Sign­ings of Bell, Lewis show new ap­proach

Packer Plus - - News - Ryan Wood

Green Bay — When all seven rounds of his first NFL draft were done, Brian Gutekunst made it clear his work was not fin­ished. His was an in­com­plete ros­ter. Even with 11 picks, the Green Bay Pack­ers’ new gen­eral man­ager couldn’t ad­dress every need.

One month later, Gutekunst fol­lowed through with a pair of sign­ings that di­rectly ad­dress ros­ter de­fi­cien­cies. It’s too early to know what roles tackle By­ron Bell and tight end Marcedes Lewis will have with the Pack­ers, but both could con­ceiv­ably play sig­nif­i­cant snaps this fall.

For a fran­chise of­ten ad­verse to free agency, such sign­ings have been rare.

“I think it goes back to Brian’s com­ments,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “and just the con­ver­sa­tions we had. Player ac­qui­si­tion is a 12-month process, and there’s def­i­nitely a pool of play­ers that come avail­able at this time of year.”

True, most NFL teams con­tinue sign­ing free agents deep into the spring. The Pack­ers rarely took that ap­proach in the past, es­pe­cially with play­ers new to their fran­chise. Un­der for­mer gen­eral man­ager Ted Thomp­son, the Pack­ers’ ros­ter was ef­fec­tively set af­ter the draft. The only busi­ness to han­dle was whit­tling 90 play­ers down to 53.

Thomp­son made a habit of search­ing for po­ten­tial di­a­monds in the rough, fre­quently sign­ing un­drafted rook­ies or young prac­tice-squad castoffs from other teams. That trend only be­gan to change last sea­son, when the Pack­ers signed out­side line­backer Ah­mad Brooks and de­fen­sive line­man Quin­ton Dial, vet­er­ans the San Fran­cisco 49ers dis­carded. But their ar­rival came in the first week of Septem­ber, giv­ing them days to ad­just for a new scheme be­fore start­ing the sea­son.

With their sign­ings com­ing in May, Bell and Lewis get the ben­e­fit of a full train­ing camp and part of the team’s off­sea­son pro­gram. Their tran­si­tions started this week in the Pack­ers’ or­ga­nized team ac­tiv­i­ties. McCarthy said the plan is to start slow, giv­ing them time to learn.

McCarthy ex­pects Bell to add qual­ity com­pe­ti­tion on the Pack­ers’ of­fen­sive line. It’s no se­cret jobs are up for grabs on the right side, and Bell could make a run at be­ing the start­ing right tackle. He’s by far their most ex­pe­ri­enced can­di­date, start­ing 74 games in his ca­reer (49 at right tackle). The rest of the Pack­ers’ depth chart at right tackle have com­bined for 10 starts.

It’s un­clear whether Bell can re­gain the form he showed early in his ca­reer. He missed the en­tire 2016 sea­son with a dis­lo­cated an­kle, a grue­some in­jury. As a backup last fall, Bell strug­gled at times with the Dal­las Cow­boys.

The Pack­ers cer­tainly hope the 29year-old can re­turn to his high­est level.

“I know one thing,” Bell said, “I came here to play. If I have to be a backup, so be it. I’ve done it in my ca­reer, but I know when my num­ber is called, I’ll be ready to roll.”

For Lewis, his free-agent visit to Green Bay last week was a first. A first-round pick in 2006 (No. 28 over­all), Lewis played his first 12 sea­sons with the Jack­sonville Jaguars. Even though Lewis said he had other teams in­ter­ested, Gutekunst en­sured he wouldn’t take a sec­ond visit.

Be­fore he could leave the build­ing, Lewis signed.

“My flight was at 5:30,” Lewis said. “I signed a con­tract at 5. And good thing the air­port is hella small, you know what I mean? I got to the air­port at 5:20, walked in and sat in my seat.” It’s just one perk to liv­ing in Green Bay. “Win­ning is the first one,” Lewis said, “and no air­port traf­fic is the sec­ond.”

It’s easy to see where Lewis fits in the Pack­ers’ of­fense. He’s a clas­sic in-line tight end, built sim­i­larly as Martel­lus Ben­nett at 6-6, 246 pounds. Lewis believes he can still be a re­ceiv­ing tar­get, even though his last qual­ity re­ceiv­ing sea­son was 2012.

He knows what his pri­mary role will be. “I block very well,” he said. In­deed, Lewis is the one clas­sic, in­line tight end on the Pack­ers’ ros­ter. Save the high­light plays for Jimmy Gra­ham, with Lance Ken­dricks adding depth in the pass­ing game. Lewis is in Green Bay to block. Any­thing he adds as a re­ceiver is a bonus.

Lewis said he has found ways to re­main ef­fec­tive as a tar­get. A year ago, he had five touch­down re­cep­tions. His size can be ben­e­fi­cial in the red zone. He also has vet­eran savvy.

“I’ve been able to use dif­fer­ent tech­niques get­ting off the line and be­ing able to go out and catch passes be­cause I block well,” Lewis said. “I re­lease on guys, and they’re like fly­ing back think­ing I’m go­ing to block them, and I’m wide open to catch passes. So I def­i­nitely use the bulk to my ad­van­tage.”

The Pack­ers don’t add out­side free agents with­out con­sid­er­a­tion, es­pe­cially this late into the off-sea­son. A locker room’s cul­ture is del­i­cate. As they saw last year as things un­rav­eled with Ben­nett, it doesn’t take much to knock it off bal­ance.

This is a rel­a­tively new ap­proach for the Pack­ers, but an im­por­tant step as they stay mod­ern within the NFL. McCarthy doesn’t ex­pect Gutekunst to hes­i­tate if pre­sented with a chance to make the team bet­ter.

MARK HOFFMAN / MILWAUKEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Tight end Marcedes Lewis was added to the ros­ter to pro­vide a con­sis­tent block­ing threat at the po­si­tion.

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