Gutekunst picks up where he left off in free agency

The unsung hero for the Green Bay Packers last season was Brian Gutekunst.

The Packers general manager engineered a slew of moves that helped catapult a middle-of-the-road outfit to an NFC Championship game finalists.

Gutekunst’s most significant moves occurred during free agency last March when he signed four – count ‘em, four –starters: standout outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, along with safety Adrian Amos and guard Billy Turner.

Gutekunst has continued to be one of the league’s most pro-active GMs this offseason as well. On Monday, Gutekunst convinced two free agents to join the Packers: inside linebacker Christian Kirksey and offensive tackle Ricky Wagner, a former University of Wisconsin standout.

Neither Wagner nor Kirksey is a marquee player, but both could plug glaringly important holes. By signing Wagner, the Packers have protected themselves from the expected departure of free agent Bryan Bulaga, who is coming off a quality season and will undoubtedly be in store for a rich contract.

By signing Kirksey, the Gutekunst took a calculated gamble toward addressing the team’s biggest deficiency at inside linebacker. The Packers needed an inside linebacker even before free agent Blake Martinez decided to sign a three-year, $30 deal with the New York Giants.

The Packers had trouble stopping the run much of last season and were thoroughly exploited in that area by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game.

Gutekunst is fully aware that Kirksey has to remain healthy for this deal to look good. Kirksey has been hampered by an assortment of injuries and has played in just nine games the last two seasons. When physically fit, though, Kirksey has shown he is a true run-stuffer.

This should also be kept in mind: Kirksey signed a two-year, $16 million contract. But if he can’t stay on the field or doesn’t produce, the Packers can simply release him and incur a minimal financial hit. According to Spotrac, the Packers would only have to pay $2 million in dead cap space and not the $8M for the entire season.

Here’s what an NFL executive told me about the Packers signing Kirksey and Wagner: “I would have signed Wagner. He’s a very good veteran right tackle. Kirksey is a starter if he is heathy. He’s missed a lot of time the last two year. A healthy Kirksey is a damn good pickup for them.’’

  • At the recent NFL Combine in Indianapolis, I talked with several NFL officials and agents. The vast majority of them were convinced at that time Tom Brady was leaving the Patriots, which he officially confirmed earlier today.

Two of those same people I spoke with claimed Brady was bolting New England because the Patriots wouldn’t commit to a fully guaranteed two-year contract.

And when I asked where Brady could wind up, the consensus among those officials and agents was the Los Angeles Chargers. Suffice to say, the hall-of-fame in-waiting Brady will have plenty of options.

  • Two of the Packers’ biggest rivals – the Bears and Vikings – both pursued 49ers safety Jimmie Ward, who opted to remain in San Francisco by agreeing to a three-year, $28.5 million deal. Las Vegas Raiders were also keenly interested in Ward, who was born in Racine.

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