wasn't over after the veteran contracts were finalized. In addition to a productive draft class that netted starting guard Elgton Jenkins and safety Darnell Savage, the Packers re-signed tight end Marcedes Lewis and street free agent Chandon Sullivan.

Once the season began, Green Bay traded for linebacker B.J. Goodson, and claimed returner/running back Tyler Ervin and tackle Jared Veldheer off waivers.

Veldheer was perhaps the trickiest acquisition of them all. While he'd started more than 100 games, the 6-foot-8, 321-pound tackle had been out of the game since New England placed Veldheer on its reserve/retired list last May.

That meant the Packers had to place a claim before getting the opportunity to work him out. Gutekunst credits Williams, Wojciechowski and pro scout Chad Brinker for doing their homework on Veldheer, who returned and made two critical late-season relief appearances at right tackle.

"To have a veteran swing tackle make himself available at that time is a little bit unique," Gutekunst said. "I just thought our current situation at the time that happened was the best thing for our football team, not really knowing if we would need him.

"Jared, in this case, when we did need him, he stepped up, and he stepped up in a big way."

With a wry smile, Gutekunst told reporters during his season-ending news conference that he hopes to not lose any of his high-ranking scouts this offseason, but he also admits "we certainly have some guys that are deserving of running their own shops and have a lot of potential."

For now, the Packers' personnel department is back to work in hopes of finding more players, veterans and rookies alike, to propel a team that advanced all the way back to the NFC Championship Game to take another step in 2020.

It won't be easy for the Packers to have a big haul in unrestricted free agency this year, with the cap considerations and several pending free agents of their own. Yet, Gutekunst reiterates the organization remains on solid financial footing.

"I think there's going to be a little bit more restrictions, if we're able to do everything we want to do with the guys who are here already, to be able to do something like we did last year," Gutekunst said. "Saying that, I think there will be plenty of opportunity for us to improve our football team whether it be in unrestricted free agency (or the draft). We're pretty sound financially right now to do what we need to do to get where we need to go."

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