GREEN BAY — John Dorsey’s imitation of Ted Thompson was horrible. The simple insight he got that day, invaluable.
“One day, Ted was joking with me,” Dorsey, now the Cleveland Browns general manager, recalled recently. He and Thompson had become close friends working together under Green Bay Packers Pro Football Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf in the 1990s — they even shared a Lambeau Field office for a time — and worked together again in Green Bay after Thompson returned as the Packers’ GM in 2005.
“With his East Texas accent, he goes, ‘Boy, let me tell you one thing: There’s a lot of people who want to sit in that seat. (But) they don’t realize how hot it gets.’ ”
Starting with tonight’s first round of the NFL draft, new Packers GM Brian Gutekunst — having replaced Thompson in January after Thompson transitioned to an advisory role after 13 years in charge — will sit in that seat and feel the heat.
Dorsey has felt that heat, first as the Kansas City Chiefs GM, and now as he rebuilds the winless Browns. John Schneider has felt it, too, as the Seattle Seahawks’ GM since 2010. So has Reggie McKenzie, the Oakland Raiders’ GM since 2012.
They had all cut their scouting teeth under Wolf, then learned, grew and sharpened their scouting skills while working for Thompson before going out to run their own teams. Now it’s Gutekunst’s turn, and he’ll experience that same sensation they did when the Packers go on the clock at No. 14 — or earlier, if Gutekunst swings a deal to move up in the first round.
“At some point, I’ve talked to all of them about that particular thing. And I’ve talked to Ted a lot about that over the last few weeks here,” Gutekunst said of presiding over his first draft. “One of the things that’s kind of a common theme is, ‘Keep your head clear. There’s a lot of voices in the room, and do what you think is best for the Green Bay Packers.’”
For Schneider, one of the challenges during his first draft in Seattle was to expect the unexpected. Perhaps one player will fall and stay on the board longer than the Packers’ personnel staff expected — like quarterback Aaron Rodgers did in 2005. Or maybe a player Gutekunst is convinced will be there for him will disappear before his eyes — like Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis did on Wolf during the 1996 draft, when the Baltimore Ravens snapped Lewis up one pick before the Packers could take him (and while he was on the phone with a Packers staffer).
“He’s going to have to find his way,” Schneider said. “There’s going to be some spots he just hasn’t seen yet.”
That’s why Gutekunst and his staff have spent the past several months trying to set their board and be prepared for every eventuality. As much as Gutekunst learned from Thompson, he also learned what not to do while watching former Packers coach/general manager Mike Sherman, who was a good coach but struggled with personnel — a shortcoming that eventually cost him his job, led to Thompson’s hiring and left the roster full of holes.
“Back during that time, I probably wasn’t as part of the process as I have been over the past 10 years, but the one thing I remember about that is how important getting it right from the get-go is as far as doing the work, getting the board correct and doing the work that way,” Gutekunst said. “If you don’t do it (leading up to the draft), it doesn’t matter what you do now (during the draft). You’ve got to do it right. You can’t skip steps.
“You can’t go into the weekend and hope to get it right. You have to be right ahead of time.”
Gutekunst and his staff had their board set midway through last week, allowing them to focus on predicting various scenarios they could face. For example, Indianapolis Colts GM Chris Ballard said last week he sees eight elite-level non-quarterback prospects in the first round. If five quarterbacks go in the first 13 picks as some project, that means that if Gutekunst’s evaluations are the same as Ballard’s, the Packers could be sitting at No. 14 without an elite-level player worth selecting there.
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“You can never predict it. You have to prepare for every scenario,” Gutekunst said. “You have to prepare that no quarterbacks go ahead of us. Now, we’re hoping a lot of them go ahead of us. I think that helps us from what we’re trying to accomplish. But, at the same time, you can’t count on it.
“I think it’s always hard to watch good players go off the board. And when your numbers start to get thin, you can become a little impatient. At the same time, I feel really good about how it looks right now and all the different scenarios and situations we’ve gone through. I think we’ll probably have the ability to go up if we need to, go back if we need to or just stay and pick.”
Translation? What happens early could lead Gutekunst to either trade up in an effort to get one of those field-tilting non-QBs, or move back and accumulate more picks, knowing that he could get a player of similar quality in the 20s as he’d be getting at No. 14. With 12 total picks and six picks among the first 138 selections, Gutekunst has the draft capital to go up if he wants; with the roster littered with holes, he can get more swings at the plate by moving back at different points.
“We have a unique situation that we haven’t had in years past because we’re picking higher in every round,” Gutekunst said, referring to the team’s 7-9 finish, which snapped an eight-year streak of reaching the postseason. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity — not only where we’re picking and picking good players, but there’ll be opportunities to move up if the right value player is there. There’ll also be some areas where we can move down. We’ll look at it all and we’ll try to move to where we think the strength of the draft is and give ourselves the opportunity to pick the best players.”
And deciding who those players are will ultimately be Gutekunst’s call. Although Thompson will be in the room — along with college scouting director Jon-Eric Sullivan, pro personnel director John Wojciechowski and the rest of the scouting staff — Gutekunst’s challenge will be to sift through all the ideas and suggestions being presented to him and make what he believes is the right pick.
“Before, it was a lot of recommendations to Ted for what I thought; but I didn’t have to make the decision,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been a scout a long time. So the conversations, the way we go about our business hasn’t really changed. It’s just ultimately, at the end of the day, I’m making the decision instead of somebody else.”
If the Packers do move up, Gutekunst said, it will be because the board is thinning — not so he can announce that there’s a new scouting sheriff in Titletown. While he and Thompson may differ in some ways, that’s one trait he and his mentor share.
“That’s not who I am and that’s not who I’ve been trained under. It would never be about making a big splash,” Gutekunst said. “I don’t think we’d ever do anything to make headlines. It’s just increasing our chances to win.”
One of the things Dorsey, Schneider and McKenzie did before becoming GMs — and Gutekunst, Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith, Thompson’s more recent personnel lieutenants — all did during drafts were to keep track of which players they would have selected had they been running the Packers’ draft room instead of Thompson.
For instance, would Gutekunst have taken Rodgers when he fell in 2005? Probably — but he was only the southeast area scout then, so it wasn’t his call. In some years, Gutekunst’s picks mirrored his mentor’s. Other years, they didn’t. But he always saved his notes and re-read them to self-evaluate later.
“And you try to learn from that,” Gutekunst said. “You go through that every year. ‘I would do this.’ ‘Would I do this?’ But at the same time, I think the biggest thing for me is, when you feel really prepared, when you’ve done the work and you go into that draft and you know the board like you know it, you feel pretty confident.
“My preparation (this year) wasn’t a whole lot different than what it had been. It’s just, on draft day, when the clock’s ticking.”