GREEN BAY — Amid the buzz he created with two significant free-agent additions as the NFL market was opening — tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, whose deals were set to become official on Wednesday — Brian Gutekunst remained acutely aware of the gaping hole that remained in the Green Bay Packers’ roster:
And while adding Graham (three years, $30 million) and Wilkerson (an apparent bargain at one year, $5 million) in a pair of there’s-a-new-sheriff-in-town free-agent moves that probably wouldn’t have happened under previous general manager Ted Thompson, Gutekunst acknowledged that there is significant work to be done on the cornerback depth chart.
“I think we’ve got some good, young prospects,” the first-year GM replied when asked what the Packers have at cornerback at the moment. “But that’s obviously a position we’re looking at heavily right now.”
The problem for the Packers is that there’s not much to look at on the open market anymore after some colossal spending by other teams in need of cornerback help.
If the Packers opened offseason practices today, they’d presumably line up second-year cornerback Kevin King at one outside spot and fourth-year man Quinten Rollins at the other. But both players are coming off significant surgeries — King for a shoulder injury, Rollins for a ruptured Achilles’ tendon — and might not be fully cleared for action until training camp.
With veteran Davon House having become a free agent, that leaves oft-injured special teams ace Demetri Goodson and youngsters Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins, Donatello Brown and Herb Waters currently on the roster.
The Packers traded arguably their best cornerback from last season, enigmatic 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall, last week to the Cleveland Browns for backup quarterback DeShone Kizer and a swap of the teams’ fourth- and fifth-round picks.
That makes for a challenging situation, as most of the cornerbacks regarded as the best of the free-agent class had all come to terms with new teams before the league year officially kicked off at 3 p.m. Wednesday:
The Tennessee Titans snagged ex-New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler to a five-year, $61 million deal.
The New York Jets added ex-Los Angeles Rams corner Trumaine Johnson with a five-year deal worth roughly $75 million.
The Carolina Panthers agreed to terms with ex-Washington Redskins corner Bashaud Breeland on a three-year, $24 million contract.
Aaron Colvin left the Jacksonville Jaguars for the Houston Texans, getting a four-year, $34 million deal.
After being cut by the Seattle Seahawks, four-time all-pro Richard Sherman signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers.
Patrick Robinson left the Philadelphia Eagles for a four-year, $20 million deal to rejoin the New Orleans Saints, the team that drafted him.
Tampa Bay’s Brent Grimes returned to the Buccaneers on a one-year deal worth $7 million.
Prince Amukamara stayed with the Chicago Bears on a three-year, $27 million contract.
Some of those numbers don’t seem that off-putting for a team with such a dearth of talent at the position, but Gutekunst exercised fiscal restraint and didn’t get into any bidding wars during the free-agent negotiating window that opened Monday.
“You try to stay as disciplined as you can, looking for the opportunity to improve your football team and being prepared to act if those opportunities present themselves,” Gutekunst said. “I think the Green Bay Packers are unique in the fact that we have a lot to offer here. But at the same time, you have to be very disciplined, and there’s just times where you have to let it go.
“Talented players are hard to find, so you want to be in the conversation, but at the same time, there’s restraint there because of the way the (free-agency) system is set up. Because here, we’re not trying to compete for one year, we’re trying to compete every year. So you have to be careful.”
The Packers do enter next month’s NFL draft with 12 total picks, including the 14th overall selection and six picks in the first 150, so Gutekunst will surely use several at cornerback. What he can add in the interim via free agency remains to be seen.
“I don’t think it’s imperative (to sign a cornerback),” Gutekunst said. “We’re going to look at every avenue. This isn’t something that will happen (immediately). This is something that really between now and the start of training camp that we’ll be looking at.
“There’ll be many avenues to upgrade that group. Like I said, I think we have some good young players there that’ll be competing for those spots, but it is something that we’re focused on.”
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