The hard work for Coach LaFleur has just begun, while the general manager’s work is mostly done. It’s an appropriate time to take a calm and unbiased look at how Brian Gutekunst has done in his second year as the lead procurement officer for the Packers.
As you’ll recall, the 2018 season spiraled downward for the Packers, spirits were down, the future Hall of Fame quarterback was irritable and under-performing, the team’s pass rush was inept, injuries had compromised the defensive backfield, and special teams play was deplorable.
Something – many things, really – had to be done, and quickly.
First, a new head coach was chosen. The Packers quickly latched onto the guy who I believe was the top available candidate – by a wide margin. La Fleur is youthful, energetic, and innovative, but he’s also an 11-year veteran NFL coach, having served in several capacities, and under a sterling group of mentors. Job One, well done.
Many thought at the time that LaFleur was being handed a dilapidated roster of players: few stars, several veterans who were on the decline, and a dearth of game-changing talent. In short, there were many holes to be plugged on both sides of the ball.
Fast forward eight months. On paper, which is all we have to work with presently, the pass rush has been reborn. With the departures of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry replaced by the likes of Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and backed up by holdovers Dean Lowry, Montravius Adams, and Kyler Fackrell, and with Rashan Gary being given time to develop his physical gifts, the pass rush should be one of the team’s strengths in 2019.
The defensive backfield is certainly improved. The starters, Jaire Alexander and Kevin King, are solid and maturing. Tramon Williams, and the rising Tony Brown and Raven Greene, make for a solid supporting cast of cornerbacks. At safety, good riddance to Ha Ha. New arrival Amos Otis and high draft pick Darnell Savage, are almost surely upgrades – a lot is expected of Savage, who might be the only rookie who starts for the Packers on opening day.
Through no fault of Gutekunst, the inner linebacker job opposite the reliable Blake Martinez fell prey to preseason injuries: first Oren Burks, and then impressive newcomer Curtis Bolton. Gutekunst didn’t panic. Seventh-rounder Ty Summers and returning backup safety Raven Greene, each of whom had impressive training camps, will suffice as temporary fill-ins. As added insurance, Gutey on September 2 obtained linebacker B.J Goodson from the Giants for next to nothing.
Briefly, Goodson was a fourth-round pick out of powerful Clemson in 2016. After being a special teams player in his rookie season, he’s been the starting middle linebacker for most of the past two years, and in that time he’s been credited with 114 tackles. Goodson is 6’1” and weighs 242 pounds. At the NFL Combine, his scores tended to be slightly above average, though his 30 bench presses put him in the 94th percentile.
Gutekunst was either good or lucky to get a veteran starter, for next to nothing, after the waiver deadline. It also appears that Burks might be back around Week 5, so the ILB shortage appears to be resolved.
On offense an already decent O-line has been bolstered by veteran Billy Turner and rookie Elgton Jenkins, the Pack’s second round pick (44th overall). Of all the new arrivals, Jenkins might be the most pleasant surprise: in 40 preseason game snaps, he allowed zero pressures on the quarterback; no other qualifying lineman matched that achievement during preseason.
Third-year running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams should be better than ever – and they are expected to prosper under Coach LaFleur’s creative offensive schemes. Fullback Danny Vitale had a great camp and the whole coaching staff is high on the guy as a blocker and receiver. Rookie Dexter Williams, who looked to me more like a third-round than a sixth-round pick in the preseason, could prove to be another gem of a draft pick.
My biggest worry was that the team’s receivers were long on depth but short on talent and experience. Much will depend on the maturation of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the large and physically-gifted second-year man – another guy who had the coaches beaming during training camp.
In the mix behind Davante Adams and MVS are Jake Kumerow, Geronimo Allison, roster-surprise Darrius Shepherd, and even Trevor Davis. I’ve come around to being comfortable, though not thrilled, seeing any of these role players out on the field. The loss of Equanimeous St. Brown for the year was regrettable, but the Packers had no shortage of promising receivers in camp.
Green Bay has a solid group of tight ends, from veterans Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis to upstarts Robert Tonyan and Jace Sternberger. I’m expecting future Hall of Famer Graham to have a bounce-back year.
Special teams prospects have nowhere to go but up – and the Packers have two good returners in Davis and Shepherd. Punter JK Scott and kicker Mason Crosby also had fine preseasons.
That leaves the quarterback position. I forget which forecaster this season has relegated Aaron Rodgers to “tier-two” status. I don’t believe it – the head coaching change is just what Aaron needed.
I know many fans don’t share my sense of calm and optimism. For those who love to worry, the backup quarterback slot should provide a nice bone to chew on. But even here I find it hard to fault the GM. He made a stand-up decision in releasing Deshone Kizer, who wasn’t getting any better in his third year in the pros.
What about Tim Boyle? Well, of 25 qualifying quarterbacks during the preseason (none were first-stringers) Boyle had: the highest passer rating (112.9), the most touchdown throws (6), and no interceptions. By the way, others with a top five preseason passer rating included Brett Hundley (100.4, 4th) and Taysom Hill (99.8, 5th). I know, Hundley has been there before, but Boyle’s exploits still beat a sharp stick in the eye.
Since there were few, if any, proven and available backup QBs loitering around this preseason, Gutekunst might have gotten bailed out by the strong-armed 24-year old who spent his final year at Eastern Kentucky. It was back on May 4, 2018 that the new GM first signed up the undrafted and little-known Boyle.
The final exams are over for NFL general managers. The roster holes have been plugged. I give Gutekunst an A grade.