PHOENIX – Ted Thompson rarely revealed his intentions even to his own scouts, but there was one player he especially wanted in the draft and let it be known to everyone in the Green Bay Packers’ draft room.
That was in 2009, immediately after he’d selected B.J. Raji at No. 9 overall.
“I think when he got off the phone with B.J. he turned around and said, ‘Let’s go get that linebacker,’” said Brian Gutekunst, the Packers’ general manager and the team’s Southeast regional scout at the time.
That linebacker was Clay Matthews, who left the Packers in free agency last week after finishing his 10 seasons with the team as the franchise’s all-time sacks leader.
Thompson, who rarely spent draft capital to move up in the draft, traded up from the No. 41 pick to No. 26 to select Matthews in what proved to be the second-best draft move of his GM tenure, behind only his selection of Aaron Rodgers. Thompson spent two third-round picks (and received a fifth-rounder in return) to swap from No. 41 to No. 26 with the New England Patriots to take Matthews.
Gutekunst strongly suggested that Thompson had tried to trade up higher than No. 26 but was unable to work out a deal.
“I just remember Ted doesn’t show his cards very much, and he definitely showed his cards about how much he wanted to go get that player,” Gutekunst said from the NFL owners meeting. “We had some guys in the room at the time that were working the deals, and again, Ted doesn’t show his cards and get frustrated much, but he wanted that player. There was no doubt about it. That’s a fond memory that I have because he was very direct in what he wanted to do there.”
Gutekunst in essence made the decision on Matthews not returning to the Packers this year when the GM spent $36 million on signing bonuses for outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in the first two days of free agency. The Rams signed the 32-year old Matthews last week to a two-year deal worth $9.25 million plus incentives and included $5.5 million fully guaranteed, according to Field Yates of ESPN.
“We were in contact with Clay through the entire thing,” Gutekunst said. “Just kind of one of those things we valued him probably higher than we could (pay). He got a great opportunity to go home and play with the Rams, so we wish him the best. Hate to lose him, thought he was a warrior for us last year. But with what we did in free agency maybe prevented that from happening.”
Bigger could be better in the slot
The Packers appear willing to move away from the small, quick slot receiver that has been more typical of that position league wide.
Gutekunst let his most recent starter at that position, Randall Cobb, leave in free agency this offseason. Cobb was the more prototypical slot receiver at 5-10 and 190 pounds. But Cobb had his share of injures in recent seasons that kept him off the field and often limited his effectiveness when he played.
“The ability to kind of separate and create in space (is important),” Gutekunst said of slot receivers. “Obviously, inside there, you have to be able to hold up and take the pounding that comes with that job. So there’s probably a body type moving forward that’s able to separate and stay healthy.
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“… I think generally smaller guys have a harder time staying healthy than bigger guys. There’s always exceptions. I think, first of all, we look for guys who can do what we ask them to do. Secondly, you look at the medical part of it and if they can hold up.”
The Packers don’t have a ready-made replacement for Cobb, though there are several returning receivers who might fill that role. Geronimo Allison, who is 6-3, is one possibility. He missed most of last season because of a groin injury that required surgery. Jake Kumerow (6-4 and 209) is another. He missed most of last season because of a shoulder injury.
“I think the slot receiver is maybe something that’s a little more prominent in (rookie coach Matt LaFleur’s) offense than what Mike (McCarthy’s) was,” Gutekunst said.
Bigger slot receivers also fit with Gutekunst’s preference for big receivers overall. In last year’s draft he selected 6-5 Equanimeous St. Brown, 6-4 Marquez Valdes-Scantling and 6-3 J’Mon Moore.
“The ones that we’ve acquired lately are really fast, too, so that’s helpful,” Gutekunst said. “This is a big man’s game, always has been. Length is important. I don’t think it’s something we’re specifically just targeting. It’s about whether you can play the game. But it kind of just fell the way it fell last year."
'Big jump' expected for Oren Burks
We’ll know better after this year’s draft, but it looks like Gutekunst and the Packers are expecting Oren Burks to get on the field a lot more at inside linebacker in his second NFL season after his non-descript rookie year.
Gutekunst drafted Burks in the third round last year, and early in the season it looked like Burks might play a lot alongside Blake Martinez. But Burks couldn’t hold the job and ended up playing only 122 snaps (11.5 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps overall).
Antonio Morrison, a linebacker the Packers traded for near the end of training camp, moved past Burks early in the season and played 299 defensive snaps (28.1 percent). But the Packers waived Morrison just before the start of free agency.
“I think it was typical rookie stuff (for Burks), growing within the defense, understanding it from an instinctual standpoint,” Gutekunst said. "We had Antonio Morrison, who’d been a couple years in the league. (Burks) did a nice job on (special) teams for us and in his opportunities, I thought he was a playmaker. I just think it takes time in the NFL to really feel comfortable within the defense. I think you’ll see a big jump from him this year.”