GREEN BAY — In addition to their other draft week responsibilities — late film sessions, or trade talks with other teams, or finalizing draft-night logistics with prospects — the members of the Green Bay Packers’ scouting staff used to play an annual game in the final days leading up to the NFL draft.
The game didn’t have a formal name, but they all loved to play it — including now-Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst — and loved the challenge of it.
The objective? Find Ted Thompson’s “guys.”
“He would bury guys on the draft board that he really, really liked,” Gutekunst recalled shortly after the 68-year-old Thompson, who ran 13 drafts in Green Bay and built the 2010 team’s Super Bowl XLV-winning roster, passed away in January. “And he knew when draft day came, they would be (evaluated) two or three rounds higher than where they sat all spring long. For those of us that had been around for a while, that was always our goal — to figure out which one of those players were there.”
For Gutekunst, his own triumph in the name game came in 2008, when there was a wide receiver out of Kansas State that looked terrific on film but inexplicably was rated as a Day 3 pick on the board. Thompson ended up trading back, out of the first round, and snatched up the player in the second round at No. 36.
“The first time I really pegged it was Jordy Nelson,” said Gutekunst, who enters the draft with 10 overall selections, including the 29th pick in the first round Thursday night. “We kept watching tape and kept talking about how good this player was, and (Ted) never would move him and he never would move him. That’s when I was all of a sudden, I was like, ‘OK, I got it.’ Which made me really surprised when we traded back and out of the first round. Because I knew how much he coveted Jordy.
“(But) he knew what he was doing and he knew he could get the player he wanted all along. He always had two or three guys every year that he kept buried that I think was just for him. But he in my opinion, he is the best talent evaluator — especially when it comes to the draft — that I’ve ever seen or been around. He had a very unique way of seeing what a player was going to become and the greatest he could become.”
About to embark on his fourth draft as Thompson’s successor, Gutekunst’s own acumen as an evaluator is hard to gauge. He’s had some obvious hits with 2018 first-round pick Jaire Alexander having become one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks and 2019 second-round pick Elgton Jenkins emerging as one of the league’s most talented and versatile offensive linemen. Both players were selected to their first Pro Bowl in 2020.
Some other prominent picks appear to have been mistakes. Most notably, there’s 2018 second-round pick Josh Jackson, who couldn’t find a meaningful, consistent role in the secondary; 2018 third-round pick Oren Burks, whose bad injury luck early on stunted his growth at an inside linebacker position where no one has stood out; 2019 third-round pick Jace Sternberger, who has had a minimal impact at tight end; and 2018 fourth-round pick J’Mon Moore, the first of three straight wide receivers picked by Gutekunst that year and a player who caught two passes in his Packers career before his release at the end of camp in two years ago.
And then there’s the too-early-to-tell crowd, which includes outside linebacker Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage, both 2019 first-rounders who took big steps in their development last year but still haven’t arrived; 2018 fifth-round pick Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who evaporated from the wide receiver rotation at the end of 2019 but rebounded to become the team’s biggest downfield threat last year; and the entirety of last year’s draft class, which was led by Gutekunst’s controversial decision to trade up in the first round and pick quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ heir apparent, Jordan Love. Love spent his rookie season as the inactive No. 3 quarterback and, with preseason games wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, never even got to wear his No. 10 jersey on a game day.
Gutekunst knows the risk he took a year ago picking Love — not only did it keep him from picking a player who might’ve had a greater impact last year, but it started the clock on Rodgers’ time in Green Bay coming to an end — but he took the plunge believing Love was worth the headaches the move created. It also marked the third consecutive year in which he traded up in the draft to take a specific player, which is a trend that is likely to continue.
That’s a departure from what both Thompson and Pro Football Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf believed in, as they believed in letting the board come to them, as Thompson used to say. That’s why they were more likely to trade back and accumulate more picks in order to have more swings at the drafting plate.
“For me, if we have a chance to move up to take a specific player that we feel is special, I think you have to always consider that,” Gutekunst said. “The last three years, I think we’ve done that. We’ll always do that. There’s only so many game-changing-type players in this league. If you have the opportunity to acquire one, I think you have to consider it.
“It’s always tempting for me. I think when you’re sitting at 29, watching those kind of players come off the board that you’ve spent so much time studying and thinking about how they could affect your football team, it’s always tempting.”
With much of their scouting staff vaccinated, Gutekunst said he’ll be one of 18 people inside the Packers’ draft room at Lambeau Field during the three-day affair. Last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic having struck only a month before the draft, Gutekunst, coach Matt LaFleur and the coaches and scouts were all working remotely from their homes.
That’s not to say that the pandemic won’t be felt during the draft. With so many college teams having endured truncated or interrupted seasons and a host of prospects having opted out — Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, a possible Packers target at No. 29, opted out, then back in, then back out after playing five Big Ten games — evaluating this year’s class has been a challenge for all 32 teams’ scouting staffs.
And with the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis canceled, players’ performances during Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Alabama, in January and on-campus pro days in March became more vital. Gutekunst said he personally went to about a dozen pro days, the most he’d attended since he was Thompson’s director of college scouting and would attend more than 20 each year. And he wasn’t the only one.
“Really, what makes you uncomfortable is the lack of personal contact you have with the players. Watching them operate, talking to them, just not having that personal touch is very difficult,” New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman said. “It is a little unsettling. I’ve said this before, what we’re doing is educated guessing, so this makes us a little more uneducated.”
Gutekunst admitted that, though he considers this to be “a pretty good draft overall,” the limited access has led to a thinner draft board. There are some positions that have fewer names than they’ve had in the past, and he believes the undrafted free agent market will be depressed as a result.
Meanwhile, he recognizes that while the draft is always about the long term, his team does have needs in the short term that require filling. Although Gutekunst trumpeted the fact that the Packers re-signed what he considered to be the top left tackle (David Bakhtiari), the top defensive tackle (Kenny Clark) and the top running back (Aaron Jones) before any of them hit the full-fledged free agent market, his roster still looks thin at cornerback and on both the offensive and defensive lines. The torn ACL Bakhtiari suffered in practice on New Year’s Even only further complicates matters there.
In addition, none of the Packers’ top wide receivers — starting with first-team all-pro Davante Adams and going right on down the depth chart — is under contract for 2022, so there are long-term roster decisions also at play.
But without adding a single player of consequence in free agency because of their salary-cap situation, the Packers would seem to need some plug-and-play players who can have an immediate impact as rookies.
“I think we did add a lot to our football team in free agency with the guys we re-signed. (But) I do think it probably alters it slightly and maybe gives a little more weight to the guys that could help us in the right now,” Gutekunst said.
“For the most part, we try to look at the draft as a long-term investment for the Green Bay Packers. Obviously with the history of how rookies enter the league, there’s always usually an adjustment period before they get to where they’re really, really productive. At the same time, I think you have to look at your team and where it’s at and kind of look to see if there’s opportunities to help right away. If you feel a guy can help you immediately, that certainly gives him some added value.”
A Packers’ dozen: 12 possibilities for Green Bay with 29th pick in NFL draft
1. Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
After Packers GM Brian Gutekunst punted on the deepest wide receiver draft in NFL history a year ago, when 36 receivers went overall (and six went in the first round) — but none went to the Packers, could this be the year that they add a wideout in Round 1? If they do, it’d mark the first time since Florida State’s Javon Walker was the team’s first-round pick in 2002. And Rashod Bateman (above), who initially opted out of the 2020 season, then chose to play (36 receptions, 472 yards, two touchdowns in five games) before opting out again, would be a worthwhile selection to break the streak.
2. Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
The 5-foot-11, 193-pound Kadarius Toney (above) could be a great fit for head coach Matt LaFleur’s system and would give the offense that versatile do-it-all player that LaFleur has coveted. The Packers tried Tyler Ervin in that role last year, but his lack of durability caused problems. In Toney, the Packers would get a player who lined up everywhere for the Gators, from the backfield to the slot to out wide. A second-team all-American last year in his only season as a starter, he caught 70 passes and scored 11 touchdowns. Can also be a primary return man.
3. Elijah Moore, WR, Mississippi
Another versatile receiver who could give the Packers their first true slot receiver since Randall Cobb, Elijah Moore (above) is undersized (5-foot-9, 178 pounds) and is rough around the edges, needing polish at the next level. But with a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and play-making ability, he’s an intriguing possibility. Should he fall out of the first round, Moore would be a player worth considering a trade up for in Round 2 as well.
4. Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU
The 6-foot-2, 204-pound Terrace Marshall Jr. (above) is the kind of big receiver Gutekunst likes, and his humble personality would make him a good fit in the locker room — something Gutekunst talks frequently about valuing. Despite opting out of the season after seven games, Marshall still set career highs for receptions (48) and receiving yards (731) in his abbreviated season while scoring 10 touchdowns. Having spent much of his career in the shadow of Ja’Marr Chase (a possible top-10 pick) and Justin Jefferson (last year’s No. 22 overall pick who had an outstanding rookie year with the Minnesota Vikings), Marshall has the tools to develop into another top NFL wideout from LSU.
5. Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
The 6-foot-6, 317-pound Teven Jenkins (above) is big, powerful and athletic. He doesn’t have ideal arm length for a tackle (33 1/2 inches), but neither did Bryan Bulaga, and he turned out to be a very good player in Green Bay as the Packers’ 2010 first-round pick. Jenkins projects as a tackle or a guard, and given the Packers’ offensive line uncertainties after left tackle David Bakhtiari’s torn ACL and the free-agent departures of all-pro center Corey Linsley and experienced guard Lane Taylor, augmenting the depth up front is a primary need.
6. Alijah Vera-Tucker, OT/G, USC
The 6-foot-4, 308-pound Alijah Vera-Tucker (above) was a left tackle for the Trojans in ex-Packers backup QB Graham Harrell’s offense, and the Packers have historically taken college left tackles and converted them to guards with much success. An excellent pass blocker with terrific balance, feet and hands, he needs to get stronger but has just scratched the surface of his talent and has significant upside with only 19 games of college experience.
7. Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
It’s a weak defensive tackle draft — something Gutekunst himself acknowledged — but adding Christian Barmore (above) and lining him up alongside Kenny Clark would make for quite the intriguing duo in the middle of the Packers defense. Although the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Barmore was a one-year wonder at Alabama, his eight sacks last season add productivity to his tantalizing potential.
8. Jamin Davis, linebacker, Kentucky
The Packers haven’t historically put much value on inside linebackers, but Jamin Davis’ potential might make him worth the investment. Only a one-year starter for the Wildcats after a redshirt year and two years as a backup, he exploded as a junior in 2020, recording a team-high 102 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception he returned for a touchdown in the 10 games he played.
9. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (above) likely will be gone by the time the Packers go on the clock at No. 29, but given Gutekunst’s willingness to trade up for players he likes, this could be an instance he deems worth the trade cost. Gutekunst attended the Fighting Irish’s pro day on campus, and he had to like what he saw from the 6-foot-1, 221-pound Owusu-Koramoah, who recorded seven sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss, one interception, five forced fumbles and 142 tackles over 25 games the past two seasons and won the Butkus Award as college football’s best linebacker.
10. Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
Another fascinating option should the Packers decide to reverse course and use a premium pick on a position all-too-frequently neglected in past years, Zaven Collins (above) was a tackling machine as an every-down linebacker for Tulsa, finishing his three-year career with 244 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and five interceptions. He has the size, speed, range and versatility to be a decade-long starter in the NFL.
11. Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU
With 28 pass break-ups and seven interceptions in three seasons, the versatile, athletic, ball-hawking Trevon Moehrig (above) could step in as a Day 1 starter and allow 2019 first-round pick Darnell Savage to move into the so-called “Star” position in new defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s system as more of a coverage player. The Packers have been enamored of late with TCU players, and Moehrig, who was last year’s Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back, would be a terrific best-player-available pick.
12. Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
The first major NFL prospect to opt out of the 2021 season, having decided last July, Caleb Farley (above) hasn’t played in a football game since Nov. 23, 2019. He was a two-year starter for the Hokies, redshirting as a true freshman after suffering a torn ACL in his knee. He ended up intercepting six passes in 23 career games, and teams like his prototypical size, speed and football instincts.