Gutekunst Signals Change With Wilkerson Signing

Every year, fans of all stripes beg their respective general managers to sign players to a one-year “prove it” deal. It almost never happens because the “prove it” deal is largely a myth.

Nobody ever willingly agrees to a lesser contract with the idea that they’ll play so well that other teams in the future will pay them more. Why would a player, confident in his own skills, seek anything other than a multi-year contract? Why would he waste one of the very few opportunities he is likely to get as a free agent doing nothing but setting himself up to go through the whole process again?

Players who sign one-year deals typically do so because they have no other choice. Faced with a diminishing market for their skills, they join a team late in free agency on whatever contract they can get, coming to the inevitable and completely logical conclusion that some money is better than no money.

All of this makes Brian Gutekunst’s move to snag Muhammad Wilkerson more and more remarkable.

Wilkerson wants to prove it

Even coming off a couple down seasons, Wilkerson bears all the hallmarks of a player likely to cash in big in free agency. He’s a former Pro Bowler and All-Pro. He just turned 28. He plays a high impact position. He even attracted numerous suitors immediately following his release.

Why, then, did he sign a deal that all but embodies the mythical prove-it deal?

Judging by his interactions with Mike Daniels and other members of the Packers defense online, he’s certainly very interested in playing with other members of a promising defensive front. But fun though that may be, it doesn’t pay the bills. Wilkerson must believe he can cash in next offseason, after his one year, incentive-laden deal with the Packers expires. He must really believe he can “prove it.”

Deal with Wilkerson marks a notable change

Beyond Wilkerson’s reasons for signing with Green Bay, there’s an interesting sea change afoot here. Though we have precious little to go on, Ted Thompson’s free agent signings in Green Bay followed one of two patterns: longer, pay as you go deals that essentially break down into year-by-year evaluations of the player (Charles Woodson, Julius Peppers, even Martellus Bennett) or bargain basement one year agreements (Jahri Evans, Jared Cook).

The former gives the team protection in the short term with the ability to retain the player long term. The latter gives the team a chance to fit smaller contracts under the salary cap easily, slotting higher upside veterans alongside affordable undrafted free agents and rookies.

Gutekunst’s deal with Wilkerson follows neither of these archetypes. The Packers have no long-term security with Wilkerson; if he blows up this year, he’s probably gone. Likewise, though his contract is affordable, it’s not like he’s playing for the veteran’s minimum. If he plays well, he’ll stand to have a solid payday, though not as much as he’d have made had he stayed in New York.

That the Packers would sign Wilkerson to such a deal is very interesting. It’s something we never saw from Ted Thompson, though fans begged for it for years.

Anybody can give out a deal that can be rescinded in a year. That's not a risk. That's not aggression. In this signing, at least, the Packers have shown they are willing to spend now without regard to what it could mean for the future.  That, more than anything else they’ve done so far, is what aggression in free agency looks like.