Brian Willis Gutekunst has now conducted three drafts as GM of the Green Bay Packers. In his first two years as GM, Gutekunst, much like Thompson, has seen a long tenured coach fired, and hired a new coach with minimal previous head coaching experience.
As a scout and executive trained in the Ted Thompson system, he has already stepped out of Thompson’s shadow with a heavy investment last year in top tier free agents Za’Darius and Preston Smith. While Thompson has been criticized for his lack of interest in free agency, he had long term success in the draft. Gutekunst has so far followed his own path in free agency, but what about his draft strategy?
Three drafts is not enough time for true player evaluation, especially the 2019 and 2020 drafts. However, twenty eight selections over three years is enough to analyze Gutekunst’s overall draft strategy and compare it to Thompson’s.
NFL GMs are notorious for summarizing their draft strategy as nothing more than, “picking the best player on the board.” This oversimplification utterly fails to address the following truism. NFL football teams field 22 starters every Sunday and the GM must fill every team need. Failure to meet ALL of those needs will ultimately put a GM face to face with a well known league acronym; NFL stands for, “Not for Long.” There is no civil service protection for NFL GMs.
Trying to compare the first three drafts of Gutekunst with Thompson’s has inherent difficulties. With team needs often driving draft strategies and position and player strengths being different in every draft year, position by position draft comparisons are impossible. However, three drafts can be used to identify both specific and general tendencies of Gutekunst and Thompson.
Ted Thompson made concerted efforts to accumulate extra draft picks. Perhaps the ultimate example of this was his refusal to release Brett Favre in free agency, despite Favre’s Super Bowl win and 16 years as the team leader. The pick received in a trade for Favre was packaged with another second and third round pick, allowing the Packers to move up and ultimately draft Clay Matthews III. This move to select Matthews, was the only time in his thirteen year run as GM that Thompson traded away picks to move up in or into the first round.
In Thompson’s first three drafts he manipulated the board and accumulated a total of 34 picks. Thompson had eleven, twelve, and eleven draft picks in 2005, 2006, and 2007 respectively.
Gutekunst has traded back but also has traded up repeatedly. In 2018, as his first act as a GM in an NFL draft, Gutekunst traded back out of the first round, pocketing an extra first round pick in the 2019 draft. Thompson must have felt like a proud father. Gutekunst then made a move that probably made Thompson want to take back the keys to the car. In his second act as an NFL GM, Gutekunst gave up draft picks, trading back into the first round, to draft CB, Jaire Alexander. In three drafts Gutekunst has drafted a total of 28 players, six fewer than Thompson’s first three years. In 2019, even with an additional first round pick secured from the prior draft, Gutekunst drafted a total of eight players. Interestingly, the first time Thompson drafted only eight picks was in 2009, his first draft with two first round picks. Another interesting side note is Thompson’s best “grades” for his drafts seem to be his draft of Rogers, followed by the drafts of 2009 and 2010, two drafts in which Thompson had only eight picks each year.
Wide receivers and running backs are paid to make big plays with the ball in their hands. Defensive backs get paid to stop those plays and create turnovers. Wideouts and defensive backs are most likely to field three or more players at their positions on any given snap. Three drafts allows the average GM to draft one player for each starting position as most teams average 8 picks each draft. To cover every need, playmakers need to be prioritized by GMs.
In Thompson’s first three drafts, he drafted six wide receivers. Three of those receivers were drafted in the first three rounds. Thompson also selected six defensive backs in his first three drafts. Two of the six were taken in the second round. Thompson drafted three running backs in his first three drafts. All three taken in his third draft. One of those selections was second round pick Brandon Jackson.
Gutekunst has taken a decidedly different approach to playmakers. In three drafts, Gutekunst has drafted only three wide receivers. He has not drafted a WR in rounds 1-3. To put this in perspective, Thompson invested 30 percent (3 of 10) of his most valuable draft picks to the wide receiver position. Gutekunst has invested zero percent, not one of his top three picks on a wide receiver. Another side note, in 13 seasons, Thompson only drafted 2 tight ends in the first three rounds. Both of them third round picks; Richard Rodgers and Jermichael Finley. Gutekunst has already drafted two tight ends in the third round in just three drafts. Does Gutekunst value tight ends over wide receivers?
Gutekunst has drafted five defensive backs, three of them in the first three rounds. Gutekunst also drafted two running backs, one in the second round, A.J. Dillon. These numbers are too close to develop a true distinction between the two GMs.
The biggest similarity between the two GMs could be at QB. Both gave up first round picks to draft a “futures” QB that has potential while still having an All Pro QB under contract.
Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson are in the Packers Hall of Fame. Each have Super Bowl wins on their resumes. A Super Bowl win in the next three years will add the name Brian Willis Gutekunst to the Hall’s walls. If no Super Bowl comes soon, he may be branded as the GM who wasted Roger’s final years. And, he will face that dreaded NFL acronym. It is a risk/reward potential that comes with the job. So far, Gutekunst has not been afraid to take risks. A trait he shares with former Packer GM Ron Wolf. That could make all the difference for the Packers.