In looking over the Packers draft picks during general manager Brian Gutekunst’s two years on the job, it looks to me that Green Bay continues to generally draft conservatively, usually sticking with consensus choices in the first few rounds. However, Gutekunst has twice pulled a draft pick out of his hat that few had predicted – and those two choices have not gone well to date.
Salary Cap Strategy
From a salary cap standpoint, it’s critical that high draft picks perform well – and almost immediately – as a pro. High draft picks work for peanuts under their initial pro contracts, so it’s critical that teams take advantage of this financial windfall.
Take the Cowboys – please. They drafted two talented skills players, RB Ezekiel Elliott and QB Dak Prescott, in 2016. Zeke, being the fourth overall draft pick, was making about $6.2 million per season under the contract he signed as a rookie; this season, though, he jumps up to $15M – a 242% increase.
Then there’s the QB. Dak was bopping along at $680,000 per year; in 2020, he is suddenly at about $29 million. That’s over 42 times as much as he had been making – and he’s not even a top-tier QB!
The time for Dallas to contend for a Super Bowl was while these two stars were still on rookie rations. Instead, they went 9-7, 10-6, and 8-8 over the last three years. The Cowboys’ window on getting a Lombardi Trophy just closed. Yes, they still have Zeke and Dak, but they had to ransack the rest of the roster to pay those guys, along with DE DeMarcus Lawrence ($21M average) and WR Amari Cooper ($20M average).
I can’t say it often enough: you’ve got to get your high draft choices (presuming they are worthy of being chosen when they were) out on the field as soon as possible. A corollary to this: your high draft picks should be high-impact-position players, because it’s those who have the biggest affect on wins and losses. Note: in addition to QBs, WRs, and RBs, I count highly skilled (not average) CBs, OTs, TEs and edge rushers as high impact players.
As for Green Bay, Blake Martinez just saw his pay jump by a factor of 15 over what he was making during his first four years. While they couldn’t afford to retain him, the Pack did get four bargain years out of Blake.
Unfortunately, GM Gutekunst has had two high draft picks in two years fail so far to contribute much while they are being modestly paid under their initial contracts.
In Round 3 of 2018 (88th overall), first-year GM Gutekunst went with Oren Burks, a 6’3”, 233-pound linebacker out of Vanderbilt – the Pack even traded up to get him. I recall clearly that broadcasters were scrambling to find out just who Burks was. Most prognosticators had him as a fourth- or fifth-round selection.
Other than for his bench press reps being in the 25th percentile, Burks had fine NFL Combine marks: dash time (4.59) in the 81st percentile, both agility drills of over 80, and both jumps in the 90s. While he was invited to play in the Senior Bowl, in four years he never made an all-conference team.
His college career simply was not outstanding. In four years, his tackling totals went from 37 to 52 to 59 to 80. By comparison, linebacker Blake Martinez had 102 tackles as a junior and then 138 as a senior. Martinez also was named First-team All-Pac-12 as a senior – and yet he wasn’t chosen until the fourth round of the draft, 131st overall.
It’s easy to say that Oren’s pro career has been slowed due to injuries – he’s gone down in both of his pro preseasons. Still, he’s been healthy enough to play in 26 out of 32 regular season games. That he’s only earned four starts, all as a rookie, is due to lack of performance more than health issues. In his two pro seasons, Burks has produced just 35 tackles, and zero sacks, passes defended, interceptions, forced fumbles, or fumble recoveries.
Those aren’t the stats of a playmaker – he’s made negligible impact. Frankly, if not for being drafted in the third round, I doubt that Burks would still be on Green Bay’s roster.
I’d say that the second ILB position has turned out to be the Achilles heel of the Packers defense over the last two years. Had Burks lived up to the team’s lofty expectations, it’s almost a sure thing that the club would have finished far better than 11th worst in the league in rushing yards surrendered in 2018, and tenth worst in 2019.
For some history, it’s a problem that first arose when steady ILB Jake Ryan suffered an ACL tear in training camp in 2018, and entirely missed what would have been his fourth season with the team. Though Jacksonville picked him up in 2019, he spent all but 10 days of the season on injured reserve. Memo to Gutekunst: Ryan is now a free agent – how about calling him in for a physical?
I think the under-performance of Burks has had a markedly negative effect on the entire Packers defensive effort for the past two years. It’s forced a bunch of guys to play out of position.
Here’s what Gutey had to say upon drafting Burks two years ago:
“I think because of his athleticism, there’s more of a need for guys like him. At the same time, this is no small man now. He’s over 6-3, he’s 233 pounds, he was the No. 1 tester of the inside linebackers on our board. So, he is not small by any means for today’s inside linebackers. We think he’s very versatile the fact he can play both inside spots. We think his best football is ahead of him. The athletic gifts he has and his two years of experience as a linebacker, we think it’s all headed in the right direction.”
Gutey envisioned Burks as being the quintessential hybrid ILB, who would fit like a glove in Mike Pettine’s defensive scheme. Despite two unproductive years, on February 25 Gutey was sticking with his man:
“I feel really good about Oren (Burks). He’s got to stay healthy, but I think he has all the talent in the world to be a productive player for us.”
Though the contract Burks signed as a rookie runs through 2021, I’d say the upcoming campaign is a make-it-or-break-it season for Gutekunst’s surprise draft pick.
History repeated itself for Gutekunst in the 2019 draft – but this time it wasn’t on the Packers’ 88th pick, but the 12th. With the Packers highest draft choice since 2009 – when B.J. Raji was taken at #9 overall – Green Bay went with Rashan Gary, a 6’5” 277-pound outside linebacker/lineman out of Michigan.
Everyone agrees that Gary has exceptional speed for his size: 4.58 dash time, 97th percentile for defensive linemen (though he’s also listed as an outside linebacker). There is considerable debate, however, about how well he played in college. In three years at Ann Arbor, he accumulated 23, 58, and 38 tackles, 9.5 total sacks, and one forced fumble. He did utilize his quickness, however, in compiling 23 tackles for loss.
Those who accord honors on college football players have been exceptionally kind to Gary. He was voted All-Big 10 in both his sophomore and junior years.
His high school career was even more notable: as a senior he was named by USA Today as an All-American and as its Defensive Player of the Year, and by 247 Sports as the Composite National Player of the Year. Coming out of high school, he became onlythe third player to be named the country’s top player by all four major recruiting networks (247Sports.com, ESPN.com, Rivals.com, and Scout.com). The last player so honored was Jadevon Clowney.
On Day 1 of the 2019 draft, Gutekunst already sounded defensive about Gary’s collegiate output:
“Production is just the way you look at it. He affected the passer, he affected the game. At times he wrecked it.”
Packers’ college scout Joe Hueber went into further detail:
“He commanded a lot of attention at Michigan: double-teams, triple-teams, taking on the tight end. Really, you saw it in some of his teammates, they got freed up and they were able to get the production. When you watch him, he was all over the place, taking on these blocks and getting a lot of pressure too.”
Playing largely last season as a backup to Za’Darius and Preston Smith, the rookie managed to have 21 tackles (3 for loss), 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, and 1 fumble recovery.
After Gary’s first pro season, Gutekunst remains upbeat:
“I disagree with [the claim that he didn’t contribute much]. I thought he contributed quite a bit. He was behind two really good players so he didn’t see probably the normal snap time that you would see from a first-round draft pick. But when he was in there, I thought he affected the game.”
While it’s undoubtedly true that the Packers felt that Gary needed time to develop into the player they envision, draft selections as high up as was Gary are seldom thought of as being developmental projects.
On the season Gary was on the field for 244 (23.5%) of the defensive snaps. If one were to quadruple his numbers to simulate those of a full season, it would work out to 84 tackles, 8 sacks, 12 QB hits, and 4 fumble recoveries. Viewed from this angle, perhaps Gary has played okay. Maybe the criticism should be directed at Gutekunst, because he already had signed two top-notch starters, the Smith boys, ahead of Gary on the depth chart.
I’ve not joined in with the Gary haters to date. I’m going to keep an open mind and sense of optimism going into the young man’s second season – he’s only 22. So long as Gary plays up to his abilities, even if he never lives up to the expectations of a number 12 draft choice, he might well turn out to be a solid contributor to the team for years to come.
It seems to me that Green Bay has little choice but to put Gary into the starting rotation in 2020, and find out what he’s got. Since the two edge jobs are spoken for, they need to reserve a spot for him in the interior line, alongside defensive lineman Kenny Clark.
He would seem to be too light, at 277 pounds, though perhaps his burst can compensate. I also wonder if he’ll be asked to add 10 or 15 pounds to his 6’5” frame. I’ll grant you the Packers have not fared well in the past at trying to move high draft choices back and forth between linemen and OLBs – think Mike Neal, Nick Perry, and Datone Jones.
If nothing else, Mike Pettine should have endless options along the defensive line. During the second half of last season, he was lining Za’Darius Smith inside, outside, right, and left. Perhaps Gary and Dean Lowry, whose 6’6” and nearly 300 pounds, will split time as interior linemen.
Clark, by the way, is another one of those players who will see his paycheck zoom next year – by about 500% – with the Packers or someone else.
In the meantime, I wish that in the early draft rounds the Packers would stick to players who have performed at a very high level during their collegiate years. This is not the time to speculate that a guy might develop over time into an asset. The time for taking risks or getting creative is Draft Day 3 (Rounds 4-7).