Is Green Bay Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst playing chess while everyone else plays… uh, chess, but just not as well?
And yeah, ‘boldy practical’ seems like an oxymoron, but it may just sum up Green Bay’s general manager’s team-building philosophy.
Many people, fans and experts alike, criticized “Gute” for his 2020 draft and even we admit, it was a shocking draft from beginning to end. But shocking doesn’t mean bad; it means he has a plan that he’s sticking with without regard for what anyone outside of 1265 Lombardi Ave thinks.
He is embodying “The Packer Way” pioneered by general manager Ron Wolf and later honed by general manager Ted Thompson. No wonder Gute (we will never not call him that) got the job. He is bright, bold and a disciple of champions. He understands the lineage he’s tasked with carrying on.
Fortune, in Titletown, indeed has favored the bold.
So were his draft picks and offseason signings genius, foolish or something entirely different?
How COVID-19 Potentially Influenced Gutekunst’s Draft:
Maybe Gute, and his team, saw the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic a bit earlier than the rest of the NFL? Could it be that his boldness was bolstered by incredible foresight and understanding that this offseason and season as a whole would just be undoubtably different?
There’s perhaps never been a year more perfectly suited to spend a first round draft pick on a player that you expect exactly nothing from on the field in year one. The Packers checked that box emphatically when they drafted quarterback Jordan Love with the 26th overall pick. Green Bay is building for the future before they have to like an elite franchise does, but took advantage of a perfect time to do so.
Like Wolf and Thompson before him, Gute put his neck on the line using a first round pick to acquire the quarterback of the future.
As other teams hope their prized rookie can contribute after spending a summer reviewing plays and schemes primarily on his iPad, the Packers won’t have to rely on hope. But can the Packers really make it back to the NFC Conference Championship Game without getting much of anything from their top draft pick? Well, they did it last year in Matt LaFleur’s first year as a head coach. So, well, yeah.
We believe it’s also the perfect offseason to stay away from early picks (rounds 1-4) at positions that are notoriously hard to transition from college to the pros in year one. Again, we see the logic in the positions that the Packers’ general manager targeted early in the 2020 NFL Draft.
We loosely define these ‘hard to transition’ positions as wide receiver, cornerback, inside linebacker and obviously quarterback. Instead of using their first and second round picks on a wide receiver, linebacker or cornerback like many people thought they would (us included) Brian Gutekunst went running back and tight end/fullback hybrid.
Yes, the Packers drafted quarterback Jordan Love with their first overall pick, but they’ll be more than happy if he doesn’t see the field in 2020. Thus their first two picks of players that they actually expect to contribute in 2020 were running back A.J. Dillon and tight end/fullback Josiah Deguara.
Both of those young players should be able to be plugged into the Packers’ offense with ease. We, along with others, consider running back the most transferable position from NCAA football to NFL football (along offensive linemen). Those positions can just go out there and play, baby.
Those two men won’t need as much practice to get the timing down with quarterback Aaron Rodgers as say a rookie wide receiver or rookie downfield pass-catching tight end would need. Gute knew that this offseason would be heavily-digital and necessary timing wouldn’t be able to be established between rookie pass catchers and their two-time MVP quarterback. At first these draft picks didn’t make sense, but they’re starting to now.
Instead of in the draft, the Packers addressed wide receiver in free agency bringing in sixth-year pro Devin Funchess. He has the benefit of at least being in the league long enough to understand the way the game is played at the professional level. It shouldn’t take Funchess near as long to develop proper timing with Rodgers as a rookie would take (of course there are always exceptions).
Green Bay also brought in inside linebacker Chrisitan Kirksey, a seventh-year pro, to bolster the middle of the defense. They did this instead of placing that burden on a rookie. It’s hard enough to learn to play inside linebacker in the NFL. To have to handle that and play calling duties as a rookie is usually too much to ask of a young player.
We understand that fans wish the Packers would have drafted an “elite” wide receiver and inside linebacker in rounds one and two, but you have to remember that the draft is a gamble. Those two positions are rarely dominated by rookies in the NFL. This team wants to win a Super Bowl in the 2020 season; to us it seems like Gute is playing the odds at crucial positions. Perhaps he’s actually giving head coach Matt LaFleur the best chance for success this fall, even if it doesn’t seem like it to the casual fan (or TV analyst).
Sure, every once in a while you get a rookie wide receiver like Randy Moss or rookie inside linebacker Luke Kuechly storming into the league, but come on. We doubt that would have happened for the Packers from their 2020 draft picks.
What you do see with a lot more frequency are running backs that look like seasoned pros from game one of their NFL career. Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley just to name a few elite examples that are still in the league today. But even the average running back can be plugged in as a rookie in the NFL with more success than at most positions. Dillon is not an average rookie back.
Are we saying that Brian Gutekunst had this whole plan mapped-out weeks in advance? No, what we’re saying is that he probably had a few distinct plans ready to go and then ran with the one that made the most sense as everything with the virus, and their draft board, simultaneously unfolded.
The Packers traded their fourth-round pick to move up to draft Love, too. In retrospect, it seems like a good year for a competitive team to trade away a “top” pick. As quarantines continue and the virus remains everything is starting to make a little more sense.
Looking at 2020 or Looking Ahead?
Many people have said that Brian Gutekunst didn’t appear to be building a roster with a 2020 Super Bowl in mind, but we actually think it’s quite the opposite. Instead of criticizing his plan that has followed a surprising 13-3 season, we think it’s important to think about why he made the moves he did.
We believe he executed his plan, that was greatly impacted by the future implications of COVID-19, with precision. He used the 2020 NFL Draft to bring in guys that can help right away, but also used the perfect opportunity to draft a quarterback that won’t get much of an offseason program anyway. Again, there has never been a better offseason to make that move.
“Oh, our rookie quarterback won’t be able to develop much this offseason? That’s okay, he isn’t going to play this year anyway.” What a rare luxury in the NFL.
Imagine being one of the NFL teams that drafted a quarterback you hope to contribute or even be the starter in 2020? The anxiety of not being able to work with them one on one must be driving coaches and management insane. It’s not a great year to need a rookie quarterback to be ‘the guy’ and that is why the Packers were smart to get their ‘next guy’ when they wanted him, instead of when they needed him.
But this extends to almost every other first round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. The other 31 guys will be expected to be big-time contributors this fall despite a likely truncated training camp and a sincere lack of reps. It’s likely that most, if not all, first round picks will be behind the curve this year, except that won’t matter in Green Bay. If that’s not a genius move by Gute, it’s at least incredibly lucky.
That luck, if you want to call it that, was still born of his boldness.
Looking At The Rest of the NFC North:
To really get the full scope of how sneakily-impressive this offseason may have been by Gute, lets look at what’s happening with the rest of the NFC North.
The Minnesota Vikings were universally lauded for their impressive draft and they should be. But it should be noted that they also lost their best wide receiver this offseason (Stephon Diggs). That’s a tough look for a team with big 2020 aspirations. This leads us back to the issue of timing between quarterback and receiver. Yes, rookie wideout Justin Jefferson is an undeniable talent, but will he be able to develop timing with quarterback Kirk Cousins without much of an offseason to be as dangerous as possible? Unlikely.
Beyond that, the Vikings are remaking much of their defense including their defensive backs and a portion of their pass rush. Their other first round pick, cornerback Jeff Gladney, also plays at one of the positions we consider incredibly hard to make the jump from NCAA to the NFL. Five of their next six picks were all defensive players, too.
Is this really the year to rebuild your defense with new, young players?
Chicago is in an even tougher spot when it comes to their quarterback position. They either have to try to remake Mitch Trubisky and/or fit Nick Foles into their offense… while not having the luxury of a normal, full offseason. This certainly isn’t the year to have a new quarterback or need to remake the fundamentals and tendencies of another.
Just like with the Vikings, the Bears decided to rebuild their defensive backfield, including drafting two cornerbacks. Did we mention this is a tough year for replacing such crucial positions?
The Detroit Lions are, well, the Detroit Lions. They say they are building their defense around middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, but failed to pickup his fifth-year option. Of course, that is what franchises usually choose to do with a player they’re disappointed in. So, another in a long line of ‘Lions moves’ has been made in Detroit.
Just like the Vikings and Bears, the Lions used the 2020 NFL Draft to invest in their defensive backfield. They took cornerback Jeff Okudah third overall in the first round. He’s talented, yes, but as we’ve said that’s a tough position to be a year one starter in.
We think Aaron Rodgers will be out to prove a point about how dominant he still is after the Packers drafted Love. Seeing the other three NFC North teams with brand new defensive backfields, including a plethora of rookies that won’t get a full offseason, is intriguing to say the least.
To reiterate, Gute didn’t invest heavily in the defensive backfield in the 2020 NFL Draft. Perhaps he knew, or sensed, something the other three teams didn’t.
The Packers’ plan takes greater shape when you think about how the positions where players often have trouble in year one in the NFL were avoided by Gute (after selecting Love, that is) in the early rounds of the NFL Draft. That was not by accident. Does it make him a genius? Maybe, maybe not. But we think it ultimately means he’s pragmatic, intelligent and flexible.
With respectable poise he adjusted his plan to fit the ongoing problems created by COVID-19 and team development heading into a crucial season.
And of course we want to acknowledge that this pandemic has negatively affected so many people and we understand that. We don’t want to equate the struggle of planning a football season with the unbelievable loss our country and world has endured. But you came here to read about football after all.
Green Bay’s (Elite?) Backfield:
The Packers’ top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft that will regularly be on the field this fall is A.J. Dillon. Lets look a little deeper into what he could mean for this team, shall we?
Just watch him working out here; he was the first rookie to make it to Green Bay this year and his size and strength is as advertised. Now remember that he ran a 4.53 40-yard dash despite that frame. Wow.
Do we think he’s going to be an elite runner from day one like some of the guys we mentioned above? Not necessarily, but we do think he’s going to compliment and keep fresh one of the most explosive running backs in the NFL — Aaron Jones.
With the tough and lovable Jamaal Williams accounted for as well, Green Bay may have its strongest backfield since the Lombardi Era. Time will tell, but for the 2020 season (likely the only season when all three backs are together) they surely will be dangerous.
Each player brings a different, exciting element to the position.
You’ll hear the phrase ‘thunder and lightning’ so much about Jones’ speed and Dillon’s strength that you’ll probably start to hate it. And Williams, well, his tough running, blocking and infectious personality will continue to make him a fan-favorite. Jones led the NFL in touchdowns in 2019, with 19, and Dillon scored 40 touchdowns in three years at Boston College. Are you excited yet?
Will Jones and Dillon both win AP MVP awards like Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung? Of course not, but they definitely have a chance to be the second-best duo of true running back weapons the franchise has ever seen. And they could begin this pursuit as early as game one of the 2020 season.
This is said with the utmost respect to Eddie Lacy and James Starks 2013-15, Dorsey Levens and Edgar Bennett of the mid-1990s, John Brockington and MacArthur Lane of the early 1970s, Clark Hinkle and Johnny Blood of the mid-1930s and Verne Lewellen and Johnny Blood of the late-1920s.
Diving Deeper Into Brian Gutekunst’s Philosophy:
You can tell that Gute believes in “if you have a strength on a football team, then make it even stronger.” He upgraded the Packers’ best two positions in getting insurance policies for both of his prolific Aarons (Rodgers and Jones).
He also believes in competition ultimately making the roster better, à la ‘draft and develop.’ Trust the process, people! This is evident in his immense faith in the Packers’ wide receivers and defensive linemen. Both position groups will need their 2019 depth players to step up in 2020 if the Packers want to get to the Super Bowl.
If Gute believes, then why the hell wouldn’t we? He has a vision and he deserves faith until it proves fruitless. There was a hell of a lot of fruit last year because of the moves he made. Signing free agents Za’Darius Smith (defensive captain and tone-setter), Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and drafting Darnell Savage and Elgton Jenkins have already proven to be fantastic moves.
All evidence points to 2019 draft picks Rashan Gary, Jace Sternberger and Kingsley Keke being huge contributors for the 2020 Packers, too. Sternberger and Keke specifically help the Packers in the pass-catching and run-stopping departments, so don’t sleep on them folks.
There hasn’t been a Packer player more vocal about their offseason program than Gary in quite sometime. He’s hungry. If he steps up in 2020, this defense will take another step toward dominance. We already mentioned Gute’s desire to find a position of strength and make it even stronger. It seems that edge rusher more than fits that theme.
The argument that Brian Gutekunst is a fool is that he didn’t use the draft to address two of the biggest holes this team supposedly has. Those would be defined as a reliable pass catcher after Davante Adams and big boys up front to stop the run. Some may argue that finding Rodgers’ eventual replacement three to four years in advance is too soon for a team that had just won 13 games.
We don’t necessarily agree with those takes. Gute clearly believes in the Packers’ depth at those two positions — we hope he’s right.
Now lets take another look at the Packers’ 2020 draft haul with a consideration as to why Gute made the decisions he did.
The Packers then spent three straight sixth round draft picks on offensive linemen, a guard, center and tackle. This gives the team ample depth on the offensive line and potentially some insurance to plug-in if things go awry. Again, Gute didn’t load up at positions that usually struggle to adapt to the NFL right away. Guard Jon Runyan, and his pedigree, has us particularly excited. If he is pressed into action this year, we think he could be a solid contributor.
Linebacker Kamal Martin could be a huge value pick in round five, too. Injuries kept him from being drafted higher, so at least the Packers got a little depth at one of their most underwhelming (or at least unproven) positions.
So how can you say Gute didn’t have an eye on a potential Super Bowl run in 2020 during the draft?
He just didn’t have the same plan as you. And thank goodness, really. We don’t want our GM doing exactly what the fans think he’s going to do. Coward GMs fall to the pressure and check the paper, or comment sections, to see which direction the fans want them to take their team. Coward GMs don’t last in this league.
It took a certain level of guts and creativity to put together the offseason the Packers have while balancing the uncertain future, uncertain training camp and a certainly abnormal season.
Perhaps Gute, and his team, knew that the offseason and training camp would be greatly affected by COVID-19 and didn’t want to have to rely on a first round rookie to step up despite so few reps? Maybe he figured the team should focus on bringing in players that might translate to the NFL with relative ease?
You can disagree with him if you want, but you cannot call him wrong. Yet, that is. Like we mentioned, maybe his moves were genius or foolish or maybe he saw something others didn’t. His 2020 offseason will either be looked back upon as a visionary plan or an overreaction. We’ll know soon enough.
Perhaps you should replace the phrase ‘boldly practical’ with principled, disciplined, or steadfast when talking about Gute. The fact remains that he saw something and stuck with it. Look around the NFL at the various hapless organizations and one thing becomes clear: a bad plan is better than no plan. And we have listed evidence here as to why we believe his plan is far from bad.
Regardless of what you think, Brian Gutekunst was bold this offseason.
Now all the fans of this franchise have to do is wait for the fortune.