Aaron Nagler and Ryan Wood discuss what the Packers are looking for at the quarterback position at the 2018 NFL scouting combine. (March 2, 2018) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
INDIANAPOLIS – In the front corner of a ballroom inside the Indiana Convention Center, sitting at a round table that reporters bypassed on their way to better-known players set up at makeshift podiums, Kurt Benkert explained why he shouldn’t be overlooked.
His pitch was difficult to hear. Twenty feet away, Sam Darnold’s voice boomed through speakers, drowning out Benkert. A throng several people deep surrounded Podium 1 as the USC quarterback, in the running to be the draft’s No. 1 overall pick this spring, held court at the NFL scouting combine.
Benkert, a senior quarterback at Virginia, is just hoping to be drafted.
“I can make a lot of throws on the run really consistently,” Benkert said. “And I think I’m creative with my feet, buying time and letting things develop longer downfield. I think that’s something I do really well, and it’s part of my game that I kind of lean on.”
Indeed, Benkert said he spent much of last offseason studying Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
He appreciates how the two-time MVP extends plays outside the pocket, escaping to give receivers more time to find openings. “Aaron is just special,” Benkert said.
With good size at 6-2⅝, 218 pounds and a powerful arm to match, Benkert also could become special. He has been too inconsistent to be an early-round draft pick. Benkert knows he’ll need time and polish in the NFL.
Perhaps he’ll get an opportunity to learn behind Rodgers.
“I’m definitely content to going in and learning from a veteran,” Benkert said. “I’m hoping to go to any team. I’d love to just play in the NFL, to be honest. I think that’s kind of everybody here. Really, just whatever situation I go to, I just hope it’s the best one for me to be able to grow and be the best player I can be.
“If I’m the No. 2 guy, I’m going to be the best backup I can be for that No. 1 quarterback, and support him in any way that I can.”
That’s certainly something the Packers would appreciate.
On their lengthy list of priorities this season is building competition at quarterback. The Packers appeared to be doing their due diligence exploring potential sleepers at the position this week. Benkert said he informally met with the Packers, as did Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta. Both are high-potential prospects, lumps of clay for teams to mold.
It’s a good year to need a quarterback. Not only is the incoming class of college passers strong at the top, with Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield all expected to be drafted early, but the group also has intrigue beyond the first round.
“I think there’s depth at quarterback,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said.
In theory, the Packers could sign a veteran backup and draft a late-round prospect. Earlier this week, coach Mike McCarthy suggested his team could use four viable quarterbacks this offseason, including three good options to back up Rodgers. Right now, the Packers only have two — maybe one and a half, depending on who’s counting.
Joe Callahan, who couldn’t find the field last season no matter how badly Brett Hundley struggled, remains on the roster for now but doesn’t figure to be part of the team’s future plans.
“It’s about opportunities (to add depth), whether it be in free agency or through the draft,” Gutekunst said. “Who becomes available? You look at all avenues. You always want to create competition at every spot.”
Added McCarthy: “You want the competition throughout your roster. That’s no different for the quarterback position.”
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The Packers don’t appear poised to give up on Hundley. He’ll have this offseason to prove he learned from his struggles in 2017. McCarthy was damning at the combine, blunt when discussing his poor play.
“Brett Hundley wasn’t ready for what he needed to be ready for,” McCarthy said. “That’s something that we have to learn from, and that stings. That’s something that we should’ve been better prepared for, and I say ‘we’ because it’s not just on Brett.”
Pressed on who was at fault for Hundley’s lack of preparation, McCarthy declined to specifically parse out blame.
But he presumably preferred to go in a different direction with how the position is coached. Alex Van Pelt, once thought to be a burgeoning offensive coordinator candidate, was not retained this offseason. He found shelter with the Cincinnati Bengals, where he’ll be Andy Dalton’s quarterback coach.
The decision to not renew Van Pelt’s contract — irking Rodgers in the process — allowed a new voice to lead the position. The Packers hired Frank Cignetti Jr. as their quarterbacks coach. Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and pass-game coordinator Jim Hostler also will have input.
“It’s a big room,” McCarthy said. “So we have plenty of seats.”
The hope, McCarthy said, is for Hundley to rebound in 2018. While he acknowledged the young quarterback’s lack of preparation, McCarthy also showed strong support.
“He definitely improved throughout his opportunities there,” McCarthy said. “So I feel very good about that. I believe in Brett Hundley. So I do fully recognize that he has a lot of football in front of him.
“I do believe Brett has a big upside and looking forward to getting back to work with him.”
The Packers can’t count on Hundley reaching his potential, not after last season. So there may be a place for the Benkerts and Laulettas in Green Bay.
Nothing motivates like competition.
“Do I think it’s healthy that players look over their shoulder and are worried about the guy taking their spot?” Gutekunst said. “Sure. No matter what level of sport you’re in, that’s a healthy driver for some guys. You would love them all to be so self-motivated that it didn’t matter but that’s just not the case."
Aaron Nagler hosts a Facebook Live session from the NFL combine to discuss all the latest news and take questions from readers. (March 1, 2018) Aaron Nagler | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin