Packers Finally Embrace Free Agency, but It May Be Too Late to Save Rodgers Era

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 14, 2019

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 23: Za'Darius Smith #90 of the Baltimore Ravens sacks Case Keenum #4 of the Denver Broncos during the first half at M&T Bank Stadium on September 23, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

From 2009 through 2016, the Packers had the best quarterback in the NFC—if not the whole NFLand a permanent Do Not Disturb sign on their hotel room door during free agency.

The Packers won a Super Bowl early in that era. They went 15-1 and 12-4 in other seasons. Aaron Rodgers won MVP awards. Former general manager and free-agency conscientious objector Ted Thompson plucked some plums in the late rounds of the draft and from other team's practice squads to keep the Packers in the playoffs year after year. Those were some good times. 

But as the years wore on and Super Bowl seasons became 10-6, road-playoff-loss seasons, it became clear that the Packers squandered some championship opportunities by going ice fishing every year instead of manning the phones during the free-agency period. And when Rodgers got hurt in 2017, it became obvious just how little talent was left on the roster.

The Packers now have a relatively new general manager (Brian Gutekunst, in his second year) a new head coach (someone named Matt LaFleur) and a radical new free-agency philosophy: actually participating in free agency.

In the 48-hour "tampering period" which marks the de facto start of NFL free agency, the Packers have signed more significant free agents than they signed in the last seven years of Thompson's tenure combined:

  • Former Ravens edge-rusher Za'Darius Smith: 26 years old, 8.5 sacks last season, four years and a reported $66 million
  • Former Redskins edge-rusher Preston Smith: 26, 4.0 sacks last season, 8.0 sacks in 2017, four years and $52 million
  • Former Bears safety Adrian Amos: 25, versatile enough to play a variety of roles in the secondary, four years and $37 million
  • Former Broncos offensive lineman Billy Turner: 27, a multi-position sub, four years and $28 million

The moves make good salary-cap and roster-composition sense: Even a hardened Moneyball extremist will admit that young veterans at high-leverage positions like edge-rusher are worth paying a premium to acquire.

The moves also make good football sense: Two edge-rushers (who are also sturdy run defenders) can have much more impact than one, Amos fills a need at a reasonable price, and Turner provides veteran insurance against the $134 million quarterback getting creamed.

While Aaron Rodgers has shown few signs of decline, the NFC North presents much tougher terrain to navigate than when he and the Packers dominated the division almost a decade ago.
While Aaron Rodgers has shown few signs of decline, the NFC North presents much tougher terrain to navigate than when he and the Packers dominated the division almost a decade ago.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

But there's a chance that all of this sensible spending might have come just a little too late to keep the Packers' Super Bowl window open.

And no, it's not because Rodgers is getting old or declining.

Rodgers has lost a half-beat of athleticism to injuries and age. He no longer pitches as many perfect games as he did from 2011-14 and has developed some bad habits while growing frustrated with former head coach Mike McCarthy's happy-hour-appetizer-menu playbook. But there is no reason to think Rodgers won't have a long late career of excellence in the Tom Brady/Drew Brees/Peyton Manning mold.

Rodgers can lead the Packers to the Super Bowl under the right circumstances. But they aren't ready to be led just yet, and the circumstances just aren't what they used to be.

Green Bay has its share of talent, particularly at non-glamour positions: offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, interior defenders Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels, lots of young cornerbacks who can still get better. Davante Adams is an excellent receiver who is underrated because Rodgers used to have three or four guys like him to throw to. Aaron Jones could be a 1,000-yard rusher if used properly, or even regularly.

Add Amos and the Smiths to the mix, and the Packers have…the third-most talented roster in the NFC North, behind the Bears and Vikings. Oh, dear. 

Rodgers had more talent to work with in his best seasons than he has now, and the Packers faced weaker competition. Even with Rodgers reinvigorated by a new scheme and the newcomers upgrading the defense, they appear poised to max out in all-too familiar territory: 10-6, with a road playoff loss.

There are ways to avoid that fate. LaFleur might really be Sean McVay 2.0 (or 3.0 or 4.0; there are a lot of McVays out there). Two first-round picks in April can provide immediate help, especially if the free-agent defensive upgrades position the Packers to select, say, a top offensive lineman (Oklahoma's Cody Ford, for example) and a playmaking tight end (one of those Iowa dudes). And Gutekunst might not even be finished spending yet.

So the Packers are hardly in a gloom-and-doom scenario. But climbing back into contention would have been so much easier back when Rodgers was younger, the Packers roster was stronger, the Bears stunk, and the Vikings weren't quite so desperate to win now. (No, Lions fans, your team doesn't matter).

Thompson's Packers were so allergic to free agency that when the Wisconsin State Journal published a Top 10 of Thompson's biggest moves of the decade in 2016, they could only list nine choices.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has added more impact free agents this offseason than his predecessor did in his last seven seasons leading the Packers' front office.
Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has added more impact free agents this offseason than his predecessor did in his last seven seasons leading the Packers' front office.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

There was Julius Peppers in 2014. And center Jeff Saturday, already at the end of his career, in 2012. And Charles Woodson waaaay back in 2006. And…Charlie Peprah? Letroy Guion? Who are these guys?

Just a scattering of free agents might have won a game or two in 2015 or 2016, perhaps turning playoff losses into Super Bowl appearances.

Then again, maybe not. Load up a free-agent tracker from 2015 and look at the top names: Ndamukong Suh (that would have been interesting), Julius Thomas, DeMarco Murray, Greg Hardy, Byron Maxwell…see anyone guaranteed to propel the Packers to a Super Bowl? See many players who would still be of use to the team now? (Remember: Suh is about to get his third contract since then)

Thompson was wise to be skeptical of free agency. He just took things too far. No team can build through the draft alone, not even the Patriots. When free agency is used properly, it's a vital roster supplement: spackling cracks, creating depth-chart competition, compensating for first-round blunders (and Thompson made a few of those), making sure your 53 guys stack up as well as possible to your opponent's 53 guys.

Gutekunst inherited a roster that could not be rebuilt through the draft alone, at least not while Rodgers was still young. He's done an excellent job through the draft, both by acquiring promising players and extra picks. Now he has to play catch-up in free agency.

It's long overdue. It has Packers fans accustomed to sleeping through March feeling excited, and rightfully so. Gutekunst's first real haul is pretty impressive. Most importantly, it should make the Packers relevant again.

But there is still more work to do to make them Super Bowl contenders again, especially if they hope to capitalize on the Rodgers window. But that window won't stay open forever.

          

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@MikeTanier.

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