Gutey’s Best Moves As GM
Brian Gutekunst was named GM of the Green Bay Packers on January 8, 2018. He’s made over 100 personnel moves since that time – some good and some bad. The following is a list of his 12 best moves:
Gutekunst signed an obscure free agent by the name of Chandon Sullivan on May 6, 2019. Released five days earlier by the Philadelphia Eagles, the move was barely noticed by fans or acknowledged by the local media. Fast forward just over a year, and the 23-year-old is poised to play a significant role in the fortunes of the Packers this season. As of right now, Sullivan is projected as the team’s No. 3 cornerback and a likely starter in the sub-packages. That could change if veteran Tramon Williams is re-signed, but it’s still a pretty dramatic rise for a player who wasn’t even deemed worthy of a spot on the Eagles’ 90-man roster.
Sullivan lacks ideal speed, but he plays faster than his 40 time of 4.60. He also showed toughness and a nose for the ball last season. Those are the exact same traits he exhibited at Georgia State, where he recorded seven interceptions and 18 passes defensed despite seldom being challenged by opposing quarterbacks.
In 378 snaps last season, Sullivan allowed 14 completions in 33 targets (42.4%). That was the best percentage on the team – well ahead of starting corners Jaire Alexander (56.4) and Kevin King (61.7). Whether Sullivan can maintain that level of play with increased snaps is a question, but what’s not a question is his place on this list. At best, he’ll develop into a starting-caliber corner. At worst, he’ll be a useful backup and a stalwart on special teams. Either way, that’s a very nice return on a very small investment.
Gutekunst was hired by Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf, but he hadn’t shown his mentor’s skill when it came to improving the roster during the regular season. Remember wide receiver Andre Rison, running back Darick Holmes, center Jeff Dellenbach, etc. in the 90s? That changed on Nov. 27, 2019, when Gutekunst claimed veteran offensive tackle Jared Veldheer off waivers. Granted his release by the New England Patriots a few days earlier, the 32-year-old hadn’t played all season after announcing his retirement in late May.
Veldheer spent his first game with the Packers as the top backup at both tackle spots – a role that had previously been filled by the overmatched Alex Light. He didn’t play a single snap. And then came week 17. With a first-round bye on the line versus the Detroit Lions, Veldheer stepped in for an injured Bryan Bulaga in the third quarter and played extremely well in Green Bay’s come-from-behind win. He made some key blocks in the run game, and more importantly, kept pass rushers away from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He repeated that effort two weeks later in a surprise start against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs. In all, Veldheer allowed only one pressure in 58 dropbacks in the two games.
It’s impossible to know how the Packers would’ve fared had Light been forced to play against Detroit, but it’s fair to think the results would’ve been different. Instead of resting up for the banged-up Seahawks, the Packers could’ve been forced to play the much healthier Minnesota Vikings in the wild card round. That’s how important the right in-season acquisition can be, and it’s why the claiming of Jared Veldheer is on this list.
After 12 games, the Packers incredibly had negative punt return yards. They were on their way to an ignominious record until Gutekunst claimed Tyler Ervin off waivers from Jacksonville in early December. From that point on, Green Bay actually looked like a real NFL team when it came to returning punts. The 26-year-old journeyman averaged a modest 7.8 yards, but after watching Darrius Shepherd and Tremon Smith stumble over their own feet for months, it felt as if Devin Hester was now wearing the Green and Gold.
While Gutekunst deserves credit for claiming Ervin, he also deserves blame for not having a better plan in place after trading Trevor Davis in September. It should’ve been obvious to anybody with two eyes that Shepherd wasn’t skilled enough to return punts in the NFL. This has been a recurring issue with the third-year GM.
Ervin re-signed with the Packers in March, and he’ll be expected to return both kicks and punts this season. He also may get some snaps on offense, where he averaged 8.8 yards on six touches in 2019 and added much-needed speed to the slowest group of skill players in the league. But he’ll undoubtedly earn his salary on special teams – something he started to do from the moment Gutekunst wisely put in that claim.
Gutekunst signed undrafted rookie Raven Greene to a contract that included a $3,500 bonus on May 6, 2018. Two years later, the former James Madison star might be the second-best position player from the class of 2018. That’s both an indictment of Gutekunst’s first draft as well as a testament to Greene’s fine play. While high picks Josh Jackson and Oren Burks are looking like busts and the jury remains very much out on day 3 picks Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, Greene will enter training camp with a decent chance of earning the starting job next to inside linebacker Christian Kirksey in the base defense. In fact, that’s where Greene began last season before an ankle injury ended his season in week 2.
Greene, who played safety at James Madison, has worked more at linebacker since joining the Packers. But at barely 200 pounds, he’s undersized even at a time when defenses are sacrificing size for speed. Truth be told, the 25-year-old would probably be a role player for most teams, but it’s not hard to see him outperforming the likes of Ty Summers, Curtis Bolton, and rookie Kamal Martin and once again winning a starting job.
Starter or not, the only thing that could keep Greene off the 53-man roster for a third consecutive season is his health. Ankle injuries have forced him to miss 19 of 34 games as a pro. Whether that’s simply a run of bad luck or a troublesome trend remains to be seen. Whatever the case, the defense will need him when September rolls around. That’s a sentence I certainly didn’t expect to be writing a couple of years ago.
In his first big splash as GM, Gutekunst signed former All-Pro Jimmy Graham to a $30 million contract on March 16, 2018. Five weeks later, after pretty much every available free agent had found a home, Marcedes Lewis inked a $2 million deal with the Packers. Two years later, Graham is in Chicago while Lewis gets ready for another season in Green Bay. And with coach Matt LaFleur determined to run the ball more, that could mean a bigger role in the offense for a 36-year-old tight end who came thisclose to retiring last spring.
While Lewis isn’t the dominant blocker he was in Jacksonville, he’s still pretty good. But that’s not what earned him another 1-year contract in March. Gutekunst could’ve easily found a much younger and cheaper blocking tight end in free agency. What brought Lewis back is the maturity he brings to a roster with only a handful of players over the age of 30. And nobody appreciates that particular trait more than Aaron Rodgers. “I’m always happy throwing a touchdown pass but it was a little something special with Marcedes, just because the kind of guy that he is, kind of player that he is, what he’s meant to our team this year from a leadership standpoint,” the star quarterback said after a game against the Giants last December.
Any GM can spend $150M in free agency and find players that can make a team better, but the good GMs can find players that can make the team better without putting a huge dent in the salary cap. Gutekunst hasn’t done that enough in his brief tenure, but he did it with Lewis. And that’s why this signing made the list.
After watching Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Kentrell Brice and Jermaine Whitehead take turns blowing coverages and missing tackles during the ’18 season, Gutekunst was determined to upgrade the safety position. He started on March 13, 2019, by signing Adrian Amos to a four-year contract worth over $37 million. The deal made the former Penn State star one of the highest-paid safeties in the league – not too shabby for a player who didn’t make an All-Pro team or even play in a single Pro Bowl in his four seasons with the Bears.
Amos’ first season in Green Bay wasn’t quite as productive as his last in Chicago, but he provided a young secondary with the veteran presence it very much needed. While the 27-year-old didn’t make many big plays, his reliability helped reduce the number of big plays the defense allowed. It was a welcome change from the season before when wide receivers were running through the Packers’ secondary on a weekly basis.
I’ve been tough on Gutekunst for many reasons – one of which is the haphazard way he’s put together the roster – but he deserves credit for how he rebuilt the safety position. Pairing Amos with Darnell Savage is close to perfect, and if last year’s No. 1 pick develops as expected, this duo has a chance to be among the best in the NFL. Amos is physical and reliable, and Savage is athletic and daring. And while Gutekunst had to overpay to begin the rebuilding process at safety, it’s hard to argue he didn’t get exactly what he paid for.
Technically, the signing of wide receiver Allen Lazard could take up two spots on this list. That’s because Gutekunst first signed him off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad on December 18, 2018, and then signed him again – this time to the Packers’ practice squad – on September 1, 2019. Looking back, it’s hard to believe Gutekunst kept Darrius Shepherd on the 53 instead of Lazard, but it worked out in the end.
Lazard was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster a few days before the opener against the Chicago Bears, and after playing only 21 snaps through week 5, he went on to catch 35 passes for 477 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 11 games. The former Iowa State standout is expected to compete in training camp with veteran free agent Devin Funchess for the starting job opposite Davante Adams.
There’s no longer any doubt that Lazard belongs in the National Football League. However, it remains to be seen whether he’s capable of getting open against starting-caliber cornerbacks who’ve now had a chance to study his tape. This proved to be the undoing of fellow undrafted wide receivers Jarrett Boykin and Geronimo Allison in recent years. Regardless, Lazard will be counted on to contribute, and that’s something rarely expected of a young player who was released by two different teams prior to his 24th birthday.
Less than 24 hours after releasing longtime starting outside linebacker Nick Perry, Gutekunst replaced him with Preston Smith. The free agent signed a deal worth $50 million and was expected to provide the defense with a solid if unspectacular player. The Packers wound up getting a lot more. Along with surprisingly gaudy stats, Smith provided much-needed energy and leadership to a group that had little of both in 2018.
As for those gaudy stats, Smith had seven sacks in his first six games with the Packers. That was totally unexpected considering he averaged only 6 1/4 sacks a season in Washington. And while the 27-year-old cooled off some after that torrid start – 5 1/2 sacks in his final 10 games – he still managed to provide fairly steady pressure (18 hurries). Along with fellow newcomer Za’Darius Smith, the Packers ended last season with arguably the most productive pair of outside linebackers in the entire National Football League.
While it would be great to see Smith put up another 12 1/2 sacks in 2020, it would be just as great to see him play the run better. That part of his game – a prior strength – suffered in his pursuit of sacks. He wasn’t bad vs. the run; he just wasn’t good enough. But that’s the only negative thing to say about Smith’s first season in Green Bay. He earned every penny of his big contract, and those are words every GM loves to hear.
The Packers ended the 2017 season with Lenzy Pipkins, Josh Hawkins, and Davon House playing cornerback and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett starting at safety, so the secondary clearly had to be rebuilt. Gutekunst sped up the process on April 26, 2018, when he traded his first-round pick (No. 14) to the New Orleans Saints for their first-round pick (No. 27) and another first-round pick in 2019. Those two picks ultimately turned into Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage, a pair of young starters with unlimited potential.
Alexander didn’t play quite as well as expected in his second season. He got beat more than he should by being overly aggressive jumping routes and taking chances, but he was still one of the top-15 corners in the National Football League. The former Louisville star possesses explosive athleticism and surprising toughness for somebody his size (5-10, 195). And best of all, he just turned 23. Savage looked like a contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year until an ankle injury in week 5 slowed his progress. He wasn’t quite the same after missing a couple of games, but he still provided the finest play at free safety for the Packers since Clinton-Dix in 2015. Like Alexander, he’s also 23 and blessed with all the physical ability in the world.
The only reason this trade isn’t even higher on the list is because of the player Gutekunst didn’t draft at 14. He passed on Derwin James, who’s already arguably the best safety in the league. So while it’ll take a few more years to properly assess this move, as of today, it’s hard to imagine the Packers having any second thoughts.
I implored former GM Ted Thompson to sign Tramon Williams in 2017. Gutekunst did just that a year later, inking the veteran defensive back to a 2-year deal worth $10 million. Williams was expected to add depth and leadership to a young secondary, but he wound up providing a lot more. He started the first 6 games at corner, moved to the slot around Halloween, and by Thanksgiving was taking snaps at safety following the trade of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Much to his credit, Williams did a solid job in all three roles.
Williams played even better last season. As the nickel back for all 16 games, he held opposing QBs to a passer rating of just 86.5. It was a good season for any cornerback and a remarkable one for a 36-year-old cornerback. And while Williams obviously doesn’t run as well as he did when he went to the Pro Bowl in 2010, he still possesses above-average short-area burst and acceleration – not to mention a whole lot of savvy.
Williams finds himself unsigned with training camp scheduled to begin in less than two weeks (fingers crossed), but it would be no surprise to see him brought back at some point. While Gutekunst wants to give Jackson, Chandon Sullivan, and Ka’dar Hollman every opportunity to prove they’re capable of being the No. 3 cornerback, there are serious questions surrounding each of the young players. Meanwhile, the only serious question surrounding Williams is how he’s been able to beat the crap out of Father Time for so long?
I admit I wasn’t thrilled when Gutekunst drafted Elgton Jenkins with the 44th pick in the 2019 draft. It had nothing to do with the former Mississippi State star; I just wanted the Packers to select A.J. Brown. And considering the wide receiver went on to catch 57 passes for 1,115 yards and 8 TDs with the Titans, you’d think I’d be even more upset with Gutekunst now. Well, I’m not. That’s how impressive Jenkins was last season.
After barely playing in the first two games, Jenkins took over for an injured Lane Taylor in week 3 and put together one of the finest rookie seasons in recent franchise history. The 24-year-old wasn’t charged with a sack in 694 pass-blocking snaps, and he allowed only 25 hurries. What makes this even more impressive is that Jenkins started just two games at guard in college. But his ability to anchor vs. power and shuffle, slide and mirror vs. speed would allow him to excel in protection at any position along the line. His only negatives were too many penalties (10) and a tendency to not always finish blocks in the run game.
While there’s no question that Jenkins will be a staple of the Packers’ offensive line for years to come, there is a question as to where he’ll play. His best position might be center, and that spot could open up in 2021 if Corey Linsley signs elsewhere as a free agent. But that’s a story for another day. Right now, the Packers are just happy to have Jenkins, and as unlikely as this may have seemed 14 1/2 months ago, so am I.
While Za’Darius Smith might’ve been the highest-paid of the four free agents signed by Gutekunst on March 13, 2018, he certainly wasn’t the most well-known or accomplished. That’s because the former Kentucky star started only 16 of 64 games for the Ravens and posted fairly pedestrian stats. And while his tape was impressive even to an amateur scout like me, it’s safe to assume nobody expected the 27-year-old to turn in the best season by a Packers’ linebacker since Clay Matthews was named first-team All-Pro in 2010.
Smith’s stats were tremendous (13 1/2 sacks, 67 hurries, 17 tackles for loss), but they don’t tell half the story. The energy and leadership he brought to the field and to the locker room were every bit as important. And while he somehow wasn’t voted to the Pro Bowl, he might’ve been the most valuable defensive player in the league. Smith isn’t the fastest or most explosive outside linebacker, but his size (6-4 272) and strength allow him to shock and torque lesser tackles off the ground, and his quickness gives him an advantage over most guards and centers. Add in a non-stop motor and he’s just a hard guy to block.
This is Gutekunst’s No. 1 personnel move for two reasons. The first is obvious – Smith is by far the best player he’s acquired since replacing Ted Thompson. The second isn’t quite as obvious. The elite general managers are the ones who can find the special players that their colleagues overlook. Smith is the first such player acquired by Gutekunst. How many more he uncovers will likely determine his fate in Green Bay.