GREEN BAY - As the sample size of his tenure grows, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst’s footprint as a roster builder takes a more definitive shape.
It’s clear, for example, the second-year GM is comfortable maneuvering throughout the NFL draft’s first round, executing three trades in two years. It’s also apparent he’s comfortable using his connections in the league, having conducted two of those trades with Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, a former colleague and longtime friend.
Gutekunst’s willingness to lean on his familiarity hasn’t stopped with those he knows in the NFL. A longtime Southeast scout, Gutekunst no doubt built many relationships in the Southeastern Conference. It’s no surprise, then, that seven of the 19 players Gutekunst drafted the past two years played in the SEC, more than all but two NFL teams (the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers drafted nine each).
Even removing a pair of specialists, former Alabama punter JK Scott (fifth round, 2018) and long snapper Hunter Bradley (seventh round, 2018), the five other players drafted from the SEC still would tie for third and are more than all but seven teams.
In this year's draft, Gutekunst grabbed offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins of Mississippi State (second round) and tight end Jace Sternberger (third round) and defensive lineman Kingsley Keke (fifth round) of Texas A&M. The other 2018 picks from the SEC were linebacker Oren Burks (third round) of Vanderbilt and receiver J'Mon Moore (fourth round) of Missouri.
In the same drafts, Gutekunst selected three players from the Big Ten, two from the Pac-12, two from Notre Dame and one each from the ACC, Big 12, American, Mid-American and Ohio Valley conferences.
The Packers drafted only six players from the SEC, the nation’s premier football conference, in the final six drafts of the Ted Thompson era, and only two in the final three. In those drafts, Thompson drafted more from the Pac-12 (14 players) and Big Ten (10).
Gutekunst also pulled from the SEC in free agency. Half of the four primary free agents the Packers added this spring played their college football in the Southeast: outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith (Kentucky) and Preston Smith (Mississippi State). No school is as represented on the Packers' roster as Mississippi State with five.
The Packers have 17 players from the SEC, tied for 11th most in the NFL. The Patriots lead the league with 25.
That doesn’t mean the Packers will always lean heavily toward the SEC, but at least to start Gutekunst’s tenure, the new GM has plucked more players from the area of the country he knows best.
Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the 90-man roster as the Packers prepare to begin the third phase of their offseason Monday with the start of OTA practices.
Aaron Rodgers, DeShone Kizer, Tim Boyle, Manny Wilkins (R-rookie).
Outlook: So much for bolstering the quarterback depth. Kizer played twice last season when Rodgers was injured, and he appeared overmatched both times. Boyle might have the better arm, but he’s plenty raw only one season removed from Eastern Kentucky. The Packers added undrafted rookie Wilkins, a three-year starter for Arizona State who played under longtime NFL head coach Herm Edwards last season. His chances can’t be discounted, but his lack of size (6-2 but a rail-thin 193 pounds) will be something he must overcome. The Packers most likely are relying on improvement from either Kizer or Boyle to bolster their depth behind Rodgers, who turns 36 in December.
Running backs (6)
Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, Dexter Williams (R), Kapri Bibbs, Tra Carson, Malcolm Johnson.
Outlook: If Jones stays healthy, he has proven to be a dynamic talent who could have a big year. The Packers just can’t count on him staying healthy, not with three MCL sprains in his first two seasons. So this is a position where they could keep additional numbers, certainly more than the two they had on last season’s initial roster. The two Williamses do different things (Jamaal is a downhill, power runner, while Dexter ideally fits coach Matt LaFleur’s outside zone), but their primary jobs might be described thusly: Keep Jones fresh.
Outlook: The Packers made the surprising move of retaining no fullback on last year’s initial roster. If the Packers keep a fullback, Vitale would appear to be in a good standing as the only one on the roster. The Packers could use a tight end for many of the responsibilities of a fullback, though Lance Kendricks, who served that role last season, is no longer with the team.
Wide receivers (11)
Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Jake Kumerow, Trevor Davis, J’Mon Moore, Jawill Davis (N-newcomer), Allen Lazard, Teo Redding, Darrius Sherpherd (R).
Outlook: The Packers view Allison as a significant offseason addition. He played only three games last season because of injury after appearing poised for a breakout. If Allison delivers this fall, and the Packers get second-year jumps from Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown, it might be enough to take some pressure off Adams. The Packers' top receiver finished last season second in the NFL with 169 targets, one fewer than league leader Julio Jones.
Tight ends (6)
Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis, Jace Sternberger (R), Robert Tonyan, Evan Baylis, Davis Koppenhaver (R).
Outlook: The Packers hope Sternberger develops into their tight end of the future. If Tonyan makes a big jump, even better. They seem to have created an ideal learning environment for young tight ends, who can follow Graham and Lewis’ lead this season.
David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga, Jason Spriggs, Alex Light, Gerhard de Beer, Yosh Nijman (R).
Outlook: Bakhtiari is a first-team All-Pro, but this position might pose the scariest question on the roster: What happens if Bakhtiari gets injured? Because depth at left tackle is sorely lacking. The most obvious answer would be Spriggs, who has struggled mightily in the past. The Packers also appear poised to play out the final year on Bulaga’s contract. They have more options on the right side if Bulaga misses time with injury, including free-agent addition Billy Turner.
Lane Taylor, Billy Turner (N), Elgton Jenkins (R), Justin McCray, Lucas Patrick, Adam Pankey, Cole Madison (R), Anthony Coyle, Larry Williams (R).
Outlook: Turner figures to get his first crack for a starting job at right guard, but he’s also a versatile piece. The Packers did not draft Jenkins in the second round to stay on the sideline for long. It’s uncertain what, if anything, Madison might give the roster after a one-year sabbatical, but his road back wasn’t made easier with Jenkins’ addition.
Outlook: Linsley has played every snap the past two seasons, a streak of almost 2,500 consecutive that dates to 2016. If he misses a snap in 2019, expect Jenkins to slide in at center.
Defensive linemen (10)
Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, Dean Lowry, Montravius Adams, Fadol Brown, Tyler Lancaster, James Looney, Kingsley Keke (R), Deon Simon, Eric Cotton.
Outlook: The Packers felt strongly enough about their interior depth to not re-sign Muhammad Wilkerson. Clark took a big jump last season and might become a Pro Bowler in 2019. Daniels is entering the final year of his contract after a disappointing, injury-diminished 2018. If the Packers can ever get anything out of Adams, their third-round pick in 2017, this group would be especially strong.
Inside linebackers (6)
Blake Martinez, Oren Burks, James Crawford, Ty Summers (R), Curtis Bolton (R), Randy Ramsey (R).
Outlook: Martinez enters the final year of his rookie deal. Can he become a Pro Bowler in 2019? He might want to be paid like one in a year. Nobody’s development will be more interesting to track than Burks'. The Packers have made clear they expect him to contribute this fall. It’s worth wondering whether Josh Jones will move to linebacker after the Packers overhauled their safety position.
Outside linebackers (8)
Za’Darius Smith (N), Preston Smith (N), Kyler Fackrell, Rashan Gary (R), Reggie Gilbert, Kendall Donnerson, Brady Sheldon, Greg Roberts (R).
Outlook: At long last, the Packers aggressively overhauled their outside linebacker depth chart. Gone are Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the latter still a free agent after the Packers released him in March. In their place, three of the Packers’ top four edge rushers are newcomers. The Packers targeted edge defenders who not only rush the passer but play the run. Smith and Gary also have the versatility to drop down on the defensive line.
Kevin King, Jaire Alexander, Tramon Williams, Josh Jackson, Tony Brown, Natrell Jamerson, Will Redmond, Chandon Sullivan (N), Ka’dar Hollman (R), Kabion Ento (R), Javien Hamilton (R), Nydair Rouse (R).
Outlook: The Packers have pumped a lot of resources into building their cornerback position. On the surface, it seems to have helped. King and Alexander are a talented pair of starters, while Williams provides a steady veteran presence and Jackson still has upside. But, at most, this position only goes four deep, and that’s without factoring King’s injury history, Williams’ age (36) and Jackson’s need to further develop. The Packers need to find a fifth, and possibly a sixth, cornerback. They’ve added lots of youngsters in the past year to battle it out.
Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage Jr. (R), Josh Jones, Raven Greene, Tray Matthews, Mike Tyson (N).
Outlook: Gutekunst wiped the slate clean on the back end of the Packers’ defense, entering 2019 with a pair of new starters. Amos’ playmaking near the line of scrimmage and Savage’s speed and coverage ability could form a nice tandem. Question is, what becomes of Jones? It’s a big offseason for the second-round pick from 2017.
Mason Crosby, Sam Ficken (N), JK Scott, Hunter Bradley.
Outlook: Crosby struggled the past two seasons. He followed his 78.9 percentage in 2017, the lowest since his nightmarish 2012, with an 81.1 in 2018 that included a five-miss game in Detroit and misses on a potential game-winning kick against Minnesota and a game-tying one vs. Arizona. How significant is Crosby’s competition with Ficken? He’d be wise to outkick the newcomer so he doesn’t have to find out. At least he’ll have the same battery. Scott and Bradley return for their second year after choppy rookie outings. Scott, especially, has a lot to prove. Gutekunst spent a fifth-round pick on him last year despite a solid rookie season from punter Justin Vogel. Scott’s 44.7-yard average was almost identical to Vogel’s 44.4 in 2017, and his 38.8-yard net average was significant worse than Vogel’s 41.6.
Heaviest player: Deon Simon, a 332-pound defensive end.
Lightest: Teo Redding, a 176-pound wide receiver.
Tallest: Yosh Nijman, a 6-foot-7 offensive tackle.
Shortest: Aaron Jones, a 5-foot-9 running back.
Oldest: Tramon Williams, a 36-year-old cornerback.
Most experienced: Aaron Rodgers, entering his 15th season at quarterback.
Youngest: Rashan Gary, a 21-year-old rookie outside linebacker who was born Dec. 3, 1997.
Most represented college: Mississippi State (OLB Preston Smith, G Elgton Jenkins, RB Malcolm Johnson, CB Will Redmond, LS Hunter Bradley).