Packers’ free-agent evaluation thus far

By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
GREEN BAY, Wis. –   There is comfort in seeing what the Brewers’ off-season acquisitions, Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, are doing at the top of the order to start the season.

Green Bay’s GM, coach sing praises of Packers’ free-agent acquisitions

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Cain, the All-Star centerfielder, bats leadoff.
He is 8-for-14 with three doubles, three RBI, 11 total bases and three stolen bases. Cain, a Gold Glove defender, is hitting .571.
Yelich, the left-handed hitting left fielder, went a cool 5-for-5 in the Brewers’ 7-3 victory over San Diego Saturday at Petco Park. It raised Yelich’s batting average to .500 (7-for-14) with a double, three RBI and eight total bases.
Yelich, like Cain, is a first-rate defender.
The Brewers’ 3-0 start isn’t merely based on top-notch pitching and timely defense. It’s also based on making aggressive off-season moves to upgrade the team, which is what the Brewers’ owner and front office did in acquiring Cain and Yelich.
So what does that and the Brewers’ hot start to do with the Green Bay Packers’ upcoming season?
It has this in common: The Packers, like the Brewers, acquired proven, top-rate help in Muhammad Wilkerson and Jimmy Graham. If Wilkerson and Graham perform like the Brewers’ Cain and Yelich have – and there’s little reason to think they won’t – the Packers will be considerably better on both sides.
The Packers also added veteran cornerback Tramon Williams to provide insurance and depth. Frankly, if Williams can still run, he will likely start in the Green Bay secondary.
Williams, 35, was Pro Football Focus’s 9th-ranked cornerback for Arizona. He played far better than anyone the Packers lined up with, and should have a key role in new coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense.
In fact, Wilkerson, the sometimes-dominant veteran defensive end, and Williams both played for Pettine in past NFL lives. They also both played well for him and speak highly of him.
While some focus on the details: Does Wilkerson want it bad enough? Can Williams still run? The obvious reality is this: The Packers have built – and bought – a defensive culture.
The Packers’ Mike McCarthy wanted Pettine as his new defensive coordinator. Then he empowered him – along with GM Brian Gutekunst’s support – by acquiring not one but two players with experience in his system.
Meantime, Graham’s presence at tight end helps in many ways.
Let me count them:
** Graham is a monster in the red zone. He had 10 red-zone touchdowns last season with Russell Wilson in Seattle. This season, he and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers might combine on 15 or more touchdowns. Rodgers is that great, and Graham is still that good.
** Graham’s ability to move the chains by catching first down passes on third-and-short to medium-range down-and-distance, coupled with his underrated ability to set an edge in the run game.
Graham is OK with doing his share and more as a run blocker, so long as the offense reciprocates by getting him the football in critical situations and the red zone.
Graham is a team player and appears to be a tremendous off-season acquisition by the Packers.
If he and Wilkerson can provide the one-two punch that the Brewers have been getting from proven talents such as Cain and Yelich, Green Bay should contend for the NFC North title.
“Free agency, we’re going to be really good at it,” McCarthy said at the league’s owners’ meetings last week, “because we should be.”
Gutekunst called Green Bay the perfect place for “players who love the game of football.”
That may sound like provincialism at its finest – and it is – but what Gutekunst is saying at the heart does ring true.
What better place than Green Bay to refocus and rededicate a career that may be flagging for whatever reasons?
Graham’s career is far from foundering, and Wilkerson’s got the resume (double-digit sack seasons and well-regarded endorsements) to expect him to make an immediate impact.
Furthermore, Williams is an upgrade over Damarious Randall, Kevin King 2.0 will be better, as will Josh Jones.
The Packers dearly need a pass rusher at No. 14, followed by (in any order) a cornerback, a receiver and another pass rusher with the next three selections.
Meantime, free agency has been a viable and active option.
“I think when (free agents) come to Green Bay, despite how much snow is on the ground, they understand how important it is to us and how much of the resources we put into our club,” Gutekunst told reporters at the owners’ meetings.
“I think those guys see that right away, and that’s really important for us as we try to acquire players, too, is (to) find guys like that. If guys are looking for the beach or nightlife or things like that, that’s not really necessarily the kind of guy we’re looking for. We’re looking for guys who are fully invested in the team, and guys who are wired that way.”
That is a polite way of saying, “Only serious candidates apply.”
I agree with the sentiment, especially if it’s backed by action that furthers this philosophy and agenda.
Players such as Santana Dotson, Reggie White and Sean Jones were much-accomplished in football, but came to Green Bay because of a common belief that a Super Bowl was possible.
In fact, they almost made it seem inevitable.
I’ll be curious to see how quickly the Packers’ locker room dispatches the Martellus Bennett-type foolishness and conducts itself like a team that expects to win big.
Veterans such as Wilkerson, Graham and Williams foster it.
It’s not unlike the Brewers’ acquisitions of Cain and Yelich. It’s no coincidence the Brewers opened 3-0 at San Diego. There is no way that happens without the big-name free agents.
Graham and Wilkerson raise expectations.
Fortunately, they’ve got the game to back the hype.
It’s a gamble the Packers, like the Brewers, need to make if they want to be something more than so-so. In that regard, don’t criticize the Packers (or Brewers) for not doing more.
Give them a “that a way” for daring to be the best.