NFL free agency is almost here, and the Green Bay Packers promise to be active again in 2019 under second-year GM Brian Gutekunst.
Under Ted Thompson, the Packers were less active in free agency and built primarily through the draft. Gutekunst has altered that construct in his first year as GM, adding tight end Jimmy Graham as their biggest addition in 2018.
The biggest names are not always the best signings. Teams usually overpay to get marquis free agents and that is not always a good value in the salary cap era. The biggest impact is not always made by the players that make the biggest headlines when they sign.
With that in mind, here is a look back at the best free agent signings in Packers history. This includes only the modern version of NFL free agency that started in 1993. Street free agents, players that went undrafted and “Plan B” free agents are not included on this list. Despite Thompson’s reluctance to use free agency as a primary way to build his team, there are plenty of excellent players that comprise this list.
7. Ryan Pickett DT 2006
The Packers signed defensive tackle Ryan Pickett before the 2006 season. Pickett had played for the St. Louis Rams for five years before GM Ted Thompson added Pickett to the Packers roster.
Pickett played eight years with the Pack and was a major part of the franchise’s Super Bowl winning club in 2010. He was a starter throughout his tenure in Titletown and played in an additional 11 playoff games with the Packers.
Pickett excelled at clogging up the middle of the defensive line and stopping the run. In 2006, he recorded 64 total tackles, an impressive total for an interior lineman. Even when he wasn’t making tackles, Pickett occupied blockers which allowed his teammates the freedom to make plays.
Pickett was tough, consistent and a consummate professional during his tenure in Green Bay.
6. Sean Jones DE 1994
Jones spent 10 seasons in the NFL with the Raiders and Oilers before signing with the Packers in 1994. The former Northeastern star gave the Packers a secondary pass rusher on the outside opposite Reggie White which helped make the Green Bay defense even harder to defend.
Jones recorded 10 sacks in his first season with the Packers and remained a starter and consistent contributor in each of his three seasons with the club.
His final season came in 1996 when he was a starter on the Packers Super Bowl winning team. He started all three Packers playoff games in 1996 and recovered a fumble in the win over San Francisco in the club’s first playoff matchup of the season.
5. Desmond Howard, WR/RS 1996
The Packers added former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard prior to the 1996 season. The former University of Michigan star was considered a bust in the NFL after the Redskins selected him in the first round of the 1991 NFL Draft.
Howard’s career was foundering when he signed with the Packers. He had trouble separating from NFL defensive backs and was not a major factor as a receiver. But it was Howard’s ability as a return specialist helped him make the team in the preseason.
Once the regular season started, Howard proved to be a difference maker. He averaged 15.1 yards per punt return to lead the league and scored three regular-season touchdowns. He also was an effective kick returner averaging 20.9 yards per runback.
In the playoffs, Howard continued to shine. He returned a punt for a touchdown in the divisional playoff game against the 49ers that helped clinch a win for Green Bay.
Howard’s most memorable performance came in Super Bowl XXXI. He finished the game with 244 return yards and consistently gave the Packers excellent field position. Late in the third quarter, Howard returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown which put the game away for the Packers, giving them a 35-21 lead just after the Patriots had scored to make it a one-possession game. For his efforts, Howard became the first return specialist to be named Super Bowl MVP.
Howard’s signing was a major reason the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. Although he stayed with the Packers for only season after his initial signing, but he made a significant contribution to the team’s success.
4. Julius Peppers, DE/OLB 2014
The Packers signed pass rushing specialist Julius Peppers prior to the 2014 season. Peppers was 34 at the time but proved he could still play at a very high level. In three seasons with the Packers, Peppers recorded 24.5 sacks and played a strong overall game.
While his primary responsibility was to rush the passer, Peppers also played the run well and was solid in pass coverage when asked to cover receivers.
Peppers always had the ability to make big plays. He recorded eight forced fumbles in three seasons with the Packers and returned two interceptions for touchdowns in 2014.
In addition to his good play on the field, Peppers was a strong veteran presence in the locker room and had a positive influence on his younger teammates. He was selected to the Pro Bowl after the 2015 season.
Peppers retired at the end of the 2018 season and finished his career with 159.5 sacks and should be inducted into the Hall of Fame once he is eligible.
3. Santana Dotson DT 1995
The Packers added former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Santana Dotson prior to the 1995 season. Dotson provided the Packers a strong inside pass rush to compliment Reggie White and Sean Jones on the outside. Gilbert Brown stuffed the run up the middle while Dotson added pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Dotson played on the both Packers Super Bowl teams of the 1990s including the 1996 team that won Super Bowl XXXI. He recorded a sack in Super Bowl XXXI against the Patriots which helped the Packers to their first championship in 29 years.
In six seasons with Green Bay, Dotson recorded 26 sacks. His best season came in 1997 when he was in on 71 tackles, forced two fumbles and recorded 5.5 sacks. Dotson’s final season in Green Bay was 2001.
2. Charles Woodson CB 2006
Charles Woodson wasn’t sure he wanted to play in Green Bay but in 2006, he didn’t have many options if he wanted to continue to play in the NFL. The former Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan had worn out his welcome after eight seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
Once Woodson committed to the Packers, he regained his Hall of Fame form. He was named to the Pro Bowl for four consecutive seasons with the Packers from 2008-2011. In 2009, Woodson was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year. Twice he led the NFL in interceptions while with the Packers, pilfering nine passes in 2009 and seven more in 2011. He also returned nine interceptions for touchdowns with Green Bay, making him a big-play specialist.
Woodson also became a leader in the locker room. He was a key player on the Packers 2010 Super Bowl championship team and the Packers pass defense fell off noticeably when he broke his collarbone late in the first half.
After leaving the Packers in 2012, Woodson spent three more seasons back in Oakland. He will be a certain Hall of Famer once he becomes eligible and his signing improved the Packers significantly in the 2000s.
1. Reggie White DE 1993
Perhaps no free agent signing in NFL history had as much impact as Reggie White. White was the biggest prize in the first true free agent class in 1993 and he landed in the NFL’s smallest city.
Originally, experts feared the Packers would have difficulty attracting free agents to a small, cold-weather city in the Midwest, but White proved that theory wrong.
“Before that decision guys would say, ‘If Green Bay drafts me, I don’t want to go.’ It was Siberia,” former Packers tight end Keith Jackson told Sports Illustrated. “But Reggie White saw something different about it.”
He also helped make African-American players feel more at home in Titletown, a city that is roughly 95 percent white. “The thing that people have to know is that just because there’s a lot of white people, that doesn’t make them racist,” said Sean Jones who signed with the Packers a year after White. “It’s probably the least racist place I’ve ever been in my life.”
White spent six seasons in Green Bay and helped lead the Packers to a pair of Super Bowl appearances. “The Minister of Defense” set a Super Bowl record with three sacks against the Patriots. It was the first championship White had won at any level.
White made the Pro Bowl all six seasons in Green Bay and recorded 68.5 sacks. He added eight more sacks in the playoffs and the Pack qualified for the postseason every season White was with the team.
After the 1998 season, White retired although he returned in 2000 to play one more year with the Panthers.
White died suddenly on December 26, 2004, of cardiac arrhythmia. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
Few players were more important to football in Green Bay than Reggie White and he was by far the most important free agent signing in Packers history.