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Dougherty: Packers' deals make sense only if GM Brian Gutekunst puts savings to good use

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News

GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers didn’t get better Monday when they signed Christian Kirksey and Rick Wagner.

To accomplish that before the draft, general manager Brian Gutekunst will have to do something big in the free-agent or trade markets this week.

What Gutekunst achieved by signing Kirksey and Wagner was land stopgap starters who won’t force the Packers to play rookies at inside linebacker and right tackle unless those rookies are ready, while saving money by letting Bryan Bulaga and Blake Martinez walk.

Left for Gutekunst to do in the next week or two is make good use of the savings, primarily by finding veteran help for his passing game after he decided not to outbid Cleveland for tight end Austin Hooper (reported $11 million a year) or Arizona in a trade/signing for one of the game’s premier receivers, DeAndre Hopkins.

Based on Gutekunst’s signings last year, I was surprised he didn’t take the extra step for Hooper. Even if overpaid, Hooper is a young, healthy and complete receiving-blocking tight end who would have been a good fit for a Packers offense built around the outside zone run scheme.

Gutekunst and team vice president Russ Ball presumably could have paid Hooper the guaranteed money it would have taken while still keeping this year’s cap number low, but they must have considered that price too high. It’s hard not to wonder if a year from now Hooper will be the one that got away.

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Hours after the top tight end off the board, the biggest fish in the pass-catching game went too: Receiver Amari Cooper reportedly agreed to a five-year deal with the Cowboys that averages $20 million. He was the right age (25) and health (only three missed games in four seasons) for a free-agent gamble. But the market moved fast, and the price was too steep price for Gutekunst, who already is paying Davante Adams $14.5 million a year at the same position.

Now Gutekunst will have to turn to the second- and third-level markets for help in the passing game. One player to keep in mind is Indianapolis tight end Eric Ebron. He’s a talented former top-10 pick who’s had only one good season (13 touchdown catches in 2018), so he might be had for a palatable price.

A possible alternative at a different skill position is running back Devonta Freeman, who was cut by Atlanta on Monday. Freeman was a financial casualty after missing most of 2018 because of a torn ACL and putting up only so-so numbers (656 yards rushing 3.6-yard average and 59 receptions) last season.

Freeman just turned 28 on March 15, which means he's on the downside of his career. But he has the makings of a viable No. 2 to Aaron Jones. Coach Matt LaFleur was Atlanta's quarterbacks coach in 2015 and '16, so he knows Freeman's all-around skill set, and Freeman knows the Packers' offense. And Freeman's age and prior knee injury could keep his price down.   

As for the Packers' signings Monday, Gutekunst landed two players who more likely than not will start in 2020 and won’t cost against the Packers’ compensatory picks this time next year. Both were cut by their teams earlier this offseasn – Kirksey by Cleveland, Wagner by Detroit – and thus weren’t true free agents.

Wagner isn’t in Bulaga’s class at right tackle, so the Packers downgraded at that key position if Wagner in fact is the starter. But Gutekunst in return adds an 87-game NFL starter on the relative cheap rather than ponying up the big money ($12 million a year and $20-plus million guaranteed?) it would have taken to bring Bulaga back.

That wasn’t an easy call because right tackle is a premium position, but as good as Bulaga was last season Gutekunst made the percentage play. Bulaga will be 31 later this month and has an injury history (torn ACL, torn hip labrum, on and off back issues) that argues against that big an investment in him. Better a year early, as they say – as long as Gutekunst puts that savings to good use.

It’s also not a given Wagner will be the Packers’ starter. His contract ($5.5 million average and $4.8 million cap number, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson) is that of a veteran option in case Gutekunst doesn’t draft a tackle who’s ready to play as a rookie.

One offensive line coach in the league said he liked Wagner better than Riley Reiff when both signed comparable deals in the free-agent market in 2017 – Wagner signed with the Detroit Lions, Reiff with the Minnesota Vikings – but considers Bulaga by far the best of the three.

“I’m sure (the other NFC North) coaching staffs like (the Packers’) decision,” the coach said.

Kirksey may or may not be better than Martinez, and he’s a much bigger injury risk after missing 23 of 32 games the last two years because of hamstring and chest injuries.

Mike Pettine, the Packers’ defensive coordinator, no doubt advocated the signing when there were other options, including former first-round pick Alec Ogletree and former Chicago linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who signed a three-year deal with Oakland that averages $7 million. Pettine was head coach in Cleveland for Kirksey’s first two seasons after the Browns drafted him in the third round. Pettine has as much riding on this signing as anyone.

It’s not that Gutekunst spent big on Kirksey – about $6 million in 2020 pay and $4 million in cap charge, according to details Wilson reported. Martinez is likely to sign with someone else for $9 million a year or so. Still, Kirksey’s injury profile runs counter to the signings that worked out so well for Gutekunst last year.

RELATED: Packers get jump on free agency, sign linebacker Christian Kirksey

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Regardless, it’s still a good bet the GM will draft an inside linebacker in the first two or three rounds. With Kirksey on hand, that player will have a year to develop – if Kirksey can stay on the field.

Kirksey should be a better cover guy than Martinez but probably not as good against the run. Even though Kirksey ran 4.58 coming out of college, compared to Martinez’s 4.71 and Joe Schobert’s 4.74, there’s probably not much that separates the three. The Packers are counting on Pettine’s insider knowledge to be the difference.

“Kirksey is faster (than Schobert) but I wouldn’t say he’s better (in coverage),” said an NFL scout who has studied this year’s inside linebacker class.

This was just Day 1 of the open market, so there should be more to come from Gutekunst and Ball. Gutekunst has saved his team some money by moving on from Bulaga and Martinez. We’ll see in the next few days whether he can put those savings to good use.

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