Free agency never altered the Green Bay Packers’ draft plans under Ted Thompson because free agency rarely altered the Packers roster at all. Why change the approach when the circumstances haven’t, in fact, changed? Brian Gutekunst clearly skipped that lesson in Thompsonism 101, spending big each of his first two offseasons to plug gaps in Green Bay’s roster.
The notion the Packers didn’t draft for need under Thompson represents an ahistorical account of the team’s past. He allocated massive resources to fixing the defense, an accomplishment he couldn’t quite crack once Charles Woodson aged out of dominance and Nick Collins’ career was cut tragically short. This was necessary, at least in part, because Thompson stubbornly refused to use the tools at his disposal in free agency.
If some of these big money contracts don’t work out for Green Bay, and history says that’s likely to be happen, Thompson will be at 1265 Lombardi saying, “I told you so.” But now that the ink is dry on the contracts, what’s done is done. And we won’t know the quality of these signings until the players actually take the field and make, or don’t make, an impact.
What matters now is the shape of this team, no longer facing gaping holes on the depth chart. This opens up opportunities in the draft for creativity. Trade up, trade down, take a gamble on upside or a non-premium position.
It’s not as if every spot on the roster holds an above average player. There’s still no tight end likely to be on the roster past 2019. Bryan Bulaga may need a replacement as soon as 2020 and if Billy Turner is the right guard of the future — even if it’s just the near future — he can’t also be the right tackle of that near future. Mike Daniels and Blake Martinez only have 2019 left on their contracts, with their futures playing into this equation. They provide a particularly apt example of why worrying about Year 1 impact of a rookie is a fool’s errand. If a player has a good chance to be a starter in Year 2-4, that’s extremely valuable.
Even with Adrian Amos in the fold, Tramon Williams doesn’t provide answers beyond 2019, and we have no idea if Josh Jones does either. A team can never have too many playmakers at receiver, pass rushers, competent blockers, or cover players.
The draft is Gutekunst’s oyster.
When on the draft clock and faced with a decision, a team must ask itself what player will improve this team the most over his rookie contract. Who will earn that big money second deal because they make the squad so much better? Before Za’Darius and Preston Smith, it was hard to believe there would be a player for whom that would be more true than a talented edge rusher. That’s not to say reach for one, but there were likely to be a cluster of closely talented players in whom the Packers would have interest. That value, the relative impact on the team, becomes the trump card.
Giving that player 30% of snaps for the first two or three years of his career necessarily alters that evaluation. The Smiths will get every opportunity to succeed, for at least two years and probably three on the low end, with each demonstrating impressive durability in their young careers. That doesn’t mean don’t draft Montez Sweat or Brian Burns if they’re available. After all, Kyler Fackrell is still the only other replacement level or better player on the roster at the position behind Mr. and Mr. Smith. But weigh the impact of that player against the alternatives.
Suddenly, it makes more sense than it did a week ago to believe that a future right tackle will maximally improve this team and given the circumstances, that the Packers could look outside their traditional athletic tendencies to get him. They met with Florida’s Jawaan Taylor at the combine and he’s widely considered the top right tackle prospect in the draft. Dalton Risner belongs in that conversation as well, and Chris Lindstrom later in the first or early in the second represents the ideal athletic profile for the kind of player the Packers love.
Though it always seemed likely to happen, drafting a tight end provides a more plausible path to improvement than it would have on Monday. Whether it’s Noah Fant or T.J. Hockenson in the first round or Irv Smith Jr. at 44, that kind of versatility matters more now with other positions locked down, or at least solidified. The efficacy of those plans will be tested in the future, but the Packers have to make these decisions based on the information at hand. They have a plan at those need spots at the very least.
Does this put the Packers in a more likely position to look at an athletic linebacker or speedy receiver sooner than they otherwise might have? Spending in free agency mitigates the risk. The opportunity cost of not drafting a player at a need position reduces when the need likewise falls. Taking a gamble on Parris Campbell in the first round, or splashing the pot with Devin Bush at 12 aren’t the risks they would be otherwise. The very idea of a “reach” is about managing risk. The more risk a player has, the lower he tends to be drafted. That’s the point of the draft. With a host of draft picks and myriad paths to improvement, Green Bay has the latitude to take those risks.
Take 12 and 30 to go up and grab Ed Oliver in the top-5, or pair 30 and 44 to move up for DK Metcalf, a player who, for whatever you believe about his flaws, would crush in Matt LaFleur’s vertical offense. Or trade out of 12 to 15, add picks, and just throws darts at the board. It’s no longer mission-critical to prioritize the marginal talent gain of the players available at 12 vs. those at 15. Take the extra picks and hope to add talented depth all around the roster.
Perhaps most importantly, the signings from this week represent financial gambles of their own. One of the top assets in the game is a good player on a rookie deal. If Gutekunst gets solid production out of this free agent class while also hitting on a couple guys in the draft, the Packers can run the congruent course of paying for production while also squeezing out value from guys on rookie deals, buoying the value of each. Hitting on draft picks also protects the Packers if they free agent signings go awry, another reason not to ignore safety, outside linebacker, or offensive line in the draft.
Gutekunst put himself in a position to improve this roster even if he doesn’t come away with impressive draft classes every season, a tact his predecessor refused. Much like a draft class, we won’t know for sure if Gutey is any better for a few years, right around the time the big bills in these contracts come due and we find out if these young players can help this team win. He took a major financial bite at the apple, and if we view that investment as partially paying for flexibility in the draft, this free agent class doesn’t have to perform quite so well if it means the ability to add quality players at other positions and fortify this team as a whole.