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GM Gutekunst Still Defends Two Controversial Draft Picks

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.

Oren Burks tackles Richie James

Richie James (13) is tackled by Green Bay Packers linebacker Oren Burks (42) after a kickoff return in the first quarter at Lambeau Field. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Oren Burks

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.

Rashan Gary - Preseason 2019

Aug 8, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Rashan Gary (52) looks on during warmups prior to the game against the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Rashan Gary

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).

Tags:
Rob Born

I’m with Matt: “You gotta make those chunk plays!”

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22 Comments

  1. Andy Peth April 20, 2020

    Gary will make a Clowney-Clark jump in Year 2. I have no worries about him.

    Reply
    1. PF4L April 20, 2020

      Playing…where?

      Reply
  2. MJ April 20, 2020

    I might add that even if Gary turns out to be a great OLB/DE, but only in his third or fourth year, if you want him to stay beyond that, you end up coughing up FA rates. Yes, if you picked the guy you have the first say on whether to keep him or not, before someone else gets a shot to (over)pay him. But out of such a high pick, which we are not likely to get for a number of years (get-to-the playoffs-and-get-trucked makes you pick 20+), one may expect more impact.

    I am even OK with picks like HaHa and Lacy. We got two solid years from each, then someone else paid them. But none of them were the 12th pick!

    If we set a standard from those two guys –regarding rookie-contract yields — I would expect at least three years of solid contributions from Gary before having to make a financial decision. Not a bust yet, IMHO, if he turns it around in 2020.

    Reply
    1. Robert Jones April 20, 2020

      Gary is a first round pick and has the 5th year option. If he plays better this year, then they have him for those 3 more years before they make a final decision..

      Reply
      1. PF4L April 20, 2020

        Great, and how much is that 5th year option going to cost?

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        1. PF4L April 20, 2020

          If you haven’t decided in his first 3 years, you should probably find a new line of work.

          Reply
  3. Robert Jones April 20, 2020

    Owen Burks, Rashan Gary but no mention of Josh Jackson.. He is another player, who should have been included, that was drafted in the 2nd round and has done as little as Burks has so far.

    Reply
  4. Christian Roussel April 20, 2020

    To this day i still believe that he went up in the draft to get Arden Key. Key was sliding and Pack pass Rush was abysmal. Oakland snagged Key just in front of the Packers at 87. They had to settle for Burks at 88, knowing that the trade up was wasted.

    Reply
  5. PF4L April 20, 2020

    “From a salary cap standpoint, it’s critical that high draft picks perform well – and almost immediately – as a pro.”
    This is where we realize that we are still looking for a rookie draft class to perform right away, for idk how many years in a row.
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    When Gute describes Burks. It’s hard for me to imagine that Gute will be a great GM in this league. The most playing time Burks gets is on special teams, where i’d imagine many of his tackles are made. After 2 seasons, you know what you have, no matter how Gute wants to spin it. Lets be honest, Burks doesn’t contribute on defensive snaps, because he’s a liability. Sometimes i feel like i’m drowning in bs when Packer people speak.
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    Rashan Gary….where to start…..Rob pointed out some facts (the same FACT’S i’ve talked about ALL last season).
    He’s a tweener….that’s strike #1. Def. end in college, OLB in the pro’s . Eazy peazy right?
    Just like Rob has referenced in Neal,Perry, and Jones. It’s worth noting….that none of those players kept a job in the NFL after the Packers with the exception of Datone Jones who spent two years with 5 different teams and practice squads. My point is, lessons should be learned, Gute was sitting in the front row for all those picks.
    Then Rob brings up the point of….We have two starters at Gary’s position already. Out of all the flags, that’s the biggest one. You have no where to start him, Making a 12th draft pick a bench sitter, really? As Rob also stated, #12 picks are rarely bench guys or development players.
    Lastly, Rob touches on the most important thing. Besides drafting a guy 12th you have no room for. You draft a position conversion project of a player who most scouts viewed as a development player.
    Rob said it best with this……
    ” 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).”
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    Randoms…..I don’t know who Joe Hueber is…don’t care. But in his quote, he is saying how Gary set up his teammates in college to make plays. He says….”Really, you saw it in some of his teammates, they got freed up and they were able to get the production.”
    So my question is….since when the fuck, do you draft a guy 12th, who is there to “occupy” so other guys can make plays? The only G D thing he occupied..was the bench.
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    I know ya’ll are sick of reading about this, but humor me and ask yourself. What reason comes into someone’s mind that Rashan Gary needs to be picked 12th?
    If you said athleticism or potential. You may want to send the Packers your resume.

    Reply
    1. hacksaw April 21, 2020

      Thanks for telling us what he wrote…as id we could not read it for ourselves

      Reply
      1. PF4L April 22, 2020

        It’s about time i get recognized.
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        But better yet…Welcome to the website Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Thank you for all your own personal football thoughts and opinions. Let us know if you ever have any.

        Reply
        1. KzooPackFan April 22, 2020

          lol. sucks being new…

          Reply
  6. Big B April 20, 2020

    Good takes, but did you have to play the Jake Ryan card? Do you think he got faster with a turbocharged ACL reconstruction?
    Time will tell, but I think Gutey underperformed with his first round draft capital in 2019: two number 1 picks and we have Gary and Savage to show for it? BG needs to step it up. I’m kicking ass on fanspeak mock draft simulator and am happy to field a call and help if he’d just reach out to me.

    Reply
  7. PF4L April 21, 2020

    Rob…This sounds strange i know, but good article on Gute being off his rocker (a year ago). I have no clue how i missed it.

    Reply
  8. Kato April 21, 2020

    Kinda difficult to do physicals right now given current events. The Oren Burks one hurts, he was supposed to be their solution to being their coverage linebacker while being steady in the run game. Now, we are forced to play safeties at that spot, which obviously is less than ideal.

    Reply
  9. Jason April 22, 2020

    Don’t forget that Gary will pick up a lot of snaps that Kyler Fackrell received last year. The rotation at OLB needs to keep the Smiths fresh which I predict will give Gary up to 50 snaps per game. That’s enough to make a big difference on the field.

    Reply
    1. PF4L April 22, 2020

      i think they did spell the Smith Bros. last season. The problem with doing it even more just to get Gary on the field is you start turning them into part time players. You don’t do that, not for the cash they’re making but…
      …we’ll see.
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      When you have two high priced starters, and a 12th pick conversion project guy you need to give snaps to. That’s like trying to shove a square object into a round hole.
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      The only way Gary gets meaningful snaps at olb is if one of the Smiths gets injured, period. But under that scenario, you haven’t improved.
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      It was a bad pick…..plain and simple.

      Reply
  10. stiggy April 22, 2020

    Bad pick? Gutenkust should have been fired after that gary pick as he is inept in the draft

    Tomorrow will be his third draft class and yet…his entire first draft class is a complete waste (save for Alexander) and its looking like Gary is going to be a major bust….its not like he earned his way in to snaps…after week 6 he pretty much stopped getting pt.

    Gutenkust better blow us away tomorrow.
    .I don’t give a shit he got a first round pick from the saints when he squandered the 12 pick anyway.

    Reply
    1. PF4L April 23, 2020

      Yea..i hear ya. If i had the power, i might have fired him for kicking our TD machine to the curb, and then signing the worlds greatest tight end, wasting tens of millions. But sometimes i have a short fuse when a Packer legend (imo) gets disrespected like that.
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      Old and slow Jordy had 6 TD’s with Rodgers in the first 5 games of the 2017 season. Graham had 5 TD’s in two seasons, 2018 & 2019. No one needs a calculator to do that math.
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      And guess what…we’ve needed receivers ever since and it’s 2020.

      Reply
      1. PF4L April 23, 2020

        Under the article of….Did Packers Overpay for Jimmy Graham, March 28 2018.
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        PF4L March 28, 2018
        Is water wet?

        This was a bad signing on a few levels, none of which were brought up above.

        Reply
      2. PF4L April 23, 2020

        PF4L May 31, 2018
        Yes, it is a 2 year deal. Making Graham the highest paid tight end in the NFL. 1st year it dishes over 13 million, next year it dishes over 9 million. Not bad cash for the 13th rated tight end.

        Then you can cut him in his 3rd and gulp down 3.6 million in dead cap.
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        And what happened? They cut him his 3rd year.
        Maybe i just…..get lucky.

        Reply
  11. Sir Charles April 24, 2020

    Fire Gute, do it now!!!!!!

    Reply

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