Though Brian Gutekunst, in his third year as Packers’ personnel guru, had been heavily criticized in in the runup to the 2020 season (myself included), his decisions are looking better and better after the Packers’ beatdown of the Vikes.
Starting with the inside linebacker problem, Gutey didn’t pursue Blake Martinez, knowing he would command a high price as a free agent, and in fact the Giants gave him a three-year deal at $10.25 million per season.
Instead of going after the top free agent ILBs (Cory Littleton, Joe Schobert, Nick Kwiatoski), Gutey focused right away on Christian Kirksey, nabbing him for two years at an average salary of $6.5 million. Kirksey has been a very popular acquisition, and his 12 tackles on Sunday (in only 52 defensive snaps) – the same number as Martinez got for the Giants – suggests he’s a solid addition to the defensive unit.
In a similar vein, the GM sought out a mid-tier player to replace Brian Bulaga at right tackle. He signed journeyman Rick Wagner to a modest two-year deal for $11 million. Wagner did a fine job on his 42 snaps in Minnesota.
The salary cap prevents teams from paying everyone high salaries. Gutey has done a good job of allocating most of the money to those in the skills positions.
At draft time, Gutey shocked everyone by picking QB Jordan Love in the first round. We’ll have to wait to see how that turns out, but assume for a moment that Rodgers suffers another serious injury in the next two to four years. Unlike his backups in 2013 (Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien, Matt Flynn) and 2017 (Brett Hundley, Joe Callahan), Love conceivably will be able to keep Green Bay competitive for the remainder of the season.
Gutey shocked us again in the second round of the April draft, picking muscle-bound running back A.J. Dillon. The huge man already quieted many of the critics in the course of training camp. He could emerge as a great complement to Aaron Jones – and if Jones goes elsewhere next year, Dillon could be a great bargain as his replacement. Brian definitely keeps an eye on the future.
Then there’s Tyler Ervin, who showed his speed and ability on Sunday on all of his three rushes, his sole pass reception, and his free kick return. Where did Ervin come from? At the tail end of last season, Gutekunst spotted him on the waiver wire, and grabbed him just before Christmas.
The veteran 27-year-old was re-signed on March 30, for right around $1 million for the year. I would have liked to see a multi-year deal, but at any rate his versatility was on full display against the Vikes. A great pickup!
The Packers are obviously high on their stealth inside linebacker, Krys Barnes. His story is that Gutekunst immediately pounced on him after he went undrafted out of UCLA. Still, it was a shocker that Barnes was picked to start ahead of both Oren Burks and Chandon Sullivan. Barnes proceeded to rack up seven tackles, including five solos and two for losses – in just 15 snaps. Pro football Focus graded Barnes as the Packers’ top defensive player in the game. Could the youngster, who was a high school teammate of Jordon Love, prove to be the answer to Green Bay’s long search for a second base formation ILB?
Both LaFleur and Pettine don’t hesitate to go with who’s playing the best, not who has the best pedigree or was drafted the highest.
Gutekunst’s third-round pick was Josiah Deguara, a 238-pound tight end out of Cincinnati (the American Conference). He didn’t draw a lot of interest in training camp, as the Packers appeared to be deep at the position. However, in the season opener, Deguara was awarded with 24 offensive snaps, often as part of a two-tight-end formation.
Josiah was targeted twice and was the only Green Bay tight end to catch a pass. The coaching staff also singled him out for his rough-tough blocking.
Another Gutekunst “find” who excelled on Sunday was Allen Lazard. He was another late-season acquisition, acquired by waiver in December of 2018. He hung on, and barely made the team’s active roster on September 4, 2019. After not getting any action until Week 6, Allen got his chance, and proceeded to make 35 catches, for 477 yards and three touchdowns the rest of that season.
Lazard picked up where he had left off on Sunday – his line was four catches (in four targets), for 63 yards and a touchdown – and he looked comfortable, and in synch with Rodgers, in doing so. Remember Gutey saying, following the 2020 draft, that he wasn’t going to draft a receiver whose prospects were no better than those he already had on the roster? Lazard and Valdes-Scantling substantiated that bit of wisdom over the weekend.
Cornerback Chandon Sullivan, signed by the Eagles as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2018, played sparingly that year and was waived on May 1, 2019. The Packers’ GM swooped in and signed him up five days later. Not only did Sullivan make the team, but he quietly had 30 tackles and 6 passes defended in playing in all 16 regular-season games last year.
In April Gutey signed him for another year as an exclusive rights free agent. Sullivan, almost unnoticed (he’s #39), was on the field Sunday for 36 of the 52 defensive snaps, and he recorded three tackles.
Rashan Gary, Gutey’s puzzler of a first round draft pick a year ago, is coming along. After his sterling training camp, Mike Pettine found a way to play him Rashan on 32 of the 52 defensive snaps. Though he recorded no sacks, he was credited with two tackles, and he led the team with two QB hits on Kirk Cousins.
Offensive lineman John Runyon, chosen by Gutekunst this spring in the sixth round, didn’t figure to see action against the Vikes, but injuries caused him to be sent in for 15 plays. The rookie was error-free on eight pass plays and seven run plays.
Brian Gutkunst’s draft picks over his three-year tenure have been controversial. Though we won’t know how well they’ll turn out for a few years, things are starting to look quite encouraging.
When it comes to acquiring undrafted free agents, or claiming players off of waivers, Gutekunst seems to have a knack for finding diamonds in the rough – and the coaching staff hasn’t been shy about giving such guys opportunities to play.
Gutekunst’s predecessor, Ted Thompson, put dozens of UDFAs, but with very few positive results. In particular, Thompson brought in around a dozen marginal defensive backs in just his last few years, and they almost invariably played poorly and quickly washed out of the league.
I’d say that Gutekunst has had more success in picking up unwanted or discarded players in his three years than Thompson had in 13. And if Thompson, who shunned the free agent market, were the GM, this team would be without Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos, and Billy Turner.
Other overlooked players that Gutey has brought onboard, and who saw action beyond special teams on Sunday (along with their offensive or defensive snap counts) are: S Will Redmond (24), DL Tyler Lancaster (23); OLB Tipa Galeai (9), WR Malik Taylor (1), and TE Jon Lovett (1).
In addition to sixth-round pick Jon Runyan, other late-round draft choices who got in Sunday’s game were two seventh-rounders: LB Jonathan Garvin (6) and S Vernon Scott (3).
The fact that all nine of the Pack’s 2020 draft picks are still part of the team is unusual. I’d day that Brian is a superior judge of football talent.
It also appears that Matt LaFleur is much more inclined than was Coach Mike McCarthy to give unheralded players a chance to show their stuff. And by the way, I see that Big Mike was absolutely savaged by the press and Cowboy fans for his predictable play calling in Sunday’s loss – which comes as no surprise to TP viewers.
Who will be next to get his chance to blossom: CB Perry Nickerson (just signed off waivers), T Yosh Nijman, G Simon Stepaniak, LB Randy Ramsey, LB Kamal Martin?