Building a roster requires constant refinement
Green Bay — Four months have passed since the Green Bay Packers picked Brian Gutekunst to be their 10th general manager and it's still too early to say whether he has more Ron Wolf or Ted Thompson in him when it comes to roster building.
Gutekunst displayed some of the moxie that defined Wolf ’s tenure this off-season with a major trade, some free agency risk-taking and a willingness to move up and down the draft board to get what he wanted.
Those moves started the pendulum swinging from the height of Thompson conservatism in the direction of Wolf assertiveness. But unknown to us all is whether Gutekunst will allow it to advance further or just settle right in the middle.
Here’s one way to tell which direction Gutekunst is headed: Will he continue to pursue roster improvement or just leave well enough alone?
When Thompson was in charge, player acquisition was pretty much over once the draft concluded. There are examples of him adding a veteran here or there, but he never wanted to create an environment where the focus wasn’t on the development of players in their first, second or third years.
Any time you add a veteran, even a low-cost option, you’re slowing down the clock on a younger player’s advancement since coaches are more likely to favor a more reliable older player. Coaches think about winning this week and, given their freedom, will act accordingly.
Thompson never gave coach Mike McCarthy and his staff the opportunity to make those decisions because he didn’t add veterans. Gutekunst has a chance to change that without really diluting the impact his first draft class has on the team.
Let’s face it, there’s no way that the new GM’s top three picks — cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson and linebacker Oren Burks — aren’t going to get every opportunity to play this coming season. Even when Wolf was signing veterans for Mike Holmgren, he sat in on personnel meetings and made it known his top draft picks needed to play right away. But be realistic with this draft. The cornerbacks are going to play because it’s a position of major weakness and Burks is going to play because he fills a critical specialty position. The three wide receivers Gutekunst selected aren’t going to have an impact because rookie wide receivers hardly ever do, especially those taken in the fourth round and beyond, which is exactly where J’Mon Moore (fourth), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (fifth) and Equanimeous St. Brown (sixth) were selected.
Last year, for example, the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp led all rookie receivers with 62 receptions, which ranked tied for 37th in the NFL. The next highest was Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, who ranked tied for 47th with 58 catches.
Cooper was taken in the second round and Smith-Schuster in the third.
The 13 receivers taken in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds last year caught a combined 126 passes for six touchdowns. One of those players was Packers fifth-round pick DeAngelo Yancey, who did not make the 53-man roster.
This is not to say a mid-round pick can’t have an impact. In 2015, Washington’s Jamison Crowder, a fourth-rounder, had 59 catches for 604 yards and two touchdowns, and Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs, a fifth-rounder, had 52 catches for 720 yards and four touchdowns.
But the odds don’t favor those kinds of contributions and Gutekunst could have a big problem if his rookies don’t prove ready. His only sure things at wide receiver are Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and $30 million free agent Jimmy Graham, who for all intents and purposes is a receiver.
An injury could leave McCarthy desperately thin at that position. Gutekunst can’t assume Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis, Michael Clark or Yancey are going to fill important roles and so Gutekunst should be on the lookout for a veteran.
Forget Dez Bryant; he’s not a good fit for the Packers. But there will be several veteran receivers on the street sometime between now and the end of training camp who may be worth looking at.
Former Baltimore Raven Jeremy Maclin is available. His former teammate, Breshad Perriman, will be on the bubble this summer. It’s possible Carolina’s Russell Shepard or Torrey Smith could be available later. Same with Dallas’ Allen Hurns or Cole Beasley. Cincinnati’s Brandon LaFell and Philadelphia’s Markus Wheaton could be on the street at some point.
Gutekunst may also have a shot at a tight end who can help Lance Kendricks and Emanuel Byrd. He cannot stand pat with the group he has now because it just isn’t good enough, given Graham’s unwillingness to block.
Maybe none of those receivers or any of the tight ends who come free will appeal to Gutekunst. But if he’s serious about turning over every rock in building his roster, as he claimed to be when first hired, he would be wise to consider all his options.
Wolf proved what a master builder he was when he pulled Desmond Howard, Don Beebe and Andre Rison off the scrap heap en route to a Super Bowl XXXI title. He proved it making trades for Keith Jackson, Eugene Robinson, Ahman Green and Allen Rossum.
Even Thompson was aggressive enough to trade for Ryan Grant when the New York Giants found themselves with an excess of running backs. He also added Ahmad Brooks and Quinton Dial before last season, and while neither had an impact, both moves were worth the gamble.
When Thompson’s drafts are compared to Wolf ’s, Thompson will probably go down as the better of the two in evaluating college talent, but what made Wolf a Hall of Fame inductee was his relentless desire to upgrade the roster.
Gutekunst, with his dice-rolling decision to trade cornerback Damarious Randall for quarterback DeShone Kizer and a swap of middle-round picks and gutsy-but-risky decision to pass on three highly rated defensive players at No. 14 in exchange for a 2019 first-round pick, proved he has some Wolf in him.
Now he must show it wasn’t just the act of a Thompson clone fooling everyone with an introductory splash. Building a roster is a 12-month-a-year job and Gutekunst can’t sit on his hands thinking this is the roster that will return the Packers to the Super Bowl.
His season is never over.
Now that Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has shaped his roster, will he seek additional changes or leave well enough alone?