Aaron Nagler fielded Packers fans' questions in a Facebook Live chat Friday afternoon. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
ORLANDO, Fla. - As the first wave of free agency bled into the second, personnel men from all 32 NFL teams began their rounds to absorb pro days at colleges and universities across the country last week. Their annual migration has become a digital footprint on Twitter as reporters track which teams showed up where and with what percentage of the scouting department in tow. The greater the flock, the greater the interest — at least theoretically.
When it comes to the Green Bay Packers, who hold the 14th overall pick in next month’s draft, the itinerary for general manager Brian Gutekunst was an easy target for fans interested in extrapolation. Beginning March 20, a curation of tweets placed Gutekunst at pro days for Florida State, North Carolina State, Ohio State and Georgia in the span of a week, all schools that have at least one elite prospect on the defensive side of the ball.
Rightly or wrongly, the dots were speciously connected in this manner ahead of Gutekunst’s arrival at this week's annual league meeting here:
» Florida State: Gutekunst was clearly following up with Derwin James, a multi-faceted safety who met with the Packers in a formal interview at the NFL scouting combine. It was at that meeting, James told reporters, that the Packers focused on his ability to blitz from the slot. James was named first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America.
» North Carolina State: Finally, Gutekunst was addressing the team’s lack of pass rush by focusing on defensive end Bradley Chubb. At 6-4⅜ and 269 pounds, Chubb projects nicely as a powerful outside linebacker with the physical tools of Nick Perry. He finished second in the country last season with 26 tackles for loss.
» Ohio State: So this was Gutekunst’s plan at cornerback all along. Having traded former first-round pick Damarious Randall to the Cleveland Browns, the Packers still need a true No. 1 cornerback to play opposite Kevin King, or at least another player with that level of potential. Enter Denzel Ward, a blazing corner for the Buckeyes who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds after earning first-team All-American honors last season.
» Georgia: At last, Gutekunst said enough is enough at inside linebacker. The contributions of Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas, Sam Barrington and Jamari Lattimore were far from ideal, and the answer is Roquan Smith from Georgia. Smith led the Bulldogs in tackles (137), sacks (6½), tackles for loss (14) and pressures (18) while taking home Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in addition to being named a first-team All-American.
Whether all of those are true or none of those are true, the speculation never stops. Late March and early April trigger draft hysteria because fans tend to care more about who’s next than they do about who’s already there.
“That’s no joke,” one scout said.
Another scout said he pays little attention to which pro days general managers attend themselves because, more often than not, GMs will visit the bigger schools based on the sheer volume of prospects relative to lesser programs.
Which begs the question of what pro days actually mean to teams around the league, and in turn, how much stock should be given to the digital footprints of executives relayed via the interweb.
Several scouts said pro days are “another piece of the puzzle” as personnel departments compile their final evaluations of players and use them to set their draft boards accordingly. The phrase is a common one in the scouting world, and you’ll often hear it ascribed to the Senior Bowl and scouting combine as well.
The most visible elements of a pro day are the drills, in which prospects try to better their performances from the combine or run through them for the very first time. Such workouts are of vital importance to quarterbacks, whose scripted battery of throws can make a significant difference on draft night.
However, quarterback is not necessarily a position of need for the Packers, or at least not with their first overall selection. (The backup quarterback conundrum was addressed in part — or perhaps in full — by the acquisition of DeShone Kizer from the Browns.)
Gutekunst and his staff can utilize pro days as an opportunity to speak with players in an informal setting and monitor their movements in person rather than via cutups on a laptop or television. They can double back through the school to retrace their character evaluations of players known to carry baggage. And they can monitor the interactions, or lack thereof, between a player and his college teammates.
Effectively straddling the line between draft preparation and roster maintenance is among Gutekunst’s most challenging and crucial responsibilities. As Gutekunst hustled from city to city and state to state, the business of football continued churning in Green Bay, regardless of whether the GM could zip back to Wisconsin between trips.
There were discussions between the Packers and veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, who rejoined the club on a swan-song deal over the weekend; there was a meet and greet with wide receiver Jordan Matthews, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills; and there is a visit scheduled with free-agent cornerback Delvin Breaux, who missed all of last season with the New Orleans Saints due to injury.
Gutekunst’s whereabouts will be tracked from now through the opening night of the draft in late April, but for the next few days his balancing act is here in Florida, where he adds the league meetings to an already diluted mix.