Packers’ ‘D’ gets help in free agency

By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA

Edge rushers Za’Darius, Preston Smith & safety Amos give hope

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ draft-and-develop mantra has given way to a new order of business: signing top-end free agents, killing it in the draft and developing them together.

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That much was clear on Day 2 of the NFL’s legal tampering period last Tuesday. In a 24-hour span the Packers added two edge rushers, a safety and an offensive lineman in free agency.

Edge rushers Za’Darius and Preston Smith, plus safety Adrian Amos, give Green Bay’s defense a trio of seasoned veterans who have played well and are entering their prime. The same can be said of offensive lineman Billy Turner, whom the Packers signed to presumably win the starting right guard job.

Packers’ fans should be ecstatic. In fact, a majority of callers to Sports Line – my radio show Monday-Friday from 4-6 on WDUZ The Fan – are as excited as they’ve been in years.

They ought to be.

From 2011-2018 the Packers spent the third-fewest dollars in free agency, according to ESPN. In that span, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers was hitting his prime, GM Ted Thompson was reluctant to play in what he called “shark-infested waters.”

Perhaps winning the Super Bowl in 2010 led Thompson to believe his way was the best way – maybe the only way – to simultaneously build a champion and sustain success.

Thompson had it half right. The Packers continued to field winning teams, but none that rose to Super Bowl heights during an eight-year period best described as “close, but not quite.”

In contrast, GM Brian Gutekunst’s rather brief tenure might be best described as, “so far, so good.”

Last week, Gutekunst went where his predecessor feared to go. He dived headlong into the free agent pool and made a splash by coming up with three “sharks” to add to the Packers’ defense.

If you think these guys won’t bring an edge to the defense, literally and figuratively, think again. The Smiths have proven to be relentless and athletic, while Amos spells his nickname “SMASH” in diamond letters on a chain around his neck.

That attitude has been absent far too long on defense.

Gutekunst downplayed the notion that he went “all in” because Rodgers, 35, isn’t getting any younger.

“No, I don’t think so,” Gutekunst told reporters. “Obviously, this is Green Bay, Wisconsin; we’re in a win-now mode all the time. I thought we needed to add to our defense significantly, and I think these guys will. So, I don’t think it’s any different than it ever has been.”

Hey, it’s the GM’s story. He can tell it however he wants.

What matters is the result.

Will the Smiths and Amos be significant additions?

There is good reason to think so.

Za’Darius and Preston Smith, at 26, are entering their prime while bringing size, athleticism and experience.

The Packers have released Nick Perry, 28, and Clay Matthews, 32, almost certainly will be playing elsewhere this season.

Za’Darius, the more explosive of the pass-rushing Smiths, will be expected to take over Matthews’ role. Preston, on the other side, is a decent pass rusher who can set an edge against the run. He is expected to take over for Perry. Kyler Fackrell and whichever pass rusher the Packers draft will provide depth.

In the past four seasons, Za’Darius and Preston have only missed a total of six games (all by Za’Darius). Meantime, Matthews and Perry combined to miss 21 games. Over that period, Matthews and Perry had 47 ½ sacks to the Smiths’ 43.

Gutekunst is confident the Smiths will be a good fit in Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme.

“I think in Mike’s defense if you can have guys on either side that are interchangeable that can do a variety of things and be versatile, it really makes it tough for the opponent,” Gutekunst said. “And both of these guys can do that. I’m sure you guys have studied Za’Zardius and he certainly can line up outside and rush with speed and power from the outside. But he’s also done a lot of 3-technique work. Preston is an exceptional athlete that can do a lot of things on the edge and inside as well.

“It’s shaping up and we’ll see how it goes, how Mike wants to use these guys. But I think the versatility is really going to help us along the front, all the way.”

Za’Darius signed a four-year, $66 million deal, Preston inked a four-year, $52 million deal and Amos signed a four-year, $37 million deal.
Amos, 25, started 56 of 60 games played in Chicago, where he was a fifth-round pick in 2015.

Last season, Amos started 16 games on the Bears’ third-ranked defense. He had two interceptions, nine passes defended, one sack and 73 tackles. Pro Football Focus ranked Amos as the eighth-best safety in the NFL.

The Amos addition paves the way for Green Bay to draft a potential play-making free safety to line up opposite him. In Chicago, Amos was the orchestrator while Eddie Jackson was the ball-hawk. A similar situation with Amos and a young, talented safety would be a huge upgrade in Green Bay.

After landing the defensive trio, Gutekunst wasn’t done.

The Packers also signed ex-Broncos offensive lineman Billy Turner, according to multiple reports. Turner, who has the athleticism new head coach Matt LaFleur prefers among offensive linemen, has started at both guard and tackle.

Turner described himself as, “A big dude that can run and is powerful.”

In other moves, the Packers re-signed tight end Marcedes Lewis to a one-year, $2.1 million contract. It gives LaFleur options at tight end, where the injury-slowed Jimmy Graham and the inexperienced Robert Tonyan were the notable holdovers.

Lewis, 35, was largely ignored last season. Lewis’ re-signing suggests LaFleur intends to use his tight ends. It also sets up a scenario where Gutekunst can draft a highly rated tight end to work into the offense with Graham, Lewis and Tonyan.

The Packers also tendered receiver Geronimo Allison at $2.1 million, meaning they have the right of first refusal for any offer Allison might receive from another team.

Meantime, Randall Cobb is visiting the Dallas Cowboys today, while Jordy Nelson is talking with the Seattle Seahawks.

Clearly, the Packers need to add a slot receiver. With Golden Tate off the market, and Cobb appearing to be a goner, it seems likely Green Bay will draft a slot receiver.

With all of this activity, the Packers are $17.5 million under the salary cap. If a capable veteran slot receiver or linebacker becomes available look for Gutekunst to take a serious look.