GREEN BAY – Brian Gutekunst did not wait his whole career to make a trade. Armed with a draft pick, a talent evaluator doesn’t yearn to pass it away.
No, a talent evaluator dreams of picking his player.
The Green Bay Packers' new general manager was no different: Gutekunst wanted to pick his player. Then opportunity called in Thursday night’s first round of the NFL draft. With the Packers on the clock at No. 14 overall, the New Orleans Saints had an offer. They dangled a 2019 first-round pick (and also a fifth-round pick this year), enticing the Packers to move back to No. 27 in this year’s first round.
“The ability to get a first-round pick in the next year’s draft,” Gutekunst said, “wasn’t something that we started out thinking about trying to acquire. But it was just too good to pass up, quite frankly. Those first-round picks don’t come around very often. We just thought it was in our best interest to do that.”
2018 NFL DRAFT: Green Bay Packers picks
2018 NFL DRAFT: Pick-by-pick analysis of Round 1
The Packers relied on connections within their personnel department to trade with the Saints. Russ Ball, the Packers' executive vice president, worked with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for six years in New Orleans. Likewise, internal connections likely gave Gutekunst confidence he could trade back up in the first round, should he covet a player who might not be available at No. 27.
In the Seattle Seahawks, Gutekunst had an ally in fellow general manager John Schneider. When Gutekunst was first starting out as a scout two decades ago, it was Schneider who helped him get a full-time job with the Kansas City Chiefs. Entering this week’s draft, the Seahawks had no picks in the second or third round. Gutekunst knew his former colleague wanted to trade back and acquire more picks, opening the door for the Packers to move up nine spots and select Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander.
Finally, after trades in both directions, Gutekunst picked his player.
“Jaire is a guy that we targeted all along,” Packers director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan said. “We liked him from the outset. He’s a good football player.”
That may be, but only time will tell whether Gutekunst’s roller-coaster draft debut was successful. In two to three years, the Packers' maneuvers in Thursday’s first round will look really wise, or really not. Gutekunst, no doubt an aggressive general manager, hardly left any room for middle ground.
Before their initial trade, it appeared fortune was aligning for the Packers to get an unexpected shot at a top-tier defensive prospect. Still available at No. 14 were Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and Florida State defensive back Derwin James.
The Packers evaluated Edmunds and James extensively through the pre-draft process. They invited both for pre-draft visits in Green Bay and had formal interviews at the NFL scouting combine. Edmunds, especially, seemed like an ideal fit for the Packers, an all-purpose defender at 6-4 1/2, 253 pounds.
“Edmunds can rush,” one NFL scout said, “but might be (Brian) Urlacher.”
Gutekunst said he liked Edmunds and James, but thought an abundance of good players still available gave him leverage to grab a premium asset. No doubt his familiarity with Schneider served as a security blanket, knowing he could trade up if the group of players he coveted started to dwindle.
The Buffalo Bills traded up in the first round to select Edmunds with the 16th overall pick. James was drafted one pick later, No. 17 overall to the Los Angeles Chargers. That might’ve nudged Gutekunst to move up to No. 18 and draft Alexander.
Gutekunst said Alexander was “in consideration” when the Packers were on the clock with their initial 14th overall pick.
“All those guys were good players,” Gutekunst said, “and we liked them a lot. I think for us that was the choice we made and what we thought was best for the Green Bay Packers at that time. We would have been happy with either one of those players as well, but we just thought this was something we couldn’t pass up.”
In Alexander,who stands 5-10 1/4, the Packers deviated from a long-held Ron Wolf scouting principle. Since the Packers drafted Terrell Buckley fifth overall in 1992, they have long held a minimum height requirement of 5-10 1/2 for cornerbacks. Sullivan said the team decided Alexander’s lack of height wouldn’t be a detriment.
“I’m a big believer in heart over height,” Alexander said. “If you look back at the film, I only gave up five passes, and I played against bigger receivers who were 6-5. It doesn’t really matter. My mentality is I’m going to beat the man in front of me, and that’s just part of being a student of the game. I don’t pay attention to size or anything like that.”
What Alexander might lack in height, he compensates with blazing speed. Alexander ran a 4.38-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine, seventh fastest among defensive backs. By the stopwatch, Alexander is the fastest player on the Packers roster.
Sullivan said Alexander’s speed reminded him of former Packers corner Sam Shields, the last true No. 1 cover man they’ve employed.
“Very few corners,” Sullivan said, “when they play the game when the ball’s in the air, can you feel them close space. He’s one. When you watch him play, you can feel him close space when the ball’s in the air, both playing forward and backward. The kid can run. On top of that, he’s quick and he can change directions and do those things.
“We’re just excited about the skillset as a whole. We think he has the make up to be a high-caliber player.”
Gutekunst stopped short of saying the Packers finalized their cornerback depth chart Thursday night, but they clearly feel better about the position than when the draft began. After signing free-agent Tramon Williams and re-signing Davon House this offseason, the Packers already had options to pair on the perimeter opposite second-year cornerback Kevin King. What they needed was a slot corner with Alexander’s athleticism.
Gutekunst was hesitant to say Alexander will play the bulk of his snaps in the slot this fall, but it may be a mere formality. He said his new cornerback can line up all over, but the short and quick Alexander projects as someone who can patrol the middle of the field.
A converted wide receiver, Alexander had five interceptions as a sophomore in 2016. A hyperextended knee and broken hand cost him all but six games last season, but Alexander still left school with one year of eligibility remaining. The Packers expect Alexander to retain the ball skills he honed as a receiver.
“Being able to catch the ball,” Alexander said, “is one of my strong suits. And being able to understand receiver splits and the routes, and what they like to do at the top of their routes, that’s one of my strong suits. I think just playing receiver helps out a lot.
“I don’t give up many passes, so that’s part of my game as well.”
The Packers still have plenty of work left to do in the final six rounds. They’re scheduled to make the 13th pick in Friday’s second round (No. 45 overall), but they gave their third-round pick (No. 76 overall) and a sixth-round pick (No. 186) to the Seahawks when they traded up Thursday night, recouping a seventh-round pick in return (No. 248). With one pick on Day 2 but 10 on Day 3, Gutekunst said it’s possible the Packers have enough assets to trade back into the third round.
Ultimately, that’s not what he’ll be judged on most when it comes to his first draft as the Packers general manager. Gutekunst showed Thursday night he can work connections even as a rookie GM to execute a grand plan, and that he has no hesitation to make bold decisions.
That he was able to secure an extra first-round pick and draft a player in consideration four slots earlier will be remembered either as resourceful, or an example of where a general manager outsmarted himself.
“I think you go into it kind of having a lot of different ideas about what could happen,” Gutekunst said. “Whether you’re going to move up, whether you’re going to move back, stay and pick, how it's going to fell. How it fell kind of determined that option. As it fell, and you had a certain amount of players that you thought were equal value, but you could move back and still get a similar type of player. That’s kind of how that happened.
“Just thought when we had that opportunity to move back and gain that first round pick for next year, I thought that was the best interests for us. And then I felt pretty confident of getting back up.”
THE JAIRE ALEXANDER FILE
Position: Cornerback. School: Louisville. Pick: Round 1, 18 overall. Height: 5-10. Weight: 192. Age: 21. Hometown: Charlotte, N.C. Lowdown: An instinctive corner with the ability to anticipate routes and the quickness to close on throws and make plays on the ball. His 2017 tape was uneven due to issues with a sprained knee, which could raise concerns over his durability because of his slender build. He played in only six games, starting five. Finished with 19 tackles and one interception. Had seven career interceptions in three seasons along with 15 pass breakups. Had 58 solo tackles and 19 assists. When healthy, he has the potential to become a second cornerback, but teams may view him as a full-time nickel corner who’s able to avoid the rigors of excessive run support. “I probably played 70 percent snaps at corner and 30 percent at nickel,” Alexander said. “I feel like I can play anywhere on the field. I look forward to doing both.” Ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at the combine. Had a 35-inch vertical and got 14 reps on the bench press. Also could add value returning punts. “He is going to be a guy who is really going to help us on the field,” said Jon-Eric Sullivan, the Packers’ director of college scouting. “We think he’s versatile. He can run. He’s a 4.3 guy. He’s got really good twitch and lateral agility. We think he can play inside. He is competitive and can tackle you. He can play both inside and outside. He is going to have to come in here and compete like they all do and get in there with the group we have now.” (Draft data via NFL.com)