GREEN BAY – In advance of the 2019 NFL draft, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and his scouting department decided to do some due diligence on some of the quarterbacks coming out of college. They notably hosted Missouri quarterback Drew Lock for a top-30, pre-draft visit. They tried to bring in Daniel Jones, the eventual No. 6 overall pick, but schedules wouldn’t allow for it.
Manny Wilkins was on that list of top 30 visits as well, but his appearance in Green Bay didn’t create a ribbon on the bottom of a newscast or breathless social media postings.
“We got a chance to really sit down with him, watch a lot of tape with him,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said. “I thought he was a pretty impressive guy and he had a pretty good career. Definitely has some of those traits that you look for in a quarterback.”
Four different offensive coordinators and offenses in Wilkins’ final four seasons at Arizona State, consistent competition for his job and a knee injury that required surgery at the end of his college career were some of the circumstances that led to the undrafted free-agent route he was going to take, but he chose Green Bay for a reason.
On paper, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a team with a future Hall of Fame starting quarterback, a former second-round pick as one of the backups and another whom Gutekunst kept on the 53-man roster all of last season.
But it was one of those quarterbacks who helped convince Wilkins come to Green Bay.
DeShone Kizer and Wilkins had met through mutual acquaintances in high school and stayed in touch, so during the pre-draft process Wilkins reached out to Kizer for advice. And then again after the draft, to tell him of some of his offers.
“I told him if he could get himself to Green Bay it would be an awesome opportunity to learn from Aaron (Rodgers),” Kizer said.
Which is what Wilkins has been doing, along with Kizer and Tim Boyle since the veterans joined the rookies for practices in May. And some of those Wilkins traits LaFleur said he liked in the pre-draft visit – being a natural thrower and fearless in the chaos of a collapsing pocket – have come through early in training camp.
Running back Dexter Williams noted some other traits as well.
“He takes control, he gets everyone to listen and he’s definitely becoming a leader,” Williams said. “He’s learning from the great Aaron Rodgers and also DeShone Kizer and Tim. Him learning from those guys, you can see he’s catching on fast.”
So much so that LaFleur said the rookie was earning more reps after Saturday’s shoulder-pad session. During that practice, which Boyle missed because of a personal matter, Wilkins continued to show zip on the ball, accuracy and an ability to get out on the move. He scrambled for a touchdown during red-zone work Saturday.
“The one thing I like about Manny is he does have a lot of athleticism that he can create some off schedule like you saw at the end of the practice there,” LaFleur said. “You know, a young quarterback that I think has continued to show some progress. I think he is, quite frankly, earning himself some more reps as well.”
In that regard, Wilkins said he’s just following instructions.
“I was told coming in here that when the reps come just make the most of them, so I’m not counting reps, I’m not out there hoping for anybody to mess up; the reps that are given to me I gotta make sure I capitalize on them,” he said. “I’m going to make mistakes. But I learn from those mistakes and it’s in my head to not make those same mistakes again.”
Wilkins flashed that accuracy and athleticism once the pads came on over the weekend, rolling to his left to avoid a free rush by Randy Ramsey and throwing accurately to tight end Evan Baylis despite his feet not being set in team period Sunday. He also hit Teo Redding with a perfect teardrop throw over the helmet of Nydair Rouse in one-on-one work. But he’s also had his rookie moments, like flat-out dropping the ball in the pocket Saturday or misfiring on some short throws.
“One thing I’ve really talked to coach LaFleur about and Tim, Aaron and ‘D.K.’ is simply, right now, is not trying to do the complex thing,” Wilkins said. “It’s about doing what the offense tells you to do and not operating outside the system. So you get a feel for why we are doing what we’re doing. It’s been good. I have three guys in front of me that I respect a lot. There’s no animosity. We’re all out here trying to earn a job and just making the most of what comes.”
Wilkins had done enough in just a few short days to make it difficult on the head coach and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to work in repetitions for all four quarterbacks.
“He has a lot of swag,” Kizer said. “He seems unfazed at all times. He’s smooth, he’s calm and collected. A deep thinker, he likes to think things out and really understand things and ask the right questions. That confidence he’s able to do from that deep thinking allows him to go out and rip the ball around, not like most rookies are able to.”