GREEN BAY — Brian Gutekunst went straight from the Green Bay Packers’ season-ending loss in the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco to the annual Senior Bowl workouts in Alabama, knowing full well the team’s unexpected success in 2019 guarantees nothing in 2020.
That’s why Gutekunst, as he begins his third offseason as the team’s general manager, was able to look at the big picture Friday and know there’s no time to rest. He made it clear he recognizes that even after a 13-3 regular-season under rookie coach Matt LaFleur brought the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed and had them one victory away from a berth in Super Bowl XLIV, there’s difficult decisions and areas of need awaiting him again.
“Certainly, a lot of work to do. But I have a lot of optimism going forward,” Gutekunst said Friday during an end-of-season wrap-up news briefing. “Matt and his coaching staff, I thought, did an excellent job in all three phases. Like I said, we have a lot of work to do. Excited to get there. We got a lot of decisions to make coming up. … But (I’m) really excited about what we did, what we were able to do and where we’re going.”
That starts with where they’ve gone with some very familiar faces — veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga, kicker Mason Crosby and defensive back Tramon Williams, all of whom are headed toward free agency. Gutekunst said he takes after his predecessor when it comes to having strong feelings for longtime contributors — “I got a lot of Ted Thompson in me,” Gutekunst said, “(so) I’d like to keep them all” — but acknowledged that might not happen with three players north of 30 years old and with a variety of other needs on the roster.
“I wish our roster size could be a lot bigger than what it is. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way,” Gutekunst said. “To see what those guys have done in their careers, even at this stage of their career, to produce like they produced, that’s big time. It meant so much to our team.”
Gutekunst discussed all three players during his 30-minute news conference, acknowledging there will be challenges to getting deals done with all three. Bulaga, coming off his best season at age 30 after enduring season-ending injuries in 2012, 2013 and 2017, could command a big-money deal in free agency and might not give a hometown discount to stay in Green Bay after 10 seasons.
Crosby had the best statistical season of his career and has said he wants to return as well. At the same time, Crosby could also be a free agent target for other teams willing to spend on the position.
Williams, who was with the Packers from 2007 through 2014 before leaving in free agency, returned last year and played two seasons in his second tour of duty in Green Bay. He was a steadying veteran presence in the secondary and showed his versatility over the past two years. With youth elsewhere in the defensive backfield, he could be a relatively inexpensive insurance policy.
Bulaga said during an ESPN Wisconsin interview Thursday the team has made no contact with his agent, Tom Condon, and he is in wait-and-see mode for now.
“Bryan is a really good player,” Gutekunst said. “He obviously had a really good year. He was able to be out there pretty much the entire season, which was important. Of course, we’d love to have a guy like Bryan Bulaga back, but we’re still getting through all that and seeing how these things are going to work.”
Crosby will be 36 next season but given how other teams have gotten dizzy — including two NFC North teams — riding on the kicker carousel, it’d probably be foolish for the Packers to cut costs and go with a younger, cheaper option. Still, Crosby had to beat out training-camp challenger Sam Ficken to keep his job this season and the Packers may need to devote salary-cap space to other positions.
“Mason had a fantastic year this year, one of his best,” Gutekunst said. “From my scout’s eye, his leg strength, his power, his accuracy, it’s all there. Mason is going to kick for quite a while longer if he wants to, and we’d certainly love to have him back. Obviously, he’s done it at a high level for a long time, but he’s also become a pretty big leader in our locker room, as well. He obviously had some personal challenges that he met this year, and his laser focus and ability to get through that and perform at a high level was pretty impressive.”
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Gutekunst did not strike an encouraging chord when asked about inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who broke down in tears following Sunday’s loss to the 49ers and acknowledged he may have played his final snap with the Packers.
“Obviously, Blake Martinez is up,” Gutekunst said. “I think we’re going to have to take a long look at the inside linebacker thing, make sure we’re squared away there.”
Asked later about the inside linebacker position and how it has evolved, Gutekunst replied: “I think facing today’s offenses can be really difficult from that position because there’s so many things you have to do, not only athletically but mentally, as well. And there’s so much on those guys plates, setting the fronts, communication on the back end and then making the right decisions and then having the athleticism to cover backs and tight ends and carry seams. It’s a difficult skill-set to find, but when you have those guys it does free up your defense to do a lot of things.”
Then there’s the obvious shortcomings on the roster, where veteran tight end Jimmy Graham seems unlikely to return, and the wide receivers behind Davante Adams were inconsistent, to be polite. Both positions appear to be clear needs heading into free agency in March and the NFL draft in April, and the Packers won’t have the same financial wherewithal as they did last year in free agency.
“I think there’s going to be a little bit more restrictions if we’re able to do everything we want to do with the guys who are here already,” Gutekunst admitted.
Gutekunst acknowledged trying to acquire a wide receiver at the October trade deadline — one league source said the Packers were especially interested in Miami Dolphins wideout DeVante Parker, who wound up not being dealt by the rebuilding Dolphins — and now the position might be the club’s biggest need.
“We were looking to see if it would make sense to add another explosive offensive player. The opportunities to do that, there were not many, and the ones that were not particularly sound value, in my opinion,” Gutekunst said. “I also was very optimistic that some of our young players would improve and get us where we needed to be.”
Asked what he saw from the receiver group this season, Gutekunst called Davante Adams “a premier receiver” and singled out Allen Lazard’s development but admitted that the team “didn’t have anybody step into that role consistently. I think there will be some opportunity for those guys next year, and I think that’ll be a position we look to add.”
On top of all that, the Gutekunst also said that a long-term deal with nose tackle Kenny Clark, who’s headed into the fifth-year option year of his rookie deal, is a priority. And Gutekunst also said the Packers won’t shy away from drafting a quarterback despite two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers having had “a really, really good year, especially adapting to a completely new system.”
“Obviously he’s still playing at an elite level, but for me, I was raised by Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson. If there’s a quarterback we think can play, that’s a starter in the National Football League, we’ll never pass that up,” Gutekunst said. “I’m really glad ‘12’ is back there, really excited to see what he can do in Year 2.