GREEN BAY — In the days leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, Brian Gutekunst acknowledged that for all that best-player-available blather you’ve heard over the years, a team’s needs most certainly factor into draft-day decisions.
Over three days and nine selections, the Green Bay Packers general manager drafted accordingly.
With the specter of reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers’ unhappiness hanging over the proceedings, Gutekunst went about the draft as if he had a to-do list he needed to follow before he could go home and crack open a cold one from his famous garage beer fridge.
He wanted to replenish the offensive line and cornerback depth. He was ready to use a premium draft pick on a potential field-tilting wide receiver after ignoring the position over the previous two drafts. He needed to add to the defensive line. He was hoping to get another inside linebacker, to improve an oft-neglected position.
Check. Check. Check. Check.
“I’ve always believed that subconsciously, the way our evaluation process is done, that it’s all about our team. I don’t think (need) is something that we have to intentionally put in there,” Gutekunst acknowledged Saturday evening. “I think it happens kind of organically.
“Every year, you end up with a bunch of guys and you never really know how it’s going to pan out. But you usually have a little bit of a feeling how quickly these guys can adapt. And I feel really good about this group. I think there’s some guys that are going to help us immediately, and I just think that are all suited for long-term success in the NFL. I know that’s very rare and it doesn’t always happen, but I like all these guys’ chances.”
On Saturday, the Packers added six players to a class that began with Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes in the first round on Thursday, and continued Friday with the selection of Ohio State center Josh Myers in the second round and Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers in the third round.
Those players were Mississippi offensive lineman Royce Newman in the fourth round; Florida defensive tackle Tedarrell Slaton and Appalachian State cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles in the fifth round; Wisconsin offensive lineman Cole Van Lanen and Boston College inside linebacker Isaiah McDuffie in the sixth round; and Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill in the seventh round.
That haul gave the Packers three offensive linemen in a draft for the second straight year and two cornerbacks the team thinks can contribute immediately — vital additions at two positions for a team that has ended each of its past two seasons with losses in the NFC Championship Game.
On the line, franchise left tackle David Bakhtiari might not be ready for the season opener in September after tearing the ACL in his knee during a New Year’s Eve day practice, and the team lost first-team all-pro center Corey Linsley and valuable veteran guard Lane Taylor in free agency. At cornerback, the depth was thin beyond Pro Bowl corner Jaire Alexander, with an up-and-down Kevin King having returned on a one-year prove-it deal after finding little interest on the free-agent market.
“We certainly wanted to target corners and offensive linemen in this draft,” Gutekunst said.
In Myers, Newman and Van Lanen, the Packers believe they got three versatile linemen who can play inside or outside as needs dictate. The Packers have long put a premium on versatility on the line, and it served them well last season when they managed to be effective despite having to juggle lineups almost weekly.
“I think that’s a big reason we had so much success last year,” head coach Matt LaFleur said. “(To) add talent like we did over the last three days, that versatility is vital to our success as an offense and as a football team.”
Van Lanen, who grew up 15 minutes from Lambeau Field and played at Bay Port High School before playing for the Badgers, was the feel-good story of the day. Gathered with family and friends in the Green Bay suburb of Suamico, when his cell phone rang with a 920 area code, it indicated the call was suspected spam. It was actually Gutekunst and LaFleur calling to give him the news he’d waited his whole football life for.
“I just couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘How would you love to be a Packer?’ and I was just absolutely stoked,” Van Lanen said. “This is awesome. I mean, to be able to stay home in all three stages of my football career? A very, very small amount of people get to live this dream and this opportunity. And I’m just overwhelmed. I’m excited to make the most of it, that’s for sure.”
As for the final picks, McDuffie will compete with fellow youngsters Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin at inside linebacker, where both saw extensive time as rookies last season. And Hill could be an intriguing third option in the backfield behind Pro Bowl starter Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, a second-round pick a year ago.
Having done nothing in free agency as far as adding outside players, the Packers need this class to hit the ground running. That’ll start with a rookie camp in two weeks, then ramp up with training camp and preseason this summer.
“We have a very good football team coming back, and we picked nine guys in (this) draft and signed a bunch (of undrafted free agents) right as we speak here,” Gutekunst said. “Our football team is going to be a hard team to make.
“At the same time, the quality of the individuals, the talent level and not only that but the people we’re bringing in, from this particular draft class, I feel very good about improving not only the top of our roster but then also the back end as well.”