The constant refrain from the days when Ted Thompson was the Green Bay Packers general manager was that the team took a draft-and-develop approach to roster improvement rather than spend significant money on free agents. While his successor hasn’t shied away from doling out cash for outside help, Brian Gutekunst needs to hope that his draft picks start developing into stars soon.
As Gutekunst enters his fourth draft as general manager in Green Bay, the team has focused on premier positions in the first round in each of the past three seasons. Jaire Alexander, taken 18th overall in 2018, has developed into one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Rashan Gary has begun to show flashes of being a truly impactful pass rusher, especially considering the quiet rookie season he had after going 12th overall in 2019. And everyone knows about the Packers trading up to select Jordan Love 26th overall last season, then him not seeing a single snap the ensuing season.
The two most recent selections there — Gary and Love — may essentially be graded against one another. Whichever proves to be the more vital building block to the team’s post-2021 future, it becomes that much easier to say goodbye to that player’s veteran counterpart. Add in this year’s first-round pick, and you may have another horse in the race, which will help clarify what the 2022 roster may look like.
At its most basic level, the selection of Jordan Love is an insurance policy. It certainly looks more like a lottery ticket right now, with no evidence (good or bad) of what he may look like against actual NFL competition. But it was a calculated risk that Gutekunst took, knowing that Rodgers could certainly be gone after this season.
The Rashan Gary selection can be viewed similarly. Green Bay signed both Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith on the same day, March 14, 2019, and Gutekunst still went ahead and drafted Gary in that same edge-rush position with his first selection just six weeks later.
Much has been made of the creative maneuvering that the Packers’ front office has done to ensure that the team can be as competitive as possible next year. The contract work done by Russ Ball, the team’s director of football operations, has made that possible for this year, but kicking the can down the road will in all likelihood prove unsustainable after just one year.
There are gigantic numbers on the 2022 ledger for several players, namely Aaron Rodgers ($39.8 million), Za’Darius Smith ($28.1 million), David Bakhtiari ($22.7 million), Kenny Clark ($20.6 million), and Preston Smith ($19.7 million). Having five players occupy over $130 million in cap space is simply unsustainable when you need to fill out a 53-man roster, plus a practice squad.
Rodgers and both Smith brothers are on that list of highest-paid Packers for the 2022 season — for now. Green Bay may need to part ways with some of that high-priced talent (and incur some dead money along the way) just to field a feasible 53-man roster. Having some sample size to judge what those players’ replacements will look like might make that decision easier. If Gary continues his development and looks like a Pro Bowler in Year 3, cutting Za’Darius or Preston (or both) is an easier pill to swallow. If Love can show Gutekunst enough in camp and the preseason, then the impossible decision of moving on from Rodgers might become just a tiny bit easier.
In Gutekunst’s three-season tenure, he’s gone cornerback, edge rusher, and quarterback in the first round for those keeping score at home. Add in left tackle, and you have the four most important positions on the football field, according to most experts.
Gutekunst has been using the resources at his disposal to build for the roster’s long-term sustainability while also trying to win a Super Bowl this year. It’s a delicate balance that has certainly trended more towards a win-now approach this off-season, but he can’t wholly neglect what the years 2022, 2023, and beyond will look like.
With that line of thinking, does that provide any insight as to what Gutekunst’s approach to this month’s draft might be? Perhaps, especially if you include Adrian Amos (seventh-highest cap number for 2022) and Billy Turner (ninth highest). There won’t be many Packers fans upset with taking a defensive back or offensive tackle in the first round, and it fits the same approach Gutekunst has had in his three-plus years at the helm: Draft the guy that you hope can be the much cheaper replacement to the higher-priced option.
Some of those big-ticket contracts will stay. It’s tough to see the team moving on from Bakhtiari, and my gut says that Clark is safe for the long haul too. But if a rookie DB (Caleb Farley? Asante Samuel Jr.?) or OT (Rashawn Slater or Alex Leatherwood) absolutely balls out right away, it’s easy to see Amos or Turner playing elsewhere in 2022.
Oh, and to win now, Green Bay absolutely needs those Day 1 and Day 2 picks to be studs. They’re not getting over the NFC Championship Game hump without a little more firepower, and this is the last remaining option for the team to add to the arsenal.
Gutekunst is holding some lottery tickets as the Packers get ready for a make-or-break season. If those don’t pay off with some younger (and much cheaper) franchise cornerstones, the team could be in a world of hurt. A Super Bowl title this season would certainly justify all of these decisions, but that cap number for 2022 is still looming very large, regardless of who hoists the Lombardi Trophy.