Packers' Draft Strategy Is Daring, With No Margin for Error.

Posted April 28th, 2019 @ 05:04pm

You can say one thing about the drafting mind of Brian Gutekunst: he's willing to take chances and he did just that on opening night of his second go-around running the Pack's draft--just as he did a year ago.

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you know that when the Packers were on the clock at 12, their highest drafting position in a decade, I had some firm opinions: my top options were Brian Burns, Christian Wilkins, Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat or Marquise Brown. Guys I didn't want: Noah Fant and Rashan Gary.


It's not that I don't think Gary has the potential to be a star; I mocked him to the Lions at eight. It's just that he has 'boom or bust' written all over him and I thought there were some surer bets still on the board. I'm never a fan of 'freak' athletes whose numbers blow you away, but whose play doesn't match the measurables. I'm also not crazy about drafting those kinds of players who also happen to be injured. Gary disputes the torn labrum report, pointing to the 26 bench reps he did at the combine. But it sounds like his labrum will need some medical attention at some point.

By all accounts, he lives and breathes football, always practices hard and wants to get better. Anybody that runs a 4.6 at 277 pounds gets your attention. His physical attributes are similar to Za'Darius Smith and it sounds like they expect Gary to be in the outside linebacker rotation. Others believe he's better suited up front. Regardless, Mike Pettine likes to move everybody around in the front seven and Gary should be able to do that eventually. With the Smiths, Clark, Daniels, Lowry and Martinez, there are a lot of high character, productive players in the Pack's front seven who should be able to help unlock his potential.

There is a level of bust-ability with this pick and if Gary doesn't become a difference-maker, and I have my doubts that he will, the Pack will have whiffed on a big opportunity to help this team reload at a critical time.

Gutey's day one daring continued later in the first round when he parted with both early fourth round picks to move up nine spots to grab Maryland's Darnell Savage. He insisted he was certain he wouldn't have lasted to 30 and we'll never know for sure, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he thought Savage was worth the move, despite fellow free safeties like Adderley and Thornhill likely available at 30.

The Savage pick is getting the most love nationally among the Pack's new rookie class. When comps to Bob Sanders are being made, that gets my attention. Savage plays with an edge, like last year's first round pick and that's just what this defensive unit needs. He should step right into a starting spot next to Adrian Amos, with the ability to move up and play the slot corner at times, if needed. A versatile, hard-hitting, fast safety who is known to lead by example? A guy who one scout competed to the Honey Badger, without all the noise? I'm in.

Friday night, I went to the Avengers movie with my family, so I wasn't watching pick by pick. I had wide receiver on the brain, seeing all the big names sitting out there and knowing what a slot guy or a speed guy could do in Matt LaFleur's offense. The fact that Gutey ignored this position entirely, tells you that he believes in the three guys he drafted last year, along with Allison's return and Kumerow's possible rise. I still think they'll keep their eyes open for a veteran.

Instead, the Packers addressed the offensive line with the addition of Elgton Jenkins, the center/guard out of Mississippi State. After reading about his length, versatility and quickness, it's clear why the team pounced. He will immediately give Lane Taylor a run for his money at left guard, with free agent signee Billy Turner likely moving in at right guard. Assuming Bryan Bulaga has one year left in him, the Pack will hope that either Turner or Jenkins can be the long-term solution as his successor--or they'll reload in next year's draft.

The guard spot was a huge question mark a month ago, but with Jenkins, Turner and the return of last year's draftee Cole Madison, there is suddenly depth and competition there. There's a chance that Taylor, McCray and Patrick--last year's guards, could all end up out on the street.

I loved the third round pick, Jace Sternberger. The Pack had to find a young, athletic tight end who could cause matchup problems and the Texas A&M product could be just that. In most scouting reports, he was listed as the third or fourth best tight end in this class and may just be scratching the surface. After leaving Kansas and playing JC for a year, he broke out with the Aggies--so he's a one year wonder. I heard him compared to Travis Kelce on draft night and he says he plans to work as hard on blocking as he does on route running. He was not asked to do a lot of that at A&M. He'll learn from Graham and Lewis this year and likely get a chance to contribute quickly. If all goes well, he'll be the starter in 2020.

On to Saturday, where the Pack had to sit out the fourth round; payment for moving up for Savage. After an interminable wait, the Pack was finally on the clock at 150. My favorite RB, Memphis' Tony Pollard was gone (fourth round to the Cowboys), but there were a number of nice backs on the board. Gutey had other ideas, adding a defensive lineman, and teammate of Sternberger, Kingsley Keke. Reading his draft profiles, he projects as an ascending player with the physical tools to be a starter at some point. With Mike Daniels heading to free agency after this season, the Pack add another player to compete for that spot, along with Lowry, Lancaster, Adams and maybe Gary. It's tough to pass on another DL from the SEC, Gutey's clearcut favorite conference.

There was no way Gutey was going through the draft without adding a cornerback. Toledo's Ka'dar Hollman is a 4.37 speedster who has a chance to develop into a rotational corner, once he learns not to play with his hands (hopefully he won't study Josh Jackson's technique). He came up the hard way after going to work after high school and fighting his way to Toledo and now a day three draft pick. There are question marks at this position despite all the draft capital in recent years, so he'll have a shot.

The Pack finally added a running back with its next pick and Dexter Williams will have a chance to contribute immediately. He's had more than one issue off the field at Notre Dame but the Pack feels comfortable that those things are behind him. The emotional story of his mom facing terminal illness, yet planning to move to Green Bay with him, makes it hard not to root for him. LaFleur believes he's a perfect fit with his running style. Let's just hope that his nickname, Juice, doesn't portend bad things to come.

With the final pick, the Packers finally added an inside linebacker and they're getting good reviews on the addition of Ty Summers, from TCU. He was projected as a fourth or fifth rounder and appears to be a speedier version of Jake Ryan. He'll have a chance to contribute immediately on special teams and if he turns heads might get a chance on defense at some point as well.

Draft grades are like mock drafts: meaningless. But they're fun to read and reaction to the Pack's class ranges from A (Pro Football Focus) to C+ (Mel Kiper), with a bunch of Bs in between.

I think this class will ultimately be judged by what the two first rounders become. Gutey and his staff need to hit on these two picks. If they do, Pettine's defense could become the strength of this team in short order. If they don't, we could be in for another year of mediocrity.

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If Draft Falls Their Way, Packers Could Give LaFleur Some New Toys.

Posted April 22nd, 2019 @ 09:04pm

Draft week is finally here and with ten picks, including two in the first round and three in the top 44, Brian Gutekunst and his staff have a chance to add some key pieces to the roster and give their new coach some guys that fit the way they want to play on offense.

At #12 and #30, I think there is a good chance that Gutey will field offers to move down and add picks. For this year's exercise, I'm factoring in a pair of trades that, in the end, net Gutey one first round pick and three seconds.

A reminder that in the eight years I've done this, I've gotten exactly one player right: Randall Cobb. So take that with a grain of salt. Here's how I see the top of the draft falling, followed by my picks for the Pack.

1--Arizona: Kyler Murray, QB Oklahoma

2--SF: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State

3--N.Y. Jets: Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama

4--Oakland: Ed Oliver, DE, Houston

5--Tampa Bay: Devin White, LB, LSU

6--N.Y. Giants: Josh Allen, LB, Kentucky

7--Jacksonville: Jawann Taylor, OT, Florida

8--Detroit: Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan

9--Buffalo: Jonah Williams, OT, Alabama

10--Denver: Devin Bush, LB, Michigan

11--Cincinnati: Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State

12--Packers: TJ Hockenson, TE, Iowa--If a top defender like Oliver, White or maybe even Bush is still on the board, I think the Pack would go in that direction. But if the draft falls this way, I think the Pack will pounce on the multi-faceted Hockenson, who can step in quickly and be a capable blocker in the run game and provide a reliable third down and red zone target, as well as a downfield threat. I've seen him mocked to the Jags, Lions, Bills and Bengals, so there's no guarantee he'll be there at 12, but ultimately, those teams have bigger needs and I don't see them picking him. A number of prominent mocks have the Pack taking TJ's Hawkeye teammate Noah Fant here, but it seems too early to me. Fant could be in play at 30 if the Pack go in another direction here, but if TJ is gone, I see the Pack taking Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins at 12. He's everything you want in a D lineman, versatile, smart, a leader, extremely athletic and would look great alongside Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels. With the latter a pending free agent, he provides some insurance as well. A sneaky wildcard here is Notre Dame's DT Jerry Tillery, whom the Pack loves and who got a positive medical report on his shoulder this week.

(2) 36--Parris Campbell, WR, Ohio St.--The Packers trade down six slots and grab a Randall Cobb replacement that could become a taller version of Percy Harvin. The Packers trade pick 30 to San Francisco, for picks 36 and 105. Campbell is exactly the kind of player that the Packers lack and that LaFleur covets. A former track star, he has blazing speed and can be used in jet sweeps, bubble screens and serve as a threat in the middle of the field. He also steps into the long vacant kick returner role.

(2) 44--Juan Thornhill, FS, Virginia--Safeties are likely to fall off the board at the top of the second round (along with wide receivers) but the guy the Packers covet is still on the board here. A three time state champion high school basketball player, he would complement Adrian Amos perfectly, handling centerfield duties while Amos patrols near the line of scrimmage. This is a huge position of need for the Pack and they should have their choice of several good ones here.

2 (62)--Max Scharping, OT, N. Illinois-- Gutey jumps back into the bottom of the second round by swinging a trade with the Chiefs, who have yet to make a selection, but are willing to wait a little longer for an extra pick. Green Bay sends #75 and #114 to the Chiefs for this pick, where the Pack plucks the Green Bay native to learn under Bryan Bulaga for a year (or until he gets injured) and then step into the right tackle spot. Scharping dominated from day one at NIU and has proven in the post-season and at the combine that he can compete with the big boys. Pass protection needs some work, but he's expected to excel as a run blocker right out of the gate. We Packer fans just hope that this move works out better than the last time the Pack traded back into the second round to grab a tackle.

(4) 105--Germaine Pratt, ILB, NC State--As usual, the Packers will find a former safety-turned linebacker in the Oren Burks mold (and maybe Josh Jones, too). Pratt didn't become a starter until his senior season, but had a breakout year for the Wolfpack, earning first team all ACC honors. With Jake Ryan's departure, the Packers hope Pratt competes with Burks to earn snaps in Pettine's defense.

(4) 118--Austin Bryant, DL, Clemson--If the Packers don't land a defensive lineman before Saturday, Bryant would fit the bill as their first pick of the day. A two year starter who's obviously played on college football's biggest stage, Bryant needs to get stronger, but won't be counted on a lot in 2019.

(5) 150--Tony Pollard, RB, Memphis--The Packers need to add a quality third back and Pollard gives the Pack a different kind of runner, who also provides much needed return skills--he returned seven kicks for touchdowns with the Tigers. Watch a YouTube collection of his highlights and you will see what he could add to the offense. He's a terrific pass catcher and gadget play guy who would be an ideal third down addition to the running attack.

(6) 185--Porter Gustin, OLB, USC --Gustin reminded many of Clay Matthews when he arrived at USC, but those comparisons ended quickly because he couldn't stay on the field, missing a majority of his last two seasons. He works his butt off though and is as intense as they come, so the Pack take a flyer that he can stay healthy and try to untap that potential at the NFL level.

(6) 194--Gardner Minshew, QB, Washington St. --There's been a lot of speculation about whether the Packers might draft a QB early this year, since Brett Favre was the same age as Rodgers when Green Bay pounced on #12 in 2005. I think they'll wait till late in the draft to take a flyer and Minshew is intriguing. He doesn't have the strongest arm but he understands how to play and stepped into a difficult role with the Cougars (after the suicide of Tyler Hilinski) and led them to 11 wins. Packers bring him to camp and see if he can beat out Boyle for the QB3 role.

(7) 226--Blace Brown, CB, Troy--Surely the Pack can't go through a draft without adding a cornerback, so they take a shot on Brown, a nephew of Herschel Walker and a converted wide receiver. He tore his ACL near the end of the '17 season and wasn't fully himself last season, but teams like his instincts and football IQ. Could become a special teams ace and a rotational corner, for a group that has some question marks after Alexander.

Alright, faithful readers: take your shots and give me your thoughts on what you hope or think the Packers will do in the draft. As always, I'll analyze the first three rounds and look ahead to the later rounds on "In the Zone," Saturday at 8am on KFAN and iHeart Radio.


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The Times They Are A Changin'.

Posted March 13th, 2019 @ 05:03pm

The dust has settled on the Pack's most jarring day in free agency since they caused jaws to drop from coast to coast when they landed Reggie White, with a little help from the Big Guy upstairs.

In a dizzying day on Twitter Tuesday morning, we saw Gutey lock up four free agents who figure to step instantly into starting roles. Now, let's back up a moment. It wasn't too many years ago that the Packers rarely had more than two possible starting spots available from year to year. But a few bad drafts have caused parts of the roster to erode and the Pack had the capital and the proper mindset in the GM's office to do something about it in March, with an eye toward addressing it in a much more important way in the draft next month.

With Nick Perry and Clay Matthews no longer in the picture, the team needed to find younger versions to help make Mike Pettine's defense work. Preston Smith is a perfect replacement for Perry, built about the same and big, at 270 pounds. Smith will set the edge and add to the Pack's improved run defense, anchored by Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels. At 26 he's already considered a locker room leader and has not missed a game in four seasons. What a breath of fresh air.

You have to believe Gutey and his staff were urged to look at Smith by new inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who comes to the Pack from Washington, where he spent 16 seasons, helping coach a defense that finished in the top teight times. He may be back in Gutey's ear, telling him to bring in inside linebacker Zach Brown, whom the Skins released on Wednesday. At 29, Brown was third rated inside linebacker by PFF last season and might be had on a one-year prove it deal, especially if he loved his coach.

Za'darius Smith was the heaviest signing, from a dollar perspective. When the numbers came out on how the two linebackers' deals were structured, they'll both count for less than ten million against the cap and won't cost much after two years, if either guy goes belly up. But, watching Smith on tape, you have to be excited about what Pettine can do with him. He's also heavier, at 270, and has done his most damage when moved inside on sub packages, which teams are in the majority of the time. And Gutey's new right hand man, Wisconsin native Milt Hendrickson, comes from the Ravens, where he watched every game Smith played.

He played about two-thirds of the snaps with the Ravens and led them with 8.5 sacks in 2018--now that came in a contract year, so you always have to consider that. But I think in a perfect scenario he plays about the same percentage with the Pack, maybe 75%, presuming they land another pass rusher in the draft.

About that: despite signing the two Smiths, I think a guy like Florida State's Brian Burns is absolutely in the mix at 12. He would be a perfect Matthews replacement: He's lighter, quicker and would give the linebacker group a complete makeover. Yes, offense could very well be in play at #12 as well, at either offensive line or tight end, but the front seven depth in the first round this year is rare--he could even trade down, now that the team's biggest needs have been addressed.

Among those needs was a complete do-over at safety. The Packers aren't done here, but got off to strong start with the signing of ex-Bears safety Adrian Amos, who comes in at a very palatable $6 million against the cap. It's always nice to weaken a rival when you add a free agent and the Amos signing does just that. Is he Earl Thomas or Landon Collins? No, but he's cheaper, just 25 and has been healthy. He's an instant upgrade in the Pack's secondary.

The fourth signing was more of a head scratcher when it was first announced. Billy Turner is a local kid, Mounds View High School and NDSU alum, who trained this offseason right next door to the Vikings shiny new home, TCO Performance Center. While the Vikings decided he wasn't in their plans, the Pack swooped in and pounced with a four year, $28 million offer that will account about $4 million against the cap this year. He has played everywhere along the line, except center, with most coming on the right side.

He figures to have the inside track on the right guard spot, with guys like Justin McCray, Nico Siragusa and Lucas Patrick hoping to bump him off. He'll also be a much more palatable backup right tackle, if and when Bryan Bulaga gets hurt again. Yes, I expect the Pack to bring him back, and with Turner in the fold we should only need Jason Spriggs in case of grave emergency.

It sounds like the Packers are still about ten million bucks under the cap, and will have enough to add a few more players on value deals. Sounds like they're close with Mo Wilkerson and could look at a RB, WR and another safety.

We all know that teams that spend in March aren't always smiling in January. But teams have shown how using free agency wisely can make an instant impact (Rams). These four deals on day two of free agency make the Pack's roster stronger in the short term and won't hurt the team financially on the back end. They've addressed their most glaring needs by bringing in young, ascending players and betting that their best football is ahead of them. In year two of Mike Pettine's system, he has a much better feel for what he's got and what he needs. The front office has listened and delivered a youth and talent infusion. And with three picks in the top 44, they're not done.

Not a bad start to the offseason.



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