Packers must use free agency again, and GM 'won't be afraid'

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Minutes after Sunday’s loss in Chicago, the one that eliminated the Green Bay Packers from playoff contention and gave the rival Bears the NFC North title for 2018, Aaron Rodgers tried to make the case that his team’s fall from the top of the division was more of a slip-up than a plunge.

“I like our chances in the division moving forward,” Rodgers said. “Obviously there will be some changes in the offseason. We’ll finish this year out the right way and then we’ll look to the future, which I think is still really bright in Green Bay.”

It might have been an optimistic approach given the state of the roster.

Outside of Kenny Clark and Jaire Alexander on defense and Rodgers, Davante Adams and perhaps Aaron Jones plus a couple of premier linemen in David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley on offense, what game-changing players do the Packers have? A run of poor drafts -- along with mistakes when it came to re-signing or not re-signing key players -- near the end of Ted Thompson’s otherwise mostly successful run as general manager left the Packers short on impact players.

At least the Packers are in position to add to that list with a stash of draft picks (including two first-rounders) and ample salary-cap space, but general manager Brian Gutekunst will need to use all available avenues to do it.

That includes free agency, even after his first foray into the open market did not go as well as many had hoped just a couple of months after he got the job in January.

“I think you have to [use free agency],” Rodgers said this week. “You’ve seen what some of those other squads have done. We have a good setup, I think. We’re going to have a big chunk under the cap and two first-round picks starting off, and there’s a lot you can do with that. I think it will be exciting to see what Brian and his staff do to enhance the roster. Like I said after the game, I think we have a lot of the pieces in place to be successful. Obviously injuries have hurt us. We have some tough decisions to make across every position group, but I’m excited about the guys we have and the potential of guys we can get with our cap and draft situation.”

Gutekunst, in an interview this week, said the Packers had “no more or no less [holes] than usual” on the roster, but he said he had no qualms about attacking those issues just as aggressively -- if not more so -- than he did last offseason, when he signed what he thought would be three key veteran free agents to high-priced deals: tight end Jimmy Graham (three years, $30 million), defensive back Tramon Williams (two years, $10 million) and defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson (one year, $5 million).

“I feel good about our ability this offseason to get done what we need to get done,” Gutekunst told ESPN.com.

As he should with the possibility of more than $40 million in salary-cap space for his use. That number could jump near $50 million depending on whether he decides to cut ties with Graham and other underperforming veterans (see Nick Perry).

Gutekunst and his staff of scouts might have a hard time giving themselves positive grades, especially for the signing of Graham, who admitted last week that his "numbers suck." Wilkerson never really got the chance to show his mettle before a season-ending ankle injury in Week 3. Williams, who will end up leading the defense in snaps this season despite being the oldest player on the team at age 35, was the only one who performed as expected.

“The amount of snaps that you’ve seen Tramon play and the variety of different roles, I mean how many players could do the things that Tramon did for us this season?” Gutekunst said. “And we knew the kind of locker-room factor he’d be, and that’s certainly been the case. Obviously Mo going down was just heartbreaking for us and for him. He was playing well for us, and he was certainly an important part of our defense before he went down. Jimmy has been banged up a little bit and I’m sure people look at the numbers, but he’s been a big part of our offense.

“I’m happy with all three of those guys. It’s football, you can’t predict a lot of things, but I’m happy with all three of them.”

Gutekunst also made some smaller veteran signings, adding guard Byron Bell and tight end Marcedes Lewis in the spring and then cornerback Bashaud Breeland in September.

Still, the mixed results of last offseason's class won’t turn him back into Thompson, his free-agent-averse former boss.

“I think we’re going to go about it exactly the same [as last offseason],” Gutekunst said when asked if he will be a big player in free agency. “We could be if the right opportunities present. We’re going to scout the players and if we think that player can help us, we won’t be afraid to spend the money we need to.”

His views on free agency have not changed.

“I think it’s always been kind of that we would like to build through the draft, but free agency is a very important tool of acquiring players, and in my mind that’s how it’s always been, and I don’t think that will change,” Gutekunst said. “It’s a smaller pool of players, but we’ll go through our process and if I think we have areas we can improve our team, we won’t be afraid to do it.”