Inside Brian Gutekunst's new approach to shaping the Green Bay Packers' roster
GREEN BAY – With the promotion of Brian Gutekunst to general manager in January, there was an inherent curiosity about which direction he would take the Green Bay Packers’ roster. And while he rose to the role of director of player personnel under Ted Thompson, it’s important to remember Gutekunst was a scouting intern in 1997 and was then hired full-time by Ron Wolf prior to the 1999 season.
During that time, Gutekunst would work with future general managers John Dorsey (Kansas City, Cleveland), Scot McCloughan (San Francisco, Washington), Reggie McKenzie (Oakland) and John Schneider (Seattle).
“He’s been around a lot of really talented personnel guys,” former Tampa Bay general manager and current SiriusXM NFL analyst Mark Dominik said. “All these different dudes he’s been able to steal parts of it and now he’s trying to blend it into who he wants to be, or what he wants to be, and that can take some patience and that can also be great at the beginning.”
Gutekunst handled free agency and the draft a bit differently, but he didn’t stop there. How the first-year general manager has managed the 53-man roster week-to-week has been a bit of a departure from the recent past as well as with trades, the raiding of other teams' practice squads and the signing of ready-to-play street free agents.
“Aggressive” is how it has been termed by those watching from afar, as he has tried to help the coaching staff win week-to-week.
“I think there’s certainly a difference and there will be a difference going forward with the way he builds a roster,” Dominik said. “If the concern is like, ‘what’s happened now that Ted’s gone and we’re struggling,’ I would say Brian is on the other side of trying to rebuild a roster that maybe wasn’t as talented as everyone hoped it would be.”
Let’s take a look at what Gutekunst has done during the 2018 season:
We’ll use the line of demarcation for the start of the “regular season” as the trade of backup defensive back Lenzey Pipkins to Indianapolis for linebacker Antonio Morrison on Aug. 26, a week before final cuts in training camp (the March trade of defensive back Damarious Randall, for example, would count as being in the offseason).
At the time, the deal for Morrison was perceived as a depth move as rookie linebacker Oren Burks had suffered a shoulder injury. But it proved to be an important acquisition as Morrison has become a key player in Mike Pettine’s defense.
Gutekunst made three other trades after that, shipping quarterback Brett Hundley, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and running back Ty Montgomery for draft picks in 2019 and 2020.
On the surface, it could appear that trading away a starter in Clinton-Dix and a role player in Montgomery may not have helped the immediate roster. But the Packers arguably have played better pass defense on the back end with Tramon Williams assuming a role at safety, and moving Montgomery freed up more snaps for running back Aaron Jones.
Gutekunst now has 10 picks in the 2019 draft, but to move a starter and a role player in season illustrated the line general managers have to walk between the present and the future.
“The focus is always on winning now,” Gutekunst said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel and PackersNews.com. “This is the Green Bay Packers. We always are focused on winning now and I think we always will be. There are certainly times where you’re balancing hey, how does this affect us in the short term and how does this affect us in the long term? But you work through it and try to make the best decision you can for the team.”
Giving Ted Thompson that same one-week window before final cutdowns, the most trades he made in any one “regular season” was two, in 2011.
In all, Gutekunst nearly matched the number of trades this season that Thompson made from 2008-17 combined (five).
Waiver claims/practice-squad signings
Gutekunst said the morning meetings discussing the waiver wire with his staff have been some of the more enjoyable moments of the season, with ideas being tossed around by co-directors of player personnel Jon-Eric Sullivan and John Wojciechowski along with director of pro scouting/salary cap analyst Chad Brinker, scout Richmond Williams and personnel executive Lee Gissendaner
“One of the really nice things for me this season is all these guys thinking outside the box,” Gutekunst said. “We have a lot of conversations about stuff that never happens but at the same time I really like the way they think and the way they’re trying to improve the squad.”
Gutekunst said he has leaned heavily on Sullivan and Wojciechowski while Richmond, Brinker and Gissendaner have done all the heavy digging into other teams and players.
Because of this, Gutekunst pushes back on the idea that this season has been about him forming an identity as a GM, but rather one that has seen the front office form one as a collective.
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“I would probably put it like ‘ourselves,’ like ourselves as a personnel staff,” he said. “I think we’re kind of finding – and I think we did it probably pretty early – but I think we kind of found a way to work together and to try to work to help the team.”
To sign a player off another team’s practice squad or claim a player off waivers means you have to be ready to carry them on the active 53-man roster. The Packers have done this five times, beginning with plucking running back Darius Jackson off Dallas’ practice squad and putting him right onto the special teams unit.
The others were claiming cornerback Deante Burton (Atlanta), safety Ibraheim Campbell (New York Jets), defensive lineman Fadol Brown (Oakland) and defensive back Natrell Jamerson (Houston). Burton didn’t last long, being released when Jones came off suspension, but Campbell quickly became a contributor in the secondary before heading to injured reserve.
“A lot of that goes back to – especially with young players – it goes back to what you had on them in college,” Pro Football Weekly analyst and former Chicago Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel said. “There could be guys that hit the waiver wire that you were targeting in a draft whatever year they came out. And when I say targeting I mean they were on the board, they were in the mix, they were being discussed, guys you felt could fit within your scheme and be whatever, a solid backup, become a starter.
“You see a guy that you look at and say, we thought about drafting this guy, he’s on the street, let’s take a chance. Maybe it just wasn’t a good marriage for him at the other place. And that happens.”
Thompson had become more active in this area by claiming/signing six players the last two seasons, but from 2008-15 he had done it just five times.
This list for Gutekunst doesn’t include three signings directly to the practice squad in cornerbacks Tony Brown (Los Angeles Chargers) and Will Redmond (Kansas City) and fullback Danny Vitale (Cleveland) – all players who eventually were promoted to the 53- and 46-man rosters.
“I do love that he’s been aggressive in terms of raiding other teams,” Dominik said. “I think that’s an excellent way to build depth of a team. It doesn’t always show in Week 11 or Week 14, but it might show up Week 3 next year when that young guy has another offseason to grow into a role and he becomes the third at something or becomes a key contributor on special teams and you just made your team stronger. I think those are really good (moves). I think any time you can look at the team and admit there was a mistake maybe you were a part of, or made that decision, but turn around and be aggressive to try and fix it?
“That’s the GM I want.”
Street free-agent signings
Signing an available veteran free agent happens often across the league and the Packers are no different in that regard, having have signed at least one player– and up to as many as eight in 2009 – over the last 11 seasons.
“It’s a cumulative thing as we look at a player, players who are available,” Gutekunst said of his approach to those players. “It’s not just hey, what did they do this particular preseason? It’s kind like of the player as a whole, what we’ve seen from the time they were in college through where they are now.
“I think our guys this year have really enjoyed the ability to know that if we can help our team that we’re willing to do it.”
The marked difference between Gutekunst’s four signings to date is how quickly they have impacted the game-day 46-man rosters. They have ranged from punter Drew Kaser, signed as insurance for an expecting JK Scott in New England, to bringing in the highest-profile corner on the market in Bashaud Breeland.
Linebacker Korey Toomer may not have been a household name but he had been active for all but one game before being released so the team could sign free-agent safety Eddie Pleasant. And Pleasant was immediately active in his first game.
“They’re on the street for a reason,” Gabriel said. “Every once in a while you get lucky and you find a guy that can come in and play well within your system and it’s a surprise, but does it have a lasting effect? Is he a Band-Aid for a season or is he a guy? You’re not going to know the answer to that for a year or two. But I think just from a general philosophy, Gutekunst treats free agency a lot different than Ted ever did. And Ted was more old school in that area and it’s a different league now.”
Gutekunst carried over the practice of not having a full 53 players if it wasn’t necessary. During a stretch of the season when the roster was healthy, the team carried 52 until the Thursday afternoon in Seattle when they activated Trevor Davis off injured reserve. Such decisions can provide some in-season salary-cap relief while also taking advantage of a healthy 46-man roster during practice.
The Packers have promoted eight players off the practice squad, the lifeblood of an active roster throughout the season. But four of them were elsewhere at the start of training camp.
And they’ve been more than just Monday-through-Saturday bodies. Tyler Lancaster has become a rotational defensive lineman quickly. Brown has seen his role expand in the secondary to the point where he started against Atlanta while running back Tra Carson and fullback Vitale provided special teams depth.
With the promotion of linebacker Kendall Donnerson on Dec. 5, it put every eligible member of his initial draft class on the active roster – but it took 13 weeks to do so.
Gutekunst most notably released safety Jermaine Whitehead, but the safety is one of six players the team has cut since the start of the season.
Last season Thompson cut six players for a total of seven roster moves (he released defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois twice), and he released eight in 2016. Other than that, the team typically avoided flat-out cutting players if there was not a corresponding move of a player coming off a suspension or injured reserve, as opposed to cutting a player for a street free agent or waiver claim. From 2008-15, Thompson released 26 players and none in 2011.
What does it mean?
The biggest difference one can draw from Gutekunst’s first 14 weeks of the season is that he has been more likely to move quickly to help the game-day, 46-man roster, as opposed to shuffling players around the seven inactive spots.
“It’s a different philosophy,” Gabriel said. “It’s not that one is right and one is wrong, it’s a philosophical difference. My way of thinking, I agree with what Gutey’s done.”
Is this a precursor to how Gutekunst will look at future rosters going forward or is it an indication that even after cut downs, the 2018 Packers were always going to be a work in progress? Only time will tell. But it does offer up more clues as to how he will help the coaching staff on a week-to-week, or month-to-month basis once the games actually begin.
“I think it’s important not to get emotionally attached, but at the same time very early on in my career, I think it was probably Ron (Wolf) who would say things like it’s a bigger mistake to not admit your mistakes, you know?” Gutekunst said. “My thought on the whole thing is you look at our team and if you have an ability to help improve your team you owe it to the team to do that. Regardless of where a guy was drafted or if you drafted him or somebody else did. None of that matters. I think if you have an ability to improve your team, you do it, whether that’s in the short term or the long term.”