This is the first in a series of stories previewing the Packers' draft.
GREEN BAY — The last time the Green Bay Packers had a 35-year-old future Pro Football Hall of Famer as their starting quarterback, they had a 21-year-old one unexpectedly crash-land into their draft-day laps.
And, most importantly, then first-year general manager Ted Thompson had the courage of his best-player-available convictions to draft the kid with the 24th overall pick, even though he knew he had other holes to fill on his roster and that his iconic signal-caller would not be pleased.
Now, 14 years after the Packers selected Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 NFL Draft, they once again have a 35-year-old as their starter — Rodgers.
But unlike that seemingly once-in-a-lifetime scenario, which saw Rodgers plummet from being in the conversation for the No. 1 pick to serving a three-year apprenticeship behind Brett Favre, it’s unlikely that the Packers, even with a pair of first-round selections in their draft-day arsenal, will spend an early pick on an heir apparent to their two-time NFL MVP.
“Obviously, you’re looking for a winner, a guy who can lead a team, mange a huddle,” Packers second-year general manager Brian Gutekunst replied when asked what traits he seeks in a quarterback. “I think when I first started under (Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager) Ron Wolf, we always kind of used the (line), ‘When a guy steps on the field, does it tilt in his team’s favor?’ I think that’s what you’re always trying to look at.
“Different quarterbacks have different skill sets, but when they walk out on that field you want it to tilt in their favor. Obviously, we always used Brett as an example there. When he was at Southern Miss they beat good teams like Alabama and beat teams that they shouldn’t beat. I think that’s what you’re looking for. It’s pretty elusive, but that’s one of the things I think that we challenge our scouts to try to find.”
Unlike in 2005, when Favre, who began his annual retirement musings after a 2002 NFC playoff loss to Atlanta, was mulling retirement, Rodgers hasn’t made a single peep about wanting to call it quits. Quite the opposite, in fact: Rodgers has gone from a guy who once said he wouldn’t play beyond age 36 or 37, to a guy who said he wanted to play until he was 40, to a guy who now talks about playing “into” his 40s.
In addition, the five-year, $134 million extension Rodgers signed last August has him under contract through the 2023 season, and while the Packers were able to have Rodgers sit for three seasons behind Favre, the economics of today’s NFL game have trended toward playing young quarterbacks early — and, the thinking goes, taking advantage of the salary-cap space created for use elsewhere while they’re on their rookie deals.
It would be fiscally counter-intuitive for the team to pick Rodgers’ heir and then have him sit for three years the way Rodgers did. If they took that quarterback in the first round, that would leave that quarterback with only one year left on his rookie deal — plus a fifth-year option if the Packers opted to pick it up — with that new QB under contact.
Nevertheless, Yahoo Sports reported Monday that the Packers were hosting Missouri quarterback Drew Lock for one of their 30 allotted pre-draft visits, and the NFL Network reported that the Packers also tried to bring in Duke quarterback Daniel Jones for a visit but the logistics didn’t work. Lock and Jones are considered the third- and fourth-best quarterback prospects in this year’s draft, behind Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins.
At the same time, Gutekunst could be engaging in gamesmanship with his interest in Lock and Jones, or doing some long-range research on them in the event they struggle with their first NFL team and become available later. He could also be working to drum up trade interest in the Packers’ two first-round picks — No. 12 and No. 30 — among quarterback-needy teams.
“Ted used to call it ‘subterfuge.’ But we’ve never really done a whole lot of that,” Gutekunst said. “It’s our task to get to know all of these guys, whether we’re going to pick ‘em or not, because they’re going to play in the league and you need to know ‘em in free agency and down the road. So, we cast a pretty wide net. I think it would be pretty hard (for other teams) to focus in on who we’re focusing on.”
As of now, the Packers have DeShone Kizer, a 2017 second-round pick out of Notre Dame by Cleveland, and Tim Boyle, an undrafted free agent who made the team last summer, behind Rodgers. Kizer did not play well when pressed into action by Rodgers’ left knee injury in last year’s regular-season opener and again by Rodgers’ concussion in the season finale, completing just 20 of 42 passes for 187 yards with two interceptions, four sacks and no touchdown passes (40.5 rating).
The Packers believed that Kizer, acquired in a March 2018 trade from the Browns in exchange for 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall, would have been a first-round pick last year had he stayed at Notre Dame another year. Gutekunst liked him enough to trade Brett Hundley, who started nine games in 2017 while Rodgers was sidelined by a broken collarbone, to Seattle last summer.
And as luck would have it, Kizer’s position coach when he redshirted during his true freshman year at Notre Dame in 2014 was new Packers head coach Matt LaFleur.
“He’s a really good athlete. I always was impressed, I thought he approached it the right way. I thought he was one of the smarter quarterbacks in the room,” LaFleur recalled during the NFL Meetings last month in Arizona. “But again, he was just so young and didn’t have that experience and those reps of training. I was with him for such a short period of time, I didn’t get a chance to get him fully immersed in what we wanted to do. Especially with those redshirts, he was on the scout team for a lot of it.”
Asked about Boyle, LaFleur replied, “I’m excited about Tim. He’s a big, strong guy. He has some natural throwing ability. There’s not a ton of tape on him, so we’ll get a good feel for him throughout the OTAs and into training camp. But I certainly think there’s some redeeming qualities he possesses that give you some excitement.”
Historically, the Packers have used late-round picks to take fliers on quarterbacks they saw as developmental prospects. It worked well under Wolf, who picked seven quarterbacks in the nine drafts he ran in Green Bay and flipped Mark Brunell (fifth round, 1993), Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round, 1998) and Aaron Brooks (fourth round, 1999) for extra draft picks after they served as backups behind Favre.
Under Thompson, the Packers took fewer late-round chances on quarterbacks, as Thompson — after taking Rodgers with his first pick as GM — took only five other quarterbacks in his next 12 drafts: Furman’s Ingle Martin (fifth round, 2006); Louisville’s Brian Brohm (second round, 2008); LSU’s Matt Flynn (seventh round, 2008); Tennessee-Chattanooga’s B.J. Coleman (seventh round, 2012) and Hundley (fifth round, 2015).
Rodgers is coming off a season in which he suffered a tibial plateau fracture and a torn medial collateral ligament when he went down during the first half of opener against Chicago and finished with a 97.6 passer rating, the third-lowest of his 11 years as a starter. He threw for 4,442 yards and 25 touchdowns with only two interceptions, but he only completed 62.3 percent of his passes — his second-worst season completion percentage as a starter — and absorbed 49 sacks, the third-most of his tenure.
But if anything, the Packers would seem most likely to take a quarterback who can compete with Kizer and Boyle for the No. 2 job behind Rodgers.
“Certainly you’d like somebody that you don’t miss a beat and you just go with the status quo of the offense. Those guys are hard to come by,” LaFleur replied when asked what he looks for in a backup quarterback. “From a coaching perspective, the expectations don’t change. It still comes back to every guy is going to be different, and you’ve got to find out what your guys do well and call a game according to what their skillset is.
“We do have two younger backups that are still in that developmental stage. I think we’ll get a good sense of what they’re capable of once we get them immersed in our offense.”