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Brian Gutekunst needs every one of his 12 picks in his first draft as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager.
Gutekunst has a long to-do list for the next month. He has a roster to rebuild and might want to maneuver some on draft day, so the five extra selections might allow for a trade up or two while still adding at least 10 hand-picked prospects to his team.
There’s also time to sign a player or two from the leftovers in the free-agent pool. Last year, former GM Ted Thompson added right guard Jahri Evans in late April. It wasn’t a big-money deal — $2.5 million — but Evans was a valuable stopgap starter on the offensive line.
So while the marquee names in free agency are gone, there’s still, at least theoretically, time for a move or two that in nine months could prove important.
Gutekunst lived up to his word to get in on more players in free agency, though in the end it yielded a modest haul: the most expensive tight end on the market (Jimmy Graham), a talented defensive lineman looking to resuscitate his career with a prove-it one-year deal (Muhammad Wilkerson) and a potential Evans-like signing at cornerback (Tramon Williams).
Here’s a prediction as to what Gutekunst sees as the rest of his offseason to-do list over the next month:
In the last two drafts, it seemed a given that Thompson would take an outside linebacker/pass rusher with one of his first two picks. He didn’t.
It’s even harder to see how Gutekunst doesn’t do it this year. But you never know.
The free-agent market was thin, and there were no reports the Packers were serious players in the biggest trades for pass rushers: One sent Robert Quinn from the Los Angeles Rams to Miami for in essence a fourth-round pick, and the other Jason Pierre-Paul from the New York Giants to Tampa Bay for basically a third-rounder.
The Packers might end up regretting not dealing for one of the two, Pierre-Paul especially. He’s a very talented player even if his sack numbers have dropped (8 ½ last season).
Regardless, barring an out-of-the-blue trade, it’s time for the Packers to start drafting outside pass rushers in bulk. In the last five drafts, Thompson drafted only three total, none in the first two rounds: Vince Biegel (fourth round 2017), Kyler Fackrell (third round ’16) and Carl Bradford (fourth round ’14).
That doesn’t cut it in a league where the only way to slow the top quarterbacks is to put consistent heat on them. The prediction here is that Gutekunst will use two picks on outside rushers this month, including one in the first two rounds.
At last week’s NFL owners meeting, coach Mike McCarthy reiterated how important he thinks this position has become because of rules changes that have opened up the middle of the field.
“To have four tight ends, five tight ends on your 53 would be ideal,” McCarthy said, “because it gives you the flexibility to have different body types, guys that have different skill sets. I don’t think you can have enough of those guys.”
The Packers have four tight ends on their roster, but Graham is the only sure thing to make the team. The others are Lance Kendricks, Emanuel Byrd and Robert Tonyan.
Tight end has to be high on Gutekunst’s draft-priority list. The prediction here is he spends two picks on tight ends.
The Packers have to assume Bryan Bulaga’s torn ACL sustained Nov. 6 will sideline him for the first half of the season and consider it as a bonus if he’s back earlier. Combined with the slip in Evans’ play at the end of last year, the Packers have a potential problem on the right side of their line.
At tackle, Jason Spriggs finished last season on IR (dislocated knee cap), and more to the point hasn’t shown in two seasons in the league he’s on the path to being a starter.
Kyle Murphy missed most of last season because of foot surgery, and his best position could end up being guard anyway.
At right guard, Evans did exactly what he was signed to do last year. He plugged a hole and led by example. He hasn’t decided whether to return for a 13th NFL season — McCarthy said the Packers are open to it — but his play slipped just enough in December to make you wonder if this will be the year he finally hits the wall. Even if he comes back, the Packers can’t be sure he’ll be good enough.
Justin McCray is enough of a gamer to possibly replace him. But the Packers were saying the same thing about Don Barclay last year at this time and signed Evans just before the draft. Gutekunst’s pro scouts surely will be on the lookout for another Evans-type signing at both guard and tackle — you never know who might get cut just before or after the draft.
And regardless, Gutekunst almost surely will have to spend a couple picks on a tackle and guard. Recent history shows that even if he waits until the fourth round, he can find legit competition and even pluck a potential starter, similar to when David Bakhtiari (fourth-rounder) stepped in at left tackle in 2013 and Corey Linsley (fifth-rounder) at center in ’14.
The smart money says Gutekunst will sign one more veteran and add two more cover men in the draft. Then training camp will determine who stays and who goes.
Right now, the starters in the nickel figure to be Kevin King, Williams and either a draft pick or maybe Quinten Rollins, who’s coming off a torn Achilles tendon that casts doubt on his future. A stopgap veteran on the street — Davon House? Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie? — could get in that mix, too.
Either way, the failed 2015 draft that saw recently traded Damarious Randall along with Rollins selected in the first two rounds has left Gutekunst with some major rebuilding to do at this key position group.
All told, there’s a good chance the four position groups listed above will eat up eight draft picks. A receiver, possibly in the first three rounds, makes nine, and a developmental quarterback is 10.
That gives Gutekunst a couple picks to play with if he wants to move up a few spots in the first two or three rounds. Then in August we’ll start to find out just what kind of a drafter the Packers’ new GM is.