Dougherty: Brian Gutekunst puts his stamp on Packers' draft
Here’s the bird’s-eye view of Brian Gutekunst’s quirky first draft as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager.
His biggest roster concerns were cornerback, receiver and special teams. He wasn’t nearly as worried about his team’s suspect pass rush and big opening at starting right tackle.
Sure, the draft board has a big say over how the Packers’ draft fell. But GMs have wiggle room to maneuver for players they want, and with 12 picks going in Gutekunst had the means to maneuver, which he proved with a couple big trades on Days 1 and 2.
But in three days of drafting, Gutekunst showed that he was happy to go extra-heavy at cornerback, receiver and special-teams specialists, and equally fine with doing less than the bare minimum at outside rusher and right tackle.
NFL DRAFT: Complete pick-by-pick draft choices
The GM’s decision to draft cornerbacks (Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson) with his first two picks, while extreme, made sense considering the team’s issues at that position. Throwing multiple later-round picks at his receiving corps, much like his predecessor did by selecting three running backs last year, makes sense too, especially with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.
But then also drafting not one but two specialists – a punter (JK Scott) in the fifth round and a long snapper (Hunter Bradley) in the seventh – was a head scratcher for a team that had as many positional needs as the Packers.
In the end, what matters in any draft class is whether it produces a few good players, or maybe one great one, regardless of position. Maybe the two cornerbacks will help the Packers’ defense immediately and a lot.
But it’s hard not to wonder whether come November and December, Gutekunst will be ruing his decision to wait until a final-pick flier to take an outside rusher (Kendall Donnerson of Southeast Missouri), and to not add a possible starter at right tackle, assuming Bryan Bulaga won’t be back from his ACL reconstruction until late October or November.
“It would be nice to come out of every draft and feel like you filled all the holes you think you have,” Gutekunst said Saturday evening, “but that’s never the case. So you try to take really good football players, because you really don’t know what your needs are going to be come September. I think we stayed disciplined to the process and not try to get out of that. We feel really, really good right now.”
The Packers will be looking for Alexander and Jackson to upgrade their pass defense early. One and maybe both figure to be starters in the Packers’ nickel defense this season.
The decision to pass on an edge rusher until the seventh round included trading back in the first round instead of choosing Marcus Davenport at No. 14. He’s the player New Orleans took at that spot after trading with the Packers. So he's a guy to keep an eye on the next few years.
Gutekunst’s decision to accept future compensation (a 2019 first-rounder) to trade back, and then spend a third-rounder to move back up for Alexander, also cost the Packers a valuable top-100 pick in this draft. That opportunity cost included the chance to spend that third-round pick or trade up from there for a rusher or tackle.
Gutekunst talked about the possibility of making roster moves between now and the start of the season, as the Packers’ GM always does after the draft. But while a meaningful move can’t be ruled out, it’s not likely. The draft usually is the last chance to take some big swings, and right or wrong, Gutekunst was not bullish on the rushers in this draft.
“I don’t think it was a particularly great edge rusher draft,” Gutekunst said.
The two big quirks of the GM’s first draft, both coming on Day 3, were selecting three receivers and two specialists.
With Jordy Nelson cut, Randall Cobb in the last season of his contract and Davante Adams having sustained three concussions the last two seasons, I don’t fault Gutekunst for going hard at receiver. It worked last year at running back, and the receivers he took this week appear to be more talented than the two late-rounders Thompson drafted last year (DeAngelo Yancey and Malachi Dupre), neither of whom made the 53-man roster as rookies.
It’s never a bad idea to add receiving talent when you have a premier quarterback to get them the ball, especially if the class is deep.
“We had a good board with wide receivers this year,” Gutekunst said, “and some guys lasted up there a lot longer than we thought.”
What jumps out about the three receivers is their uncommon size and speed, though they’re later-round prospects for a reason. Fourth-rounder J’Mon Moore of Missouri is the shortest (6-2 5/8) and slowest (4.60-second 40) of the group. Fifth-rounder Marquez Valdes-Scantling of South Florida is 6-4 and ran an exceptional 4.37-second 40 at the scouting combine. And sixth-rounder Equanimeous Brown of Notre Dame is even a little bigger (6-4 ¾) and plenty fast himself (4.48 40).
So the Packers got taller and faster at receiver. In fact, they surely have the tallest receiving corps in the NFL, and for all I know the tallest in league history, depending on which ones make the final roster. Besides the three rookies, two returning receivers who will be in the hunt for playing time this season stand taller than 6-3: Geronimo Allison (6-3 ¼) and Michael Clark (6-5 5/8).
All bets are off for playing time and roster spots behind Adams and Cobb.
“You’re always looking for bigger targets,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “It makes sense doesn’t it? I mean, bigger catching radius, completion percentage. But I think it’s just really a reflection about how we felt about them as players. So, yes, I think any quarterback would prefer to throw to a bigger target, no disrespect to the smaller targets. But I’ve always preferred bigger receivers.”
The selections of the two specialists was the strangest part of this Packers draft. I don’t think I’d ever draft a long snapper, though maybe Gutekunst was trying to save every penny he could by moving on from veteran Brett Goode. Taking a punter in the fifth round is rich, but at least Gutekunst didn’t trade up for him, like Mike Sherman did for B.J. Sander in 2004.
“The special-teams emphasis was something I wanted to make sure we put a stamp on," Gutekunst said.
On taking Scott he added: “In this particular case we had a player we thought was rare and we decided to go ahead and pull the trigger.”
Gutekunst also drafted only one offensive lineman even though he has open starting spots at both guard and tackle on the right side. Fifth-rounder Cole Madison of Washington State is the latest in the line of later-round tackles (Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and JC Tretter) that the Packers picked to move inside. Gutekunst wouldn’t rule out Madison working at right tackle, but it looks like he’ll initially be a guard, and you have to think he has a legitimate shot at winning the starting job at right guard.
With no right tackle added, it’s looking like the early favorite for protecting Rodgers’ right edge will be Kyle Murphy, who has outperformed 2016 second-round pick Jason Spriggs through their first two years in the league.
Bulaga had knee-reconstruction surgery in mid-November, so he’ll have to be back at full speed in a speedy 10 months if he’s going to be start in Week 1. You can’t rule it out, but no matter what the Packers say about his progress now, I’d put better odds on him being on PUP to start camp and the regular season, and not being ready to play until halfway through the season.
“(Bulaga’s status) early in training camp will be a huge indicator,” McCarthy said. “But all I can tell you is he's ahead of schedule based off of what I've seen with the communication with the medical staff.”
So Gutekunst’s first draft is in the books. It was a strange one, and you still have to wonder about the pass rush, this season and beyond. But he spent his chips as he did, and only time will tell us how wisely.