Brian Gutekunst smiled more in one press conference Wednesday in Indianapolis than Ted Thompson had in his entire Green Bay tenure. One can forgive the Packers’ second-year GM for being pleased with the position his team is in heading into the draft this spring, holstering two first-round picks and six inside the top 120. Speaking at the combine, Gutekunst stressed the importance of this week at the combine, even as some dismiss it as the “Underwear Olympics.”
“It’s a really important part of the decision-making process,” Gutekunst said. “For me, this is the first time I get to kind of put my hands on these players, talk to them.”
The mileage teams get out of athletic testing varies, but the opportunity for both the front office and coaches to meet with players has always been a core pillar of player evaluation. And while the Packers GM insisted this week is vital, he also said the ultimate evaluation tool is the tape, the production on the field.
As part of the front office under Ted Thompson and then last year as the head man, Gutekunst spent the last weighing that production for a specific offense system dating back to 2006. Mike McCarthy’s offensive system and team mindset will necessarily differ from those of Matt LaFleur. Green Bay’s GM, however, isn’t concerned about a transition. For the Packers, not much will change.
“I wouldn’t say for a scheme point of view it’s a whole lot different, Gutekunst said, dismissing the notion LaFleur’s offense requires any sort of sweeping changes in player evaluation.
“Certainly there are differences in their offense and what they’re looking for so there are minor things we have to adjust. But football is football.”
Change is an integral part of football. Players and coaches constantly must adjust in the game, during the week, during their careers. While LaFleur will be new, Mike Pettine’s defensive system won’t be, a stabilizing force for roughly half the team as they transition to a new coach. If anything, Gutekunst sees this offseason as an opportunity to re-energize some veterans players, not naming Aaron Rodgers specifically, though his name has come up often among fans and media as someone who needs a reason to re-engage with the process.
“That can be a really positive things for our players, especially our players who have been around a long time, because it’ll challenge them,” Gutekunst explained.
“We haven’t had a lot of that kind of change in Green Bay where we’re implementing new things, but even when Mike Pettine came in last year there were some tweaks. There’s always a learning curve.”
To be fair, part of Gutekunst’s job entails a steady hand of leadership. He can’t go out and say on the record the sky is falling, as the team roils amid a tumultuous few months. But if there were significant changes to how LaFleur viewed offensive players compared to McCarthy, there’d be no need for Gutekunst to obfuscate that fact. He wouldn’t be the only one who believes a new system with reinvigorate this team. On some level, that’s a reason to make the move away from McCarthy in the first place.
Much like his predecessor, Gutekunst doesn’t appear to be someone who minces words, or equivocates to manipulate. He believes what he says when he says it (aside from the bit about Clay Matthews still playing at a “very, very high level”).
So when he says, “I look forward to seeing what [Jimmy Graham] can do for us this year,” we can take him at his word even if he isn’t saying it explicitly: Graham will be on the team in 2019. He was no where near as definitive on Randall Cobb or Clay Matthews, each of whom he lauded and said will be future Packers Hall of Famers. When a GM is talking about a player’s legacy and not what he can do for the team, it’s all but over.
As for other players in free agency, Gutekunst reiterated his desire to be in on every conversation with players, but with caveats about how much a small pool of players can drive up prices.
“You do have to be careful. The amount of money these guys are making in free agency and that can hinder you down the way. But it’s a tool.”
That leaves the Packers with quite a workload ahead of them in the next two weeks before the new league year opens. They’ll have to finish prepping for free agency, while putting together post-combine evaluations for players. Gutekunst said the board will more or less be set in the 10 days following the combine, which then allows them to mull moving in the draft, as well as decide on possible free agent targets.
Gutekunst’s first draft in charge yielded a future star in Jaire Alexander, a future first-round pick from the Saints, and at least two promising receivers on Day 3. But he stressed this week is a “working event,” for the Packers. He’ll no doubt have his game face in Indy so he can once again come out of the draft smiling.