The Plan All Along: Recent Draft Classes Have Packers Contending Now (And Probably Later)

Brian Gutekunst isn't afraid to make the hard, unpopular, decisions

Packers vs the Steelers, 2021. Green Bay's young offensive line up holding up against Pittsburgh's stout defensive front. (YouTube/NFL)

The Green Bay Packers’ front office has been following a specific plan for a few years.

They’re hellbent on sticking to it.

Despite having this plan–which we’ll elaborate on below–the Green Bay Packers have been criticized nationally and locally in recent years when it comes to the draft. Some have claimed the Packers haven’t prioritized the correct positions, while others have disapproved of the players chosen regardless of position.

Everyone, fan to analyst, has an opinion on the matter.

However the Packers are 4-1, alone in first place in the NFC North, chiefly because of the play of their youngest players. They’ve helped this team withstand some potentially catastrophic injuries up to this point. The next month dealing with these injuries will surely answer a lot of questions about this team’s championship hopes.

The outlook right now? This team has big aspirations.

Yeah, Green Bay boasts a top-heavy roster of elite, veteran talent. But we’ve learned, time and time again, that those elite players need quality depth behind them. Due to the Packers’ recent drafts, the team has exactly that: young, exciting and reliable depth.

Don’t get it confused, nearly all NFL teams have young depth. Some teams have young and exciting depth. Very few NFL teams have young, exciting and reliable depth.

The Packers have that and it’s because of General Manager Brian Gutekunst’s drafting.

So criticize the picks all you want, but this team has a legitimate chance to win a Super Bowl in 2021 and has won 13 games in back-to-back seasons. Head coach Matt LaFleur has had one of the best starts in NFL history (matching the legendary Paul Brown with 30 wins in his first 37 games).

Despite this success, Gutekunst routinely gets questioned by fans. Why have so many people questioned Gutekunst’s drafting? They simply don’t understand the whole scope of his plan. That or they’re stuck evaluating his early picks in the 2018 Draft outside of Jaire Alexander and cannot move on.

However that says more about them (the doubters) than his, and his scouting department’s, ability to find talent. If you seriously look at Gute’s draft classes and think, “he’s not good at this” then you’re in one of three camps. You either don’t know what you’re talking about, you are still mad about the Josh Jackson and Oren Burks picks in 2018 or you’re incredibly impatient.

We dive into the younger players on this Packers team (otherwise known primarily as Gute’s draft picks) later.

But first, let’s detail a couple other situations NFL teams find themselves in.

Look at the Lions and the Steelers

These two franchises, we can easily argue, do not have as solid of a plan as the Packers. At least Green Bay has set itself up for success.

In some ways the Detroit Lions do have a similar approach to roster building as the Packers at the moment. Which is a sentence I never thought I’d write. But they do have a quite young depth chart with a veteran quarterback. The difference is the Packers’ young depth is much better than the Lions’ youngsters.

Oh, and the fact that the Packers have a three-time MVP quarterback playing well and a talented second-year player who has got to learn from him without facing the pressure of being ‘the guy.’ The Lions have Jared Goff. That’s all. Yikes.

Detroit is now forced to hope that they find the quarterback of the future in one of the upcoming drafts. No one believes Goff is the long-term answer in the Motor City.

Although when it comes to quarterback situations, the Lions are feeling a lot better than the franchise that resides amongst the rolling hills of the Steel City.

How freakin’ silly do the Pittsburgh Steelers look right now for not having a viable potential future starting quarterback in their system? That franchise knew that Ben Roethlisberger was nearing his end and they just sat on their hands for another offseason.

Not only is it irresponsible, it shows that their franchise currently lacks the tough decision-making leader the Packers have in Gutekunst. Which is strange because the Steelers are usually on top of such matters. Maybe General Manager Kevin Colbert isn’t the man for the job in Pittsburgh anymore.

Were Colbert and the Steelers simply afraid to upset Big Ben? Were they afraid of what the endless talking heads would say–or yell–about?

For those that criticized the Jordan Love selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, would you rather be the Steelers right now? They’re forced to select a quarterback in the 2022 Draft and simply hope he’s the guy — rather than selectively choosing one before they needed one. Whoever they select will likely be thrown into the fire before he’s ready. Would you rather have Rodgers/Love or Jared Goff and no one behind him like the Lions?

Absolutely not.

The Steelers aren’t in a rebuild, but they’re stuck without a quarterback. They’re in a strange purgatory of sorts. Strong defense, name brand players and no one to lead them to that promised land. And no, we don’t really feel like joking about Rodgers being traded to Pittsburgh and answering the prayers of yinzers everywhere. But is it possible? Sure.

Think about the Lions for a moment. They’re going through a total rebuild and have a roster with nearly 65% players 25 years old and under.

Again, the Lions are in a rebuild. The Packers are in a similar situation in terms of young players, but are competing at an elite level (4-1 and feeling good). Green Bay is a contender even with all of these young players.

The ‘big plan’ rolls on in Titletown.

Gutekunst’s plan, which we will detail below, revolves around building a strong core of young talent to grow together and hit their primes around the same time. That, more than any other way, is how contending NFL teams are built.

Impact Players, 25 Years and Under

Nearly 65% of the Packers’ roster is 25 years old or younger. This team is young, despite being led by some grizzled veterans.

And does that percentage sound familiar? Yeah, the Packers are just as young as the Lions who are in the middle of a rebuild. We just really felt the need to drive that home. That is how impressive Gute’s plan has been brought to life in recent years.

Despite the youth, play on the field hasn’t slipped.

However we’re going to focus on 18 young players in particular here. The following players represent 34% of the roster, including four of the Packers’ current top 8-10 players.

OL Elgton Jenkins, CB Jaire Alexander, EDGE Rashan Gary, S Darnell Savage, C Josh Myers, G Royce Newman, RB AJ Dillon, CB Eric Stokes, P Corey Bojorquez.

For anyone that think Gutekunst cannot draft well… we don’t know what else to say other than look at the names listed above. No, he didn’t draft the punter Corey “Bojo Blast” Bojorquez, but he did trade a draft pick for him (and no, we haven’t trademarked the nickname, use it freely).

Jenkins and Alexander are already bonafide superstars. Gute gets a hell of a lot of credit for bringing those guys in in back-to-back seasons; Alexander is already a captain and Jenkins likely will be soon. The punter is pretty damn good, too, so far. Gary, Savage, Myers, Newman and Dillon all have chances to be very special in the league.

Gary is this team’s most explosive and consistent pass rusher right now and Green Bay’s defense is the real deal. Many No. 52 jerseys will be bought in Wisconsin the coming years.

The Packers are relying on their young players to take this team to the next level. So far? They seem to be up to the task.

But these guys are not alone.

Quality Depth, 25 Years and Under

WR Allen Lazard, G John Runyan, CB Chandon Sullivan, WR Amari Rodgers, DT T.J. Slaton, LT Yosh Nijman, RB Kylin Hill, ILB Krys Barnes, DL Kingsley Keke.

Gutekunst drafted all of these players except Lazard, Sullivan and Nijman. Most of these guys are playing significant minutes for this team and may be counted on to play more as the season goes on and injuries pile up.

Anyone of these guys have the potential to become an impact player in the coming weeks and years, of course.

But those are 18 young players that Gutekunst, head coach Matt LaFleur and company brought in and developed (and will continue to develop).

This depth will continue to grow into their roles, just as the top-end younger talent will grow into bigger leaders on this team.

It’s almost as if the Packers’ front office and coaching staff had a plan!

Great teams do this year-in and year-out. It’s a cycle and the older players on the team move on. It’s a sad process, but a necessary one. Only the truly elite 30+ players have a place in Gute’s plan.

And if you think we’re just trumpeting propaganda for the team, well, no. First, we don’t get anything for proclaiming the plan is working as intended. Second, we honestly believe it. The moves over the last three years have made it clear where this team is headed.

Let’s discuss where it’s headed, shall we?

That Elephant in the QB Room

There’s one other young player on this team that we’d file under ‘quality depth’ with great potential.

Yes, we’re referring to quarterback Jordan Love. It’s nice watching this incredibly fun Packers team knowing that if disaster strikes, or if this really is the ‘Last Dance’ with Aaron Rodgers, there is a legitimate plan at quarterback moving forward. That just feels good, doesn’t it? It’s a reminder that life goes on and the prepared franchises usually fare better than those that do not.

Love has a big arm, knows he needs to get better and handled the drama of last summer with a quiet class. Does that remind you of anyone?

Gutekunst, LaFleur and the rest of the organization don’t want to just survive the immediate Post-Rodgers Era, they want to continue to be yearly contenders.

Love is obviously a pretty large piece of this whole plan. It’s not a diabolical plan, depending on who you ask, but Gutekunst’s roster building strategy has been highly-curated to reflect the larger vision at play.

Remember, Rodgers was coming off two subpar seasons (for his standards), was getting older and was dealing with an injury when the Packers drafted Love. He happened to turn back into the league MVP during Love’s rookie season, yes, but Gute and Co. didn’t know he’d do that.

That’s simply a credit to Rodgers.

Thus, the plan is risky, for sure. But it could pay off in a huge way, so let’s dive into it.

The Big Plan All Along

OK, we finally made it to the crux of this piece.

Aaron Rodgers was clearly rubbed the wrong way by understanding, in real time, what the ‘big plan’ was all along. The Packers’ current quarterback is incredibly smart and he saw the writing on the wall. OK, we all saw it. Gutekunst was okay with letting the world know what the plan was when he selected Love in the first round in 2020.

Gutekunst knew that he had to be the one to replace Rodgers.

Which cliche should we go with?

Heavy lies the crown? Nah, Gute isn’t exactly the King of Titletown.

With great power comes great responsibility? Eh, no need to bring Tobey MaGuire into this.

How about a somewhat original one?

Great leaders make hard, unpopular decisions that others won’t.

Alright, now that we have the correct verbiage, lets dig into the details.

Gutekunst knew that the future of the Green Bay Packers would be on his shoulders, in terms of building a roster and sustaining success. Yes, sustaining success is The Packer Way, after all.

Just like Ted Thompson before him, who made the hardest decision of all in moving on from Brett Favre, Gute has been tested with making a decision that’s almost as hard. We’d actually listen to an argument that says this decision is even harder.

Rodgers is far better right now than Favre was in 2007, no debate. However Favre almost single-handedly resurrected a proud, but dormant flagship NFL franchise. He was an oasis to a suffering-loyal collection of fans in the brutal cold of Wisconsin and all over the world.

Not to get too far off topic, but I guess all of this proves that Thompson was an incredibly great leader, huh? Just look at the success the Packers have enjoyed since he took over; Rodgers more than lived up to Favre’s hype. He made the correct, hard, unpopular decision.

And of course both men are living up to general manager Ron Wolf’s legacy in being the one to have the guts to go and get Favre (and Mike Holmgren, Reggie White and so much more).

Wolf used a first round pick to acquire Favre when Don Majkowski was just a few years from an All-Pro season and was only 28 years old at the time. The ‘Majik Man’ seemed to still be growing into his potential, but Wolf pulled the trigger anyway.

He made the hard decision. An unpopular decision at the time.

But let’s get back to the present, shall we?

Gutekunst’s plan is simple:

1. Try to win the Super Bowl in the 2021 season. An all-in, honest try.

2. Try to keep the Packers a contending football team for the next 10-15 years in the Post-Aaron Rodgers Era.

The odds of continuing this incredible three decade stretch of sustained success are nearly impossible. Hard decisions must be made; some have already been made.

Gutekunst’s plan broken down step-by-step:

1. Ensure that the Packers have a contending roster in 2021, giving Aaron Rodgers the best chance at leading Green Bay to another Super Bowl. We’d say he’s done that. Will it happen? Well that’s a beautiful mystery.

2. Trade Rodgers while his value is at its highest point. Remember, Rodgers will be 38 at the start of next season. Tom Brady was 43 years old in his first season in Tampa Bay (when they won the Super Bowl). So Rodgers will be five years younger than Brady was when he changed teams if they do in fact trade him following this season.

Just think about what the Packers would get for him? Two first round picks, a second, a third and a Pro Bowl caliber player? Three first round picks? Rodgers and Brady have similar health regiments and many people will assume that Rodgers will be able to play as well as Brady well into his 40s.

3. Use the high-end picks brought in from the Rodgers trade to bolster the Packers’ roster, giving Jordan Love the greatest chance of success. Again, most teams in this situation would need to spend one of those first round picks on a quarterback. Gutekunst and the Packers won’t need to, so it’s essentially a bonus pick. They can further enhance the offensive line, bring in multiple weapons or attack any deficiencies on the roster on both sides of the ball.

Not only do the Packers not need to use a first round pick on a quarterback next year, they’ll never have to put a rookie quarterback on the field either.

4. Put Jordan Love in a position where he’s on one of the youngest teams in the league with a potentially elite offensive line and two years of learning from one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

5. Stay competitive for a decade-plus and try to win another Lombardi Trophy. Or two.

That’s it.

One thing to remember is that Gutekunst and LaFleur both knew from their first days in Green Bay that their careers would be defined not by the Rodgers Era, but by the Post-Rodgers Era.

The most that either could have realistically spent with Rodgers is five to six years. There’s no question that both men would love to be in Green Bay for 15+ years.

It’s hard to last that long with one team in the NFL for a general manager. It’s even harder for a head coach. But that is the goal of most general managers and coaches who take a job in the NFL. Who wouldn’t want to be one of the rare people that stay in a city for over a decade?

They knew, from day one, that life after Rodgers was going to be tough. They came up with a plan to face it head on, rather than be stuck to react once Rodgers’ play possibly slipped, injury occurred or he decided to retire.

At least now they’re in control of their plan. No one else is in control. However they know that their jobs are also on the line. If Jordan Love doesn’t perform at a certain level they’ll possibly both be fired.

We want to get this on the record, though: We’d love it if Rodgers remained the Packers’ quarterback for the next four to five years. It’s just that we see the plan unfolding and are ready for it. We’re not just ready for it, we’re believers in it because it seems inevitable.

Their plan, let’s be honest it’s Gutekunst’s plan, isn’t without risk. However not having such a plan would have been an even larger risk.

It’s not out of line to say that the Packers’ front office has been rebuilding and preparing for Rodgers’ exit for the last three years while we all watched, without noticing (well, some of us noticed).

Every move was made to compliment the next. In this way Gute built up the most important facet of every football team. Speaking of…

Give It Up For The Offensive Line

In the NFL the most important place to store away quality depth is on the offensive line, without question. The Packers have done pretty damn well loading up their offensive line room in recent years haven’t they?

We’ve honestly never seen anything like this. The Packers’ offensive line is so young, so home-grown, so inexperienced and playing so well! They’re growing up before our eyes and, because of injuries, are building incredible depth. With David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins out, new (young) faces have stepped up and played incredibly well.

This depth could pay massive dividends come January if the Packers are dealing with more injuries on the offensive line, which is always possible. If another injury pops up, instead of putting in a player that hasn’t battled with this squad, they’ll be putting in a guy who has had success with this squad.

Although this offensive line’s depth didn’t just magically come together. The depth developed and grown on the offensive line is, without a doubt, part of the plan.

Gutekunst and LaFleur also know the importance of having a strong offensive line for success in the NFL. This is particularly true when an NFL team has a young quarterback.

Never forget about the plan.

Look at the Chicago Bears and Justin Fields. He’s a fun and exciting talent, but he’s been running for his life behind a terrible offensive line. They drafted what might be a great quarterback, but they clearly did so without a plan. Fields wasn’t set up for success right away.

If Jordan Love is under center for the Packers in 2022 he won’t be running for his life. He’ll have time to breathe in the pocket and learn how to be starting quarterback with a much cleaner jersey.

This is one of the differences between successful franchises and perpetually under-performing franchises.

Gutekunst: All-In On The Now

Despite discussing the future side of his plan, Gutekunst hasn’t forsaken this team that has championship hopes.

The Packers went 13-3 last season but Gutekunst and LaFleur both agreed to move on from defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. They brought in Joe Barry after going 13-3. This front office is serious about winning it all right now.

The offensive linemen Green Bay drafted in 2021, Josh Myers and Royce Newman, are both key figures in the now and the later. Signing free agent inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell is proving to be one of the best signings in all of the NFL this year. He’s dynamic and has changed the way this defense as a whole plays.

The Packers were, supposedly, in on former All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore when he was released prior to Week Five. Then later in the day they actually pulled the trigger in signing former Pro Bowl linebacker Jaylon Smith. He’s athletic, but his play has been questionable recently. Still, he was the best player available at a position of need and Gute went and got him.

Not to mention the Packers’ salary cap situation is pushed to the limits. They’re going to enter ‘cap hell’ in 2022 for a chance at a title this season. But that’s okay because this team has gotten a lot younger. They’ll move money around as best they can to keep some  of their most talented players. No, they won’t be able to keep everyone.

But you can’t say with a straight face that Gutekunst and Co. aren’t doing everything they can to win right now.

Just look at how well the 2021 Packers are able to respond to adversity. That’s because of Gutekunst’s roster building, it’s because of the plan.

Edge rusher Za’Darius Smith got hurt and Rashan Gary was absolutely ready to step in. David Bakhtiari was on injured reserve to start the year and Elgton Jenkins took his place and played like a star. Then Jenkins goes down and Yosh Nijman steps up to play left tackle against two of the best defensive fronts — and plays well.

The Packers let All-Pro center Corey Linsley walk and then drafted Josh Myers who has been up to the task (against all odds). Then Myers got hurt and this roster could still absorb it and win a road game in Cincinnati with Lucas Patrick at center.

The team couldn’t keep Jamaal Williams at running back and they had AJ Dillon ready to ball out. He’s coming off his best game of the year against the Bengals. Another injury on the offensive line? In steps second year guard Josh Runyan.

Need another linebacker? He signed Jaylon Smith, a player many teams had interest in. He’ll likely play next week.

It’s incredible.

So What’s Next?

The plan will continue to play out. It’s that simple.

Brian Gutekunst will continue to stand his ground.

The only thing we don’t know is if there will be a parade in downtown Green Bay before the next real step of the plan plays out. Let’s hope so because Rodgers deserves another ring while in Green Bay. Hell, he at least deserves another shot at one. And if he stays with the team for years, this roster was still constructed in a way to help him win. The plan would still have worked.

But if Love takes over in 2022, he’ll do so with a young team that’s growing together and an offensive line that will, ideally, keep him healthy.

Love will be handed the reins to one of the NFL’s most historic and talked-about franchises. Every move of his will be scrutinized, but he’s going to be given the greatest chance at success as possible.

Why will Love be given such a great chance at finding success? Because Gutekunst is, regardless of what the critics say, sticking to the plan. The big plan.

Just imagine if Gute and the Packers pull this off. Imagine if Love plays at a high level because of the plan that was executed perfectly. He’ll be tasked with following two straight three-time MVP, Hall of Fame quarterbacks. We know Love has a big arm, but we hope he’s mentally tough. Imagine if he is.

It’s almost too good to ponder…

Although we stress this: the plan includes winning the 2021 Super Bowl, first and foremost. Gutekunst has not sacrificed a chance at another championship for the sake of planning for the future. No, he’s admirably balanced both the now and the later.

His critics will never be convinced of this fact, but it’s true. Hopefully they get proven wrong as confetti falls this February.

 

Go Pack Go!

About PackersHistory.com 43 Articles
We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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