Brian Gutekunst Building a New Defense in Green Bay

The Green Bay Packers have made themselves a legitimate contender again by their great signings on Tuesday afternoon.

The Detroit Lions had their time in the Free Agency limelight on Monday and their NFC North rival Green Bay Packers took the torch from them, and then some, on Day 2 of the NFL’s Legal Tampering Period. In a whirlwind Tuesday morning, Second year General Manager Brian Gutekunst signed Edge Rushers Za’Darius Smith (Baltimore Ravens) and Preston Smith (Washington Redskins), added Safety Adrian Amos (Chicago Bears), and Guard Billy Turner (Denver Broncos). All surprising moves as the Packers had $34M in Cap Space (13th in the NFL) and weren’t thought to be major players in the Free Agent Market.

This Free Agent haul is an exclamation point for the changing of the guard in Green Bay from Ted Thompson to Brian Gutekunst. Ted Thompson was infamous for avoiding Free Agency and preferring to draft and develop in-house talent. It is interesting to note that Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos were all members of the 2015 NFL Draft, a draft in which Thompson missed badly on Defensive Backs Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in the first two rounds. Gutekunst began cleaning up what Thompson left him with by showing a new roster building philosophy last Free Agency when he signed high-priced Tight End Jimmy Graham and Interior Defender Muhammad Wilkerson. The influx of Free Agent signings over the last two years and potential roster cuts continues to show that Brian Gutekunst is building the roster his way for new Head Coach Matt LaFleur to maximize their Championship window with Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The most crucial aspect of the recent signings and last year’s Draft is that Gutekunst has heavily bolstered the talent on thew defensive side of the ball for Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine.

Mike Pettine was brought in as the Packers new Defensive Coordinator last offseason. Pettine’s claim to fame, other than two underwhelming seasons as the Browns Head Coach in 2014-15, is being Rex Ryan’s DC for the New York Jets. Those Jets defenses were successful because Pettine was able to rely on lockdown Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. During the 2018 NFL Draft, Gutekunst put on a clinic, maneuvering to acquire an extra 2019 1st Round Pick and selecting Cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, two of the top CBs in the draft. Alexander and Jackson had promising rookie seasons, and in addition to the emergence of 2018 Undrafted Free Agent Tony Brown and 2017 2nd Rounder Kevin King, Mike Pettine has a plethora of young and talented Cornerbacks to utilize. Prior to Pettine’s arrival, the Packers already had cornerstone Interior Defenders Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark, as well as promising 2016 4th Round Pick Dean Lowry. Daniels was limited with an injury in 2018, but prior to the season had recorded at least 33 QB pressures and 32+ run stops in every season from 2014-2017. Clark meanwhile emerged as Pro Football Focus’ 8th best Interior Defender in 2018 with 46 QB pressures and 35 run stops from the inside. Flanking Daniels, Clark, and Lowry on the edge for a number of years were Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, who both have struggled to generate consist pressure over the last few years. The recent underwhelming performances from Perry and Matthews meant it’s out with the old and in with the newly signed Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. Za’Darius Smith had a career-high 8.5 sacks and 60 QB pressures (17th among edge defenders) in 2018, while Preston Smith had a career-high 53 QB Pressures (23rd among edge defenders) last season. Za’Darius and Preston combined for 113 QB Pressures last season, all Packers Edge Defenders combined for only 94. With the Smiths and Kyler Fackrell on the edge and Daniels, Clark and Lawry on the interior, the Packers have one of the most disruptive defensive fronts in football. The welcomed addition of Adrian Amos, with the pair of Kentrel Brice and the enforcer Josh Jones, gives Pettine three versatile and smart safeties at the back end of their defense. Over the last three seasons Amos has logged 2501 snaps and over that time received a 90.6 grade from PFF (3rd highest among all Safeties).

The four signings appeared to be around $55M combined in Salary for 2019 but the crafty Gutekunst orchestrated their Signing Bonuses so the four players will only count towards less than $20M against the 2019 Cap. The reported contracts are as follows:

  • Za’Darius Smith – $66M over 4 years
  • Preston Smith – $52M over 4 years
  • Adrian Amos – $37M over 4 years
  • Billy Turner – $28M over 4 years

Immediately following the flurry of signings, the Packers released former 1st Round Edge Rusher, Nick Perry, freeing $3M in Cap Space and leaving them with $11M Dead Cap. The Packers, who have two 1st Round Draft picks, will need around $10M in Cap Space for the their Draft Class. This means the Packers Front Office may need to get creative and free up Cap Space with Restructured Contracts and Roster Cuts. The Packers may part ways with some Offensive Linemen, but over the years have proven very adept at scouting and developing studs through the draft.

Other likely cut candidates include:

  • Safety Tramon Williams – $6.3M in 2019 ($1.6M Deap Cap)
  • Tight End Jimmy Graham – $12.6M in 2019 ($7.3M Dead Cap)
  • Tackle Bryan Bulaga – $8.2M in 2019 ($1.6M Dead Cap)
  • Center Corey Linsley – $8.1M in 2019 ($4M Dead Cap)
  • Guard Lane Taylor – $5.4M in 2019 ($2.5M Dead Cap)
  • Tackle Jason Spriggs – $2.5M in 2019 ($0.45M Dead Cap)

While the costly signings may mean more unexpected departures from the Green Bay locker room, the additions give the Packers their strongest defense since their Super Bowl XLV season. Keep in mind the last time the Packers were players in the Free agency, back in 2006, they signed Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett, two key defenders during that 2010 Championship season. After an impressive year at the helm, Brian Gutekunst, with three 2019 Draft Selections in the Top 44 Picks, will continue to build a Championship caliber team.