GREEN BAY — While Brian Gutekunst intends to be more aggressive — a word being bandied about quite a bit this offseason when the Green Bay Packers’ expected free agency approach has come up — than his predecessor when it comes to acquiring veteran players, the Packers’ first-year general manager hasn’t forgotten Ted Thompson’s lessons about the inherent risk of being a spring big spender.
“Obviously there’s limits in what you can do, but we’d like to be really aggressive and see (if) we can be in every conversation. Now whether that leads to us ending up signing a bunch or not, we’ll see,” Gutekunst said Wednesday as he met with reporters in Indianapolis for the annual NFL scouting combine. “We’d like to be as aggressive as we can to try to improve our football team.
“At the same time, it’s a smaller market (of available players) and it’s a little bit riskier market. So I think as my mentor and predecessor would say, you have to be very cautious as you enter that. But I think we’d like to look at every option we can.”
The Packers largely eschewed veteran free agency under Thompson, who believed too many teams overpaid for other teams’ castoffs. Even last season, when the Packers signed a host of veterans — tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, guard Jahri Evans, cornerback Davon House, defensive tackles Ricky Jean Francois and Quinton Dial and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks — they didn’t exactly spend big on any of them.
Bennett, who essentially quit on the team after quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his right collarbone in October, was the most expensive signing and was cut by the team at midseason. Other than Evans, who was a more than capable replacement for departed Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang, the contributions from the rest of the veterans Thompson signed were limited.
In fairness to Thompson, when he did delve into free agency, he hit big at least twice — on defensive back Charles Woodson, who blossomed into a likely first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer during his time in Green Bay, and pass rusher Julius Peppers, another likely Hall of Famer who showed he still had plenty left in the tank and was missed this past season after not being re-signed.
According to multiple league sources, the Packers have been far more active this offseason in preparing for the free agent market to open on March 12. In fact, one longtime staffer said the personnel department had more extensive free agency meetings than he can remember having in years.
Gutekunst acknowledged that Wednesday, saying, “We went through our free agency meetings (and) maybe it was a little more extensive than they have been in the past, but what we look for in players and kind of how we set the free agent board hasn’t changed a ton. But the meeting process changed a little bit, yes.
“Our big thing is, let’s be exceptionally prepared to pull the trigger if the right opportunity presents itself. And I think we’re on our way to that. I don’t think we’re going to sign 15 guys, but if we could nab a couple guys who could really help our team, I think we’d be willing to do that.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy, speaking later in the day at the Indiana Convention Center, has hinted repeatedly over the past several years that he would have liked the team to augment the roster with more veterans. He, too, is both hopeful that the new approach will lead to more signings and cautious about getting overextended. Most of the Packers’ glaring needs are on defense, where their cornerbacks and pass-rushing groups are troublingly thin.
“We like the word ‘aggressive,’” McCarthy said. “But I think it’s like anything. You have to just be in touch with the reality of the process. The process of veteran free agency is different today than it was prior to Brian being the GM, so it’s a whole different breakdown and approach. That’s the first part of it.
“We don’t want to lose good players, that’s something we always focus on, particularly our own. We’ve spent pretty much our 12 years here really focusing on improving from within. But we need outside resources, we’ve determined that. But at the end of the day it’s a market that every team is involved in. And we’ll see what happens.”
The Packers have 10 unrestricted free agents, led by safety Morgan Burnett, tight end Richard Rodgers, special teams ace Jeff Janis, Evans and House. They checked the two most important players off their to-do list before the regular season ended, inking wide receiver Davante Adams to a four-year, $58 million extension and center Corey Linsley to a three-year, $25.5 million deal.
“We’ll definitely have open conversations with those guys during this week because we value them,” Gutekunst said of the Packers’ own free agents. “Davante and Corey were big, big signings. Those guys are significant pieces of our team, and we were glad to get those done before we got to this point. So that was important. But there will be conversations with those other players.”
Gutekunst also acknowledged that decisions loom on several other veterans who are currently under contract, and whether those players will agree to restructured contracts that might include accepting a pay cut, or be released. That group presumably includes wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, among others.
“It’s a big puzzle, and I think as the information comes in and as we get closer to the free-agent time period and we get through the combine and kind of get a better feel for the draft, some of those things will come into play,” Gutekunst said. “But I’ll say this: We have some really good players and we don’t want to let them walk out of the door. It’s hard enough in this league to find them, so we certainly wouldn’t want to let them walk out the door.
“But there are restraints and there’s things that (are connected). Every decision kind of affects something else, so we kind of want to let all the information come in before we get to that point.”