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Dougherty: With all-in urgency, Packers made a series of bold moves. How have they turned out?


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GREEN BAY - Last March, Brian Gutekunst faced a big roster decision that would guide the rest of the Green Bay Packers’ offseason.

The team’s general manager had to determine whether to use his limited, mortgaged salary-cap space on one of his two free agents (Corey Linsley or Aaron Jones), or on somebody else’s player at a position of acute need when the free-agent market opened.

Gutekunst chose Jones and signed the running back to a $12-million-a-year deal even though the GM also had promising AJ Dillon on the roster. It turned out to be the right call.

The Packers’ offensive line has held up without Linsley despite a bad injury run and David Bakhtiari’s delayed return from ACL surgery. Meanwhile, the Jones-Dillon running back tandem ranks among the best in the league and forms the backbone of the Packers’ offense.

The Packers hit their bye this week at 9-3 and in the running for the top seeding in the NFC playoffs in back-to-back years. They will badly need Jones’ and Dillon’s playmaking to get where they want to go.

Signing Jones also helped dictate what Gutekunst has and hasn’t done for his roster thereafter. It left him a bystander in free agency and influenced the draft. The Packers are where they are today in part because their general manager made more good decisions than bad ones in that time.

Here’s a thumbnail look at Gutekunst’s bargain trades, signings and draft picks that have yielded a surprising bounty, as well as a couple big-name moves he considered but ultimately rejected. As Ron Wolf used to say, “Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make.”

Trades and signings

Signed Kevin King: Early in free agency, King’s soft market because of his injury history convinced him to re-sign with the Packers for one year and $5 million. It has worked out only OK. He has missed six of 12 games (concussion and shoulder and back injuries). Rasul Douglas, plucked off Arizona’s practice squad in October, has outplayed him. The guess here is, if and when Jaire Alexander returns from a shoulder injury, Douglas will be ahead of King in the cornerback rotation. That would make King overpriced depth.

Signed De’Vondre Campbell: Possibly the best bargain free-agent signing in the league. Campbell’s market never materialized, so the Packers waited it out and got him in June. For $2 million he has provided their best inside linebacker play in more than a decade, going back to Nick Barnett.

Traded for Randall Cobb: Sending a sixth-round pick to Houston looked like a bad but necessary deal to get Aaron Rodgers to report to training camp on time. Cobb is a small (5-10, 195) and aging (31) receiving target, and this looked like a classic case of a declining vet stunting the growth of rookie (third-round pick Amari Rodgers). That hasn’t happened, because Amari Rodgers hasn’t been able to get on the field even when injuries at receiver opened the door. Cobb has been fine (28 catches, five touchdowns) as a security blanket for Rodgers.

Signed Douglas: Is there a better in-season poach from a practice squad than this guy? Though he was a move of desperation, he has won the Packers a big game with a late interception in the end zone against the Cardinals, stood out again last week against the Los Angeles Rams and generally has played sticky coverage since his arrival. A temporary, bottom-of-the-roster move has been found money for the Packers.

Signed (and released) Jaylon Smith: After two games in October it was obvious Smith’s body has given out and second-year pro Krys Barnes is the better player. A cheap, low-risk look-see.

Signed Whitney Mercilus: In late October the Packers added the 31-year-old former Texans edge rusher for the NFL minimum. He was a viable, cheap rotational player before his season ended in his fourth game because of a torn biceps.

The draft

Eric Stokes, first round: Improved from the start to the end of camp as much as any player I’ve seen in covering the Packers since 1993. Has kept improving during the season and will rank as the No.2 cornerback when Alexander returns.

Josh Myers, second round: Panned by draft experts but looks like a hit. Selected to replace Linsley immediately and played like he belonged from Day 1 in camp. Missed invaluable playing time the last six games because of an unspecified knee injury. The Packers seem to think he’ll return before the end of the season.

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Amari Rodgers, third round: Picked for the jet-sweep, bubble-screen slot-receiver role but has disappointed so far. Has looked a little slow at receiver and punt returner. Something will have to unexpectedly flip for him to be a factor this season.

Royce Newman, fourth round: The surprise of camp when he came from nowhere to beat out three veterans (Jon Runyan, Lucas Patrick and Ben Braden) for the starting job at right guard. Has had more than his share of ups and downs, so it’s not a given he’ll remain a starter when Myers returns and Patrick is available to move to guard. But Newman is a promising player either way and has more ability than Patrick, so the Packers might stick with him anyway.

T.J. Slaton, fifth round: Massive man (6-4, 330) who has made himself a part of the defensive line rotation. Going into the season I thought Gutekunst erred in not signing a bargain veteran defensive lineman as an upgrade. But Slaton’s gradual ascension has helped justify Gutekunst’s decision.

Moves not made

J.J. Watt: Gutekunst looked into the possibility Watt would be willing to return to his home state on the cheap for a shot to play with Aaron Rodgers. But when he found out the price he backed off. For good reason. Watt could still play at age 32, but his injury history was the reddest of flags. Why the Cardinals paid him $14.5 million this year is a head-scratcher, and in the most foreseeable of outcomes Watt’s season likely ended in October because of a shoulder injury. That’s $14.5 million down the drain.

Stephon Gilmore: The 32-year-old former NFL defensive player of the year was available via trade to fill the in-season need that went to Douglas. But Gilmore was looking for a big contract extension, which kept the Packers from pursuing a deal with the New England Patriots. Really, would he have played any better than Douglas?

Odell Beckam Jr.: The biggest of names reportedly wanted to sign with the Packers after getting cut by the Browns earlier this month, but take with a grain of salt recent reports that he might have signed with them if they’d offered a little above the minimum salary. Would he really have chosen Green Bay over Los Angeles? Doubt it. One source with a team that tried to sign him said Beckham changed his mind on his destination multiple times and delayed the decision a few days because he relished being courted. He ended up picking the team where he saw himself playing long-term. He still has talent, and this might still work out for the Rams. But it’s hard to blame Gutekunst for holding tight on a guy who might have created as many issues as he solved.

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