Five Packers storylines to watch at NFL combine

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst (left) and director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan watch practice for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018.

GREEN BAY - The annual whirlwind known as the NFL scouting combine will invade Indianapolis this week as players, scouts, agents and general managers build a foundation for the new league year, the start of which is slated for 3 p.m. March 14.

Out front, spotlights bathe hundreds of draft-hopeful prospects whose measurements and measurables go a long way toward influencing their future net worth.

Behind the scenes, brass from all 32 teams meet with agents to set price points and gauge interest ahead of free agency’s mad scramble.

For Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, the experience will be both new and old. He has attended the combine for the better part of two decades as an area scout, director of college scouting and, most recently, director of player personnel for former GM Ted Thompson. He has not, however, been asked to run the show as the lead decision maker for an NFL franchise.

This week marks the beginning of a pivotal offseason for the Packers, whose roster deficiencies and overall parsimony have — on multiple occasions — handcuffed the team by Christmas, especially at outside linebacker and cornerback, the marquee positions on defense.

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But with ample salary-cap space and 12 picks in this year’s draft, including the team’s highest overall selection since 2009, the Packers have all the necessary resources to reach the top of the NFC next season. It’s up to Gutekunst and his staff to guide them.

Here are five storylines to watch at the scouting combine this week:

Becoming a public figure

The buttoned-down nature of Thompson’s regime shrouded members of his personnel department from the cameras and tape recorders populating Lambeau Field. He would send a few of them down to the auditorium on draft weekend to discuss players the Packers had selected, but aside from that, Thompson kept them under lock and key.

As one Packers scout said at the Senior Bowl, “If our names aren’t in the paper, that’s a good thing.”

In spite of his limited experience behind a lectern, Gutekunst handled a crowded room quite deftly during his introductory news conference last month. He was calm and cool, affable and friendly. If his nerves were bubbling on the inside, Gutekunst didn’t show it.

Still, the scouting combine is something of a different animal. There are national media outlets, live TV segments and the pressure of taking center stage with dozens of your peers watching.

For Gutekunst, who is scheduled to speak at 10 a.m. Wednesday, his news conference can be considered a leaguewide introduction.

What is Thompson’s role?

Since Thompson transitioned to his new role as senior adviser to football operations, the Packers have afforded him the opportunity to walk, talk and act like the scout he is at heart. Gutekunst sent him on the road during the college all-star period to evaluate prospects, and when Thompson is in Green Bay he watches countless hours of tape at Lambeau Field.

In other words, Thompson is doing what he loves to do. His working relationship with Gutekunst is strong.

How the pair would have acted in public was expected to be among the more intriguing topics surrounding the Packers in Indianapolis this week, especially after Thompson did not attend the Senior Bowl. Although Gutekunst indicated then that Thompson would attend the combine, team President and CEO Mark Murphy told on Tuesday that the former GM would not be in attendance this week. 

Instead, Gutekunst may continue his pattern from the Senior Bowl and rely heavily on director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan, his defacto second in command. They spent the first two practices in Mobile, Ala., watching prospects at field level, and several league sources said Sullivan is a quality asset for the personnel department.

Rodgers’ contract extension

Each new foray into the quarterback contract pool raises the stakes for the impending extension of Aaron Rodgers, whose current deal expires after the 2019 season. As passers such as Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford and Jimmy Garoppolo set larger and larger price points, Rodgers himself becomes more and more expensive.

For Russ Ball, the Packers’ executive vice president and director of football operations, an important part of the scouting combine is meeting with agents who represent players on the team’s roster. Some of these meetings serve as informal progress reports for agents who simply want updates on what the organization thinks of their client. Others are rooted strongly in business for players whose contracts may soon expire.

While Rodgers has ample time remaining on his contract, the Packers would be wise to extend him sooner rather than later as market prices continue to soar. It’s a virtual certainty Rodgers will become the highest-paid player in the league whenever he and the Packers agree to a new deal, and if it’s done quickly he likely would become the first player in league history to average $30 million per year.

Regardless of how soon a potential extension is completed, there’s a very good chance Ball and Rodgers’ agent, David Dunn, will meet during the scouting combine to continue the feeling-out process. Ball will get an idea of how aggressive Rodgers plans to be with his requests, and Dunn will wrap his mind around the kind of contract structures the Packers are considering.

If a deal gets done later this spring, you can bet some of the legwork will have taken place this week.

Using his platform

On Jan. 4, four days after the regular-season finale against the Lions, Packers coach Mike McCarthy used his season-ending news conference to apply pressure to the next general manager — whoever that was going to be. McCarthy questioned whether the organization was doing enough to win a Super Bowl, and in doing so the overarching request was clear: He wants more talent on the 53-man roster.

Exactly how much sway McCarthy had in the hiring of Gutekunst is unclear, but the end result likely pleased the coach whose playoff streak ended after eight straight seasons. And while the chance for Gutekunst to put his money where his mouth is won’t begin until March 12, at which point teams can lawfully contact agents for players set to become free agents, his apparent openness to free agency and leaving no stone unturned — a phrase Gutekunst used in his introductory news conference — certainly seem like a step in the right direction.

Like Gutekunst, McCarthy is scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday at the scouting combine. With free agency only two weeks away, McCarthy has the chance to double down on that request in a much larger forum. 

Will he continue to make public pleas for better players? Or is his relationship with Gutekunst strong enough that everything already has been squared away behind closed doors?

It's time to observe Murphy’s new power structure at work.

Big class

The Packers will have 12 picks in this year’s draft after receiving four compensatory selections from the league last week. Their selections are as follows: first round (1), second round (1), third round (1), fourth round (2), fifth round (3), sixth round (2) and seventh round (2).

Of course, Gutekunst’s haul is subject to change with any trades, the majority of which take place during the draft itself. Thompson was particularly fond of draft-day trades during his time at the helm, and the Packers made at least one swap in 12 of his 13 drafts as general manager. The lone exception was 2014.

Should the Packers wind up drafting 12 players — either with their original picks or as the result of a shuffle — it would be their largest draft class since 2006, which also had a dozen. That year the Packers received two compensatory selections and executed five draft-day trades.

Of the 12 selections in 2006, all but four went on to start at least one game for the Packers. Thompson found important players early in the draft, like first-round pick A.J. Hawk and second-round pick Greg Jennings, as well as late, when he selected defensive tackle Johnny Jolly in the sixth round.

Here’s a look at the full 2006 class:

1. A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State

2a. Daryn Colledge, T/G, Boise State

2b. Greg Jennings, WR, Western Michigan

3a. Abdul Hodge, LB, Iowa

3b. Jason Spitz, G/C, Louisville

4a. Cory Rodgers, WR/KR, Texas Christian

4b. Will Blackmon, CB, Boston College

5a. Ingle Martin, QB, Furman

5b. Tony Moll, OT, Nevada

6a. Johnny Jolly, DT, Texas A&M

6b. Tyrone Culver, S, Fresno State

7. Dave Tollefson, DE, Northwest Missouri State

(Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story indicated that former Packers general manager Ted Thompson would be attending the NFL scouting combine.)

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