GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was the morning of the second day of the NFL’s free-agent negotiating period last March, the so-called legal tampering days, when a high-ranking member of the Green Bay Packers‘ administration, a vice president, walked into Brian Gutekunst’s office with a message.
He told the general manager that those on the outside — fans, media, analysts — were under the impression that the first day had come and gone without any much-needed additions to the Packers’ roster. And the response, well, it wasn’t positive.
Those in the room got a big chuckle out of it.
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For they all knew what the past 24 hours had been like.
While news of the Packers’ big four signings — Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner — broke on Day 2, making it look like none of those deals were done the day before, the reality is Gutekunst, his staff and contract negotiator Russ Ball worked faster than most knew.
And it happened in a much different order than the way the news broke on that day, March 12 of 2019:
First came word that Za’Darius Smith, the former Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker, would sign with the Packers. That broke at around 7:30 a.m. local time. Within 30 minutes, former Chicago Bears safety Amos had reportedly agreed to a deal with Green Bay. About 70 minutes after that came the news that the Packers would double up on pass-rushers by adding former Washington Redskins outside linebacker Preston Smith. Finally, before lunchtime, came reports that offensive lineman Turner, who last played for the Denver Broncos, would sign.
That’s not how it went down.
According to multiple sources involved in the deals, the most expensive March day in Packers history happened like this:
At exactly 9 a.m. Pacific time on March 11, agent Michael Hoffman’s phone rang in Los Angeles.
It was the Packers.
“They called the minute the [negotiating] period opened,” Hoffman, who represents Turner, said.
Most agents won’t say what discussions took place unofficially before that, but everyone in the business knows the seeds for free-agent deals get planted well before, usually at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
“I had a sense that there might be some interest,” Hoffman said. “I didn’t know how serious, but it was the first call. There were obviously other teams interested, but when it came down to it, the Packers, the opportunity there, the things that they were saying, it just felt like the right fit.”
They had a deal done before they hung up.
It took one call, one conversation, and Turner was in. Four years, $28 million (including a $9 million signing bonus).
“You’d think it would take longer, but I think both sides were motivated to do something, because from my perspective, when you get what you want, I feel comfortable with that,” Hoffman said. “We both got what we desired and there was no sense of continuing the process.”
If only all the other deals were that easy.
Not long after, the Packers quickly came to an agreement on terms with Preston Smith. Four years, $52 million (including $16 million to sign).
Here was the problem: They also wanted Za’Darius Smith and didn’t want anything to jeopardize that.
He was priority No. 1 among what Gutekunst later described as “a very small group” of free agents.
“We kind of knew what we wanted to do,” Gutekunst said recently. “We knew it was going to be expensive, and we were shooting for a certain type of player through that, and we knew we had to be aggressive with it if we were going to be in on those conversations, and we were.”
The Packers initially were unsure how Za’Darius Smith would feel about teaming with another high-priced pass-rusher such as Preston Smith. They had to find out, and in the meantime, the Colts got involved with Preston. It wasn’t until later on that Monday when the Packers received assurances that Za’Darius would be on board if they could come to financial terms, which, at that point, they had not.
Meanwhile, talks had started with Amos.
“They identified him early on as a target and it got done pretty much on the first day,” Jonathan Herbst, Amos’ agent, said.
But not until another domino fell.
“Once Landon Collins‘ deal was announced, we had been going back and forth a little bit, but that was what expedited it,” Herbst said.
News of that signing — for six years and $84 million with the Redskins — broke midafternoon, live on ESPN.
“When that got announced, we were probably done within a half-hour,” Herbst said. “We had been going back and forth a little bit, but Collins’ deal was what expedited it.”
Amos, who never heard one word from the Bears about a possible return, agreed to four years for $36 million (including $11 million to sign). At that point, the Packers were $116 million in on three players.
And then they waited.
At one point, Za’Darius Smith thought he was headed to the New York Jets. It wasn’t until the late hours of that Monday night when the Packers and his agent, Bill Johnson, struck a deal.
“My agent called me and was like, ‘Z, wake up man,'” Smith said shortly after he signed with the Packers. “Bill Johnson, shout-out to him. He did a great job. He called me and said, ‘Z, you know what? You ready to be a Green Bay Packer?’ I said, ‘Man, we’re going to Green Bay?’ He said, ‘Yeah. I’m going to tell you the deal.’ So what he told me, I started crying, man.”
His four-year, $66 million deal (with a $20 million signing bonus) pushed the Packers’ one-day spending total to $182 million, including $56 million in signing-bonus money.
If there was any buyer’s remorse, especially about spending the most money on a player who in Baltimore had never eclipsed 8.5 sacks in any one season and was mostly a part-time player, Gutekunst was put at ease a few days later. Upon his arrival in Green Bay to ink his deal shortly after the signing period opened, Za’Darius met with Gutekunst, who wanted to discuss the responsibility that comes with such a contract. The GM came away reassured that his newest player was all-in.
Za’Darius not only proved to be a locker room leader for a group that galvanized into a 13-3 team and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game, but he led the way with his production on the field. He and Preston made the Packers the only team to have two players with 12-plus sacks each in the regular season, and they combined for 29.5 sacks overall in the regular season plus playoffs.
Amos was on the field more than any Packers defensive player in the regular season, missing only four snaps all year until he left the NFC title game loss to the San Francisco 49ers after 31 snaps because of a pectoral injury that did not require surgery. Turner started every game at right guard and played more snaps than anyone on the Packers’ offense and could be a candidate to move to right tackle this season if free-agent Bryan Bulaga goes elsewhere.
In two offseasons, Gutekunst has signed six high-priced free agents during the March signing period — the four last year plus tight end Jimmy Graham and cornerback Tramon Williams in 2017. All but Graham have been considered a success. It’s also an about-face from the way former GM Ted Thompson built his roster, rarely signing other teams’ free agents.
“They know who they want,” Herbst said. “That’s sort of their M.O. now. They’re pretty upfront. Adrian was their target. That’s who they wanted. We represent Ed Dickson, and when they signed Jimmy Graham, they basically said, ‘We like Ed, but Jimmy’s our No. 1 and Ed is our 1B.’ But in this case, they said to us, ‘Adrian is the guy we want.'”
Gutekunst already has warned fans not to expect another haul of free agents this year, saying recently that “we’re not going to be able to do what we did in unrestricted free agency like we did last year,” but that doesn’t mean he will shy away, either. He plans to make a run at Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper and Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Cory Littleton, at least.
“They had such success — every one of those guys met expectations last year,” Hoffman said. “So I would think they’d be looking to go back to the well.”