GREEN BAY — In his two seasons as general manager of the Green Bay Packers, Brian Gutekunst has shown an aggressiveness not seen in Green Bay since Ron Wolf called the shots two decades ago.
Last year, Gutekunst’s wheeling and dealing on the first day of the NFL draft netted the Packers a budding playmaker, cornerback Jaire Alexander, plus an extra first-round pick in this year’s draft.
In March, Gutekunst went out and signed four pricey free agents, all of whom are expected to be starters in the fall, three of them on the beleaguered defense.
Thursday night, in the first round of this year’s draft, Gutekunst outdid himself.
In an all-out effort to supply the Packers defense with sorely needed playmakers, Gutekunst made two bold moves in the first round, selecting Michigan edge rusher Rashan Gary with the 12th pick, then trading up from the 30th pick to the 21st and taking Maryland safety Darnell Savage.
You can call the picks what you want — high-risk, high-reward or boom-or-bust — and you wouldn’t be wrong. But in a draft that figured to be one of the most important in recent Packers history, Gutekunst rolled the dice on two players who possess great speed for their positions and have the potential to be playmakers on a defense that has lacked big-play ability for most of the decade.
If Gary lives up to his special combination of size and athleticism, something he never did during his three seasons with the Wolverines, he would give defensive coordinator Mike Pettine an invaluable chess piece. Though he’s 6-foot-4½ and 277 pounds, his 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash was the third-fastest among defensive linemen and edge rushers at NFL scouting combine. He also benched 225 pounds 26 times.
Take a look at the strengths, weaknesses and backgrounds of all 32 players taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft on Thursday night in…
A defensive end in college, Gary will start out at outside linebacker with the Packers. But his real value could be that he can line up almost anywhere on the defensive front, combining with similarly versatile free agent outside linebackers Ze’Darius Smith and Preston Smith to open up a world of possibilities for Pettine, who should be able to mix-and-match his players to improve an anemic pass rush.
Savage shot up draft boards in the last two weeks, emerging from a pack of safeties who were mostly considered second-round types to become a red-hot draft commodity by Thursday. Though a bit short at 5-foot-11, Savage is a ballhawk — seven interceptions in his last two seasons — whose 4.36 in the 40 was the fourth-fastest time among defensive backs at the combine.
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The Packers haven’t had that kind of speed at safety since Nick Collins suffered a career-ending neck injury early in the 2011 season. If Savage can get up to speed quickly, he’ll join free-agent signee Adrian Amos in a one-season revamp of a position that was a disaster area last season.
As promising as their upside is, however, neither Gary nor Savage is a sure thing to live up to the price the Packers had to pay to get them.
Gary was the nation’s No. 1 high school player in 2016, but his production never matched his enormous talent at Michigan. In 35 career games, he had only 10 sacks. His final season was hindered by a shoulder injury, reportedly a torn labrum that scared some teams off during the draft.
Speaking to state reporters Thursday night, Gary denied that it was a torn labrum and declared himself fit and ready to go. However, you can understand if Packers fans are skeptical after the injury travails of cornerback Kevin King, the team’s top draft pick in 2017 who has been hampered by shoulder problems in both of his NFL seasons. Gutekunst said he was comfortable that Gary’s issue “is going to be resolved” and that surgery is not anticipated initially.
Gary’s general lack of production in college might be a bigger concern, though the Packers clearly don’t think it is a matter of his talent or, more importantly, his motor. College scout Joe Hueber said Gary commanded so much attention at Michigan that it freed up others to shine and that he was still able to impact the quarterback and the game.
“I do see him becoming a playmaker,” Hueber said. “It’s because of his gifts. I think he likes — I think he loves football. I think he’s a guy who’s going to attack this. I think he’s going to take it to heart. I think it’s important to him and because of that, his athleticism and all that is going to shine through.”
The concern with Savage is based mostly on how much the Packers had to pay in draft capital to move up. They entered the draft with many holes to fill and, in addition to swapping first-round picks with Seattle, gave up their two fourth-round picks as well. Some thought he was a reach with the 21st pick, but the Packers felt they had to jump ahead of Indianapolis, which had the 26th pick, to assure themselves of landing Savage.
With so many safeties with similar grades, the Packers probably could have stayed put and found a good one. However, they clearly wanted Savage’s speed in a secondary that tied for 29th in the NFL last season with a paltry seven interceptions.
“We thought he was an absolute difference-maker,” Gutekunst said.
In both cases, Gutekunst’s selections were polarizing. But this much we know: The Packers defense needs playmakers. The only question now is whether they drafted the right ones.