Seven months on the job, Brian Gutekunst has already faced many of the big decisions that come across the desk of an NFL general manager.
He has conducted his first draft, signed his first free-agent class and made a couple of trades. This weekend he’ll pick his first 53-man roster.
But there’s a potentially huge decision looming on Khalil Mack, the Oakland Raiders’ All-Pro outside linebacker. Recent reports from Pro Football Talk and Yahoo.com said the Raiders are open to the possibility of trading Mack, though for hefty compensation in line with one of the game’s best defensive players.
While it still seems unlikely – premier players in their primes rarely change teams in the NFL – until Mack ends his holdout, the possibility of a trade remains in play and will grow if he proves willing to miss regular-season game checks in his quest for a new contract.
The Packers could benefit as much as anyone from acquiring a pass rusher of Mack’s caliber, and have the draft capital, including New Orleans’ first-round pick next year, to possibly pull off a deal. But any trade would be costly not just in compensation to acquire him, but also the money to sign Mack to a new contract.
Considering the Packers are working on a contract extension that will make Aaron Rodgers the highest-paid player in the NFL – whether it’s this year or next – then working out a new deal with Mack on top of that would tie up an enormous amount of money in two players. Among other risks, if either sustained serious injury it could be a disaster financially and on the field.
But those are risks Gutekunst appears willing to live with, at least as a general philosophy regarding elite players. He can’t talk publicly about Mack, because that would violate NFL rules on tampering with another team’s player. But when asked if the Packers can afford to have the highest-paid quarterback in the league as well as one of if not the highest-paid defensive player in the league, Gutekunst suggested they could.
“When you’re talking about unique players, there’s only so many of them out there,” he said. “At the same time, the financial challenges may be difficult, but without players you can’t win. It’s like any significant player, they’re not inexpensive, but you have to have them to win.”
With the Packers on the eve of their 100th season as a franchise, Gutekunst consented to an extended interview to discuss his first seven months as their 10th GM. Last week, in his office on the third floor of the Packers’ administrative building at Lambeau Field, he discussed a wide range of topics about his new job and his team during a 26 ½-minute interview with PackersNews.com’s Pete Dougherty.
Following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: There’s what you think a job is, then there’s the reality of the job once you do it. What’s different about being GM than you thought from watching Ron Wolf, Mike Sherman and Ted Thompson do the job? Anything been more difficult than you expected? Anything more enjoyable than you knew?
A: I’m still kind of going through some of it, so I’m sure if you ask me next year there might be a better answer to that. The scouting part has always been the enjoyable part for me and still is very much so. There’s a certain amount of management that’s different. I think I saw it from afar, but when it’s coming to your desk it’s different. You manage your time a little differently than you did before, and maybe (differently) than I would have thought. But the scouting part is still the best part.
Q: It’s been eight years since the Packers have won the Super Bowl , and your fans are getting restless for another while you still have an elite quarterback in his prime. In your first year on the job what will you consider a successful season? How are you going to judge the season in the end?
A: I don’t know if judge is the right word. Around here the goal every year is to win the Super Bowl, and that will never change. We’ve had a terrific run over the – we’ve had eight straight years in the playoffs, so last year was disappointing. But I do feel that this team – we’re at the very beginning, but I think this team has the ability to compete for championships, and I expect us to do that.
Q: What happens if you want to sign a player and Russ Ball, the executive vice president/director of football operations, says it’s a bad idea financially. Does the player get signed or not? When Wolf, Sherman and Thompson were GM, they could say “do it,” because the salary-cap analyst worked for them. But you, Ball and coach Mike McCarthy all are on the same level and report to team CEO Mark Murphy. Any regrets you took the GM job without having the same authority as Wolf and Thompson?
A: I have no regrets about taking the job at all. It was clearly spelled out to me from the beginning by Mark. Again, it wasn’t something I’d worked under before. But to answer your question, Mark has been very up front, if there’s any player I want to sign, I have all roster decisions that way. That’s never come up. I’ve never been prevented from signing a player if that’s what I wanted to do.
Q: When did you find out Murphy was changing the structure of the football front office, away from the football czar as GM to having all three of you report to him?
A: When the job was offered. I was in Houston (interviewing with the Texans), that’s when it was spelled out for me. So there was a period of time that evening when I was going through the decision-making process. But that was very up front, one of the first thing he talked to me about after he offered me the job.
Q: Taking into account that we’re talking an enormous amount of money at stake in the Aaron Rodgers negotiations, this organization also has had a long time to plan for potential scenarios in extending his contract. Why isn’t the deal done? Why is it taking longer than many of us thought it would?
A: The perception of when the deal was (possibly) getting done is probably why people are anxious outside of this building. Inside the building it’s always one of those things that’s taken its normal course. Again, both sides want the same thing, so we’re all encouraged that it’s moving in the right direction and we’re able to come to a conclusion. From my perception it’s not something that’s dragged on longer than I thought it would. It’s just something that’s taken its normal course.
Q: Former Packers VP Andrew Brandt knows the landscape here because he used to manage this team’s salary cap, and he recently wrote for SI.com that there’s not enough pressure on both sides to facilitate a deal because Rodgers has two years left on his contract. Is he right? Is it a year early to get this deal done?
A: No, I don’t agree with that, not at all. I think both parties are motivated. What people think outside the building doesn’t concern us.
Q: Theoretically, you have Rodgers’ rights for the next four or five years – two years on his remaining contract, then two or even three years of the franchise tag. Is there good reason to exercise those rights for the next four or five years? Or do you want to avoid getting to the franchise tag with him? Could that rupture the relationship with the franchise’s most important member?
A: This is something we want to move forward with on good terms and have the same common goals, which I think we do. It’s about winning championships. So I don’t think it will ever come to that. I think this is something that’s moving along at the right pace and should come to a conclusion at some point. I don’t think we’re looking at those things right now.
Q: Is it realistic to think his deal could get done this year?
A: I don’t think there’s any timetable on it. it’s just a matter of getting to the point that both sides think it’s the best thing moving forward. As I said the goals of both the organization and I think for Aaron are to win championships, and to move towards that. I think we are.
Q: Do you think Rodgers should be the highest-paid player in the game?
A: I think Aaron is one of the more unique players that I’ve ever been around or seen. It’s a tough question, but I think he’s as deserving as anybody.
Q: Are you better off at backup quarterback than last year?
A: I like the competition we’ve had so far. I think Brett (Hundley) has gotten significantly better. Certainly bringing in DeShone Kizer has helped the competition of that group. Then Tim (Boyle, an undrafted rookie) has done a great job do. The one thing you’ve seen in the two preseason games is having four quarterbacks that can run the offense has given us a great look at the offense as a whole, because it’s been able to function. I’d say yeah, we’re probably better off than we were last year.
Q: What do you think of Kizer so far?
A: He’s everything we saw coming out of college and last year studying him with the Browns. He’s obviously got size, he’s got arm talent, exceptionally bright. Still very early in his career. Obviously, Mike’s offense is new for him, so there’s a bunch of challenges. There’s always a bunch of challenges for young quarterbacks in this system. But Mike’s staff has done such a good job through the years with the quarterbacks and just their ability to get better. He’s on that trend, and we’re excited about him.
Q: Last year this team tried to slip undrafted rookie quarterback Taysom Hill through waivers and to the practice squad, but the New Orleans Saints claimed him for their 53-man roster. Any concerns that the same thing could happen with Boyle if you tried to do that with him?
A: With any of the players we release you’re exposing them to 31 other teams. You never really know how that’s going to go. The goal is to try to get the right 53 first, and then the practice squad is kind of the next step. You hate seeing guys you want to develop and keep around, lose them to other teams. But that’s the system. You’re cross comparing positions and everything like that, what’s best for your team. Trying to win now and also in the future, so it’s a difficult time. You hate to see players go but it’s just part of it.
Q: How do you square Boyle’s bad touchdown-to-interception differential (11-to-13) at Eastern Kentucky last season to the backup prospect we’ve seen in training camp? Who saw something in Boyle, and what was it, that made this team think he was a real NFL prospect despite the numbers?
A: I think that’s a great example of our organization as a whole, I really do. Joe Hueber is our area scout who targeted him initially and was the first one to see him and thought he had some ability. Tracked him through the fall and into the spring. Matt Malaspina, who’s our college (scouting) director now, went to the pro day and came away with rave reviews about what he saw from the physical gifts of the player. Then just what Mike and his staff have done from the developmental part of it has allowed him to maybe progress quicker than where he was. It’s been a nice fit so far, he’s done some good things. He’s got a long ways to go, but that’s a good example of how the whole thing comes together for scouting and personnel and coaching and everything.
Cornering the market
Q: In the offseason you put a lot of resources into cornerback with the free-agent signing of Tramon Williams, and then drafting Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson with your first two draft picks. Do you think you’ve significantly upgraded that position?
A: I do. I like that room very much. I like the mixture of the experience we have in there with Tramon and (Davon) House, and the young players have really increased the competition and the energy. The communication back there has been excellent so far. We haven’t hit any adversity, we haven’t – it’s a long way to go right now. But I like that room.
Q: You must have some concern with Kevin King’s shoulders – he came in with a shoulder injury as a rookie last year, missed seven games and had surgery that landed him on IR, then this year in camp has missed time with an injury to his other shoulder. Do you have good reason that his shoulders won’t be a chronic issue, and how much did the franchise know about them when it drafted King with the first pick of the second round last year?
A: It’s unfortunate that Kevin has had the shoulder injury, but we’ve had pretty good luck with shoulders here in the past as far as guys being able to come back and have lengthy careers afterwards. He certainly had the one issue in college coming into the NFL, that kind of got him quick last year. It was unfortunate to see him go down in training camp (this year). But it looks like he’s going to be fine. He’s coming back. Injuries are always a concern, but long term I don’t see that as a concern.
Q: When you say the team has had good luck with shoulder injuries in the past, who are you thinking of?
A: Just throughout the history here with Doc (Pat) McKenzie and the training staff, guys are able to overcome shoulders more than lower-body injuries.
Q: Your offensive line depth looks very shaky, especially at tackle. Is that a position you can upgrade between now the first game of the season?
A: I look for the competition from within to elevate our play there. But we’re always looking not only within our own team but outside with the other 31 teams to see if we can upgrade it. It’s more difficult to upgrade with the offensive and defensive lines, but it can be done. We’re looking at everything right now. If there’s an opportunity that we think can upgrade the offensive line or defensive line, we’ll certainly do it.
Q: Trading in the league has picked up in the last year or so. Are you open to adding players that route, or are you leery of trading draft picks for players? (Note: This interview was conducted before Gutekunst traded cornerback Lenzy Pipkins to Indianapolis for linebacker Antonio Morrison.)
A: Again, if I think it can significantly help us this year, I’m open to anything, whether it’s player for player, or player for pick.
Q: Your drafting of a punter (JK Scott) in the fifth round this year came out of the blue for some observers. How do you think that’s worked out so far?
A: Really happy with JK and his progression. Obviously, he’s been an exceptional college punter for three or four years at Alabama, been in some high-pressure situations and handled all those in college. So far he’s had some really good days and continues trending in the right direction. Punting in Green Bay always will come down to December and January, and how you do in those months, that’s the important thing. But he has rare leg talent. He’s done a nice job as a holder as well so far, and as a kickoff guy. We expect big things for him.
Q: Unlike cornerback, you put almost no new resources into outside linebacker. Considering the injury histories of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, not just missing games but also being diminished, because they’re not the same player with a cast on their hand or playing through shoulder or leg injuries, do you feel like you rolled the dice there?
A: No. Some of the younger players we have there, specifically a guy like Reggie Gilbert, I think we’ve seen that coming for the last year and a half or so with the way he’s attacked and changed his body and progressed as an NFL player. Through the process you’re always looking for pass rushers, every team is. But we’ve had some bad injury luck both with Clay and Nick, but they both look really good right now and we’re excited to see what they can do this year.
Q: What’s your schedule going to be during the season? How many college campuses do you want to scout? How often do you need to be here? And how did you decide to do it this way?
A: The priority will always be the team here, that’s something from Ted that I very much learned, the most important thing is our team. If I can’t get away because I think I need to be here for our team, then I will be. At the same time, the lifeblood of this whole thing is scouting, and I think it’s very important to see players live as much as I can. I’ll start out with 10 to 15 schools I’m going to try to hit this fall in the middle of the week or later in the week. Once we get through some practices and get settled I’ll probably try to get out and see as many of them as I can. That’s what I’ve done in this business, it’s what I feel I’m good at. The more campuses I can visit the better, but I’ll never do that – this team is the priority.
Q: Can you visit two campuses in a week?
A: Yeah, there are different ways you can do it. You certainly could. You can take a Wednesday-Thursday approach to it. The other thing you can do is later in the week, if we’re playing on the road, head out early, hit a couple places and meet the team. There are different ways you can do it. There are mid-week games now, a lot of Thursday games, you can look at a couple teams during the middle of the week (that way). There are opportunities, you just have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Whereas before everything was scheduled out.
Q: What is Thompson’s role now? I haven’t seen him at practice recently, and his house was for sale. Has he moved back to Texas, and is he going to scout from there?
A: He’s back in Texas now, he’ll be back here pretty quick for a little while. He’s going to go back and forth. He’s very much going to be a part of our evaluations, not only on the college side but the pro side for me. I spoke on this before, he’s so valuable to me with the experience of situations. Certain things will come up, and I’ll say, hey, talk to me about this situation, where you’ve had this situation and what your thought process was through it, and he’ll go through it. Not only, hey, this is what I did, but this is what I was thinking when I did it. That’s been priceless for me.
Q: How often do you talk to him?
A: When he’s not here I probably talk to him once every three or four days. But when he’s here I talk to him every day.
Q: Is his office around here? (Note: Gutekunst occupies Thompson’s former office.)
A: Right next door.
Q: Do you have any gripes with the new helmet rule or way it’s being enforced? The NFL has recently been conducting conference calls with teams to refine or improve it. Have you or anyone here been a part of those discussions?
A: I’ve sat through at the owners meetings when we had a bunch of discussions about it. Certainly I’ve gotten all the videos and the updates. I think they’re working their way through it in the preseason right now trying to get it right. The intent behind it is correct, it’s just trying to get it – going through the kinks of the preseason, like anything else, is to try to apply it the right way. I’m confident they’ll get there, it’s just a difficult thing.
Q: How much concern do you have about it? Some in and outside the league see it as a huge problem and that it could decide the outcome of games because the penalty (a 15-yard personal foul) is so severe.
A: I’m not there yet. It’s a hot topic right now, but I think like most things they’ll end up getting it right.
Q: When it comes to players, there’s their talent, and there’s their character on and off the field. With the environment you have here, do you think you can bring in character risks and help them make it work, or are you more, thanks but no thanks?
A: It’s an individual, case by case basis, it really is. Our personnel staff spends a lot of time with these players trying to get to the bottom of their wiring, what makes them tick. There’s a ton of guys that will make mistakes in college and through their young careers in the NFL, obviously we’re always looking for patterns to see if it’s something they’re trending in the right direction or if it’s not. Trying to find out if they were mistakes or if it’s something we’re not going to be able to overcome. But I think it’s a case by case basis. The biggest thing for me is that they’re good people and they love football.
Q: How big an impact do you think Jimmy Graham will have on your offense?
A: I think he’s going to have a big impact, I really do. He’s had a big impact everywhere he’s ever been, so I wouldn’t think it’s going to be any different here. He looks like he’s in exceptional shape. His energy is contagious. He certainly has made plays since he’s gotten here. He’s been doing that his entire career. I think he’ll have a big impact for us.
Q: You have final say over the 53-man roster, but how much input will you give McCarthy? If he doesn’t want a player would you release the player, or will you sometimes just ask him to make it work?
A: I wouldn’t phrase it like that. It’s one of those things where we’re in constant communication back and forth. If we have differences he explains to me what he’s thinking, I explain to him what I’m thinking, and we usually kind of get to a common ground. But again, this is my first go-through with this, the 53, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ve had a relationship with Mike since he’s been here, even before that. I don’t anticipate any issues where it’s going to come to that.
Q: It seemed like previous defensive coordinator Dom Capers was reluctant to play rookies much until injuries to veterans forced them on the field. Would you like to see some your rookies on the field right away?
A: As a personnel guy you’re always wanting to see talent get on the field. At the same time we’re very much aware that guys have to be able to play within the scheme and know what they’re doing, or their talent is not going to show out there. And if you put guys out there too early, it can have a lasting effect on them. I think our staff has always done a really, really good job of developing players, and when they’re ready to get out there, putting them out there. But as a personnel guy you always want to see them out there.
Q: What do you do to relax now that you have the highest-stress, or one of the highest-stress, jobs in the building?
A: I was going to say, there are a couple other ones around here that are pretty stressful, too. I have a young family, and my relaxation time is watching them do the things they love. My daughter is playing volleyball and soccer right now, my son is just starting soccer, just got done with baseball, and he’ll start hockey pretty soon. That relaxes me more than anything, being able to watch those guys do what they love. I don’t get as much time of that as I want, but our life kind revolves around them when there’s free time.
Q: When do you have time for that?
A: That’s the one really nice thing about living in Green Bay as an NFL city, if I need to pop out of here to catch a game, it’s going to take five or 10 minutes to get there. Anywhere else (in the league) that would be a challenge. That’s one of the beautiful things about this place, one that I feel very blessed to have. But whenever I get a chance I’m there. It’s not as much as I'd like to be, but I’m there when I can be.