How Gutekunst Reshaped the Packers–on the Fly–Into Strongest Contender Yet

Injuries be damned, GM Brian Gutekunst's plan is coming to life

Packers Inside Linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (YouTube/Green Bay Packers)

Brian Gutekunst critics have been pretty damn quiet lately, huh?

Surely that’s because the Green Bay Packers are coming out of their well-deserved bye week with a sparkling 9-3 record. As all football fans know, injuries have ravaged the 2021 Packers. While the bye week hasn’t healed everyone, it definitely helped.

Surprisingly, though, the Packers’ ability to overcome injuries isn’t the biggest story of the year for this team.

The true 2021 Packers storyline is how general manager Brian Gutekunst reshaped his team without skipping a beat. Although, reshaping a team and overcoming injuries do go together hand-in-hand. Not only did he fill all the gaps that this team had, he did it with barely any money — somehow.

He should win the Sporting News NFL Executive of the Year, an honor his predecessor Ted Thompson won twice (2007, 2011). No general manager in football has been better in 2021.

The man we call ‘Gute’ stitched this team together, without sacrificing the future, and we have little doubt that they’re the strongest team ever led by head coach Matt LaFleur (in his third season in Green Bay).

Obviously, some of the moves he made were to combat injuries.

In fact, ESPN has the Packers listed as the most injured team in the league heading into the homestretch. Yet they’re fighting for the number one seed in the NFC and are likely going to be the first team in the NFL to clinch their division.

Just think of the injuries this team has dealt with following a summer of endless distractions! At one point, it seemed as if the Packers must have been Job’s (you know, from the Old Testament) favorite team. It seemed like the injury news couldn’t get worse. And then it did. And then a COVID-19 outbreak hit the team. But the Packers, gritting their teeth all the way, kept winning.

This team didn’t give a damn about their circumstance. They didn’t feel sorry for themselves. They stayed focused. It’s a credit to head coach Matt LaFleur, but also to the man who assembled the team LaFleur leads.

The Packers’ general manager didn’t make the flashy signings or high-profile draft picks at fan-favorite positions, but the decisions he did make were nearly all perfect. As evidenced by his team being able to not only stay afloat, but stay dominant despite these mounting injuries to many of their best players.

Gutekunst resisted the temptation that other injured, contending teams fell into. He didn’t go for the names that fans would celebrate in the short-term, but end up frustrated with down the road (looking at you Los Angeles Rams).

Indeed, this current Packers squad has been part of the plan all along.

Yes, the 2019 Packers went 13-3, but were just happy to get to the NFC Conference Championship Game. They overachieved. The 2020 Packers, well, this one hurts a little more. That team could have won the Super Bowl, but didn’t. They weren’t mentally tough enough; they didn’t have quite enough depth to overcome a couple injuries. Namely the ACL injury to left tackle David Bakhtiari.

The 2021 Packers are incredibly mentally tough as they’ve faced ample adversity from injuries and a barrage of COVID-19 cases. This squad has dealt with more injuries than the 2019 and 2020 Packers combined, by a mile. But they haven’t just faced these calamities, they have grown incredible depth from their misfortune. They’ve overcome Bakhtiari’s absence and will be rewarded with him rejoining the team soon.

We have no doubt that this team, even with its injuries, would defeat both Packers teams that preceded it if they faced-off head-to-head.

And because of this fact, we believe these Packers, are in a great spot to defeat whoever they may face in the postseason en route to the Super Bowl. Yes, even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Where the 2019 and 2020 Packers faltered, this team seems poised to overcome.

Is it fate? Is this a team of destiny?

We don’t know, but we do know that this is a damn good football team.

A good, young, football team at that. This year has seen a few younger players grow into leadership roles, which was always part of the Gute’s long term plan. Other teams would not have been able to pull off what the Packers’ general manager has.

In this piece we aren’t really going to dive into Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Aaron Jones, Kenny Clark and a few of the other stars on this team that have been in Green Bay for awhile. You know all about them. This piece is about how the team was reshaped around those stars, on the fly, with absolute precision. And how those moves helped them overcome missing many of their top players.

There is no doubt that ‘next man up’ is this team’s identity and that identity, which most teams covet, can only be built through injuries. Sometimes you can only be thankful for your bad luck! It’s a classic NFL catch-22. But if the right players weren’t on this roster the team wouldn’t have been able to build that identity as gracefully, or perhaps at all.

Because of this adversity, these Packers are the best team of the Gutekunst/LaFleur Era and probably the best squad since the 2010 and 2011 (the 2014 Packers clearly weren’t mentally tough enough).

Aaron Rodgers was the man on all of those teams, but this team is different because of all the guys around him — specifically players that weren’t on this team in 2020.

Before we jump into all of the depth that has been developed in Green Bay this year, let’s focus on four guys in particular brought in by Gute in 2021.

Four New Guys Leading the Way:

De’Vondre Campbell, ILB, Offseason Free Agent Signing

Rasul Douglas, CB, In-Season Free Agent Signing

Corey Bojorquez, P, Offseason Trade

Eric Stokes, CB, Rookie Draft Pick

There are other players new to the Packers in 2021 that we will highlight, but these are the four starters that we absolutely have to start with. Remember, we aren’t focusing on the biggest names that have been in Green Bay for awhile in this piece.

These players most represent how impressively Gutekunst has reshaped these Packers. No rebuild, no overpaying, just smart football moves.

Lets start smack dab in the middle of the Packers defense, shall we? Could there have been anyone else mentioned first?

De’Vondre Campbell has been a revelation at inside linebacker. He’s currently putting together one of the best seasons at that position the Packers have had in decades. His instincts are unquestionably great, but he’s not just a read and react linebacker. He’s also making a plethora of splash plays, too, something the Packers really aren’t used to at that position.

There isn’t a game that goes by where you don’t notice Campbell. This year he has been, in many ways, the heart of the Packers’ defense with Z and Alexander out. He’s been right there with Kenny Clark and Adrian Amos in terms of consistent impact on the defensive side of the ball.

Heading into Week 13, Campbell has 99 tackles, which is as many as he had in all of 2020 with the Arizona Cardinals. Then add in two interceptions, two forced-fumbles, five quarterback hits, four tackles for loss and a sack (many timely in nature) and he’s definitely having a Pro Bowl caliber season. Perhaps a First Team All-Pro season, as Pro Football Focus still has Campbell on pace for that honor.

When is the last time we’ve said that about an inside linebacker?

We haven’t even mentioned his obvious impact on fellow inside linebacker Krys Barnes. The second-year Barnes is playing with much more consistency and confidence since being paired with Campbell in the middle of the Packers’ defense.

This duo is shaping up to be special.

Both players read plays better than Packers inside linebackers have in quite some time and both are making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. This is something that the Packers’ previous inside linebackers, Blake Martinez and Christian Kirksey simply couldn’t do. Martinez was a productive tackler, but most of his tackles took place numerous yards downfield.

The fact that Gute signed Campbell to a $2 million contract, and got All-Pro level play from him, is absurd.

Executive of the Year.

The biggest addition to the Packers, at least in recent weeks, has arguably been Rasul Douglas. With Jaire Alexander out with an injury since Week Four, Douglas has been a godsend.

In just seven games in Green Bay he’s recorded two interceptions (both huge moments; one a game-winner and one for a touchdown), defended eight passes, forced one fumble and made 37 tackles. But beyond the stats, he’s just played with incredible confidence. That’s what this team needed without Alexander on the edge out there.

Douglas is developing into a bonafide starting NFL cornerback before our eyes. We struggle to find another in-season signing as impactful as Douglas. Perhaps Andre Rison in 1996? That season ended well.

Douglas, like Campbell, is on a team-friendly contract. He is making $900,000 for his services in Green Bay this year. He’s playing at a level where he could easily be paid four to five times that amount and other general managers wouldn’t bat an eye.

He’s playing better than his much higher paid teammate Kevin King; that’s all we’ll say about that.

Special teams, although still a disaster, got a boost from a new face this season, too.

Not many people would think that a punter could make such a big difference for a professional football team… and many people would be dead wrong.

Punter Corey “Bojo Blast” Bojorquez has been so good for this team. Not only can be physically boot the ball farther than anyone in recent memory, he has incredible touch. The Packers have been able to play the field position game more in 2021 than they have in awhile because of Bojorquez’s punting abilities.

Bojorquez has flipped the field for the Packers time and time again. Unlike in previous years when Green Bay’s offense can’t get something going, their punter can bail them out and put the opposing offense in a tough spot.

He just brings a level of confidence to a portion of special teams which, if you’ve been following these Packers, is quite a statement. But it’s true!

Rookie Eric Stokes also falls into the category of “wow, this team needed him to grow up and step up with Alexander out.” And grow up he did. Sure, he still has some problems tracking the ball when it’s in the air. However, his natural instincts and speed (closing ability) makes up for those mistakes more often than not. He’s going to be a seriously impressive cornerback in this league once he figures out how to track the ball on deep throws.

Still, this team wouldn’t have won as many games this year if Stokes hadn’t played so well in Alexander’s absence. He has registered 11 passes defended and notched an interception.

Brian Gutekunst should get a hell of a lot of credit for signing Campbell and Douglas. He saw something in Campbell that many others didn’t over the summer. Then, in the middle of this season, he brought in Douglas. In-season signings simply do not get better than this one.

Gutekunst should also get celebrated for trading for Bojorquez. Some people turned their noses up to the Packers parting with a draft pick while trading for a punter. Those noses are certainly not up anymore.

But the Packers’ 2021 draft should get Gute even more credit. Obviously we’re starting with Stokes. He was a home run draft pick. But beyond that, rookie center Josh Myers was playing at an impressive level before getting injured. He’s the bonafide center of the future.

Rookie guard Royce Newman also has the looks of a longterm starter for the Packers. He’s struggled at times, but has held up overall against many fantastic defensive fronts throughout the season. He’s been good while pass blocking and just needs to develop a little more burst in the run blocking department.

But we’re not done talking about the 2021 draft class.

T.J. Slaton has, at times, looked like a solid run-stuffing nose tackle and Amari Rodgers, despite his issues returning punts, will likely get better with another offseason program.

Bringing Randall Cobb back to Green Bay has arguably hurt Amari Rodgers’ short-term development (in terms of reps). However Rodgers’ longterm development will probably be aided by having Cobb back in town. He has seen how a a true professional slot receiver should behave in this league. Perhaps Rodgers will be able to step up in Cobb’s absence, now that he’s out for awhile with a core injury.

We can only hope, but at least Amari Rodgers is there. Another credit to the general manager.

The 2021 Draft might not even be Gutekunst’s best draft! Of course, all drafts should be looked at three to five years after they’re conducted. With that said, we believe that this team is having so much success because of the culmination of the Packers’ last three drafts. I mean, obviously. But that isn’t the case for many teams around the league.

The Roster Gutekunst Built

Via the Draft:

The most notable players from the 2018-2021 drafts, that have played serious roles on the 2021 team are…

       (Starters listed in bold)

Jaire Alexander, CB, 2018

Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR, 2018

Rashan Gary, Edge, 2019

Darnell Savage, S, 2019

Elgton Jenkins, OL, 2019

Kingsley Keke, DL, 2019

AJ Dillon, RB, 2020

Josiah Deguara, TE, 2020

Jon Runyan, G, 2020

Jonathan Garvin, Edge, 2020

Eric Stokes, CB, 2021

Josh Myers, C, 2021

Royce Newman, G, 2021

TJ Slaton, DL, 2021

Amari Rodgers, WR, 2021

That’s 10 starters drafted in the last four years, including four of the best players on the team (Alexander, Gary, Savage and Jenkins). Deguara is listed as a starter now because, well, he is starting in place of injured tight end Robert Tonyan.

For a team that already had numerous star players, and obviously starters, that is a pretty solid haul. Then consider that Gute brought in numerous starters through free agency, too. We’ll get to those guys below.

This is just an aside, but the 2019 draft is Gutekunst’s best draft as general manager of the Green Bay Packers. He went Gary, Savage, Jenkins in the first two rounds. All three players could be First Team All-Pros in the very near future.

We’d be foolish not to point out the drafting of AJ Dillon in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. So many people, experts and fans, were hoping for a wide receiver. Some even demanded it! The analytically-minded experts laughed at the selection of Dillon.

But where would the 2021 Packers be without Dillon? Not much laughing now.

He has been a fantastic runner for this team, especially with Aaron Jones’ injury troubles. His impact in 3rd and 4th and short situations is a godsend for this team. The Packers wouldn’t be the offense they are today without Dillon. His pass catching abilities have been one of the biggest surprises for the 2021 Packers.

Gute didn’t bend to the demands of the crowd or the trends, instead he trusted his philosophy and his scouts. We couldn’t love it more. Did we say Executive of the Year yet?

OK, we have to mention who was drafted right before him, right?

Obviously Jordan Love was also drafted in 2020, but we haven’t gotten a true look at him yet. How could we? He’s still an unknown commodity, but his future could be bright. There’s not much else to say other than if Aaron Rodgers gets hurt at least they have an exciting, young, talented player to step up and play. His only game action at Kansas City, a 13-7 loss, wasn’t his fault.

But Gutekunst has done much more than draft well, he’s made a plethora of smart signings as the Packers battle the salary cap.

Via Free Agency, including undrafted free agents:

Mercedes Lewis, TE, 2018

Robert Tonyan, TE, 2018

Adrian Amos, S, 2019

Za’Darius Smith, Edge, 2019

Preston Smith, Edge, 2019

Billy Turner, T/G, 2019

Yosh Nijman, T, 2020

Krys Barnes, LB, 2020

And then obviously De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas in 2021.

Adrian Amos has been one of the best safeties in the NFL while in Green Bay.

The Smith Brothers, Za’Darius and Preston, have both been great leaders for this team. Z has the higher ceiling and put together back-to-back strong seasons in 2019 and 2020. However, Preston stepped up in Z’s absence and been a consistent disruptive pass rusher for this team in 2021.

Billy Turner has played 26 consecutive complete games for the Packers. The juxtaposition of this and the fact that Bryan Bulaga has played only five complete games with the San Diego Chargers over the last two years is… something.

Another fantastic move by Gutekunst.

We mentioned Randall Cobb earlier and we figured he has to be mentioned in this section, too. Obviously he isn’t new to the Packers, but he is new to the Matt LaFleur Era Packers and he has made a handful of incredibly impactful plays. Hopefully he can be back for the playoffs; we woke further speculate.

But still, Cobb has already more than justified the decision (let’s be real, Rodgers’ decision) to bring him back.

However Marcedes Lewis has been a much needed leader on this team. He’s the type of guy everyone else would run through a wall run for. He’s in the Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers mold in leadership style — quiet but powerful.

Replacements and Upgrades:

We’ve mentioned how much better Campbell and Barnes have been than Christian Kirksey and Blake Martinez at inside linebacker, but Gute’s best decisions don’t end there.

Letting Bryan Bulaga walk and, eventually, settling on Billy Turner at right tackle has been one of the best decisions in the entire NFL lately. It’s always better to be a year early than a year late with aging offensive linemen. Bulaga was a true fan-favorite, but Gutekunst followed his convictions.

Quite the theme, huh?

Even running back Jamaal Williams was a hell of fan-favorite. Plus, he never fumbled in his time in Green Bay as a hard-nosed runner. We haven’t even mentioned his above average blocking pass and pass catching abilities.

However the team went with Dillon instead and, let’s face it, they made the right call. Or Gute did, we should say. Dillon is younger and, honestly, he’s the more dominant football player.

Probably the hardest decision that the general manager had to make, although driven by a lack of money to go around, was moving on from First Team All-Pro center Corey Linsely. The team went with rookie Josh Myers until he got injured. He was up to the task. But even with him hurt the team turned to Lucas Patrick, a depth interior offensive lineman that the team kept around. Another fantastic decision as he’s been more than capable.

There are other guys to mention, including left tackle Yosh Nijman, but we’ll dive into his impact below.

Most Valuable Player(s)? The Big Guys Up Front

Aaron Rodgers has a chance to win MVP of the league.

Matt LaFleur should be in the Coach of the Year discussion, but he’s not a player.

Brian Gutekunst, we obviously believe, has been one of the best general managers in football in recent years. But again, he doesn’t play on Sunday.

The Packers’ defense is real for the first time since 2010 and new defensive coordinator Joe Barry should get a lion’s share of the credit. Although he can’t be the MVP, as he isn’t a player.

De’Vondre Campbell has been the best surprise, well, alongside fellow free agent signing Rasul Douglas.

Rashan Gary has been the best new leader on the team.

Adrian Amos has been absolutely incredible.

We could go on and on…

But the MVP (or MVPs) of the 2021 Packers is the cumulitive offensive line.

They absolutely saved the season with their impressive depth and utter fearlessness. Right tackle Billy Turner has never gotten enough credit (and he probably never will). Center Lucas Patrick stepped right in at center without skipping a beat. Yosh Nijman, the third string left tackle, has played admirably and has proven that he’s an NFL-caliber player. We could give accolades to this group for hours, but it’s just as well to say they’re the collective MVP of the team.

But to focus on Nijman, who we mentioned earlier, it’s incredible that he was even on the roster after spending much time on the practice squad. He’s proving to be an actual starting left tackle in the league and he’s going to make himself a lot of money along the way.

The injuries to David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins and Josh Myers have been hard to swallow, but the offensive line hasn’t wavered. Guys like Patrick, Runyan Jr., and Nijman are mostly to thank. The free agent decisions in recent years, the draft picks (particularly in 2021) and practice squad decisions were vital and have clearly paid off.

Nice work, Gute.

Also, a massive credit to Adam Stenavich, the Packers’ offensive line coach. He’s certainly going to get poached soon. He’s not going to be an o-line coach forever; we wouldn’t be surprised to see him at offensive coordinator somewhere in the NFL sooner than later.

He’s been that great at his job. However a coach can only be as good as the players they have to work with.

Speaking of players to work with…

The Reinforcements Are Coming!

This is where this season has the potential to get really fun.

It’s also where a team that has built up such incredible depth really begins to show their newfound strength. Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander and David Bakhtiari (all top 5-6 players on this team) are all seemingly on the right track to play toward the end of the regular season and, of course, the playoffs.

Imagine if a general manager brought in three All Pro caliber talents at the trade deadline.

That would be considered the biggest in-season get in NFL history by a GM. The impact of finally adding talent to the team versus seemingly losing talent every week, all while they kept winning, is huge. That’s the difference between a great team and a Super Bowl champion.

This is essentially what the Packers have going on with Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith and David Bakhtiari coming back for the stretch run. They’re all essentially trade deadline acquisitions.

It’s incredible.

Jaire Alexander even started practicing as of December 8, 2021! He won’t be back next week, but it’s a huge first step.

Once these three guys are back, the players that have been filling in for them get relegated to actual depth roles. However, they won’t merely be depth players, they’ll be depth that have started and played real minutes, and won games, with these Packers. This is when a team can become its true self and its most dangerous self.

The Packers will soon be in a position to overcome any further injuries at offensive tackle, edge rusher and cornerback. If that would have happened in the last few weeks this team would have been in real trouble. And if there aren’t more injuries to those positions (very key positions) then they’ll have some of their strongest depth ever.

However not all injury news has been positive as of late. Elgton Jenkins, out with a torn ACL, is not going to make it back this season. Wide receiver Randall Cobb is also out, maybe not for the whole season, but at least for the next handful of weeks.

How It All Works Together:

The blend of drafting well, bringing in the right free agents, letting the right players walk and storing the correct players on the practice squad is the secret sauce of Brian Gutekunst’s tenure as general manager of the Packers.

The depth built through this conglomerate of correct decisions cannot be questioned.

The free agent signings that Gute made in 2019 cannot be overstated. Adrian Amos, the Smith Brothers, and Billy Turner completely changed this team. Bringing in those guys set everything else in motion and that’s what we’re enjoying today.

That was the moment that Packers fans learned that Gutekunst, although a disciple of Ted Thompson, was his own man. Looking back, that really was the moment that changed everything.

But let’s get back to 2021…

The overhaul of this team occurred quickly without losing out on future assets and without much money to work with.

Sure, the Packers have reshaped their team each of the last three years, but the adjustments that Gutekunst made before and during the 2021 season are worthy of high praise. He did it on the fly, essentially with change he found in the couch, without sacrificing the future of the team or future draft picks.

This team is a legitimate contender this year and is still set up for success in 2022 and beyond. Yeah, many people will disagree with us on that point, but we’re sticking to it. The 2022 Packers will look different, make no mistake, but they’ll still be competitive.

But next season is for next season. All focus is on these Packers right now; we’ve been soaking it up and we hope you have, too.

This season has been so much fun to watch for Packers fans. And Gutekunst sticking to, and executing, his plan is why. What he’s done with this roster this year can not be ignored.

Will it end with all of them up on a podium?

Maybe. And that’s the fun part.

 

Go Pack Go!

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