Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur appear to have made their call at backup quarterback: The Green Bay Packers general manager and coach are going to roll with DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle, may the better man win.
Here’s an early prediction: Boyle, the undrafted rookie from last year, will beat out Kizer, a second-round pick in 2017, for the No. 2 job.
Gutekunst’s spending splurge on four free agents (Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner) revealed his priorities there. He’s standing pat at backup quarterback, at real risk because Aaron Rodgers has missed 14 games the last five seasons and sustained a concussion that knocked him out of the finale last year.
Really, though, about the only solid No. 2 available to the Packers was Tyrod Taylor, who went to the Los Angeles Chargers at two years and a $5.5 million average. That’s steep for a No.2.
There’s also a wild-card possibility still out there: trading for Josh Rosen, assuming the Arizona Cardinals really intend to deal him and draft Kyler Murray.
But unless Gutekunst and LaFleur love Rosen, they should steer clear unless he falls in their laps. That is, not for pick No. 30 overall, or their second-rounder (No. 44), either. A third-rounder? Sure. But doubt that gets a deal done when a couple other teams still need a starter.
Really, the lesson here is that Gutekunst has to get back to the Ron Wolf approach to backup quarterback. Draft one almost every year, so you always have a pipeline of prospects for your No. 2.
Wolf picked a quarterback in seven of his 10 drafts with the Packers even though Brett Favre was on the roster. All were taken in the fourth round later, and among those picks Wolf found four viable backups: Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks.
At the NFL owners meeting last week, Gutekunst hinted that might be his plan when asked what he thinks of spending $3 million to $4 million on a veteran backup.
“In a perfect world, you’d love to have a younger guy who you think has starting ability that you could develop behind the starter,” he said.
A lot of observers might assume Kizer is the clear favorite to win the backup job, and he has advantages, no getting around that.
The Packers’ front office, including then director of player personnel Gutekunst, reportedly liked him a lot coming out of Notre Dame in 2017. Then last offseason Gutekunst traded a former first-round pick, Damarious Randall, to acquire Kizer. And Kizer has far more NFL experience (15 starts, 949 snaps) than Boyle (zero and zero).
LaFleur also was Kizer’s position coach at Notre Dame for one season, though Kizer was a freshman redshirt so that probably matters little.
Still, based solely on what I saw on the practice field and preseason games last year, Boyle was the better passer. Kizer ended up the No. 2, but Boyle had at least as good and maybe the better training camp, though he had far fewer snaps as Kizer and Brett Hundley battled for the backup job.
Boyle is unlike most of the quarterbacks the Packers bring in, because he’s a pocket passer rather than a guy who makes his share of plays outside the pocket. Not that he’s a bad athlete — he ran a 4.75-second 40 and had a 35½-inch vertical jump at his pro day last year — but he plays the game as a pocket passer.
That was one of the differences last year in camp. Kizer was quick to bolt the pocket; Boyle mostly stood tall and got the ball out.
Boyle’s arm also looked stronger than Kizer’s, and his accuracy appeared to be at least as good.
“(Boyle’s) got a big arm,” Gutekunst said, “nice stature kid, really does a nice job from the pocket.”
It’s still hard to square what we saw in camp with a college career that saw Boyle throw 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions at the FBS level with Eastern Kentucky as a senior. Those are not the numbers of an NFL prospect.
But Boyle showed what he showed last summer. He spun the ball and avoided turnovers well enough to win a spot on the final 53. Gutekunst was unwilling to risk sneaking him through waivers for a spot on the practice squad.
The questions now are, how much has Boyle improved? And will he continue to take care of the ball like he did in camp last year, or will the interceptions balloon the more he plays?
“He has some natural throwing ability,” LaFleur said at the owners meeting. “There’s not a ton of tape on him, so we’ll get a good feel for him throughout the OTAs and into training camp. But I certainly think there’s some redeeming qualities he possesses that give you some excitement.”
Kizer has arm talent and great size (6-feet-4, 235 pounds), and he’s actually 15 months younger (23) than Boyle (24). But his inability to win even one game in 15 starts with Cleveland two years ago, along with his 4-8 record in his final season at Notre Dame suggest something is missing.
He did nothing to dispel that in the two games he played after Rodgers left with injuries. He put up a 40.5 rating, threw two especially careless interceptions and was sacked four times, including one in which Chicago's Khalil Mack simply ripped the ball from his hands.
“That’s what it’s all about, right?” Gutekunst said of Kizer’s winless record. “They have to play, they have to progress, and at some point he has to cross that threshold. Like I said, he’s putting the time in. We certainly like the skill set. We’ll see how it goes.”
Said LaFleur: "There’s some things that we’re going to work on to clean up from a balance standpoint and from a footwork standpoint. I know he’s working hard right now, he’s out in California working with a guy I’ve had experience working with, Adam Dedeaux, just working on those fundamentals that are critical to effective quarterback play."
Both backup quarterbacks have a new start with LaFleur, whose background is coaching their position. He will make the call.
Kizer has the name and pedigree, but I’d bet on Boyle to be the No. 2.