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Draft-day disruptions disappointing, but Packers 'very well prepared to attack this thing'

Jim Owczarski
Packers News

GREEN BAY - Brian Gutekunst has been building the roster for the 2020 Green Bay Packers from his home for more than a month due to Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order, but over an intense three-day period, beginning Thursday, he will be sitting alone in a room just off his living room conducting an NFL draft unlike any other.

At the beginning of April, the NFL informed teams the draft would be done virtually, with every team, selected prospects and commissioner Roger Goodell all participating online and via webcam instead of gathering with a few hundred thousand fans on the Las Vegas strip. There will be no red carpet, custom suits, “war room” cams or excruciating green-room waits.

But at its core, nothing has really changed.

“Though it’s a lot more complicated than this, the reason we can move forward with the draft unlike a game is that ultimately it’s one big conference call even in a normal year,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business and league events.

Going virtual

Most NFL personnel have been operating away from their facilities, and one another, for the better part of two months so the foundation of running a virtual draft has been laid for quite some time. The league’s official technological partner is Microsoft, so the league will be using its Teams platform to connect all clubs to one central draft hub.

On the simplest level, Gutekunst can just come off mute and announce his pick.

Beyond that the league has built in redundancies for each team through Amazon Web Services’ cloud systems and league partners Verizon and Bose, along with standard phone and email options. This process was tested several times, including a “mock draft” on Monday.

“Those are the means and though many things are different and certainly this is more robust in terms of the redundancy, the core process of a team deciding who it’s going to select and communicating that in centrally to the league is not terribly different,” O’Reilly said.

General manager Brian Gutekunst oversees the Packers' war room in 2019. He won't have that luxury this year.

Along with Gutekunst, the Packers will have two other people capable of making each draft pick just in case the general manager is disconnected. Gutekunst did not reveal who those people were, but noted he is allowed to have a club security officer and information technology staffer on site to assist him.

“A lot of (Monday’s mock draft) was getting comfortable with how I was going to communicate with not only the league and other teams, but also with the guys, like if I wanted to talk to multiple people at one time or guys individually, so we kind of went through that,” Gutekunst said. “We got a lot of answers. That was the big thing, was kind of getting through this and finding out the answers to how we really want to do this.”

And, if all backups somehow fail, the league will allow teams to “stop the clock” in order to make the pick or consummate a trade.

What may prove wholly different for Gutekunst is his home “war room,” along with head coach Matt LaFleur’s, appearing on the shared ESPN, ABC and NFL Network broadcasts. The Packers do not usually allow those networks to place a camera in Lambeau Field for the draft, but NFL Network’s senior vice president of programming and production Mark Quenzel said every GM and coach will have a camera.

“There are protocols with what they can show and when they can show it, but general access to them (is there),” Quenzel said. “It’s also designed by the league to make sure that, in this unusual situation, that all the competitive areas of the draft are equal and that everyone has the same technology and the same availability to each other and to their other resources. All teams will have cameras. All coaches and all GMs will have cameras from where they are drafting.”

Gathering information

After the NFL scouting combine in February, the scouting of this season’s draft prospects came to a screeching halt. Pro days were canceled, as were any private workouts. The 30 prospects the teams were allowed to host could no longer do it in person, but in virtual meeting rooms. And most importantly, no medical re-checks could be done on athletes who had such questions.

It is important information, but for those who have run draft rooms there is a feeling the 2020 draft will show which general managers and personnel departments really know how to scout and project off in-person viewing and game film.

“It’s going to be more of a scouts' draft and a GM’s draft,” said longtime NFL scout and former Chicago Bears college scouting director Greg Gabriel. “And the GM will be by himself so regardless of what’s going on in conference calls he’s still the guy making the decision.”

Teams didn’t just start scouting this class last fall – some players have been on their radar for years. And they had access to visit players not only at the combine and the Senior Bowl, but several other all-star games over the winter.

“An experienced, confident GM is going to make hay in this setting,” said Randy Mueller, a former general manager in New Orleans and Miami who ran virtual drafts for franchises in the American Alliance of Football (AAF) and the XFL.  “Guys who really aren’t known as evaluators or aren’t confident in making selections on their own, I think they’re going to struggle. From that standpoint alone it’s going to be fascinating to me, to see who pulls off what.

“The guys who wanted it pushed back are the guys that  weren’t ready or aren’t comfortable doing it on their own.”

As one of Bill Belichick's top personnel men in New England from 2001-08, Kansas City’s general manager from 2009-12 and Atlanta’s assistant general manager from 2014-19, Scott Pioli said there has been more than enough prep work done for any scouting department.

“The tape is there,” said Pioli, now an analyst for CBS Sports. “Here’s the other thing: Every team has had scouts on the road looking at these players and gathering information on this group of players since last May. And they have gathered information. They have talked to people. They have met with people. They have met these players.

“Teams talk about collaboration, they talk about gathering information, this is where if you have a good system in place and you have good people in place and you trust those people and you listen to those people and they’re giving you accurate information, you’re pretty far down the road.”

A virtual war room

Mueller laughed. He conducted his draft of the AAF’s Salt Lake Stallions from his deck and the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks from his kitchen, with his daughter and wife helping him manage his board.

“It was crazy,” said Mueller, who spent nearly 30 years in the draft rooms for Seattle, New Orleans, Miami and the Los Angeles Chargers. “But it was scouting at its purest and it was awesome.”

In that way, Gutekunst may appreciate this week’s most unusual draft. After all, he spent 13 years as a college scout and two years as director of player personnel.

But he acknowledged he’ll miss the natural adrenaline created in the Lambeau Field draft room.

“For me personally not being in our draft room with our guys together, it’s just disappointing,” Gutekunst said. “I think we work very well together, it’s an exciting time, there’s a lot of juice. Having those guys around ... it won’t be the same. But at the same time I think we’re very well prepared to attack this thing and accomplish what we need to accomplish.”

Gutekunst is conducting his second draft with director-football operations Milt Hendrickson, a career-long scout in Baltimore who was hired in January 2019.  Co-directors of player personal Jon-Eric Sullivan and John Wojciechowski, along with the rest the Packers' player personnel staff, have extensive scouting backgrounds and have spent ample time with Gutekunst building his roster. Having gone through one draft with LaFleur will also pay dividends.

“There will be times where there’s a certain amount of guys that will be on an open line where you’re conversing the entire time, and there’s other times whether it be our doctors, certain scouts that aren’t in town, where I may talk to them one-on-one,” Gutekunst said. “But I can’t give enough credit to (director of football technology) Mike Halbach and his staff and what they’ve been able to come up with to get us prepared for this, because certainly that’s not in my wheelhouse. They were on top of it, and I feel very comfortable with what we’re going to.”

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But don’t think there will be chaos on Gutekunst’s screens, with personnel folks frantically waving in their window to be unmuted. That’s not how draft rooms work anyway. An area scout isn’t going to try to get through to “stand on the table” for a player who is unexpectedly available. Veteran draft room participants like Pioli, Mueller and Gabriel said all the emotional plays, the heavy conversations and debates have already happened.

Draft day is not a movie.

“This idea that there’s chaos in a draft room is foreign to me,” Pioli said. “I’ve never worked with a club that had chaos in the draft room or that had panic in a draft room. Have things gotten down to the wire and down to the clock, yeah, but that’s your choice to be in that circumstance to try and ride out a trade to the last minute.

“Some of the perceived drama that allegedly happens in draft rooms is made-for-TV stuff.”

Trades and undrafted free agents

The groundwork for any potential deals in the first round of the draft has already been laid through conversations this past week, which is not unlike any other draft. But where things could get tricky for Gutekunst is if he wants to get really aggressive with his nine other picks in rounds two through seven.

He said he’ll be looking to move into areas of the draft he feels are strong, and those rounds only have five minutes between picks and sometimes, those trade calls happen quickly.

“I think it’ll go like it would,” Gutekunst said of potential draft-day trades. “The difference will be obviously we have four or five guys who work the phones during the draft, and they’re usually all sitting to my right. As calls come in or we call people to know what’s out there, they’re communicating with me. Those same four or five guys are going to be communicating with me; obviously I’ll see their voices, I won’t be able to see their facial expressions.

“So for me, just hearing their phones ringing and knowing that, hey, there’s something there, it’s helpful. Not being able to really see that is really more the distance. So I have to wait for them to say, 'by the way, we have this out there, we have this out there,' instead of just being able to see the phone ring, pick it up and knowing something’s going on, on the other line. So from an instinctual ,,, the way I’ve done it in the past, that will be a difference. Other than that, I’ll be in constant communication with those guys. If I’m not dealing with their team individually about the trade, I’ll let them know kind of what’s on the table, and we’ll go from there.”

Where actual confusion may reign is immediately after the draft. Teams begin contacting potential undrafted free agents as early as the fifth round and some deals are agreed upon in principle. But even in a normal setting with everyone in the same room, there are overlaps and miscommunication.

“It’s already chaos when you’re all under the same roof in the same building and now you’re spread out everywhere,” Mueller said. “Who keeps track of this? How is this going to be controlled? How do we even know when we get a guy signed? That to me is where the chaos (is).”

And, undrafted players and their agents will have to be prepared for a call-back rescinding an offer – or even a team hearing they didn’t land a player they thought they did.

“It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened,” Mueller said with a chuckle. “I remember sitting at the table, the scouts come in and say we signed this guy and OK, well, we signed this guy too? And that’s when we’re all together. The undrafted free agent part of this draft is going to be one of the more interesting stories to tell when all the dust settles.”

As for the Packers specifically, Gutekunst said he’s letting go of the reins regarding the undrafted pool of players.

“We’re not going to be able to get together, so I’m just really fortunate that I have a bunch of experienced guys that I can turn it over to,” he said. “I’ll still be heavily involved but not like usual. They’re excited and I’ve always said as a scout, that’s a part of the draft that’s really important for our craft, and we’ve always taken a lot of pride in it. As you guys know, we’ve had really good players come out of the crop so I expect our guys to do a really good job finding some players.”

The show will go on

By Sunday morning, the Packers will have their draft picks locked in and a list of undrafted players with whom they’ve agreed to terms. They’ll have a pool of players they’ll bring to Green Bay on a tryout basis, if such a tryout can happen once on-field activities resume.

The buildup for the 2020 NFL draft has been most unique, but it still comes down to scouts identifying players they feel can help teams in the near-term and in the years to come. For Gutekunst, that has not changed.

“You’ve got to get to a point where you make it simple, so you know exactly how you want to communicate, you know exactly how you’re going to go about it,” Gutekunst said. “I’ve been in the draft room for 20-some years. For the most part, it’s a very similar process throughout because, obviously, Ron Wolf had a way he did it and it carried on throughout Ted Thompson and, obviously, I am carrying on in a very similar way.

“I wanted to make sure as we got through (Monday) and the next couple days that I felt very comfortable in how I was going to communicate and go through my process with the guys that I count on. I thought it went pretty well (in Monday’s mock draft). There were a few things that came out of (Monday) that were very much, ‘OK, this is how we want to do this and this is not how we want to do that,’ which was important. We have a couple more things over Tuesday and Wednesday – trial-run things that, by the time we get to Thursday, I’ll be overcoached on it but I’ll feel pretty good about it.”