Though the mobs have receded, there was a dark time earlier this year when the winter winds still blew cold in Wisconsin and Green Bay Packers fans wanted general manager Brian Gutekunst’s head on a pike. He had failed to give up the draft capital necessary to secure a transcendent defensive player who had instead been traded to the division rival, handing them the NFC North title and bragging rights.
Reports at the time suggested the Raiders zeroed in on Ryan Pace and the Bears as a Khalil Mack destination because they believed Chicago would have the worst record of the teams interested. The logic is sound: Aaron Rodgers + Khalil Mack won’t net you much first-round value even with multiple picks.
Packers president Mark Murphy confirmed this scenario to be true in an interview last week. Green Bay and Gutekunst made a significant push to acquire Mack, but Jon Gruden and the Oakland brain trust, such as it exists, locked their sights on the team they believed would benefit the least from Mack in the win column. This ameliorates concerns over penny pinching, or in this case draft pick pinching from the Packers, but also presents a fascinating sliding door scenario given what transpired over the last 10 months.
How much does Mack, a dominant edge rusher who played at a Defensive Player of the Year level last year, change the fortunes of the Packers? Considering how many losses Green Bay accumulated in close games, it’s fair to believe Mack swings a handful of them even if we assume the Rodgers injury was inevitable.
The tie to the Vikings should easily be a win. Mack could have flipped the two-point loss the Los Angeles and the three-point losses to Seattle and Arizona. That’s 10 wins right there. Likely have to subtract wins from Chicago without Mack and the Packers could have been in position to once again take the division, go to the playoffs and who knows from there? The NFC was wide open.
Given what we know now about tensions between Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy, perhaps Murphy and Gutekunst would have been interested in making a change irrespective of the season’s outcome. But McCarthy certainly makes it to the end of the season. What if it had been the Packers who lost in the NFC Championship Game on a heart-breaking non-DPI call instead of New Orleans? Would that have been enough to secure McCarthy’s ouster?
In that scenario, the Packers have Mike McCarthy in the last year of his contract, a 6-year $141 million deal for Mack with $90 million in guarantees and a $60 million signing bonus, and all the holes the roster had during the 2018 season at safety, guard, and outside linebacker opposite Mack.
If their deal trumps Chicago’s offer (and the Jets were reportedly willing to give up two firsts as well), Gutekunst probably has to give up both firsts this year to get a deal done.
Contrast that with where Green Bay finds itself at this moment. Giving up draft picks would mean no Rashan Gary or Darnell Savage. We have no idea how good either of those players are, but both are expected to be starters at some point, Savage as early as this season. What’s the plan at safety then if the Packers can neither afford to pay someone like Adrian Amos (who would either end up staying in Chicago or going elsewhere) nor draft Savage?
Speaking of signings, basically all the moves the Packers made this offseason wouldn’t have been possible, as just the signing bonus for Mack was bigger than the total guarantees on all four major free agent contracts Gutekunst handed out. No Za’Darius or Preston Smith, or Billy Turner. Who is starting at outside linebacker opposite Mack? Green Bay may have been forced to keep Nick Perry, a player they were so willing to move on from, they’re eating $11 million of cap money this season just for him not to be on the field.
There’s a case to be made Mack on his own provides more value than the Smiths and covers some of the value lost in not being able to sign Amos. Someone like Tre Boston on a vet minimum and Mack could be just as good or better than what the Packers got. Elgton Jenkins and/or Cole Madison slotting in at right guard would not be the end of the world (I think there’s a chance Jenkins is just better than Turner at guard anyway).
LaFleur provides the hammer here. If he’s worthy of his pedigree, the disciple of Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, we have the answer. Even if all the players and draft picks the Packers would have had to give up for Mack provide commensurate value, the difference is the assurance of an upgrade in coaching. That assumes LaFleur is that, which he’ll have to be for this equation to balance in favor of the team he now coaches.
Green Bay’s fatal flaw last season came from a lack of creativity and synergy on offense, along with a failure of depth on defense. Gutekunst attempted to fix both those things this offseason, installing new new starters at outside linebacker—durable, flexible players—two new starters at safety, and a new starting guard. He brought in offensive line and pass rush depth via the draft and insulated this team against injuries. Mack provides an incandescent talent, but what happens if the team crumbles around him due to injury? What if he’d been injured? Even the Bear, with Vic Fangio and a talented group, struggled at times when Mack was out.
We won’t know what the sliding door would have brought. Everything changes if that trade goes down differently. It’s a moot point considering the Packers never truly had a chance to make such a deal. But this season we’ll start to learn if it turns out Green Bay benefited from not making the move considering the subsequent roster machinations that were ultimately made. Fans can take solace knowing Mack is in Chicago just because of a lack of effort on the part of their team. However, none of that matters if the Packers still can’t win games. Did Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst make the right moves in the stead of a Mack trade? We’ll start to get answers beginning on Thursday.