Russ Ball has done his job in keeping the Green Bay Packers’ championship window propped open. Now it’s time for general manager Brian Gutekunst to do his part in keeping the team cemented as a Super Bowl contender.
Ball is the team’s Director of Football Operations, which has been boiled down to “salary cap guru” to most Packers fans. Stretching back to last year’s extension of David Bakhtiari, Ball has helped reconfigure a number of contracts that have allowed Green Bay to get under the lowered cap for 2021. Whether they were extensions, restructurings, pay cuts, or whatever other term you prefer, Ball has helped ensure that key players like Aaron Jones, Billy Turner, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Adrian Amos will wear green and gold for this season’s championship push.
There’s still more that can be done — namely a restructure and extension for Aaron Rodgers — but there are certainly gaps that need to be filled. And more than likely, filled on the cheap.
Enter Gutekunst, into the upcoming draft.
Much has been made of Green Bay’s selections in 2020, namely trading up for Jordan Love in the first round. While the value of that pick still remains to be seen, a number of last season’s selections will need to step into larger roles in 2021.
A.J. Dillon will be counted on to essentially replace Jamaal Williams after Williams signed a two-year deal with the Detroit Lions. At the very least, Jon Runyan will be a vital depth piece on the offensive line — especially with the loss of Corey Linsley to the Los Angeles Chargers and Bakhtiari’s ongoing recovery. Another season for Kamal Martin should cement him as a starting-caliber middle linebacker, and inquiring minds are very curious to see what Josiah Deguara looks like in the offense, especially given the breakout season by Robert Tonyan.
At a minimum, Gutekunst will need to add a cornerback who can contribute, some depth at the offensive tackle position, and maybe, just maybe, a wide receiver. No team would ever say no to an edge rusher, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to look for linebacker help as well.
Green Bay isn’t on the clock until pick 29, but recently Gutekunst has shown a willingness to move up if necessary. Personally, I’d rather not part with the middle-round picks that it may take to move up in the first or second round, and the kind of depth players the Packers need should be available in those rounds.
What Gutekunst cannot do is whiff. There are many mock drafts that have the Packers taking a cornerback first. Asante Samuel Jr., Greg Newsome II, and Patrick Surtain are names that have been bandied about. But whomever the selection is, there will be the expectation that they will be a plug-and-play starter.
If the Packers surprise everyone and actually select Rashod Bateman or another wideout in the first round, that player will most certainly be counted on to contribute right away.
There are many directions that Gutekunst can go in the draft, and with free agency deals left to be made (and with the Packers selecting very late in the first), there’s no certainty as to which direction the Green Bay war room is leaning right now. There’s even space for the Ted Thompson best-player-available approach, which may have been the philosophy that Gutekunst adhered to when he took Love last year. The only thing that’s assured is that whoever puts on that Packers hat in the first round — and likely the second too — needs to be a player who actively contributes to the Super Bowl push this season.
Whatever the order or combination is in the upcoming draft, Gutekunst needs to have his best draft yet. Ball did his part in ensuring that the salary cap looks good for 2021, but with raises and other increases delayed until 2022, there are difficult decisions to be made. But that can has been kicked down the road just enough to ensure that the stars are still aligning for this year.
There are enough holes that limit Green Bay’s chances of a deep playoff run at this very moment, but that can change with a few successful draft picks. A developmental player that is set to contribute in 2023 does little to no good, and the opportunity cost of not selecting an impact player will be felt that much greater.