None of Brian Gutekunst’s draft picks have been as scrutinized as his decision to take Jordan Love 26th-overall in 2020. That’s understandable, given that he drafted Love to be Aaron Rodgers‘ replacement even as No. 12 was the MVP two years in a row since the decision. But the process of trading up to grab a quarterback shouldn’t undermine how good of a job Gutekunst has done with his first-round picks. Aside from Love, every selection has positively impacted the team to some degree. Any general manager would accept Gutekunst’s success rate with first-round selections.
Gutekunst made arguably his best move as GM in his first draft. He traded down from 14 to 27, adding a future first-round pick from the New Orleans Saints. Then he paid a third-rounder to trade back up to 18 and select cornerback Jaire Alexander. If Gutey had selected Alexander with Green Bay’s original pick, it would have turned out as a big hit. But he extracted more value by making a savvy move to get more draft capital.
With two first-round picks in 2019, Gutekunst initially stood pat and drafted edge rusher Rashan Gary with the 12th-overall pick. In the first years after the 2019 draft, you could argue that Brian Burns was a better selection because of his immediate impact. But Gary established himself as one of the best edge rushers in football in 2021, with a top-five PFF grade. That is exactly what the Packers needed: a toolsy edge defender who demanded some time to develop but had a high ceiling.
Later in the round, Gutekunst made a questionable move, trading away two fourth-round picks to move up from 30 to 21 to select safety Darnell Savage. The fault wasn’t that he traded up for Savage, specifically. It was that trading up to draft a non-quarterback tends to be a bad strategy. However, Savage has been a starter from Day 1, and safety was a glaring need for the Packers.
Taylor Rapp, Juan Thornhill, Will Harris, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and Amani Hooker were selected later, so the trade up didn’t pay off. But Savage is a decent pick, even if he isn’t a game-changer. After the draft, Gutekunst said the move up was motivated by his belief that Savage wouldn’t be on the board in Green Bay’s original spot.
“I know for a fact we wouldn’t have gotten him by staying at 30,” Gutekunst said at the time.
After drafting Jordan Love in 2020, Gutekunst took a different approach in 2021, opting for players who could contribute right away.
He nailed it with his first pick, taking Eric Stokes out of Georgia. Draft experts expected the cornerback to be a high second-rounder, but Gutey had no reservations about selecting him in the first. That’s partially because the Packers had a gaping hole at the second cornerback spot. Kevin King giving up a big touchdown catch to Scott Miller in the NFC Championship loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was still fresh in fans’ minds.
The selection paid off immediately. Stokes became a true No. 1 after Alexander got injured in Week 4.
Sometimes Gutekunst doesn’t get the praise he deserves. He’s had some misses in later rounds, but it’s clear he has a good eye for talent early on. That will be especially important whenever Rodgers retires, or Gutekunst trades him.
What we could challenge
The players are good. The process? Not so much. Gutekunst has added valuable pieces to the Packers’ roster, but his willingness to move up in the draft has a cost. In general, analytics indicate that trading up for non-quarterbacks is unwise because teams are not as good at identifying talent at other positions. Therefore, it’s wise to maximize the number of picks instead of banking on one player to pan out.
Gutekunst has made three trades to move up in the draft since 2018. However, only one of them was an actual trade up for a non-quarterback — in 2019 when he gave up two fourth-rounders to get Savage. In 2018, Gutekunst traded up from 27 to 18, but it was a decent value after he traded down from 14 to 27 with a much higher return. And, in hindsight, that he used those picks to land Alexander helps his case.
In 2020, Gutekunst also decided to trade up. He said later that Love was the only first-round-graded prospect left on his board, so he decided to move up to make sure he could select him. However, while hitting on a quarterback is incredibly valuable, he could have drafted him at 30 anyway.
If Love is selected before the Packers pick, Gutekunst would have traded down and added draft capital. He could have even drafted a player with a second-round grade, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing with the 30th pick. Furthermore, that player could have been more helpful to the team than Love. The Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals drafted Michael Pittman and Tee Higgins at the top of the second round.
In 2021, Gutekunst was calmer, and it paid off. Taking Stokes with his original selection proved that patience is essential in this business.