GREEN BAY — In addition to their other draft week responsibilities — late film sessions, or trade talks with other teams, or finalizing draft-night logistics with prospects — the members of the Green Bay Packers’ scouting staff used to play an annual game in the final days leading up to the NFL draft.
The game didn’t have a formal name, but they all loved to play it — including now-Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst — and loved the challenge of it.
The objective? Find Ted Thompson’s “guys.”
“He would bury guys on the draft board that he really, really liked,” Gutekunst recalled shortly after the 68-year-old Thompson, who ran 13 drafts in Green Bay and built the 2010 team’s Super Bowl XLV-winning roster, passed away in January. “And he knew when draft day came, they would be (evaluated) two or three rounds higher than where they sat all spring long. For those of us that had been around for a while, that was always our goal — to figure out which one of those players were there.”
For Gutekunst, his own triumph in the name game came in 2008, when there was a wide receiver out of Kansas State that looked terrific on film but inexplicably was rated as a Day 3 pick on the board. Thompson ended up trading back, out of the first round, and snatched up the player in the second round at No. 36.
“The first time I really pegged it was Jordy Nelson,” said Gutekunst, who enters the draft with 10 overall selections, including the 29th pick in the first round Thursday night. “We kept watching tape and kept talking about how good this player was, and (Ted) never would move him and he never would move him. That’s when I was all of a sudden, I was like, ‘OK, I got it.’ Which made me really surprised when we traded back and out of the first round. Because I knew how much he coveted Jordy.
“(But) he knew what he was doing and he knew he could get the player he wanted all along. He always had two or three guys every year that he kept buried that I think was just for him. But he in my opinion, he is the best talent evaluator — especially when it comes to the draft — that I’ve ever seen or been around. He had a very unique way of seeing what a player was going to become and the greatest he could become.”
About to embark on his fourth draft as Thompson’s successor, Gutekunst’s own acumen as an evaluator is hard to gauge. He’s had some obvious hits with 2018 first-round pick Jaire Alexander having become one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks and 2019 second-round pick Elgton Jenkins emerging as one of the league’s most talented and versatile offensive linemen. Both players were selected to their first Pro Bowl in 2020.
Some other prominent picks appear to have been mistakes. Most notably, there’s 2018 second-round pick Josh Jackson, who couldn’t find a meaningful, consistent role in the secondary; 2018 third-round pick Oren Burks, whose bad injury luck early on stunted his growth at an inside linebacker position where no one has stood out; 2019 third-round pick Jace Sternberger, who has had a minimal impact at tight end; and 2018 fourth-round pick J’Mon Moore, the first of three straight wide receivers picked by Gutekunst that year and a player who caught two passes in his Packers career before his release at the end of camp in two years ago.
And then there’s the too-early-to-tell crowd, which includes outside linebacker Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage, both 2019 first-rounders who took big steps in their development last year but still haven’t arrived; 2018 fifth-round pick Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who evaporated from the wide receiver rotation at the end of 2019 but rebounded to become the team’s biggest downfield threat last year; and the entirety of last year’s draft class, which was led by Gutekunst’s controversial decision to trade up in the first round and pick quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ heir apparent, Jordan Love. Love spent his rookie season as the inactive No. 3 quarterback and, with preseason games wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, never even got to wear his No. 10 jersey on a game day.
Gutekunst knows the risk he took a year ago picking Love — not only did it keep him from picking a player who might’ve had a greater impact last year, but it started the clock on Rodgers’ time in Green Bay coming to an end — but he took the plunge believing Love was worth the headaches the move created. It also marked the third consecutive year in which he traded up in the draft to take a specific player, which is a trend that is likely to continue.
That’s a departure from what both Thompson and Pro Football Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf believed in, as they believed in letting the board come to them, as Thompson used to say. That’s why they were more likely to trade back and accumulate more picks in order to have more swings at the drafting plate.
“For me, if we have a chance to move up to take a specific player that we feel is special, I think you have to always consider that,” Gutekunst said. “The last three years, I think we’ve done that. We’ll always do that. There’s only so many game-changing-type players in this league. If you have the opportunity to acquire one, I think you have to consider it.
“It’s always tempting for me. I think when you’re sitting at 29, watching those kind of players come off the board that you’ve spent so much time studying and thinking about how they could affect your football team, it’s always tempting.”
With much of their scouting staff vaccinated, Gutekunst said he’ll be one of 18 people inside the Packers’ draft room at Lambeau Field during the three-day affair. Last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic having struck only a month before the draft, Gutekunst, coach Matt LaFleur and the coaches and scouts were all working remotely from their homes.
That’s not to say that the pandemic won’t be felt during the draft. With so many college teams having endured truncated or interrupted seasons and a host of prospects having opted out — Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, a possible Packers target at No. 29, opted out, then back in, then back out after playing five Big Ten games — evaluating this year’s class has been a challenge for all 32 teams’ scouting staffs.
And with the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis canceled, players’ performances during Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Alabama, in January and on-campus pro days in March became more vital. Gutekunst said he personally went to about a dozen pro days, the most he’d attended since he was Thompson’s director of college scouting and would attend more than 20 each year. And he wasn’t the only one.
“Really, what makes you uncomfortable is the lack of personal contact you have with the players. Watching them operate, talking to them, just not having that personal touch is very difficult,” New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman said. “It is a little unsettling. I’ve said this before, what we’re doing is educated guessing, so this makes us a little more uneducated.”
Gutekunst admitted that, though he considers this to be “a pretty good draft overall,” the limited access has led to a thinner draft board. There are some positions that have fewer names than they’ve had in the past, and he believes the undrafted free agent market will be depressed as a result.
Meanwhile, he recognizes that while the draft is always about the long term, his team does have needs in the short term that require filling. Although Gutekunst trumpeted the fact that the Packers re-signed what he considered to be the top left tackle (David Bakhtiari), the top defensive tackle (Kenny Clark) and the top running back (Aaron Jones) before any of them hit the full-fledged free agent market, his roster still looks thin at cornerback and on both the offensive and defensive lines. The torn ACL Bakhtiari suffered in practice on New Year’s Even only further complicates matters there.
In addition, none of the Packers’ top wide receivers — starting with first-team all-pro Davante Adams and going right on down the depth chart — is under contract for 2022, so there are long-term roster decisions also at play.
But without adding a single player of consequence in free agency because of their salary-cap situation, the Packers would seem to need some plug-and-play players who can have an immediate impact as rookies.
“I think we did add a lot to our football team in free agency with the guys we re-signed. (But) I do think it probably alters it slightly and maybe gives a little more weight to the guys that could help us in the right now,” Gutekunst said.
“For the most part, we try to look at the draft as a long-term investment for the Green Bay Packers. Obviously with the history of how rookies enter the league, there’s always usually an adjustment period before they get to where they’re really, really productive. At the same time, I think you have to look at your team and where it’s at and kind of look to see if there’s opportunities to help right away. If you feel a guy can help you immediately, that certainly gives him some added value.”