Packers GM Brian Gutekunst shows gambling part of his draft DNA
GREEN BAY – Brian Gutekunst knew all the reasons analysts thought he shouldn’t draft the pass rusher he’s coveted for two months. The bum shoulder. The bad motor. The lack of production. For some, Rashan Gary’s list of red flags was too long, too scary to be a top 15 pick.
As the 2019 NFL draft moved beyond its top 10 on Thursday night, the Green Bay Packers had plenty other options. There was Iowa tight end Noah Fant and his quarterback’s-best-friend athleticism. There was Mississippi State pass rusher Montez Sweat and his freakish 4.41 speed. There was Washington State tackle Andre Dillard, the draft’s best pass blocker.
No matter, Gutekunst was undaunted. He dug in his heels and took his guy, Michigan’s high-upside defensive lineman, with the 12th overall pick.
“He’s got premier speed off the edge,” Gutekunst said of Gary. “He’s able to bend the corner. He plays with length and power. He’s also going to be able to kick inside and rush inside. So I don’t think you can ever have enough of those guys.”
DRAFT BIO: Rashan Gary
DRAFT BIO: Darnell Savage Jr.
An hour later, Gutekunst knew what the critics would think when he was on the phone with old pal John Schneider, the Seattle Seahawks general manager. Heck, he might’ve gotten flack for drafting Maryland safety Darnell Savage with the 30th overall pick already in hand. Retired scout Gil Brandt, the legendary evaluator who’ll be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this August, ranked Savage as the 87th-best player in this draft. Gutekunst wasn’t waiting.
He traded up nine spots, giving the Seahawks a pair of fourth-round picks (Nos. 114 and 118) along with the 30th, to draft Savage 21st overall. It was the greatest discrepancy between draft slot and Brandt’s rankings of any player taken in the first round. Gutekunst surely did not care.
“Giving up three (picks) for one wasn’t exactly something I think that I was super encouraged and wanted to do,” Gutekunst said, “but for this particular player it’s what I wanted to do.”
The Packers added a pair of players Thursday night that, if all goes according to plan, brings their defense near completion. They stayed true to their norm over most of this decade, using their first pick on a defender for an NFL-high eighth straight year. It was the third straight year they used their first two picks on defense. Given there’s a new head coach hired to fix the Packers offense, it was mildly surprising neither of their first-round picks will share the field with Aaron Rodgers.
But the real information gleaned Thursday night wasn’t whether drafting Gary and Savage were wise decision. That answer won’t come for another couple years, once they’ve been given a chance to fill the roles they were drafted to play. Packers fans learned more about their second-year general manager. The more drafts Gutekunst conducts, the clearer his signature as a talent evaluator becomes.
It’s clear, for example, that Gutekunst covets speed. A year after drafting six players who ran a sub-4.6 40, both Gary (4.58) and Savage (4.36) have exceptional speed for their positions. The 40-yard dash was much less prioritized under former Packers general manager Ted Thompson.
Even more, Gutekunst loves positional versatility. Look at the free-agent class he signed last month. Za’Darius Smith can play in a two-point stance or with his hand on the ground. Adrian Amos can play as a box safety or in coverage. Billy Turner is both a guard and a tackle.
Likewise, Savage started his college career at corner before moving to safety after his freshman season, and still has the ability to cover the slot in nickel. In Gary, the Packers see a versatile lineman who will start at outside linebacker but move up and down the defensive line.
“You have to affect the quarterback,” Gutekunst said, “and you have to do it from multiple areas. The days of just kind of sitting in one spot and rushing the passer are kind of over, especially with the way Mike wants to use our guys on defense. Last year, I’m sure you guys were aware, he moved guys around. We brought guys from everywhere.
“I think now we have a number of guys that can move around and win one-on-one, and I think that’s important.”
The biggest takeaway from Thursday night may be this: Gutekunst is not only open for business in draft-day trades, but he’s just fine taking gambles.
When Gutekunst moved up to draft Savage, it was his third first-round trade in two years. Gutekunst said it was “a little coincidence” two of those trades were with Schneider, the longtime Packers personnel executive he’s known since 1997, but their shared history certainly does not hurt. Gutekunst had been working the phone lines all week, he said, and knew Schneider was willing to move back from the 21st pick.
So when he starting doubting Savage would be available at 30, he knew who to call.
That Savage is undersized for an NFL safety, standing just 5-11 and 198 pounds, was of no concern. Gutekunst saw his 4.36 speed, his eye-popping 39.5-inch vertical leap, and his eight career interceptions, including four last season as a senior. The Packers believe his cover ability pairs well with Amos, who’s better as a box safety making plays near the line of scrimmage.
“He’s obviously a premier athlete,” Gutekunst said. “He’s been an impact player for Maryland for a number of years. Certainly his football character was something that really attracted to us, but he’s able to close the gap from centerfield to the hash. Really aggressive, physical player, able to take the ball away. And he really fit what we’re trying to do there in the back end.
“We thought he was an absolute difference maker. We didn’t think it was a really deep group there. Again, we do our homework. We kind of understand where he might go and We didn’t think we could sit at 30 and have him fall to us.”
Gary presents several concerns. Despite exceptional athleticism, running a 4.58 40 at 6-4⅜ and 277 pounds, his college production was underwhelming. He had 9.5 sacks in three seasons, including just 3.5 as a junior last year. That production dipped from 5.5 sacks as a sophomore.
The fact Gary’s production doesn’t match his athletic ability led many in the scouting community to question his motor, an accusation Gutekunst forcefully pushed back against.
“I think that’s people who probably haven’t done their homework,” Gutekunst said. “If you watch the tape, this guy, he plays with his hair on fire. Again, I think a lot of things get floated to the media that carry longer than it should. I disagree with that.”
Gary was a consensus five-star recruit coming out of Paramus Catholic in Plainfield, N.J. He profiles more as a 4-3 defensive end than 3-4 outside linebacker, though the ability to do both might be part of what attracted Gutekunst. Gary played a six-technique defensive end at Michigan, given primary responsibility of controlling the C gap. But he stood in a two-point stance at times, mimicking what he’ll be asked to do as an outside linebacker with the Packers.
An even bigger concern is his health. Gary reportedly played through a torn labrum in his right shoulder last season. Gutekunst did not specifically answer when asked whether Gary eventually will need shoulder surgery.
Gary said he does not expect to get shoulder surgery, emphasizing it feels “110 percent” entering the NFL.
“My shoulder’s good,” he said. “It’s not a torn labrum. … I did 26 reps at the combine, and I’m ready to go, and I’m ready to be great right now.”
Gutekunst focused on their defense at the expense of retooling the offense, but he’ll have the rest of this draft for that side of the ball. He hopes the pair of defensive selections solidify coordinator Mike Pettine’s unit, which showed promising signs last year.
The Packers just need the two first-round picks to work out according to plan.
“It’s a team game,” Gutekunst said, “and as good as these individual pieces might be if they don’t play together as a team, it’s not going to matter. But I like the character of the individuals we’ve put into that group. And I think winning matters to them. I think they’d be willing to sacrifice to do the things that it takes for that defense to be good, and I have a lot of faith in Mike and his staff on that side of the ball.
“We’re so far, and there’s so much to do before we get to that point, but I really do like the character of the individuals.”