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12/04/2020

Ted & Brian: The Early Years


Looking back, it’s pretty amazing how similar the circumstances were that surrounded the first 12 months of the regimes of the Green Bay Packers’ last two general managers. Ted Thompson and Brian Gutekunst were both hired and trained by the legendary Ron Wolf. They were both forced to retain the team’s incumbent head coach. They were both handed 34-year-old future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who hadn’t been to the Super Bowl in nearly a decade. They both fired that incumbent head coach within 365 days of getting the job. And they both hired a much younger first-time head coach as a replacement.

But how similar were Thompson and Gutekunst when it came to what mattered most – acquiring talent? The following is an analysis of just that question. The focus is on the procurement of talent in their first two years on the job, and where those additions left the teams heading into the 2007 and 2020 seasons, respectively.

DRAFTING

Even in the era of free agency, nothing is more important to the success of a franchise than its ability to draft well on a consistent basis. Thompson’s first two drafts were in 2005 and 2006. Here’s a look back at how those drafts fared heading into the ’07 season:

Starters (6) – Tackle Daryn Colledge, safety Nick Collins, linebacker A.J. Hawk, wide receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Brady Poppinga and guard Jason Spitz.

Backups (12) – Cornerback Will Blackmon, linebacker Kurt Campbell, guard Junius Coston, safety Tyrone Culver, linebacker Abdul Hodge, defensive end Johnny Jolly, quarterback Ingle Martin, tackle Tony Moll, defensive end Mike Montgomery, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, defensive end Dave Tollefson and defensive back Marviel Underwood.

Released (5) – Wide receiver Craig Bragg, cornerback Michael Hawkins, wide receiver Terrence Murphy, wide receiver Cory Rodgers and tackle Will Whitticker.

Thompson’s first two drafts look even better a decade and a half later thanks to Rodgers, but even back in the spring of 2007, they looked pretty darn good. Collins and Jennings were clearly on the path to becoming stars while Colledge, Hawk, Spitz, and Poppinga were at the very least average starters. Blackmon, Culver, Jolly, Moll and Montgomery were solid backups. Hodge would’ve challenged for a starting job in ’07 had it not been for a serious knee injury suffered in training camp. Of the five players who were no longer part of the team’s plans heading into ’07, Murphy’s promising career was cut short by a neck injury, and Whitticker started 15 games as a rookie before Colledge, Spitz, and Moll made him expendable.

In total, Thompson’s first two drafts produced six starters and five useful backups heading into his third season as GM.

 

Gutekunst’s first two drafts were in 2018 and 2019. Here’s a look back at how those drafts fared heading into the ’20 season:

Starters (5) – Cornerback Jaire Alexander, long-snapper Hunter Bradley, guard Elgton Jenkins, safety Darnell Savage and punter JK Scott.

Backups (12) – Linebacker Oren Burks, linebacker Rashan Gary, cornerback Ka’dar Hollman, cornerback Josh Jackson, defensive end Kingsley Keke, tight end James Looney, guard Cole Madison, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, tight end Jace Sternberger, linebacker Ty Summers, wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling and running back Dexter Williams.

Released (2) – Linebacker Kendall Donnerson and wide receiver J’Mon Moore.

Gutekunst’s first two drafts produced five starters, but two of them are specialists (Bradley and Scott). Of the three others, Alexander and Jenkins are already nearing Pro Bowl status, and Savage certainly showed promise as a rookie. Sternberger will be given every chance to be the starting tight end in ’20, and Gary should see plenty of snaps. The rest of the backups are a mix of the unimpressive (Burks, Jackson, Looney, and Madison), the unproven (Hollman, Keke, St. Brown, Summers, and Williams) and the whatever the hell Valdes-Scantling is. Of the two players who are no longer part of the team’s plans heading into ’20, Moore was to Gutekunst’s first draft what Cory Rodgers was to Thompson’s first draft.

In total, Gutekunst’s first two drafts produced five starters, including the two specialists, and a potential sixth starter in Sternberger. As of now, the only useful backup would be Gary, although players like Burks, Jackson, Keke, St. Brown, Summers and Valdes-Scantling could still fill such a role.

FREE AGENCY

Thompson was famously known in his later years for his reluctance to take part in free agency, but that wasn’t the case early on. Here’s a look back at how free agency in 2005 and 2006 affected the Packers heading into the ’07 season:

Starters (2) – Nose tackle Ryan Pickett and cornerback Charles Woodson.

Gone (5) – Wide receiver Marc Boerigter, safety Marquand Manuel, guard Adrian Klemm, guard Matt O’Dwyer and linebacker Ben Taylor.

Thompson took three big swings in free agency, and he came away with a home run (Pickett), a grand slam (Woodson) and a strikeout (Manuel). Klemm and O’Dwyer were disappointments, but neither was an expensive one.

 

Gutekunst, after being a first-hand witness to all the criticism Thompson took for not participating more in free agency, has made a concerted effort to be a lot more active. Here’s a look back at how free agency in 2018 and 2019 affected the Packers heading into the ’20 season:

Starters – Safety Adrian Amos, linebacker Preston Smith, linebacker Za’Darius Smith and guard Billy Turner.

Backup – Tight end Marcedes Lewis

Gone – Guard Byron Bell, tight end Jimmy Graham, cornerback Davon House, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and cornerback Tramon Williams.

Gutekunst spent huge money on Amos and the Smiths, and all three figure to be a big part of whatever success the team has in 2020. Turner and Graham were $30 million mistakes, although the former is still penciled in as a starter. Williams, who more than earned his original 2-year, $10 million contract, could yet return.

TRADES

As was the case with free agency, Gutekunst first two years were more active than Thompson’s when it came to making trades. Here’s a look back at how trades in 2005 and 2006 affected the Packers heading into the ’07 season:

Backup – Running back Vernand Morency.

Gone – Wide receiver Carlton Brewster and linebacker Robert Thomas.

Not much to see here. Morency was acquired for running back Samkon Gado in 2006 and played sparingly in 2007. Brewster lasted just weeks after being acquited for cornerback Therrion Fontenot Fontenot in 2006. Thomas was acquired for cornerback Chris Johnson in 2005 but was long gone by 2007. Of course, Thompson’s best trade came just prior to the 2007 season when he stole running back Ryan Grant away from the Giants for a sixth-round pick.

 

Gutekunst hasn’t been afraid to make trades involving players, although most of them have been relatively minor. Here’s a look back at how trades in 2018 and 2019 affected the Packers heading into the ’20 season:

Gone – linebacker B.J. Goodson, quarterback DeShon Kizer, and linebacker Antonio Morrison.

Not much to see here either. Morrison was traded for cornerback Lenzy Pipkins in 2018 and played 302 mediocre snaps that season. Goodson was traded for a swap of 7th-round picks in 2019 and played 255 mediocre snaps that season. Kizer flopped after being acquired for starting cornerback Damarious Randall in 2018 and was released after just one season. Gutekunst’s best work on the trade front was getting day 3 picks for safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, linebacker Reggie Gilbert, quarterback Brett Hundley, guard Justin McCray and running back Ty Montgomery. So far, he used the pick for Clinton-Dix to move up to get Savage, and he used the pick for Hundley on Dexter Williams.

MISCELLANEOUS

The draft, free agency, and trades aren’t the only ways to acquire talent. Claiming players off waivers and signing players off the street are other ways to improve a roster. Here’s a look back at how some of the moves made in 2005 and 2006 paid off for the Packers in ’07:

-Wide receiver Koren Robinson was signed off the street in 2006. He caught 21 passes as a backup in 2007.

-Tight end Donald Lee was signed off the street just prior to the 2005 season. He caught 48 passes for 575 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2007.

-Safety Atari Bigby was signed to the practice squad in 2005. He started 16 games and intercepted 5 passes in 2007.

-Cornerback Jarrett Bush was claimed off waivers in 2006. He was a standout on special teams in 2007.

-Safety Charlie Peprah was claimed off waivers in 2006. He was a solid backup in 2007 who would eventually start for the 2010 Super Bowl champs.

-Cornerback Tramon Williams was signed to the practice squad in 2006. He was a backup in 2007 who would eventually become one of the league’s best defensive backs.

*Fullback John Kuhn was claimed off waivers just prior to the start of the 2007 season. He played sparingly that season but became a Pro Bowler a few years later.

 

Here’s a look back at how some of the moves in 2018 and 2019 have affected the Packers heading into the 2020 season:

-Quarterback Tim Boyle was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He’s expected to be Aaron Rodgers’ backup in 2020.

-Safety Raven Greene was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He’s expected to be a backup in 2020.

-Defensive lineman Tyler Lancaster was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He’s expected to be part of the D-line rotation in 2020.

-Wide receiver Allen Lazard was signed off Jacksonville’s practice squad in 2018. He’s expected to challenge for a starting job in 2020.

-Defensive back Will Redmond was signed to the practice squad in 2018. He’s expected to be one of the team’s top special teams players in 2020.

-Cornerback Chandon Sullivan was signed off the street in 2019. He’s expected to challenge for a starting role in the dime package in 2020.

-Running back Tyler Ervin was claimed off waivers in 2019. He’s expected to be the team’s No. 1 kick returner in 2020.

 

That’s a look at how Thompson and Gutekunst built the Packers in their respective first two years on the job. Of course, year No. 3 found the ’07 Packers playing in the NFCC game – a place Gutekunst’s Packers got to in year No. 2. Whether he gets there again – or further – in year 3 will likely depend in large part to how well the players he drafted in 2018 and 2019 develop. If a few players from a group that includes Gary, Sternberger, Jackson, Burks, Valdes-Scantling, St. Brown, Keke, Hollman and Summers go from seldom-used backups to solid starters and/or key reserves, the Packers have a chance to keep the momentum going. If not, year No. 3 probably won’t be as memorable for the current team as it was for the ’07 team.

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About Michael Rodney

Packers Notes is the creation of Michael Rodney, who has been writing about the Green Bay Packers for close to 30 years. His first blog, Packer Update, hit the internet in 2006. Before becoming a public educator, Rodney worked as a journalist for a couple of newspapers in his home state of New Jersey. He's had numerous articles on the Packers published and he's been featured on both television and radio over the years.