Dougherty: Packers' targets in free agency, draft constantly shifting

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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If you follow the Green Bay Packers closely, you’ve probably spent some time thinking and talking about what general manager Brian Gutekunst should do in free agency and the draft.

Should he swing big at a pass rusher or safety Landon Collins or even running back Le’Veon Bell? Or should he sign five guys at more modest prices? Should he add one pricey offensive lineman, or a couple cheaper? Or none and address that position in the draft?

And what about his first draft pick? Should he go for a pass rusher at No. 12 overall, or with a deep class at that position wait until pick No. 30 or the second round?

Should he take a tackle who might start immediately at guard, maybe Florida’s Jawaan Taylor or Alabama’s Jonah Williams? What about one of Iowa’s highly regarded two tight ends, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant? Or, if he’s by chance still on the board, inside linebacker Devin White, who ran a scorching 4.42-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine?

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Or should Gutekunst package No. 12 with No. 30 overall and trade into the top five for a premier prospect?

We all have our thoughts and opinions. But two things to remember:

One, though Gutekunst has plenty of resources (about $33 million in cap room and 10 draft picks, including four in the first three rounds), they’re far from unlimited. He can’t do everything in free agency and the first two days of the draft.

Two, the best-laid plans of mice and men. For all the planning general managers and scouting staffs put into free agency and the draft, none of them has much of a clue how things will turn out. That very much includes Gutekunst. One free-agent signing has a domino effect on the market, and any given team's signings usually alters its draft plans. Everything is connected and fluid.

“You work through all your ideas and honestly hope for the best,” is how a high-ranking scout for an NFC team put it this week.

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Teams begin setting their free-agent boards during the season and by now have finished them up, with their coaching staffs having weighed in over the past month. They set their initial draft boards in the several weeks before the scouting combine, then will have extensive meetings in mid-April to update their boards based on the combine and campus workouts.

Free agency hasn’t started officially, though it unofficially opened last week at the combine, where agents and teams discussed hypothetical deals. It’s against NFL rules but is the way things work. On Monday teams can begin talking contracts legally, and on Wednesday the signings begin.

But if you think Gutekunst or any GM targets the players he’s going to sign and draft, then goes out and does it, that’s not how it works. Instead, they game out scenarios almost daily, “If this, then what? If that, then what?” There are plans, contingency plans, and contingencies for contingencies, ad nauseum.

For instance, Gutekunst might prefer to sign Baltimore pass rusher Za’Darius Smith. But if he’s thinking $11 million a year and Smith’s price is more like $14 million, then what? Or maybe he wants Giants safety Landon Collins. But what if the GM draws the line at $10 million and Collins’ market is $12 million?

Before you know it, Gutekunst’s entire approach to free agency might have to change. He could go from looking to make a couple targeted signings to volume shooting, or from prioritizing one position to prioritizing another.

A high-ranking scout for an AFC team said a team’s preferred plans blow up far more often than not.

“It’s probably more that way than the other way,” he said. “You lay it out, ‘I’d like to get him, I’d like to get him, I’d like to get him.’ But when the feeding frenzy begins and the money goes through the roof, you have to have a cap guy and GM to say, ‘We were in it but not at these numbers.’

“Then the next guy you thought was going to be affordable and you get a bidding war there. You can end up losing three, four, five guys at the same position and get nobody.”

Keep that in mind as you think the offseason through. Gutekunst needs almost everything: at least two pass rushers, a starting guard and backup tackle, one and maybe two starting safeties, and at least one tight end. If they want to run the ball like coach Matt LaFlaeur says, they need another good running back. They need a slot receiver and could use help at inside linebacker, maybe cornerback too.

If Gutekunst signs an expensive free agent at any position, he’ll have a lot less money to fill in elsewhere. If he bargain hunts at a lot of positions, he could end up with pretty much the same needs list he had going in.

If he drafts a pass rusher at No. 12, he’ll be passing on a top tight end or offensive lineman, or maybe even a talented inside linebacker. With all his other needs, there’s no telling what positions his board will tell him to draft at Nos. 30, 44 and 76 overall.

This is a long way of saying that it’s all a big guess right now, and any number of options are on the table.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet Gutekunst goes for quantity in free agency over a big-ticket signing. And that he’ll take a pass rusher at No. 12. But that’s just a wild guess. You never know what players he has taken a shine to, and if things will look any differently in late April than they do now.

All we know is, Gutekunst and his scouts have their free-agent and draft boards. They’ve gamed out scenario after scenario. Next week they’ll start making those big calls for real, and on the fly.


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