In his first term as general manager of the Green Bay Packers, Brian Gutekunst is having a pretty good rookie season. Or offseason, depending how you look at it.
The additions that Gutekunst has made to the roster up until now has been quite unlike what we have seen from Ted Thompson over the past 13 years, when he held the same job title.
Let’s take a look at the roster moves that Gutekunst has made since he became GM.
The first acquisition that Gutekunst made was when he traded defensive back Damarious Randall to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback DeShone Kizer. Plus the Packers and Browns swapped picks in the fourth and fifth rounds in the 2018 NFL draft.
The move was made for two reasons. Randall had basically worn out his welcome in Green Bay, both with his inconsistent performances and his attitude. The addition of Kizer says a lot about how the team feels about the overall performance of Brett Hundley in 2017, as he took over for Aaron Rodgers after No. 12 fractured his collarbone in Week 6.
Hundley was 3-6 as a starter and he threw nine touchdown passes compared to 12 interceptions for 1,853 yards. No. 7’s passer rating was just 70.9.
Hundley was also sacked 29 times, as he had difficulty moving around the pocket and going through his reads.
Hundley did run for 270 yards and two scores, but he just couldn’t lead the Packers down the field consistently enough due to his passing deficiencies.
The 6’4″, 235-pound Kizer will push Hundley in 2018 for the backup job behind Rodgers. My money is on Kizer winning that battle.
Just a few days after the trade to pick up Kizer, Gutekunst really got busy. He first released wide receiver Jody Nelson, who was definitely a fan favorite in Green Bay. NFL scout Chris Landry told me that Nelson looked visibly slower in 2017, which was two years removed from a torn ACL in the 2015 preseason.
The release of Nelson cleared $10.2 million in cap space.
After the release of Nelson, the Packers signed tight end Jimmy Graham of the Seattle Seahawks to a three-year contract worth $30 million, with $22 million paid out during the first two years of the deal.
Graham will be a big red zone weapon for Rodgers to utilize, as well as someone who can stretch the seam down the middle of the field. Rodgers has taken advantage of that situation before in the past in Green Bay with other tight ends like Jermichael Finley and Jared Cook.
In his eight-year career in the NFL, Graham has 556 receptions for 6,800 yards and 69 touchdowns.
The 6’7″, 265-pound Graham has also been named to five Pro Bowl squads and was also named first-team All-Pro in 2013 by AP.
Shortly after inking Graham to a deal, Gutekunst signed defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, formerly of the New York Jets.
Wilkerson had played the first two years of his career with the Jets under the new defensive coordinator of the Packers, Mike Pettine.
The 6’4″, 315-pound Wilkerson signed a one-year deal worth $5 million, plus $3 million in incentives, according to Tom Pellissero of NFL Network.
In his entire seven-year career with the Jets, Wilkerson had 405 tackles, 44.5 sacks, 28 passes defensed, two interceptions, 11 forced fumbles and one fumble recovery (for a touchdown).
Wilkerson will make the defensive line of the Packers a very formidable force, along with Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark.
Not long after signing Graham and Wilkerson, Gutekunst brought back a former Packer, as he signed cornerback Tramon Williams, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. Williams also played under Pettine in 2015 with the Cleveland Browns when Pettine was the head coach there.
Williams, along with the re-signing of Davon House, will definitely help in tutoring the young cornerbacks on the Green Bay roster. The youth and depth at the CB position grew even larger because of the 2018 NFL draft of the Packers.
Before the Packers made their first selection in Round 1, the team traded back from pick No. 15 to pick No. 27 with the New Orleans Saints. The trade netted the Packers a first-round pick in 2019 from the Saints.
When the draft was over, the Packers had used their first two selections on cornerbacks (Jaire Alexander and Josh Johnson), drafted a cover linebacker (Oren Burks), added three big and fast wide receivers (J’Mon Moore, Marquez Vlaldes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown), selected an offensive tackle who will most likely play guard (Cole Madison), added some talent to special teams (punter JK Scott and long snapper Hunter Bradley) and added some late help to the pass rush (defensive end James Looney and outside linebacker Kendall Donnerson).
Gutekunst also added a number of undrafted rookie free agents to the roster, some of whom have a real opportunity to make the team. Center Austin Davis of Duke is one such player.
While the Packers certainly addressed a number of needs in the 2018 NFL draft, I thought there were three areas of concern which weren’t focused on.
Those areas were adding depth at the offensive tackle position, adding a run-blocking tight end and adding more help to the pass rush much sooner in the draft.
As it turns out, Gutekunst addressed two of those areas in free agency after the draft, as he added offensive lineman Byron Bell and tight end Marcedes Lewis.
The 6’5″, 320-pound Bell has made 74 starts in his NFL career, as he has played with the Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys. Bell, who is 29, has started at both offensive tackle positions, as well as at left guard.
The addition helps specifically at right tackle, as Bryan Bulaga is coming back from his second ACL tear and has been injury prone most of his NFL career. No. 75 has missed 43 games due to injury in his eight years with the Packers.
In addition to that, his backups (Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy) have also had injury issues.
The 6’6″, 267-pound Lewis is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. The Packers had two seam-stretching tight ends in Graham and Lance Kendricks, but neither is known for their blocking abilities. Lewis can block with the best of them and is also a threat in the passing game as well.
Lewis, was the first round selection of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2006 and has caught 375 passes for 4,502 yards and 33 touchdowns. Lewis was also a Pro Bowl selection in 2010.
In terms of how the pass rush for the Packers will improve in 2018, I still have concerns, but a recent article by Pete Dougherty of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin eased that matter somewhat.
I was concerned about Green Bay’s lack of a pass rush going into the draft. In 2017, the Packers were ranked 22nd in total defense, plus were only tied for 17th in sacks with 37. That lack of pass-pressure led to Green Bay being ranked 23rd in pass defense in the NFL and 31st in the opposing QB’s passer rating.
The Packers allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw 30 touchdown passes versus just 11 picks for 3,789 yards. That adds up to allowing a ridiculous passer rating of 102.0 for the opposing quarterbacks. Ouch.
Now Green Bay did add some nice talent to the cornerback position in the draft, plus also added a cover linebacker, but if an opposing quarterback has too much time to find an open receiver, he will eventually find one.
That happened far too often to the Packers in 2017.
Which was the primary reason Dom Capers was fired as defensive coordinator and replaced by Mike Pettine.
The track record of Pettine as a defensive coordinator is very good. In five years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, four with the New York Jets under head coach Rex Ryan and one with the Buffalo Bills, Pettine always coordinated a top 10 defense.
From 2009 though 2012 with the Jets, his defenses were ranked first, third, fifth and eighth in the NFL in total defense, while in 2013 with the Bills, his defense was ranked 10th in that category.
And when the Packers added Wilkerson in free agency to reunite with Pettine, that may have shed some light on where the Packers expect to field an effective pass rush.
Dougherty noted in his story about where the pass rush for the Packers might be coming from, via a quote from Pettine himself.
“People talk about the exterior pass rush,” Pettine said after a recent Packers OTA practice, “but I think the interior pass rush is as important or maybe potentially more important.”
That is what Wilkerson can add with his 44.5 career sacks on the defensive line. Combine that with Mike Daniels (27 career sacks) and Kenny Clark (4.5 sacks in 2017), you might just have a very good inside avenue to disrupt the passing prowess of an opposing quarterback.
The Packers also have enough depth in the defensive line to keep everyone fresh with players like Montravius Adams and Dean Lowry. Plus, the Packers added Looney in the draft and signed two intriguing undrafted rookie defensive line prospects in Tyler Lancaster of Northwestern and Conor Sheehy of Wisconsin.
As Dougherty writes in his story, the defensive scheme that has been put together by Pettine has always relied on inside pass pressure. And that is a big strength of the Packers with Wilkerson, Daniels and Clark.
“If I’m an offense, it’s a lot easier to handle guys off the edges via formation or chipping or doubles,” Pettine said. “Inside, usually somebody’s getting— one guy, maybe two — are getting one-on-ones. Those guys have to win. If you can be dominant inside, I think that just has a ripple effect throughout your defense when you’re speeding up that quarterback’s clock because you have guys winning inside or at least pushing the pocket.”
In Pettine’s four seasons with the Jets (2009-12), he never had an outside rusher with more than eight sacks, but he did got of lot of pressure and sacks from his inside linebackers and defensive linemen.
Based on what Pettine’s defenses has done in the past, it appears that the key is to get as many one-on-ones up the middle as he can.
“It’s paramount that you have guys that can win inside,” Pettine said.
But the guys on the outside have to help out as well. Clay Matthews (80 career sacks and 7.5 sacks in 2017) and Nick Perry (30.5 career sacks and 18 sacks the past two seasons) have shown in the past that they can be very good pass rushers. The problem with Matthews and Perry is keeping them on the field, as both have had injury issues throughout their respective careers.
That’s why young outside linebackers like Kyler Fackrell, Vince Biegel and Reggie Gilbert have to step up their game in 2018.
But the bottom line is that Gutekunst has upgraded the team in a number of areas, both in the draft and also in the liberal use of free agency, bringing in the likes of Graham, Wilkerson, Williams, Bell and Lewis.
The trade to acquire Kizer at quarterback also appears to be an upgrade.
The use of free agency was rare back in the days of Thompson, but when he dipped his pan in the free agency waters, he sometimes found gold, which was the case with both Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers.
Gutekunst was on Thompson’s scouting staff when both of those signings took place and they were obviously a lesson learned. That is not to say all of the free agency signings Gutekunst has made so far in 2018 will yield similar results, but all of the players he has signed have shown talent at times in the past, as four of the free agents he has signed have played in the Pro Bowl.
Add to the fact that the Packers have also made a number of coaching changes under head coach Mike McCarthy, with the biggest one being Pettine as the new defensive coordinator, the Packers appear to be a much better team in 2018, compared to last season.
Gutekunst has definitely aided that effort with the approach he has taken to add more talent to the Green Bay roster.
So far, so good, for the rookie.