Green Bay Packers GM faces challenge on getting team to take next step

GREEN BAY — After building a team that went from six wins to 13 in the regular season, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst faces a key offseason.

A significant personnel overhaul lifted the Packers to the NFC championship game after missing the playoffs the previous two seasons. Now, with a 36-year-old starting quarterback in Aaron Rodgers and less draft capital than a year ago, Gutekunst will try to add the missing pieces to a roster that fell a win short of its first Super Bowl since the 2010 season. Taking that next step will be difficult. The San Francisco 49ers blew out the Packers twice, including 37-20 in last week’s NFC title game.

“I think it was evident in the two games we played that we have a lot of work to do if we want to be on that level,” Gutekunst said on Friday. “At the same time, they were No. 1 and we were No. 2 in the NFC. Every year’s different. We know there’s a lot of areas we can get better in. That’s what we’re looking to do.”

Green Bay’s list of unrestricted free agents includes right tackle Bryan Bulaga, kicker Mason Crosby and inside linebacker Blake Martinez. Determining those futures will be the starting point.

Bulaga is coming off an excellent season but Gutekunst will have to weigh quality of play vs. age (he’ll turn 31 a few days after the start of free agency) and injury history (he started all 16 games for just the second time in his career).

“He obviously had a really good year,” Gutekunst said. “He was able to be out there pretty much the entire season, which was important. Of course, we’d love to have a guy like Bryan Bulaga back, but we’re still getting through all that and seeing how these things are going to work.”

Crosby made a career-best 91.7 percent of his field-goal attempts. He’d like to stay with the team that drafted him in 2007, but he’ll turn 36 just before the start of the regular season and could be a hot commodity as possibly the top kicker on the market.

“From my scout’s eye, his leg strength, his power, his accuracy, it’s all there,” Gutekunst said. “Mason is going to kick for quite a while longer if he wants to, and we’d certainly love to have him back.”

Martinez has finished first or second in the league in tackles each of the past three seasons and received four All-Pro votes but struggled to cope with the 49ers’ speed in the championship game. Gutekunst said speed “no doubt” is a necessity at that position, hinting that could be a position he’d like to upgrade.

Last offseason, Gutekunst signed outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and right guard Billy Turner on the first day of free agency. Those four — especially the three defenders — were instrumental in Green Bay’s strong season. With the players he’d like to re-sign, he said he might not have the ability to be quite as aggressive in bringing in free agents.

“We’re pretty sound financially right now to do what we need to do to get where we need to go,” Gutekunst said.

The free-agent negotiating period begins on March 16 with the signing period starting March 18. The draft will be held April 23 through April 25. Last year, the Packers had a pair of first-round picks. This year they are picking at No. 30.