Dougherty: Early drafts could make or break Packers GM Brian Gutekunst
Brian Gutekunst can only hope his first draft as Green Bay Packers general manager is as good as his predecessor’s first.
Think what you will of former GM Ted Thompson’s reign, there’s no denying his early drafts were outstanding. That includes his first, in 2005, when he picked Aaron Rodgers in the first round and Nick Collins in the second. The former changed the course of the franchise, the latter became an All-Pro safety. That’s what you call a fast start for a GM.
It’s on Gutekunst to try to match Thompson’s early drafts, because they likely will set the Packers’ course for the rest of Rodgers’ career and determine whether the new GM’s tenure is long or short.
Sure, there’s always the chance a big trade or free-agent signing could end up being Gutekunst’s defining move. But the NFL is a draft-and-develop league, and Gutekunst has espoused that philosophy, so the draft probably will prove decisive one way or the other. That’s usually the case, because if you don’t draft well early you’re probably out of work quickly.
This will be Gutekunst’s first time running an NFL draft, and no matter how hard he has prepared, he probably can’t fully appreciate what it’s like until he sits in the captain’s chair. But new or not, he needs to quickly rebuild the Packers’ roster and find a badly needed playmaker or two while Rodgers is still in top form.
DOUGHERTY: Lengthy to-do list for Packers GM Gutekunst
The history of the GM tree that sprung Gutekunst is a good one, as anyone who has followed the Packers knows. He’s the sixth Ron Wolf scout to take over a team, and the other five have been generally successful, though some more than others: Thompson and Seattle’s John Schneider have won Super Bowls; John Dorsey turned Kansas City into a contender and now has taken on the huge reclamation project in Cleveland; Reggie McKenzie has gradually rebuilt an Oakland franchise that was a disaster when he took over; and Scot McCloughan remains one of the game’s most respected talent evaluators, though he’s working as a consultant now because personal issues waylaid him in San Francisco and ownership dysfunction ended his run in Washington.
As for what to expect from Gutekunst’s first draft or two, the history of those Wolf protégés, as well as Wolf himself, show a range of possibilities but of course guarantee nothing.
Wolf’s first two drafts with the Packers, 1992 and ’93, weren’t his first two in charge — those came when he was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ GM for the 1976-77 drafts. He had to wait 15 years to get back at the helm, but his first two with the Packers were excellent.
He missed on his first pick with Terrell Buckley at No. 5 overall, but he also had the No. 19 pick in the first round in ‘92, and in case you’ve forgotten, he traded that to Atlanta for Brett Favre. You could stop there and call that an all-time draft.
But Wolf also spent a second-round pick as compensation to San Francisco for coach Mike Holmgren, another excellent decision. Third-round pick Robert Brooks became a very good receiver, fourth-rounder Edgar Bennett was a core player on a Super Bowl champion team and sixth-rounder Mark Chmura was an All-Pro tight end once and made three Pro Bowls.
In ’93, Wolf’s first-rounder was linebacker Wayne Simmons, who set the tone for the ’96 championship defense that led the league in fewest yards allowed. Third-rounder Earl Dotson started 88 games at right tackle in his 10-year career, and sixth-round cornerback Doug Evans had a 12-year career that included 62 starts with the Packers.
“The first year it was trying to get a feeling for each, for what the staff wanted in players, the types of players they wanted,” Wolf said this week. “It was hit and miss to some degree. Once we got that first year under our belt, it became pretty simple.”
Thompson likewise started fast. Getting Rodgers and Collins in his first draft was huge. In his second draft, he missed on the No. 5 pick overall with A.J. Hawk, who played a lot of games (142 with the Packers) but was never the difference maker you’re looking for with a pick that high. But Thompson scored with his second-round pick, Greg Jennings, who went to two Pro Bowls and probably ranks as the fifth- or sixth-best receiver in team history.
Schneider's early drafts in Seattle helped form the core of a team that from 2012-16 went 56-22-1, won one Super Bowl and lost in another.
In Schneider’s first draft, 2010, he landed a premier safety (Earl Thomas) in the first round, a good receiver (Golden Tate) in the second round and a four-time Pro Bowl safety (Kam Chancellor) in the fifth. Then in ‘11, Schneider drafted a likely future Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback in Richard Sherman (fifth round), as well as another core defender in linebacker K.J. Wright (fourth round), who has played in a Pro Bowl.
Dorsey in his first draft had the misfortune of holding the No. 1 overall pick in a 2013 draft that has proven to be the worst first-round class since at least the turn of the century. He picked tackle Eric Fisher, who if nothing else has been much better than the No. 2 selection overall, tackle Luke Joeckel.
In the second round, though, Dorsey landed the Chiefs’ best offensive player, tight end Travis Kelce. His only player of any distinction in the ’13 and ’14 drafts was Dee Ford, who had 10 sacks in 2016.
McCloughan is harder to sort out because he ran the 49ers’ personnel department as vice president of player personnel from 2005-07 but shared responsibility for the draft with coach Mike Nolan. They made a huge error with the first pick overall in ’05 when they took Alex Smith over Rodgers. That one still has to hurt.
But in the third round McCloughan selected a possible Hall of Famer in running back Frank Gore, and the next year picked tight end Vernon Davis, who was the 49ers’ best receiver during their years as a contender and has played in two Pro Bowls. And in his third draft he selected an elite linebacker (Patrick Willis) and Pro Bowl left tackle (Joe Staley).
McKenzie, on the other hand, was hamstrung by the awful circumstances he inherited when he took over the Raiders in 2012. Because of bad trades by former Raiders owner Al Davis, McKenzie didn’t pick until the third round of his first draft.
So in part because of that, his first two drafts were nondescript, including a swing and miss on the upside of cornerback D.J. Hayden in the first round in ’14. But McKenzie turned around the franchise with his third draft, 2014, when he landed a premier pass rusher, Khalil Mack, in the first round and quarterback Derek Carr in the second.
Gutekunst, on the other hand, takes over a team that has a premier quarterback and a wealth of draft capital with pick No. 14 in the first round and 12 selections overall. And unlike when Wolf joined the Packers, Gutekunst already knows what coach Mike McCarthy is looking for in offensive players, though he has had to start over on defense with new coordinator Mike Pettine.
The Packers’ roster needs a quick rebuild. To do that, Gutekunst needs to live up to the best of Wolf’s legacy.