The Associated Press
In this Sept. 5, 2019 file photo, Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga sits on the bench during a game against the Chicago Bears in Chicago. Bulaga has agreed to terms with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Packers confirmed reports of his departure Wednesday.
The Associated Press

In this Sept. 5, 2019 file photo, Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga sits on the bench during a game against the Chicago Bears in Chicago. Bulaga has agreed to terms with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Packers confirmed reports of his departure Wednesday.

By TOM SILVERSTEIN Packers News

GREEN BAY — So far, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst hasn’t done anything dumb.

He hasn’t made Austin Hooper the highest-paid tight end in the NFL or given an inside linebacker more than $10 million per year or put himself in a position of having to fabricate salary-cap room because he overextended himself in free agency.

Undoubtedly, it was tempting for him to add a linebacker who could play the run and cover a tight end. Or a receiver who could smoke a cornerback at the line of scrimmage and catch a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers. Or a tight end who could line up with his hand down and block as well as he runs routes and catches the football.

Though he investigated a lot of options during the “negotiating period” that precedes the start of unrestricted free agency Wednesday, he passed on all the high-priced talent that fell like dominoes Monday and Tuesday. He settled for two “street” free agents – players who reached the market because their teams released them, not because their contracts were about to expire.

Gutekunst spent exactly $5 million each this year for inside linebacker Christian Kirksey and right tackle Rick Wagner, neither of whom is a sure thing to start or be an upgrade at their respective position.

It would have cost Gutekunst more than double that to retain inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who signed a three-year, $30.7 million deal with the New York Giants, or beat out the Las Vegas Raiders for the Los Angeles Rams’ Cory Littleton (three years, $36 million) or the Jacksonville Jaguars for Cleveland’s Joe Schobert (five years, $53.75 million).

And it would have cost almost triple that to best Cleveland for Tennessee right tackle Jack Conklin (three years, $42 million) and more than double that to retain free agent Bryan Bulaga, who signed with the Los Angeles Chargers (three years, $30 million).

It was the right call to go small given the team is just $14.7 million under the $198.2 million salary cap.

There are those who would argue Gutekunst could cut guard Lane Taylor for another $4 million in room and guarantee money on existing contracts to create more cap space. But don’t forget club finance chief Russ Ball already did that with $14.25 million of a $19.5 million roster bonus quarterback Aaron Rodgers was due this week.

It’s a slippery slope when you start pushing salary-cap money into latter years.

Former general manager Ted Thompson didn’t like to do it unless necessary and the result was there rarely was a free agent of his own that he couldn’t afford to re-sign. Gutekunst doesn’t want to get into the position where he must let players such as Kenny Clark, David Bakhtiari, Corey Linsley, Aaron Jones and Kevin King – all of whom are free agents next year – leave because of salary-cap reasons.

Unlike last year when Gutekunst had more than $40 million of cap space and used $23.4 million of it on linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and guard Billy Turner, he headed into free agency at the start of this week with around $25.7 million in cap room.

But that number did not include the increases in minimum salaries written into the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and the five exclusive rights free agents he wanted to keep at a cost of more than $3 million combined. That knocked the number down under $23 million and the deals for Kirksey and Wagner sliced it to where it stands now: $14.7 million.

It’s no wonder he passed on big-name free agents.

Given that he must get Clark and Bakhtiari done – he would be charged with dereliction of duty if he let either hit free agency – he must be judicious with his remaining cap money. There are still some free agents worth exploring such as receiver Emmanuel Sanders, tight ends Delanie Walker and Eric Ebron, running back Melvin Gordon, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and nose tackle Michael Pierce.

But at this point, Gutekunst should be searching for bargains; otherwise, he and Ball are risking their future cap solvency.

Consider this: In 2021, the team’s top seven cap hits will total $99.7 million or a little less than half of what the cap will probably be. And that does not include the cap numbers of Clark and Bakhtiari, which will add another $20 million or so depending on how the deals are structured.

The last thing the Packers want to do is get into a cycle of pushing cap money down the road just to get things square now. All it takes is one career-ending injury or a veteran’s talent falling off the cliff to devastate your cap, and with a 36-year-old quarterback who has $30 million of pro-rated cap charge hanging out there (beyond this year) you must be careful.

The Packers are already in a situation where they may need to let Linsley go after this year because left guard Elgton Jenkins is better when playing at center and it would be cheaper to move him and draft a guard. Same goes for Jones. They don’t have a replacement, so they might have to go out and draft one in case they can’t afford to re-sign him.

Gutekunst’s decision not to go for the blockbuster signing will be the right one if he doesn’t go overboard in the second and third wave of free agency. He did a lot of roster-building last year with free agency and with 10 picks in this talent-rich draft coming up, he can fill some holes.

He’s just going to have to rely more on his coaches to develop the talent. They can’t continue to fail with players such as Oren Burks, Montravius Adams, Josh Jackson, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Dexter Williams.

Those are players with talent who contributed very little to their respective units last year. The 2019 rookie class, led by Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, Jace Sternberger and Kingsley Keke must act as Gutekunst’s 2020 free-agent class, serving to both raise the level of play and increase the overall depth.

Free agency can be a great tool if used correctly and part of it is knowing when to say no.